History of NLP Series #4: When The Magicians Went To War

[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 #36 (2010) in August 2, 2010.]

A few years ago, while thinking about writing a History of NLP, I played around with the title, When the Magicians Went to War. Several I spoke to didn’t like it, and then many did. And undoubtedly there was a little bit of mischievousness in me as well to like it. Anyway I thought I’d use it for this post in the history of NLP series.

The “magicians,” of course, are John Grinder and Richard Bandler and first went to war in the late 1970s. I don’t know when the conflict between them began or even why (except for their egos, see below), but they did and the lawsuit between them was settled in 1981. Then a year or two later “The Society of NLP” went bankrupt and that marked the beginning of the end of that first era of NLP. Then in 1981, a lawsuit ended in which Grinder agreed to train in only six American cities for the following ten years, six cities that would be agreed upon by Bandler. Strange? Yes, very strange.

And why couldn’t they get along? Terry McClendon wrote in The Wild Days of NLP: 1972– 1981 that Bandler and Grinder “realized that the stage was not big enough for both of them” and so decided to go their separate ways in 1978 (p. 117). Undoubtedly there’s a lot more of that story, but I don’t know it. Perhaps it was over differences in how they thought about NLP; perhaps it was over differences in style. Perhaps it was that each thought they could do better apart from the other one.

From the court records that came later, Richard began using drugs like cocaine in the late 1970s after NLP exploded onto the national and international scene. And so when “the stage was too big for both of their egos” and they split, various trainer told me that they guessed that Grinder signed that lawsuit because he thought Richard would not be alive a decade later. That’s what I was told. And given that Bandler experienced cocaine drug over-doses in the 1980s several times, it doesn’t seem all that farfetched. The article about Richard’s murder trail (1986-1988) in Mother Jones magazine said that “Bandler bragged about using large amounts of cocaine” (1989, p. 25) and described his life story as one of “a blur of fact and fiction, obscured by cocaine and gin…” (p. 27).

Whatever happened behind the scenes, what we know publically is that Bandler and Grinder went separate ways and stopped talking to each other. And as the 1980s saw a wild growth of NLP training centers everywhere and then various Associations around the world and Conferences, both men seem to avoid such as well as contributing any writings to the journals and magazines that rose. Now there is a quotation that I came across some years ago accredit to Robert Dilts that went something like this: “NLP was given birth by two mad-men who modeled three wild individualists and who they never stayed around to father the community.”

All of this has led, over the years, to the charge that many have made: Bandler and Grinder don’t apply NLP to themselves. They created a world-class communication model, but do not or cannot communicate between themselves and the community that arose from the model. That was one of the comments I heard from the very beginning of my introduction to NLP in 1986. In 1997 at the Visionary Leadership conference that Dilts sponsored with Judith DeLozier at NLP U., there were even some skits that several people put on making fun of this very fact and asking why is this.

But more recently, Grinder (2001) tried really hard to answer this complaint. He wrote the complaint: “Why can the developers of the NLP communication model not communicate between themselves?” Then he not only denied it entirely(!), but turned it around asserting that he and Bandler “communicate perfectly.” Yes, you read that right. Here it is in his own words:

“We are aware during the last decade plus of a number of criticisms voiced with the implication that the ‘two great communicators’, Bandler and Grinder, themselves are not communicating effectively—that they are failing to use the very tools they created. …. From my point of view at any rate, Bandler and I are communicating perfectly. Neither of us has any further interest in pursuing either a professional nor a personal relationship and all the signals between us carry precisely this message— communication complete. … The evidence for this alleged failure to communicate typically cited is that Grinder and Bandler don’t agree. This is absolutely correct— Bandler and I do not agree.” (2001, p. 121)

So let me see. When two people won’t talk to each other any longer, that is “communicating perfectly”!? So rather than accepting responsibility for the division and the lack of communication, Grinder argues that he and Bandler are effectively and perfectly communicating by disagreeing with each other to such an extent that they won’t even talk to each other! Amazing. So in spite of having engaged in two major lawsuits and refusing to have anything to do with each other, somehow this is “effective communication?” It is “communicating perfectly?”

Well, if that’s effective communication, then I hope you and your loved ones never get to the place of communicating perfectly! It’s best that you stay with your current ineffective communicating and at least love each other and stay together!

What ever happened to the idea that communication refers to people communing with each other to create a union together? Yes, when two people say words about how each do not like the other and do not agree and do not want to work with each other that may be a clear message, but it is not using the tools of NLP to create the kind of relationship so that there’ s mutual understanding, respect, and a collaborative spirit. And for two people who once worked together to co-create something to move to an absolute refusal to work together for a greater good even is while disagreeing, why not be agreeable and pleasant and affirmative of the other person? That would be a demonstration of using the very tools that they created to communicate effectively.

Then to make things worse, John wrote in the following paragraphs the following about him and Bandler and how they are similar:

“… the characteristics that I believe we share: arrogant, unimpressed by authority or tradition, strong personal boundaries, willingness to try nearly anything, utterly lacking in self-doubt— egotistical, playful, full capability as players in the Acting As If game, full behavioral appreciation of difference between form and content.” (2001, pp. 121-122)

Perhaps this is the problem that keeps them from being able to demonstrate a respectful attitude toward each other, and toward others in the field with whom they disagree. Perhaps it lies in the characteristics of arrogance and being egotistical. This certainly does not strike me as something to be proud about. That seems like the wrong meta-state in this instance. Anyway, this is part of the story of when the Magicians went to War … and the Cold War that has ensued since— a sad and tragic tale in the discovery of perhaps the most powerful Communication Model on the planet! (And yes, I realize the irony of that last statement.)


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.