Aiming at Superachievers : NLP: Influencing Anybody to Do Just About Anything


How to win friends and influence people.

That was the question John Grinder, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and psychotherapist Richard Bandler set out to answer when they received a research grant in the early 1970s to study what makes certain people “super-achievers.”

They appear to have found more than they bargained for.

About 14 years later, the results of their research are being touted as a way to reduce stress; make love relationships work; make anyone your friend; aid in education, business and child-rearing, and influence anyone to do just about anything. Their theories have been dubbed neuro-linguistic programming.

These claims sound like the sensationalized rantings of followers of the latest pop psychology craze. And like other trendy self-help therapies such as est and scientology, little scientific evidence has been found to support neuro-linguistic programming--or NLP--theories. Asking advice from experts is also a problem because many practicing psychiatrists and psychologists have little knowledge of NLP techniques.


53,000 People Trained

Despite these drawbacks, NLP is taken seriously enough to find its way into workshops held by such firms as Chase Manhattan Bank, Avon, Coca-Cola and IBM. And more than 53,000 individuals had taken NLP training as of 1983, independent studies show.

In San Diego, NLP training is handled by the nonprofit Human Development Institute, situated in Mission Valley. The founder and executive director of the institute is Francine Shapiro, a former high school English teacher.

“My research in NLP started when I was told I had cancer,” Shapiro said. “Everything I learned about cancer showed that it was a stress-related disease.”

Shapiro began to study alternatives to high-stress life styles. During the research she discovered NLP. Her cancer went into remission, but her interest in NLP remains. She came to San Diego in 1979 and, along with Shirley Phares-Kime, set up the Human Development Institute, which promotes NLP training and research.

“What Bandler and Grinder did was to study what made certain people super-achievers,” said Shapiro. “Why some lawyers won case after case, why some therapists were able to consistently pull off cures in one session. They interviewed the top people in law, business, medicine, psychiatry. During the interviews they found that none of these people had a clue as to why they were able to accomplish what they did. They all said, ‘I don’t know how I do it.’

“Bandler and Grinder began to videotape sessions with these people--business meetings, court sessions and so on,” she said. “That’s when they discovered that all of these people were doing the same thing. They found that these people were able to set up an instant rapport with others, to tap into how people were communicating and thereby influence and guide that person to whatever decision or direction they wanted.”


Based on Perception

NLP theory, Shapiro explained, is based on how people organize their experiences--their thoughts, feelings and behavior. According to the theory, each person experiences the world through three perceptual systems: visual or sight, auditory or sound, and kinesthetic or feeling. One system or mode of perception tends to dominate an individual.

Most people, about 60% of the population according to NLP theories, are highly visual. These are people who think in terms of pictures. They remember, for example, how people looked or what color a dress was.

Another mode, which comprises about 30% of the population, is auditory. Auditory oriented people think in terms of sound--what was said or how loud or soft something sounded.

Kinesthetic people comprise about 10% of the population. They remember how warm the sun was, how their mother’s hand felt or how comfortable a bed was.

Visually oriented people, according to NLP, tend to express themselves in visual terms. “Do you get the picture?” or “Do you see what I mean?” are examples. Auditory people might say, “Does that ring a bell?” “I hear what you’re saying,” or “That doesn’t click for me.” Kinesthetic people might state, “Let me get a handle on this,” “I don’t grasp it,” or “I’m not comfortable with this.”

Body Language Clues

This theory, which can be fun to play with, becomes more than a simple parlor game when the NLP practitioners determine how the subject is thinking. This is done through a series of body language clues, which include how a person is breathing, the set of the shoulders and the position of the eyes. People thinking visually, for example, are said to look upward and breath shallowly. Normal breathing and eyes moving side to side signal that the person is in an auditory mode. Deep breathing and eyes cast downward mean the person is in a kinesthetic mode.

Also, visually oriented people tend to act and talk quickly. Auditory people are slower and kinesthetic people are the slowest.

“Kinesthetic people can drive visual people crazy,” said Shapiro. “They seem so slow. That’s where mistakes occur, especially in education. A kinesthetic child can be mistakely thought of as slow or stupid.”

Once it is established how someone is thinking, the NLP practitioner can plug in to that person’s wavelength and set up a feeling of rapport and trust. That then allows him or her to influence the person’s decisions.

These NLP techniques are taught by the Human Development Institute. A weekend session, which gives students the basics, costs $225. During this workshop, lectures are given on the theory of NLP, along with basic instructions in its use. Demonstrations are held, and the students are given hands-on experience in its techniques. The next session is scheduled for March 30.

All in a Weekend

NLP techniques are used in teaching the techniques, which accelerates learning, Shapiro said. She added that although the weekend session is all that’s needed for a solid working knowledge of NLP, the institute also offers a follow-up eight-week course for sharpening skills. It costs $150.

“That’s how NLP differs from other self-help theories,” she said. “They always tend to be very cult-oriented and always deal in vague concepts rather than practical tools. Once the person has taken NLP training, there’s no real need for them to return to us. It’s not a cult. And we show them how to use NLP in practical situations.”

Practical situations, for example, include personal relationships, Shapiro said.

“In the beginning of a relationship, all the senses are being tapped--there’s flowers, candy, hugs, words,” she said. “But as the relationship progresses, people tend to drift back into their comfort modes, doing what they’re used to. A kinesthetic male may hug a lot. But an auditory female would rather hear ‘I love you’ and not be pawed. She needs to hear it. He needs to feel it. They’re not communicating.”

Its practical applications as an effective means of communication in law, medicine and business prompted Bandler and Grinder to market entire NLP packages to doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, salesmen and advertising agencies.

Little Scientific Evidence

But that also led to one of NLP’s major problems. The founders spent little time establishing scientific proof of their theory. According a 1983 article in Science Digest, Grinder, Bandler and associates have written more than a dozen books on NLP but have never published any professional papers. The article, written by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, also cited a 1980 study that found no connection between eye movements of 40 people and the visual, auditory and kinesthetic systems.

“To date,” said Conway and Siegelman, “NLP has not met the rigorous demands of science. In their efforts to market NLP as the ultimate behavioral engineering tool, Bandler, Grinder and their colleagues have been disrespectful of the imperatives of scientific enterprise. If NLP is to flourish, its developers must produce scientifically valid evidence to substantiate their claims for effectiveness of neuro-linguistics.”

Shapiro agreed that little has changed in scientific backing of NLP since the article appeared and hopes that her institute will be able further scientific research in it. Dr. R. Lee Greene, president of the Academy of San Diego Psychologists, also agrees that lack of research is a problem.

“There’s no question that it’s a drawback,” he said. “I have a profound respect for empirical scientific research, and there appears to be little in NLP. Of course it’s still relatively new.”

‘Innovative Tool’ for Therapists

Despite these problems, Greene, a teacher at Grossmont College who also has a private practice, is very supportive of NLP.

“I believe it’s the most innovative and practical tool for therapists to show up in many years,” he said. “Despite no scientific research, we who are in the trenches as practical therapists have found that it works. Its use in therapy has almost magical results and can cause changes in behavior traits in an amazingly short period of time. Days instead of years. Its effects are potent, quick and dramatic. This is very powerful stuff.”

Those who have taken the NLP course in San Diego--more than 1,000 people have--are also effusive in their support.

Ron Horvitz, a 30-year-old San Diego businessman, took the weekend class and its follow-up eight-week course.

“I took it because I wanted to improve myself,” he said. “And I did. I’d say it’s had a dramatic effect on me, both in my business and personal life. I still make mistakes in dealing with people, but I realize what they are now and can correct them.”

Nancy Whitman, 30, is a hospital administrator who also deals with victims of traumatic brain injuries.

“It’s been tremendous,” she said. “I took the techniques I learned back to work. I found I have a better attitude in dealing with staff and patients and got better results, too. I’m acting on knowledge instead of instinct. And I’m more in control.”

Debbie Porter, 15, a student at Mission Bay High School, also took the NLP course.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “For example, I was having problems in algebra before, getting D’s. Now I’m receiving A’s.”

Nevertheless, Greene worries about people becoming overly enthusiastic.

“There has been an over-sensationalizing of it. People are getting caught up in it and making claims for NLP that simply aren’t true,” he said. “What you can say is that it has dramatic results for some people some of the time. It’s just another tool, but a very effective one.

“And I have mixed feelings about it coming into the hands of laymen. Like hypnosis, use of NLP can put people in situations they’re not trained to handle. But the cat is out of the bag. It’s public knowledge. It’s amazing. I’ve had business majors come to me and ask me about NLP.

“Personally I believe that after all the dust settles and the sensationalism ends, NLP will be found to have a tremendous impact on the entire field of therapy.”