Neuro-Linguistic Programming:
A New Technology for Training

© 1982 Connirae Andreas & Steve Andreas

Introduction by Frank Clement, Department Editor, New Technologies and Instruction.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming*, or NLP, is an empirical body of knowledge that describes patterns of personal communication and mental processes. These patterns reveal inherent individual characteristics which can be exploited to produce change. The concepts are both exciting and threatening.

I vividly remember a night several years ago when my wife and I went to Vail, Colorado, for dinner just to get away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. While enjoying our coffee after a marvelous dinner, I surreptitiously mirrored my wife’s every action — facial expressions, gestures, body position, etc. In NLP terms this is called pacing. I did it in an attempt to maximize our communication but felt somewhat dishonest about doing it. It was as though I was encroaching on her personal space. I did not fool my wife because, being a therapist, she knows as much about NLP as I do. Undaunted, she continued to talk, spilling out her woes and frustrations about her difficult job, and I continued to pace her as best I could. At first, it was hard for me to pace her and concentrate on what she was saying at the same time, then it became easier. Suddenly I became aware of something I had not expected. My purpose had been to establish a rapport between us and make communication easier for her, that was successful. But, in addition, I found I was getting deeply involved in what she was saying to an extent never before realized between us. By aping her, I was actually experiencing the emotions she was feeling. The effect was amazing ad exciting. It was one of the best evenings we have ever had.

What this has to do with training I am not sure, but the implications toward improved communications are there. Furthermore, as the following article will allude to, our awareness of the extent and substance of individual learning differences may help us to improve our product to the point of making it more effective for a wider population.

The authors of this month’s paper are a marvelous couple who comprise “NLP of Colorado.” They train others in NLP techniques, and were kind enough to respond to my request to speak before the NSPI Front Range Chapter even though I forewarned them that the issue of ethics in the use of NLP would probably arise. They handled this admirably by stating that the ethics are no worse than those confronting physicists and chemists who deal in life-threatening sciences. NLP is a powerful tool that can be misused for individual gain, or used for the betterment of humankind. It is all up to the ethics of the individual practitioner.

Although Richard Bandler and John Grinder began formulating Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) only about eight years ago, it is already an extensive and systematic body of knowledge and techniques useful to anyone in a communication field. Attempting to describe it in a short article is a bit like summarizing War and Peace in a few sentences, but we hope to provide some insight into its usefulness in training.

Consider a trainee complaining about his instruction, saying “I don’t get the picture here. I hope you can clarify what you want me to do, because I just have the vaguest outline right now. There’s not much for me to focus in on.” A trainer with no experience with the principles of NLP might respond, “O.K. I’ll just walk you through this part again. I think you’ll get a handle on what needs to be done here, so we can move on to the next phase of training.”

Alternatively, the trainer could say “O.K. Sure. Let’s focus in on each part, frame-by-frame, until you really have a clear picture of how this will look if you take the right perspective.”

You might guess that with the first approach, the trainer is “beating his head against a brick wall,” whereas with the second, the trainer is able to “shed light” on the subject.

Bandler and Grinder noticed that the words people used to express themselves are a literal description of their mental experience. If someone says “I get the picture” meaning “I understand,” they understand by creating an internal picture. If someone says “I have a good grasp on that idea,” they have a kinesthetic understanding of it.

A fundamental concept of NLP is the idea of internal representational systems. At the basic level of understanding, people input, process internally, and output information using one or more of the five sensory channels: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, smell, and taste. The first three are by far the most important in most day-to-day information processing, except when cooking or ordering a meal.

In the same way that computers need to use the identical format or language to effectively interface with other computers, so humans need to use the same “language” or representational system to communicate effectively with others. Speaking with kinesthetic words to someone who usually processes kinesthetically, and with visual words to someone who usually processes visually, is the same as speaking German to a German, and Italian to an Italian. It simply makes it possible to understand easily. While some people have the flexibility to shift comfortably to “your language,” others will misunderstand if your language does not match their internal representations.

NLP has acquired a reputation for enabling people to “mind read,” partly because Grinder and Bandler discovered that there are ways to identify the representational system someone is using or accessing even if they are not talking. It is possible to watch eye movements and know when that person is either making pictures, hearing sounds, or sensing feelings. The chart below identifies which eye accessing cues typically indicate which type of internal processing.

Eye accessing cues for a “normally organized” right-handed person.

Vc Visual constructed images.Vr Visual remembered (eidetic) images.
(Eyes defocused and unmoving also indicates visual accessing)
Ac Auditory constructed sounds or words.Ar Auditory remembered sounds or words.
K Kinesthetic feelings (also smell and taste).A Auditory sounds or words.

This information gives the communicator much more knowledge about which system to match. If a trainee says “I will need to think about that idea,” and looks up (right or left), a trainer can appropriately respond. “Take your time. If you need any information from me to complete your picture, let me know.” This statement will be a good match for the way in which the trainee is “thinking” about the idea.

The difference between remembered and constructed visual images is subtle, but has far-reaching effects. Remembered visual images are pictures of actual events as they were. Constructed visual images are made up out of bits and pieces of remembered images, and tend to be less complete, often more like sketches or diagrams. Constructed images can be changed and rearranged, and are the basis for a great deal of what is called creative thinking and problem-solving.

If you try to think of new solutions for a tenacious problem by accessing remembered visual images, you will limit yourself to seeing pictures of solutions that you have seen tried before. Someone who looks up and to their right will be able to create constructed images in which they can picture new combinations of what they have seen or heard before. Of course these new creative solutions then have to be tested in some way to determine if they can be made to work.

We want to emphasize that every type of accessing is useful in some context. Both members of a consulting partnership attended an NLP business seminar we taught last year in Sweden. One member sat with his head tilted up to his right the entire time, and the other with his head tilted up to his left. We could accurately predict that the first was generating new ideas, and the second was the “reality-oriented” partner who was good at accessing internal images of how things had gone in the past. They both served a necessary function in their partnership.

Knowledge of eye accessing cues makes it possible to identify certain abilities or skills, as well as to train people to use representational system sequences that work for particular tasks — in the same way that one might program a computer to perform a complex task in a step-by-step fashion. The concept of the human brain behaving as a biocomputer is not new, but Bandler and Grinder are the first to put the idea to use in training and education. If you take basic representational steps and string them in a sequence, you have the beginnings of a person’s internal processing used to perform a task. Just as some computer programs are good for writing, doing payrolls, or doing statistical analyses, there are internal sequences that work well for mathematics, learning to ski, making decisions, getting motivated, or becoming convinced. Those same programs do not usually work very well if used for some other purpose.

Spelling is a good example of this. The use of constructed images for this task leads to “creative spellers” who do not even recognize when they spell poorly. It is not that the poor spellers do not try hard enough, or are stupid, or have not practiced enough. They are poor spellers because they use an internal program for spelling that makes correct spelling unlikely.

Another common poor spelling program is to sound the word out auditorily. This is the way most of us were taught to spell in grade school. In English, if you try to sound words out, it is impossible to spell many words correctly. There is an old joke that the way to spell fish is “ghoti”: “gh” as in “enough,” “o” as in “women,” and “ti” as in “motion.” With either of these programs, no amount of practice will significantly improve the ability to spell.

We have taught bad spellers to quickly (and painlessly) become good spellers, simply by changing their internal programming to that which every good speller uses. The good speller first recalls a visual image of the word (seeing the word the way it appears in a dictionary or spelling book, etc.), and then has a feeling of familiarity that indicates that the image is correct. When good spellers see a misspelled word, they get an unpleasant feeling that indicates that the word is incorrect, and that motivates them to correct it. For these people a spelling test is superfluous.

We claim that every personal skill or behavior can be studied to determine sequences of representations that make the skill easy to lean and perform. Once such a sequence is known, it can be systematically taught to others.

Another basic process in NLP can be illustrated by a task that confronts each of us many times a day: remembering to do something that can only be done later in the day. How do you program yourself to remember to do something at a later time? Take a minute or two to explore how you do this before you read further.

Now make a rough estimate of what percentage of the time your method succeeds. Do you recall what to do almost all the time, or is your average more like 80 percent, or 50 percent, or even lower?

Just as with spelling, most people who are good at remembering basically do it the same way. First they think of the cues that will be physically available to each representational system (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) at the time and place they want to remember something. For example, if you want to remember something when you get home, visualize an image of the front door, imagine the sounds the door makes when opened, and sense the feeling of turning the doorknob and opening the door. Then internally represent what you want to remember using all three major systems. It might be an image of the person you want to call, the sound of their voice. or an auditory massage such as “I want to call Mr. X,” and the feeling of reaching for the phone.

This process connects the two representations, so that later the actual sight, sound and feel of the front door will automatically trigger the internal representation of what you want to remember to do. By representing in all systems, you increase the likelihood that you will respond appropriately. For example, if you arrive home and are making internal pictures of your boss, and talking to yourself about asking for a raise, you will have two representational systems occupied, and may not notice the sight of the door, or the sounds it makes as you walk into your home. Your kinesthetic system, however will still be available to trigger the memory that now is the time to make that important phone call.

In contrast, many people tell themselves repeatedly during the day “Oh, I have got to remember to call so-and-so…” “Oh, I have got to remember to do such-and-such later on.” Yet when the time to do it arrives, they forget, because they never linked this internal representation to the appropriate external stimuli.

Although remembering to do something seems like a simple task, the same principles apply in performing more complex skills and behaviors. Any complex skill can be sequenced in exactly the same way by connecting small sequences into longer and longer sequences.

Another closely related topic is the following: As trainers, how can you make certain that your trainees take the skills that you teach in a classroom, and have them automatically available in the context where they are needed? Many people learn quickly and effectively in a training seminar or workshop, but when they go back to their jobs, it seems as though they learned nothing new. Their performance is indistinguishable from the way it was prior to their training. A considerable amount of research has been done on how learning for many people is state or context dependent. In one study a group of medical students were given an exam in the same lecture hall in which they had learned the material being tested. They did quite well. Immediately following this, they were taken to the gymnasium, and given the same test. Most of them did quite poorly. This demonstrates that even bright people often do not have the strategies for transferring information or skills from one context to another.

As trainers, we want to insure that seminar participants take the skills they learn and automatically use those skills in appropriate contexts later on. To accomplish this, we find it useful to tell them the following: “As you leave this seminar, and go back to your job, your friends, your family, there will be certain contexts in which you particularly want to have available the skills you have learned here. I don’t know what will remind you to use your NLP skills, but perhaps it will be something in your office — the feel of a particular chair, the sight of a picture on the wall, the sound of a clock, or something on your desk. Perhaps it will be the sight of someone’s face, the sound of their voice, or the feeling of their handshake. Concentrate on the available triggers in those places where you want to recall these new skills as you internally review, re-hear, and re-feel the experiences and knowledge of this seminar, and pay particular attention to that knowledge you want to use later on.”

There is much, much, more to NLP, but we hope this short article may stimulate you to look into it further. Of the dozen books on the subject we believe that Heart of the Mind provides the best overall introduction.

Originally published in the National Society for Performance and Instruction Journal, Volume XXI, No. 5, June, 1982, and tweaked in 2016.