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What is NLP?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Neuro-lingustic programming (NLP) is a general approach to modeling human behavior, aiding personal growth, and assisting in communication. It was developed in the early 1970s as a set of techniques derived from behaviors observed in effective psychotherapists, and since then, it has been generalized and utilized in a wide range of fields. The term refers to the three areas that NLP sees as giving birth to the subjective experience: the mind, language patterns, and the programming that organizes our perceptions and thoughts.

Defining NLP is somewhat difficult, simply because it may be used in so many different ways. It is basically a way of approaching personal development, and it can be extended to improve one’s interpersonal skills. NLP is often considered a technology – rather than a science – because it focuses on what works rather than attempting to come up with an overarching theory. In essence, it aims to give practitioners a set of tools through which they can live richer, fuller lives, drawing on observed behaviors from others to deduce what these tools might be.

NLP techniques are usually taught through workshops, each of which focus on a specific “tool” for happier living. These workshops are designed on the premise that there are many modes of thinking and living that can be generalized to a large group of people, and that rather than working for years to come across an easier way of doing something, methods can simply be conveyed in a rational manner so that people can immediately benefit from them. Techniques taught might include things such as how to communicate more clearly with other people, how to gain a better understanding into people’s motivations, and how to change some key aspect of one's own personality.

NLP was heavily influenced by the New Age philosophy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which focused on increasing individual potential rather than attempting to come up with a universally true and objectively provable set of teachings. While this has increased the appeal of NLP for many, it has also made many groups – such as the mainstream business world – somewhat more wary to adopt it, since there is a perception of NLP as a “touchy feely” methodology. NLP is often criticized by groups within the scientific community, which see the method as baseless in its claims, with little or no empirical evidence to back it up. Most within the NLP community respond that NLP is not intended to be a science or to represent statistical truths – rather, it is meant to show people some personal techniques that others have found subjectively to improve their lives.

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