Dealing with the Downside of NLP

On The Future of NLP
Beginning a Dialogue on…

Restoring Integrity to NLP

“A discipline that doesn’t discipline itself
will eventually cease to exist as
a legitimate and respectable discipline.”

L. Michael Hall, Nelson Penaylillo, Bobby G. Bodenhamer and Peter F. Kean

We know that a discipline that doesn’t discipline itself will eventually cease to exist as a legitimate and respectable discipline. Organizations and groups that won’t discipline themselves sometimes invite other agencies to do the disciplining. Past and current investigations even in the Congress of the United States illustrate that. So given this somber thought, perhaps the time has come to raise (again) and address some of the “problems” that we have in our own community and some that people outside of our field have with NLP as a discipline.

Peter F. Kean (Anchor Point, July, 1996) essentially did this with his previous article. There he questioned whether we in the NLP field can even legitimately use the phrase “the NLP community.” We hardly have any formal Associations (at least in the USA) that effectively govern the quality of NLP training and validity of NLP certification. No wonder we have made so little progress in becoming more academically accepted in the States.

This article essentially grew out of some concerns that Australia NLP Trainer, Nelson Penaylillo, offered to me (MH) via email. These concerned the downside of NLP and yet though they came from a position “Down Under” (Australia) they seemed surprisingly relevant. Nelson listed a number of problems that he sees in the NLP field (“community”) which we, as a community, need to address. To this list, NLP Trainers, Dr. Bob Bodenhamer, and Peter Kean have supplemented and expanded. I have tied all of these pieces together. The following speaks “generally” to NLP and not to any specific person or organization.

[1] Lack of awareness and/or recognition. Where in the NLP community do we have an open forums for discussing the pros and cons of some of our issues? To date none of our Journals has provided a forum for an ongoing self-examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the field. Nelson put it this way, “NLP has many problems, including a reluctance to recognize that it has problems!”

[2] Problems with the term “Programming.” Neuro-linguistic Programming has, for the most part, failed to effectively communicate the full significance and meaning of the original “computer” metaphor that has become incorporated into our name. Nelson noted,

“The ‘programming’ bit in the name certainly puts many people off in spite of how much reframing we do on it. And isn’t ‘the meaning of your communication the response you get?’ John Grinder told me (1994) he wouldn’t say he does ‘NLP,’ in fact, these days he doesn’t and feels horrified in his work with companies when someone, recognizing him, says ‘Can you cure my phobia of…?’”

Hall (1995) in an Anchor Point article (June, 1995) suggested that we change the “P” to psychology. John Overdurf and Julie Silverthorn of Neuro-Energetics have already done that as they have trademark the title, Humanistic Neuro-Linguistic PsychologyÔ . Peter Schultz (1997) of Austria notes that in his country, NLP goes by NLPt (Psychotherapy).

The powerful and rapid effects of the NLP technology itself provides (for some) a scary enough prospect itself. Often, we have to avoid announcing that we can change phobias in a few minutes due to the thoughts-and-feelings it evokes in some people. “If she can do that; what else can she do that I may not have noticed.” Add to that the fact that we welcome and utilize unconscious facets of “mind-and-body.” No wonder people can get the idea that NLP manipulates and NLPers operate manipulatively.

Then we use the term “programming” and people pick up on other connotations of the word: the “programmer” doing a job on me, with or without my conscious awareness! This “technology” operates impersonally, inhumanly, without humanistic concerns.

[3] A reputation for manipulation. Though we say a person should enter into, and pace, other realities, many NLPer have all too often attempted to force themselves onto people and other realities. Obviously, this puts many people off.

Nelson, “Imagine how much more powerful you could work in sessions, or in general, if people didn’t know you were ‘doing NLP.’ But once they know they tend to become on guard against you or they expect miracles from you with little effort on their part!”

Accordingly, our field has developed a reputation for “manipulating” and not in the positive sense of “handling things effectively.” Perhaps we have Monster-Modeled instead of Meta-modeled with an attitude of gentleness, respect, and consideration. Perhaps we have come across with too much arrogance and too little pacing.

[4] Difficulties of making a career of it. We have heard horror stories of some places encouraging people to take NLP training expecting to “become a therapist,” and/or setting up a private practice. The human change technology within the domain can enable a person to make effective changes about lots of things, but it doesn’t make one a therapist in most states or countries. “Making a living with NLP,” wrote Nelson, “sucks.”

Nor does everybody quickly make all of the personality shifts and changes needed in order to also achieve rapid results in one or two sessions. Sometimes it takes years for a person to become truly proficient, smooth, and effective with the tools. Using the model, after all, necessitates adopting a pretty radically different way to think about people, pathology, healing, language, etc.

Further, those who do have or enter into the therapy field have to face the practical questions about how to make a living when you do become proficient enough to cure phobias in one session. Richard Bandler purportedly can charge $500 a hour and get by with it, but who else can do that? Many therapists have found their practice suffering. They discover a new problem–keeping enough clients around to make a living! How much can you charge for it? Yet how many people continue to take “NLP Training” thinking that it, and it alone, will prepare them to become a counselor, let alone a “professional licensed counselor?”

[5] NLP’s “failures.” Now many people have indeed ‘tried NLP’ and found it lacking. In the research field, we have studies and experiments that tested for some aspect of the NLP model and concluded that it didn’t work. Within many of these research reports that we have seen, significant problems exist with the methodology employed, with bias, with uncontrolled variables, etc.

Hall (1995, 1996) has noted that some of this may arise from attempting to work with a meta-level structure involving several layers of self-reflexive consciousness while using only primary level technologies. This especially holds true for attempting to use a sensory-based anchor (a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic anchor) on a piece of subjectivity that involves meta-level layers of thoughts-and-feelings about other thoughts-and-feelings.

Nelson began this conversation by writing,

“I keep bumping into people in the alternative community who have done some NLP and then dropped it. Why? Because the didn’t find that it delivered on its claims of fast, miracle cures. What may look and operate ‘fast’ and near ‘miraculous’ when a highly practiced and trained person does it transfer for the new practitioner. Also, I have found that the talk of ‘parts’ of themselves has put them off.”

Bodenhamer (1996) warns clients against assuming that “NLP can solve all problems in a matter of a few minutes.” In an extensive 21-page explanation of NLP for therapy and change, he separates the “problems” presented into a typical psychiatric list and then distinguishes between “minor,” “major,” and “severe” cases of the difficulty (see figure 1). In each category, then he estimates (from his own clinical experience) the amount of time that it will probably take to bring a satisfactory resolution. This seems to us a much more sane and reasonable approach.

“I teach my students that sometimes NLP provides rapid changes and sometimes not. However, in the vast majority of cases it provides faster change than does traditional therapies including my experience with brief therapy.”

Figure 1

Specialties of NLP of Gastonia and the Number of Hours Required for Resolution

The Desired Change Hours Required
Hours Required
Hours Required Severe
Addictive Behaviors 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Agoraphobia 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Anxiety 2 – 4 5 – 8
Co-Dependency 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Compulsions (OCD) 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Depression 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Eating Disorders 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Emotional Abuse 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Grief Recovery 2 – 4 5 – 8
Guilt Removal 2 – 4 5 – 8
Marriage & Family 5 – 12 13 – 18
Panic Attacks 2 – 4 5 – 12 12 – 18
Phobias 2 – 4 5 – 12
Physical Abuse 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Sabotaging Success 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18
Sexual Abuse 2 – 4 5 – 12 13 – 18

I (BB) have based these figures on approximately 400 clients during a period of 6 years. On very rare occasions, the length of time required has been 19 to 28 hours.

[6] Lack of quality in training and certification. Being an NLP practitioner has begun to become pretty meaningless when some people can do so in six days, or ten days, or even in twelve day courses. This shortening of the time and the supposed 130 hours of in class and hands-in training weakens the meaning of the NLP Practitioner Certificate. Some have begun to offer training in this highly experiential field by correspondence course–which strikes us as involving a certain inherent contradiction.

Further, while we generally like and appreciate the equalizing effect of not requiring that a person necessarily have a college education to take NLP training, this too can become a problem. Because when a person rushes through an NLP training course without significant attention given to the meta-model and how it teaches “critical thinking” skills, they can end up without a comprehensive view of that foundational model. In itself, (when taught well) the meta-model can install within a person a “liberal education” mentality. After all, as it distinctions map from territory and explains how language works, it breaks down “know-it-all-ism” and cultivates an exploratory attitude in people so that they come to really care about precision and specificity, etc.

So with the meta-program teaching. When taught well and thoroughly, a person can come away with an appreciation of how they have tended to “run their own brain,” how others use different software “programs” to run theirs and how that these do not describe moral rights and wrongs, just different styles. This encourages understanding, compassion, and tolerance. Perhaps we should publicize more thoroughly that the NLP model necessitates some hard thinking and studying and not just a quick and dirty way to getting a certificate.

[7] Lack of community spirit. What shall we say about the lack of a community spirit in the field of NLP? As already noted, Kean (1996) even raised the question whether an NLP “community” exists using the typical definitions of such. In addition to this from the first law suit between Bandler and Grinder to those that occurred last year (Bandler and Grinder again!) and those occurring this year, we not only have ongoing litigations in our “community,” but also peevish and cliquish infighting about who does “real” NLP.

Nelson has noted that the initial set-up of a field or movement can establish a direction or style that may take years to re-correct. In the case of NLP, the iconoclastic personalities of Bandler and Grinder and that of Fritz Perls who they modeled to say nothing of Milton Erickson has perhaps encouraged too much individualism, autonomy, idiosyncraticism, competition, inability to get along with each other, etc.

“Perhaps we can trace back many of NLP’s problems (or challenges) to the initial frames placed around NLP by the influence of its founders. I think these are in urgent need of updating. In some aspects, NLP was an overreaction against the psychological climate of the time, hence NLP’s attack on mind reading, therapists incompetence, insistence on therapist taking a great deal of the responsibility, insistence on fast results, discounting of language-meaning and abstraction in favor of sensory experience. How different would the field be if its original frames had been those of compassion, understanding, tolerance as well as competence and effectiveness.”

[8] Lack of regulation. Who regulates this field? Who exercises any influence in terms of quality control? NLP organizations in the States has had a rocky road with splits and divisions. Again, Nelson,

“The field and community of NLP operates in a very unregulated way so that it seems, for the most part, out of control. Anyone can take training, set up an Institute and do all kinds of other things under the name ‘NLP’ thereby giving it (and all of us) a bad name. No control can help the field grow, too much control can help the field remain obscure.


We offer these thoughts to address and deal with the downside of NLP. We do so in order that all of us, as the NLP community, can begin to more openly explore and address them and bring more discipline, compassion, self-correction, etc. to the marvelous model bequeathed us. If we will begin now to assume more of the responsibility that truly belongs to us to discipline ourselves, to protect and guarantee the quality of our products and services to our customers, and to improve the ongoing development of the field, then we can in turn bequeathed a quality community to those who come after us.

In writing this we hope to provoke a response that will involve both “positive” and “negative” in the pages of Anchor Point (and elsewhere) that will lead to more openness about this seemingly hush-hush subject.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D, NLP Trainer. 1904 N. 7th. St. Grand Jct. Co. 81501.

Nelson Penaylillo, P.O. Box 1514, Rozelle, NSW 2039, Australia. nelsonpl @


Bobby G. Bodenhamer, NC. D.Min., NLP Trainer, NLP of Gastonia, 1516 Cecelia Dr. Gastonia, 28045. bobbybodenhamer @

Peter H. Kean, NLP Trainer, NLP Institute, One Brittany Terrace, Rock Tavern NY. 12575.