Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

An Introduction to Neuro Linguistic Programming by Peter McNab

This short article is an introduction to Neuro Linguistic Programming (or NLP as it is now commonly known). Given the demand, I will expand on some of these ideas in future articles and also discuss more of the "how to" than is possible in this short space.

NLP has been described by one of its co-founders as "an attitude of mind leaving behind it a trail of techniques".

It is usually this "trail of techniques" which people have heard of if they have heard of NLP at all. The "Fast Phobia Relief Process" that takes only twenty minutes or relieving panic attacks in ten using "Collapsing Anchors". Both of these claims are true, by the way, and in our seminars we have taught hundreds of people these two processes and much more to very great personal and professional effect.

However, it is the "attitude of mind" that interests me more and which I would like to address in this article. But first, a little history....

Although not exclusively used for therapy and personal growth, NLP started its development over twenty years ago when John Grinder, a linguistics professor and Richard Bandler, a gestalt therapist, modelled the therapeutic skills of Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls. They became particularly interested in "how" the great and the good are successful. This was an immense shift in emphasis in terms of modelling success in any field.

Even today, most "How To" books merely tell you "What To". Look at the shelves of any bookshop and you will see a proliferation of books on "How To"... relieve stress, recover from abusive relationships, give up smoking, become a millionaire. A good look between the covers reveals lots and lots of "what to do" but very seldom will you find anything written about "How To" do it. This is what I believe NLP has added to the party. And because it is not about "what to do" there is little if any ideology attached to it. And this, of course, causes some people problems.

I well remember when I was a student teacher and later a student social worker liking some parts of various sociological and psychological theories but not all. I did not feel comfortable becoming a Freudian or a Marxist of a Jungian or a Positive Constructionist. I accepted some of Skinner's assertions and recognised that they might be useful but could not accept that we have no mind. I resolved this dilemma when I discovered NLP in 1989.

At first, I felt a bit like a renegade, a robber who only took what was best from each field but also someone who had no real depth because I was so eclectic. As the years have gone by I have begun to realise that examination through exploring "structure" and "process" reveals much more interesting phenomena. This allows us to more easily dissect the "ologies" and "isms" and to extract what is useful, and to integrate it (1).

To reduce it to its simplest elements, NLP has three "legs": Outcome, Sensory Acuity and Flexibility.


In order to achieve any change, in order to resolve any issues, we need to know what it is that we want. The people I see in one-to-one sessions and on our seminars most often start by knowing what they don't want - "I don't want to be in this relationship", "I don't want to be smoking", "I don't want to be fat", "I don't want to be in this job", "I don't want to have these panic attacks".

In 1956, George Miller asserted that we can only consciously concentrate on seven plus or minus two pieces of information at any one time. If this is true, then we can easily see that the individual above has already used up five of those pieces; add in today's shopping and a reminder to pay the rent and we have easily filled our capacity to the full. There is literally no room to even consider what we want and so all of our concentration, all of our energy, has gone on to what I don't want.

One of the most liberating things that I help people achieve is beginning to know what they want. This in itself can be a huge shift in orientation from the past and into the future. (And if we can't stay in the present, then at least it is more fun to be in the future that in some dreadful past).

Know your outcome - know what it is that you want.

"I want to be living in an environment with fresh air pumping through my lungs", "I want to be healthily slender", "I want to be in a job where I am satisfied and amply rewarded for my efforts", "I want to be calm and serene when I want to be".

Sensory Acuity

Sensory Acuity is noticing what is going on inside and outside your body. Most people are not aware of the internal bodily sensations that we call feelings, and then further dissociate from, and call emotions.

Becoming aware of the building blocks of our experiences - the pictures that we are making, the voices that we are creating, the inner sensations that we are producing - is one of the first steps that we need to take in order to change. Once we are aware of these building blocks and also that we create themselves, we can learn how to change them to ones that are more useful to us.

For example, changing that critical voice telling us that we "have to do this" or that we "must do that" is incredibly liberating. Moving that picture of being humiliated at school further away and turning it into monochrome takes a lot of the emotion our of it and allows us to take some perspective on the experience and on the emotions - perhaps it isn't the best reference experience to take into a job interview now that you are in your thirties.

Once we have a better understanding of what is going in our own internal experience we can then extend this to others. I am sure that you have all heard of the research that 93% of our communication is at a para-verbal or non-verbal level. Like me, you probably don't completely agree with these figures. However, there is a clear message here. In our culture we put too much emphasis on the content, the words that are spoken, and we are probably missing a lot of information that is there before our very eyes and ears. Practising our sensory acuity skills and calibration skills can only enhance our relationships as we communicate with one another.

Sensory acuity at these two levels gives us vital information about what is going on for us and for others at any given moment.


We now know what we want and we know what we are getting. The next step is to have the flexibility to do something about it. "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. If what you're doing isn't working, do something else".

Bandler and Grinder went to the world experts in their field and worked out what they did. Working on the presupposition that with the same neurology as others I can do what they can do, they modelled what these people did, learned it themselves, and started teaching it to others. They discovered what external behaviours, internal thought processes, and internal emotions you would need to have to be able to replicate the desired behaviour. This is now known as The Mercedes Model, for reasons which will become obvious when we examine the diagram below.

External Behaviours
My movements, body gestures, eye movements, and breathing make up my external behaviours.

Internal Processing
We could also call this processing our internal thoughts which consist of the pictures and words that we create internally. These can also start to create our beliefs about ourselves and about the world.

Internal Emotions
The sensations and feelings that we have we translate into emotions. These in turn we use to start to create our values. Those things that we measure the world and ourselves against.

The interesting thing about this model is that whenever we change one aspect we automatically start to alter the other two.

Try a simple experiment to test this.

Sit in your chair. Lean forward and over. Bring your shoulders round. Breathe shallowly and look down. And feel really happy and energised. Difficult or what?

Shake that feeling off.

Now, sit up. Pull your shoulders back and breathe deeply. Push your arms out and look upwards. And feel depressed. Not easy?

Shake that feeling off.

That little experiment shows that all three aspects of the Mercedes Model are connected. Change one and the others change. Say more empowering things to yourself in a strong voice and you will find yourself thinking differently and walking and breathing differently.

In terms of therapeutic interventions it does not matter where we enter the system because wherever we enter there will be change at the other two levels. In term of elegance, the question becomes which intervention will have the most leverage and achieve the change more quickly.

However, to make any change at all, we need to know what it is that we want, notice what we are getting now for ourselves and in the world, and to be able to start to do, think and feel different things - Outcome, Sensory Acuity, Flexibility.

In this short space I have attempted a general introduction to NLP - some of the "what" but little of the "how". I will start to explore more of the "how" in my next article.

Article written by Peter McNab
Peter is an INLPTA Certified NLP Master Trainer with a background in social work and education. He is especially interested in the areas of personal growth and health through the use of personality models.


Back to articles' list

Featured events


To subscribe, simply enter your email address below:

We'll never share your email with anyone else.