Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) explained

NLP’s origins go back to the 1970s. The then math student and later psychologist Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder jointly developed neuro-linguistic programming as a new method in short-term psychotherapy. The goal was to treat patients faster and easier. The decisive factor in its development was an investigation into why the recovery rate was significantly higher for some therapists. The resulting thesis was the following: It’s not about the type of therapy – whether depth psychology, behavioral therapy, or psychoanalysis – that leads to the success of a treatment, but rather the communicative aspects involved, such as language and behavior.

What is NLP exactly?

The term neuro-linguistic programming is now heard more and more in other areas. But what is NLP? The primary goal of NLP is to feel good more often and feel bad less often. It combines approaches from psychology, hypnosis, and linguistics to influence our thinking and actions through language and communication, always under the assumption that processes in the brain (neuro) can be modified using language (linguistic) based on systematic instructions (programming).

Neuro-linguistic programming is based on five communication channels, VAKOG for short:

  1. Visual (sense of sight)
  2. Auditory (sense of hearing)
  3. Kinesthetic (sense of touch)
  4. Olfactory (sense of smell)
  5. Gustatory (sense of taste)

The VAKOG model is a typical representation system of NLP. The system describes how we perceive the world through the influence of the five sensory channels.

How does NLP work?

NLP is not seen as a closed teaching system but rather offers individual tools or models that can be used to understand how we perceive and influence our environment and how our environment perceives and influences us.

Various NLP formats are used for this in neuro-linguistic programming. There is no standardized procedure because NLP does not provide its own theory. With most methods, the first step is to try to create a rapport (i.e. a bond) with the other person. The starting point for the NLP format used is the client’s inner map. This is made up of mental images that arise from the bodily feelings, pictorial thoughts, and inner linguistic expression of the client. The client is made aware of their own perception of the problem through this map in order to subsequently change it using the NLP formats and to develop new behavioral strategies.

What are the formats of NLP?

There are different formats that are used in neuro-linguistic programming. We will present six of the techniques used:

  • Meta-programs: Meta-programs play a major role in NLP. They provide insight into how people perceive, think about, and act in their environment (mostly subconsciously). Those who understand the meta-programs can also understand themselves and others better, and also understand reactions or actions. An example of a meta-program is “action”. A distinction is made between proactive and reflective action. If a person is 100% proactive, they act without thinking. However, if they are 100% reflective, they will think most of the time but never act.
  • Anchor technique: An anchor is the connection between a certain reaction and an external stimulus. For example, the typical scent of cinnamon and oranges is associated with Christmas in many people’s minds. Or you may associate a certain song with your first kiss. All of these stimuli – from sounds to images to smells, tastes, and gestures – have shaped us and create a certain feeling. The anchor technique in NLP uses these automatically occurring feelings and creates a link to processes that can be influenced at will. A stimulus is deliberately conditioned with a reaction and feelings are stored. These can then be called up, for example, to help you to better handle tasks. The anchor effect is also used in marketing strategies.
  • Swish technique: In order to change unwanted habits, the swish technique builds strong positive motivations. Assuming that inner images are linked to emotions, a negative inner image is repeatedly overlaid and covered up with a positive inner image. The goal is to make it impossible for the client, when thinking about the negative inner image, to avoid thinking directly about the second positive image and evoking the associated emotions.
  • Reframing: Neuro-linguistic programming did not invent reframing but developed methods through which a therapist or coach can find helpful reframing techniques. For example, there is the six-step reframing format. Negatively-charged issues are said to be perceived more positively or put through an emotional reassessment with the help of reframing. The client and coach create a framework within which additional positive aspects can be gained from the negative experience so that the behavior or situation can be viewed from different perspectives. This is meant to free the mind and make it flexible and increase the number of options in difficult situations.
  • Autonomous eye movement: According to some NLP theses, particular thinking processes are linked to uncontrollable eye movements. Overall, the thesis is based on six different eye movements. Looking up, for example, means that the person opposite you is imagining something visually. They are calling up mental images. However, the validity of this thesis has already been refuted by scientific studies.
  • Pacing: Pacing refers to reflecting both the verbal communication as well as the non-verbal communication of the other person. Gestures and behaviors are mimicked verbally and non-verbally. A rapport with the interlocutor and a positive atmosphere are created in this way.

What are the areas of application for NLP?

As mentioned above, neuro-linguistic programming was developed as a new method in short-term psychotherapy. Today, however, NLP is used in communication processes in various areas of life and work:

  • In personnel development, for example, to reduce mental blocks and self-doubt among employees or to raise awareness among employees on topics such as social engineering.
  • When selecting personnel, NLP meta-programs can be used to find the right people for the advertised position. The first step is to define which position is to be filled and which meta-programs the candidate must bring with them for the position. Each applicant considers specific questions that have been standardized for these characteristics.
  • In sales, the communication tools of pacing and leading are especially helpful for being more convincing when contacting customers and for responding more appropriately to an interlocutor.

Is NLP dangerous?

Neuro-linguistic programming has been repeatedly criticized. It is often called manipulative, not least because cults like the Church of Scientology use these practices.

The central problem, however, is the overestimation of its effectiveness by users who sometimes make NLP look dubious. NLP has become virtually independent in its further development over the decades. There are now countless publications in which practically every author has contributed their own ideas and views. The use of tools and representation of models is often done entirely at your own discretion.

Laypeople who have learned certain methods may be tempted to use these methods in healing therapies. However, this can have dangerous consequences, especially in combination with trance induction, trauma treatments, or confrontation therapy – particularly if the methods are used incorrectly. That’s why professional training that creates risk awareness and teaches the correct application of the methods should have top priority.


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