NLP Practitioners Doing Therapy?!*

by Steve Andreas

       Fairly often people object to having newly-minted NLP Practitioners doing therapy (even if they call it “counseling,” or “personal change,” or something else). Typically there are two kinds of concern:

1.    “How well can someone be helped?” and

2.    “What is the danger that someone might be harmed?” by an inappropriate method, or by the therapist’s lack of skill in applying an appropriate method, etc.

       Although these two concerns are not completely independent, let’s first address the effectiveness concern, “How well can someone be helped?”


Certainly it would be better if Certification trainings were much longer and more thorough, so that Practitioners offering themselves as psychotherapists were better trained. However, practically speaking, getting people to come to a 24-day Practitioner training is hard enough–which is one reason why so many “Practitioner” trainings are considerably shorter.

       How many would come to a 240-day training? Yet even a 240-day training would be less time than a college student spends in their freshman year! Most licensed professional psychotherapists have spent a minimum of five years in college for an M.A., and eight or more for a Ph.D. So it is certainly understandable that most people might assume that a licensed professional, with a training lasting over 50 times longer than a NLP Practitioner, would do a far better job helping people make personal changes.

       So how do the skills of an NLP Practitioner actually compare with those of licensed professionals? I have been observing the skills of Practitioners in Certification trainings for over 20 years now, so that gives me a pretty good baseline of understanding of their capabilities and weak areas, as well as the considerable range of skill/ability at certification.

       Recently I have been viewing a number of videotapes of live client sessions with psychotherapists described as “leaders in the field” of brief therapy–all of whom have advanced degrees and many years of experience. All these therapists are licensed, and all of them have written prominent and widely well-regarded books about therapy. Their names appear regularly in both workshop brochures and on the roster of presenters at professional conferences.

       What I have seen in these videotaped sessions has mostly ranged from irrelevant/incompetent to mildly harmful. And remember, the therapists on these videos are experienced “leaders in the field,” not newly-minted Ph.D.s, and they also do not include people trained in the longer–term therapies, which are typically less effective, and certainly less efficient.

       (Among the videos I have watched, there have been some really excellent sessions by Bill O’Hanlon, Michael Yapko, Stephen Lankton, and Scott Miller. All these therapists have had extensive training in Solution-focused brief therapy, and Ericksonian Hypnosis, both of which teach many of the same skills that NLP does, and Bill O’Hanlon has also had extensive training in NLP. )

       I would be willing to bet serious money that Practitioners who have gone through a thorough NLP Practitioner training do far more for their clients and for a LOT less time and money, than any similar unselected group of recent graduates of any 5-8 year professional psychotherapist preparation program. The reason is simple; NLP Practitioners have a far better and more practical “toolbox” of methods for helping people change.

Risk of Harm

Now let’s respond to the second concern, the risk of doing harm to the client. I know of a number of specific examples of people who have been seriously harmed by both Licensed professionals and by NLP Practitioners, so the risk is real.

       Firstly, if someone thinks that the NLP toolbox is less effective than that of licensed professionals, you can point out that the danger must also be proportionately less, since fewer skills means less ability to influence someone. Then you only have to deal with the ethics of charging people money for ineffective therapy.

       Assuming that NLP Practitioners have a more effective toolbox, how about the danger that this more powerful toolbox might pose in the hands of someone with little experience? More power to help someone change does not specify the direction or usefulness of change.

       It is much easier to help someone change in a way that is useful and congruent with their wishes and outcomes. It takes much greater skill (or bravado, or coercion) to overwhelm a person’s natural protective responses to unecological change. With appropriate frames, I believe that new Practitioners with minimal experience can significantly help a lot of people, while at the same time protecting clients from harm. What are those frames? Primarily…

       1. A LOT of humility about how little they know, and how complex human beings are,

       2. A GENTLENESSS and caution about offering alternatives/interventions,

       3. A HUGE respect for people’s objections and concerns, and an unwillingness to attempt to make any change until, and unless, these objections are fully satisfied.

       These are frames which we have always built in to all our trainings, in every way we could think of, over and over again. There are a number of NLP training programs that do not emphasize, or even mention them, or that offer quite different frames. However, given these frames, I believe it is very hard to harm anyone. The vast majority of the harm that I have observed has resulted from ignoring them, and I have seen far more of this resulting from the work of professional licensed psychotherapists than I have from NLP Practitioners.

* First published in Anchor Point Magazine, pp. 26-27, June, 2000