History of NLP Series #7: The History Of NLP’s Identity Confusion 1975– 1980s

[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 #39 (2010) in August 3, 2010.]

From the beginning NLP has had an identity confusion. After all, what is it? What exactly is this thing that we call Neuro-Linguistic Programming? Now if you ask the people who should know, even NLP trainers, you will actually get all kinds of answers. So the confusion exists even here.

For example, many of them will identify NLP as a form of therapy. “It’s a new form of psychotherapy,”manywillassert. Trueenough,thisfieldbeganfromthefieldoftherapyasit was modeled from therapists and because it has at its heart many therapeutic processes. Yet while it began from there, that’s not what NLP is.

The big confusion that confusing NLP with therapy has created for the field of NLP has been highly problematic from the beginning. And yet, how that confusion came to be makes perfect sense. After all, NLP was modeled from three therapists, three world-class communicators who worked with hurting people who needed healing. So it really isn’t a big surprise that many people, right from the beginning even to this day, confused it with therapy. NLP has a significant background in therapy. Add to this the fact that all of the original books and writings about NLP were written in the context of therapy and the examples and illustrations that were used were almost always from the field of therapy. Nevertheless, this was still a big confusion because NLP is not a therapy, not even a psychology.

Of course it makes sense that it took two men from outside the field of therapy to walk into that field and see things that those on the inside did not. Thomas Kunn (1972) wrote about this in his book, The Scientific Revolution. Those inside a paradigm often become paradigm blind and cannot see what is obvious to those on the outside. So when Bandler and then Grinder happened upon the “magic” of Perls and Satir, for a short while they had a distinct advantage.

Now against that background is another one, and one of far more importance for identifying what NLP is. I have been calling it “The Secret History of NLP.” This is the fact that Perls and Satir and Bateson were part of the Human Potential Movement and that means that the focus was on psychological health (self-actualization) rather than therapy. It was on Maslow’s idea of modeling the best and healthiest in human nature.

Imagine how things might have turned out for the field of NLP if that had been made the focus and the “therapy” context was made more peripheral. But they didn’t. In fact, one of the surprising things that I found from the time I began studying NLP is that throughout the early literature of NLP, both Bandler and Grinder refer to themselves as therapists! Of course, they were not. They might have been working with clients and taking on therapeutic issues, but neither was trained in therapeutic work and neither had any expertise as therapists or psychologists. As a side-note, later in the late 1990s, the name NLP was changed in several countries in Europe to NLPt — which stands for Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy.

An interesting comment from Bandler, Grinder, and Andreas comes from Frog into Princes, which was published in 1978. In the following quotation they seemed to have just gotten the idea of moving from traditional therapy to Self-Actualization Psychology although they didn’t have a name for that:

“We are very slowly tapering off teaching and doing therapy because there’s a presupposition common in the field of clinical psychology which we personally disagree with: that change is a remedial phenomenon. You find something that is wrong and you fix it. “There is an entirely different way to look at change, which we call the generative or enrichment approach. Instead of looking for what’s wrong and fixing it, it’s possibly simply to think of ways that your life could be enriched: ‘What would be fun to do, or interesting to be able to do?’ ‘What new capacities or abilities could I invent for myself?’ ‘How can I make things really groovy?’” (190) “The idea of generative change is really hard to sell to psychologists. … We are currently investigating what we call generative personality. We are finding people who are geniuses at things, finding out the sequence of unconscious programming that they use, and installing those sequences in other people to find out if having that unconscious program allows them to be able to do the task.” (191)

What is NLP? Many others confuse it with hypnosis or hypnotherapy. But again, that’s not what it is. That is just one of the sources of the original modeling and one of the applications. The “magic” that Milton Erickson was able to produce with his medical hypnosis led to a second communication model in NLP, the Milton Model. And with that discovery, it seemed that the original founders took a strange turn, one that brought many other confusions.

So what is NLP? It is a Communication Model. That’s what it is— a discovery of how people use words to inform themselves, map reality, and create their behaviors. Modeled from people who were excellent in their use of language, NLP used Transformational Grammar to generate the Meta-Model from Perls and Satir. And as a set of communication tools, the NLP model provides a way for us to model human experiences. So, NLP is a modeling process. That’s how it began, accidentally, and that is (and will be) how NLP will grow and develop. The founders called themselves modelers in that early literature of NLP. And if they had really focused on that, they might have turned to focus on business and if they had done that, the field of NLP could have possibly discovered the field of Coaching and would today own it. But they didn’t. It would be many years later before NLP applications for business would develop. That came in the 1980s, not the 70s.


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.