History of NLP Series #6: The 1980s When NLP Fragmented

[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 #38 (2010) in August 23, 2010.]

The 1980s started out pretty well for the field of NLP, but it did not end that way. In fact, almost as soon as the 1980s began, the field began dividing into various divisions as both founders led the way by going their separate ways. By the end of the 80s, each was claiming to do “pure NLP” and essentially “dissing” the other. As the 80s others were creating their versions of NLP and creating separate “kingdoms.” What a sad development for such a dynamic field.

Now the 1980s actually began in a wonderful way with the publication of “Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume I” (1980) by Robert Dilts published by Meta Publications. Robert had been commissioned to write that book back in 1978 having written a document on strategies that impressed both Richard and John. And this book, along with Robert’s other original books on NLP, went a long way to establishing the credibility of NLP.

Many years later, Oakley Gordon wrote a two part article in Anchor Point, “What is NLP? A Brief History” (May and July 1995). In those articles, he wrote in part the following:

“‘Volume I’ implies a ‘Volume II’. The second volume was to present the modeling techniques of NLP, the processes by which the NLP developers modeled excellence in human behavior. The project was aborted, however, due to the dissolution of the community of NLP developers.” (p. 14, Anchor Point, July 1995).

And so the vision of a series of volumes on NLP came to an end immediately after the first one. No other volume in that series ever appeared. Many years later when I wrote NLP Going Meta (1997/ 2004) I contacted Meta Publications and asked Fred Tappa for permission to name it “NLP: Volume II.” He said the term was reserved for the next volume and that was 1997— 17 years later! At the time I thought Fred was holding onto hope; but looking back my guess is that it was a joke and I just didn’t get it(!) at that time. The very next year, 1981, the first law suit between Bandler and Grinder occurred and as McClendon noted in The Wild Days of NLP, “Bandler bought John out of the Society” of NLP (p. 117).

About this dissolution of the society (and the community to a great extent) the collaboration between the original developers came to an end. Gordon (1995) noted:

“While there was some degree of tracking each other’s innovations, the overall effect of the breakup of the original group was a diversification in the trajectories of NLP with a resulting blurring of its definition.” (p. 16) So in a way, the 1980s brought so many challenges to the field that in some ways it is really surprising that NLP survived the 80s. Now among the challenges to the field, one of the strangest was Grinder’s attack on the original formulations of NLP. In 1983 Grinder and DeLozier decide the whole field was wrongly oriented and formulated and so created a “New Code” to replace the old code of NLP. Grinder went on to argue against the focus on conscious awareness in NLP claiming the “unconscious mind” as more intelligent and less likely to error. So the idea of “running your own brain,” so central to NLP (as per Bandler’s 1985 book, Running Your Brain for a Change), was called into question.

1986: Bandler provided his own challenges to the field due to actions in his personal life. In the middle of the 1980s he was arrested, charged with an account of murder, and spent 120 days in county jail. That certainly didn’t do the field of NLP any good! Steve Andreas lead a defense fund for Richard and personally provided $60,000 to Richard for the trial. What happened? A young woman, Corine Christensen, was shot by a .357 magnum revolver, the only other persons in the house was Richard Bandler and James Marino, an admitted cocaine dealer and her boyfriend. Though it was Marino’s house and although they had been fighting, the district attorney decided that the evidence pointed to Richard than the drug dealer! Anyway this lasted from 1986 to 1988 and ended in the grand jury unable to decide, so the charge was dropped. But, of course, not without the trial hitting the headlines in many papers and journals— including a scathing review in Mother Jones magazine that you can still find on various websites.

Another Bandler lawsuit occurred sometime later (1988 or 1989) against Tony Robbins. That one was against Robbins because he was not certifying people as NLP Practitioners or Master Practitioners through The Society of NLP. Settled in 1990 out of court with Tony promising to “certify people through the Society and pay his $200 for each one certified in NLP,” he promptly stopped training “NLP” as such and invented a new name, NAC— Neural Associative Conditioning.

And so with that Richard Bandler essentially chased Robbins away from the field with the result that even to this day Anthony Robbins will not say the three letters, NLP, when he is on Larry King or other international television programs. Richard just chased away the greatest salesman he could have ever had!

Another conflict arose during my Master Practitioner training in San Diego, 1989. One of the trainer there was Tad James. He had been participating in the Bandler trainings, but this time was different. Apparently without informing Bandler, Tad had claim ownership of the Time-Lines model that Bandler had created and had filed a trademark for “time-line therapy” (which by the way was never registered). From the stories I heard from trainers who were there, Richard and Tad argued loudly about this and almost came to blows. So that ended their relationship. After that Tad introduced his many versions of New Age religions including Huna into his sect of NLP.

With all of this fragmentation, many new Associations were created throughout the 1980s, but by the end of the 1980s, there was no International Association or body to govern the field of NLP. Again, Oakley Gordon (1995) write in Anchor Point:

“There is no organization with the authority to pass judgment on the quality of the diverse NLP training programs currently being offered, or even to define what is, and what is not, NLP.” (p. 17) … For the field of NLP has no single voice, no universally agreed upon definition, no quality control over what is offered under its name. An outside entering these waters may encounter anything from the sublime to the ridiculous.” (p. 18)

On a very positive note, it was during the 1980s that NLP went global. It was introduced into England 1981 or 2; then to Europe in the early 1980s, NLP came to Hong Kong in 1982, and so it went. Men and women from around the world began showing up in Santa Cruz and other places in America where NLP was being taught and then taking it home to their own countries. When and by whom NLP was taken abroad is much of the story that I don’t know so if you do know specific details, do let me know.

So the decade that began so positively and that began to see the spread of NLP everywhere, a decade that began with so much hope ended in fragmentation, embarrassment, and conflict. It’s the way of many movements, perhaps most movements. And yet for a movement about positive psychology, human excellence, and all based on a cutting-edge communication model— the 1980s were really a challenging time for the field of NLP.


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.