History of NLP Series #2: The History of The Beginning

[This article is adapted from the International Society of Neuro-Semantics (ISNS). Originally written by the co-developer of Neuro-Semantics NLP, Dr. L. Michael Hall, in Meta Reflections #33 (2010) in July 19, 2010.]

If you have been a long-term reader of Neurons, you know that one of my interests for some time has been the History of NLP. My interest is to understand the sources of this field and model and the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. Understanding our roots also allows us to acknowledge sources as any professional would do as well as to be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the models that we have inherited.

Two years ago I wrote some of the history of NLP in Self-Actualization Psychology (2008). Prior to that, I published that same content as articles in various publications (i.e., Resource, London) and in an NLP Book published in India (Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Concepts and Applications, edited by Kunal Gaurav, 2008).

To know your history enables to know yourself— the narrative of the stories that define how a group started, why, the antecedents that set up the original direction, and how things evolved in the intervening years. This is also one of the things we do in Neuro-Semantics Trainers’ Training (NSTT) as we prepare people to become trainers and leaders in Neuro-Semantics. Our aim is to provide a historical perspective of NLP and Neuro-Semantics. We also do that for a specific purpose— to equip those who are becoming trainers to know our history and understand the forces that have led to the experiences and conditions that they will find in this field. We do that to understand the people, ideas, and influences that have contributed to creating the field as we know it today.

So how did it all get started? By accident. It was all a combination of some strange coincidences. A young student at Kresge College at the University of California in Santa Cruz (UCSC) needed some extra money and so worked in the stock room for Science and Behavior Books. And then somewhere after 1970 that led to him being asked to transcribe tapes of Fritz Perls. Now the gift that Richard Bandler had at that time was that of hearing, as a rock-star-wanna-be, he played the guitar and could hear with precision and then he found that he could mimic what he heard.

So later Dr. Robert Spitzer would write that he would go into the room where Richard was transcribing the tapes and Richard would speak in the voice, tone, tempo, etc. of Fritz Perls and Dr. Spitzer would sometimes accidently call him “Fritz.” That got Richard interested in Gestalt. On one occasion Richard said that he was house setting for a professor, found a book on Gestalt in the library and thought that the idea of hallucinating your mom or dad into a chair and yell at them about your disappointments was great stand-up comedian stuff. But then after Fritz died (January 1970) Spitzer asked him to finish transcribing and editing the materials for a book. That became the book, The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy, published in May 1973.

The films and the transcribing gave Richard some experience with Gestalt and so in the spring of 1972, as a fourth year student, he was allowed to create his own curriculum for a class. That’s when he “taught” a “student directed seminar on Gestalt Therapy.” (McClendon, Wild Days, 1989, p. 9). And that had to be under the supervision of a professor, and that’s how John Grinder got involved.

What surprised them both was that by merely repeating the Gestalt language patterns, Richard was able to “do Gestalt” and the participants began to experience some tremendous changes in their lives. How did that happen? And that led to the mythical story of their original collaboration: John would analyze the linguistic patterns that Richard was using to make explicit the “magic” of the transformations and Richard would show John how he was doing what he was doing so he could learn to do it as well.

Somewhere about the same time, Dr. Spitzer wanted audio-tapes made of Virginia Satir and so sent Richard to Canada to record her and then transcribe those tapes. This led to integrating Satir’s language patterns, those of Family Reconstructions with those of the Gestalt awareness, empty-chair, and encounter processes. It began with their use of the “Encounter Group” as they had inherited it from Fritz, but because they were not therapists themselves, and had no training in such, they sought to understand what was happening using the tools (and theories) from other fields— primarily linguistics (transformational grammar) and computer modeling.

And that’s how the adventure began. They happened upon two people who were leaders in the Human Potential Movement (which they either ignored or just didn’t know) who were excellent in facilitating change and development in people using their separate models and understandings about people. So simply replicating those patterns and seeking to understand what was going on within the people due to the re-languaging and the re-patterning, they stumbled on a somewhat theory-free form of therapy (they thought they were modeling without any theory, but they did have a theory. But I’ll leave that for later.)

To this format now add their attitude. That was a key to what happened as well. Both men were absolutely curious and playful and “Richard had a flair for the bizarre.” They both sorted for differences, each had a lust for life, a “go for it” attitude and they were willing to play around so that if something didn’t work, they’d do something different. And it was in that mix that NLP emerged a little bit at a time beginning in 1972 and fully as a model (the Meta-Model) in 1975.


CY Soh
CY Soh

CY Soh is a Certified NLP Master Trainer (NLPU), Licensed Neuro-Semantics NLP Trainer (ISNS), a speaker, and performance coach who works with leaders and executives to create personal breakthroughs, performance improvement, and achieve high-impact results. He is also a trader and a CMT charterholder.