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A Response to Chris Morris

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Chris Morris recently wrote a powerful article on his blog. The article is titled, “Can NLP be what it has become?”

In it, he points out that NLP was originally a methodology for modeling, and that now… well, it’s hard to tell what it is. Is it a bunch of techniques for self-improvement? Is it a therapeutic modality? Is it still modeling? There are hundreds of “NLP books” available, and they’re all about different stuff!

I think he has a strong point, and at the same time, I’m not worried.

Let me start with what he says he thinks NLP is:

From what I understand, these are all misunderstandings. NLP is about the structure of subjective experience. It’s about learning to recognise and interact with the structure of how people think. It’s a meta-discipline. You can use the “trail of techniques” to do many things, but the techniques don’t define the scope of NLP.

I start there because I agree with him. This is NLP to me, too. A meta-field, an epistemology, a set of tools. By way of analogy: carpentry is a way of building a house, but it is not a house, and calling a house “carpentry” just confuses people.

Then Chris goes on to say:

It’s got more confusing too. Like most groups of young people, the original NLP creators and developers fell in and out of love. Some even got married, and then divorced. 35 years on, most of them don’t speak to each other. And while mummy and daddy both still love their baby very much, they have different hopes and dreams for it, and very different parenting styles.

That’s correct, too, and there’s a little more to the story. In the process of giving birth to, and then raising, NLP, they either refused to or neglected to legally protect the property. Richard later tried to correct that, but it was too late. The label “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” is now a generic term, and people are free to apply it incorrectly if they want to.

Then Chris says this:

NLP has become like a horse with two riders, each going in different directions. In fact, it’s like a horse with hundreds or maybe even thousands of riders, because each of the co-creators and some of the developers have anointed a series of trainers, master trainers and apprentices to spread their word. And, inevitably, after a few months or years, these people discover they have ideas of their own too, and they start adding their own spin on things. Gradually or suddenly, they start spreading their own version of NLP.

He seems to me to be presenting this as a problem and a Bad Thing. This is where I feel compelled to part company with him.

For a few years now, I’ve been interested in the idea of evolution. (Now, evolution is a well-documented phenomenon, and there’s no credible argument against its existence. Whether or not you believe evolution is how we humans got to where we are has nothing to do with whether or not evolution exists, and we aren’t discussing that.) Evolution is how a species of organisms changes over time into other species. It seems to apply to other systems, such as language and economics, as well.

Just to hit the high points, there are four factors at work in genetic evolution:

  1. Sexual selection. Based on criteria of their own, one organism chooses to mate with a particular other. The characteristics of those two organisms get passed to the next generation, and the characteristics of organisms not chosen do not.
  2. Natural selection. Factors in the environment stress the organism, and those organisms that survive will grow up to pass on the characteristics that helped them to survive while those who die will not.
  3. Mutation. Damaged DNA or errors in copying genes cause cells to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If those mutations create characteristics that help the organism survive and reproduce, those mutations are likely to get passed on to the next generation, where they create an advantage in the offspring.
  4. Genetic drift. Gene variants (alleles) are combined in reproductive cells at random. That’s why you look similar to, but not identical to, your siblings. Sometimes, these random combinations produce features that create a reproductive or survival advantage.

This is how I see what’s going on with NLP now. It’s the early stages of evolution. We’re in a Paleozoic-era-style experimentation soup, where everyone is trying something different just to find out what will work and what won’t. This unlimited freedom to experiment is the direct result of what Bandler and Grinder did, or, rather, didn’t do:

But how have they been as leaders of their field?
“Follow me, I’m right behind you.”

Again, I don’t see that as a bad thing. Chapter 66 of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese treatise on How Stuff Works, you read that If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them. Now, I’d never accuse either Bandler or Grinder of abject humility, but teaching your followers to lead themselves is, I think, a mark of real leadership.

Chris asserts that Bandler and Grinder, by allowing almost unlimited freedom to experiment in NLP, are killing their legacy. I don’t know if I agree with that or not. Maybe they are, and if it dies, perhaps it should die. Maybe they aren’t, though; maybe what they’re doing is allowing their legacy to become greater than they themselves could make it.

So my suggestion is twofold:

  1. Encourage people to differentiate, as Robin Manuell (in the comments of Chris’ article) pointed out that John Grinder does, among “NLP modelling”, “NLP applications”, and “NLP Training”. It’s high time to permit “speciation” in the field, and drawing people’s attention to the reasonable distinctions that can be made will be good for all three “species” of NLP.
  2. You, whoever you are, whatever you do with and within NLP, should get exceptionally good at it and share with with others. The better you are, the more flexible you are, the more likely that what you do will matter, and then it will survive.

Written by Michael DeBusk

July 26th, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Posted in Articles