The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming is a set of recollections from those who were present and involved around the creation the therapeutic method Neuro Linguistic Programming (hereafter NLP). It is a curious book, especially for a reader who wanted to know what exactly NLP was. For while the prologue, by Carmen Bostic-St. Clair, sets the scene of its birth in the early 1970s, it also claims that the book does not assume any familiarity with NLP. Despite this there is no simple un-jargoned statement of what NLP actually amounts to and terminology is used without explanation. The uninitiated find themselves without firm footing on which to start. This slight sense of unease deepens when John Grinder, one of the three people credited in this book with the creation of NLP, spends most of the introduction discussing the partial, essentially fictive nature of memory. In a volume that collects together the memories of those present at the start of a new therapy should one be worried by an introduction that essentially undercuts the possibility of their reporting accurately?
The book is divided into two parts. The main difference between these the parts is that the second involves commentary from John Grinder on the contributions. Most chapters discuss the kinds of session work that NLP developed out of such as the Gestalt "parts parties" or Erickson inspired trance work. In general the chapters convey what James Eicher, in his contribution, called the "color of the times and feelings of origin that accompanies something amazing." Certainly a detailed account of the origin is not forthcoming, we get a variety of perspectives but nothing that ever seems to gather all the strands together. Perhaps such a gathering would violate the warning of the introduction about the vagaries of memory but then it's odd that Grinder choses to respond to Robert Dilts contribution with a short rebuttal rather than the extended commentary that the other chapters in part 2 are afforded. His argument here is that Dilts ascribes to Grinder actions that never occurred and that he makes statements that redefine NLP is a way that differs significantly from the intentions of its founders. It's not clear how someone can claim that memory is essentially fictive and then decide that someone else's memories of an event could be wrong. The actual substance of the dispute is not described; the "alert reader" is left to discern these differences for herself. The opportunity for the book to make a more general definitive statement is lost.
The foundational question of the book is mentioned by Grinder in his introduction. It is: "How did the creator or set of co-creators discover and develop the ideas, the practices, and the concrete actions in their research that ultimately carried them to a successful creation of the model involved?" Grinder wants to keep this question separate from the question of "where the ideas that turn up in some new model or pattern come from historically?". But, in a way, this is the more interesting question. And it is not clear that these two questions can be kept apart. For suppose that the ideas and practices of NLP did not appear ex nihilo, then there is a question about where they were taken from, and whether they were taken with fidelity to the original concepts involved or, if they changed, how they changed and why. One common refrain across the different contributions, especially those who were part of the "first generation" of NLP is that they started out working in a Gestalt setting. So if NLP was, in a sense, partially born of Gestalt in what ways did they depart from gestalt work, how did they appropriate the ideas -- if at all -- of that therapeutic practice, what did they think the benefits were in the newly developed NLP/Meta such that it surpassed the gestalt practice? These kind of reflections wouldn't be out of place given the motivating question of the book but the book seems to operate at a more superficial level. For instance Frank Pucelik, one of the creators of NLP, says in describing those early days:
"After three or four sessions with John Grinder (the new hotshot linguistics professor) observing our training groups and asking us questions about our language patterns and other patterns he had noticed, we knew we were onto something really special. In my opinion it was during these two or three Gestalt training group sessions that NLP/Meta was born."
We get a sense of the origin if we know what a Gestalt session is like but I had no sense of the way in which NLP should be differentiated. Changes occur later in the collection of practices that constitute NLP which make it easy to distinguish it from other therapeutic methods but at this stage it would have been interesting to get more of a sense of what constituted that feeling of being "onto something special".
Chapter five by Byron Lewis is the only one that mentioned criticisms of NLP. He notes disappointment "at the amount of press dedicated to research discrediting some of the basic precepts of NLP", referring here mainly to the Wikipedia article. In response to these Lewis wants to emphasize that the guiding focus of the early developers of NLP was on practices which were useful, i.e., seemed to work rather than practices that were in some sense based upon a correct view of human psychology and its potential for change. However there is only so far one can get with this kind of defence. For suppose that a client finds that they have made progress towards solving their problem, and they take this to be due to an intervention by an NLP practitioner. One might say that whatever the NLP therapist did worked since the client moved towards their goal. But whatever it is that created the progress for the client it can't be due to the NLP unless we can say that those practices are grounded in something correct, or true. Otherwise while it is clear that something worked, we cannot say what did the work. A concern for correct accounts is ultimately unavoidable if one wants to really know what works, and thus what is useful.
It is not exactly clear to me who this book is for. On the one hand, given the way in which it uses NLP terminology without explanation it doesn't seem to be for the NLP uninitiated. On the other hand it's not clear what there is of use for someone who is already involved in NLP. Perhaps it is for the sociologists and anthropologists who might study this kind of cultural phenomena. Certainly there is nothing here for the casual reader.
© 2013 Jack Darach
Jack Darach is doing research at the intersection of Epistemology, Action theory and Normativity.