NLP: Voodoo Performance Improvement

Ever been nervous, anxious, or downright fearful when having to speak to a group?

Try this: Imagine everyone in the group is looking at you with smiling adoration. Feel that they can't wait to hear the next thing you're going to say. See them nodding approvingly and occasionally glancing at each other, astonished at the depth and breadth of your wisdom.  If you do, if you tell yourself you are the best speaker this audience has ever had the good fortune to hear, you will be.  And when you realize that, your fear and anxiety will – poof!– disappear.

Didn't know it could be that easy? 

Well, neither did most people, to whom speaking in public is their Number 1 fear, until NLP came along. NLP, shorthand for Neuro-Linguistic Programming, is today a sort of Linux of training beliefs; that is, a freely conglomerated set of performance improvement processes sold to corporate training departments based on the basic concept that if you tell yourself something is true, it is.

NLP was created by John Grinder and Richard Bandler is the early 1970’s. Grinder was a New Age-type professor at the brand new University of California Santa Cruz, an "experimental" new campus in the redwoods that would in a number of years become the heart of Silicon Valley. Bandler was his very bright but somewhat social skills-challenged student.

According to the website of the firm for which John Grinder, the seemingly more sane co-founder, now works:

"Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is the process of creating models of excellence. Modeling is the complex activity of capturing in a learnable transferable code the differences that make a difference between an excellent performer and an average performer, between an excellent work team and an average one. NLP, then, is the process of identifying, coding and transferring precisely those differences in a learnable form to the interested participants and companies to allow significant upgrading of their performance to levels of excellence."

Not exactly succinct, but rather verbose enough to pass muster with corporate HR departments that spend more time developing mission statements than actually planning and executing the mission. Basic to this theory is that if you can define the objective vaguely enough, nobody will know when you fail!

Grinder and Bandler would soon split for reasons that neither has ever made public, but not before collaborating on a few books and a few world tours of speeches and mass-therapy sessions that quickly captured the imaginations of both the ascendant Human Potential Movement and Corporate America. 

The Human Potentialists, who were flirting with Transcendental Meditation, Werner Erhard's est, Scientology, Hare Krishna and a host of other similar belief sets borrowed from the East, were attracted to the notion that real change could be achieved without real work. Believe this – be this.  If there were a deep-rooted cause for the bad behavior you were trying to change, fuggitaboudit.  No sense going through the pain of self-examination when all you needed to become a master of the universe was to tell yourself you were, and there you are!

Corporate America was buying into the process for similar motivations – reward without risk.  In this case, NLP provided the route to success by simply getting employees to believe they could [pick one] sell, achieve, excel, lead, speak well, etc., without companies' having to bother with all the messy, time-consuming, and often inaccurate work involved in hiring the best employees. Everyone could now be the best (or at least everyone could be above average) simply by training everyone to believe they were.  Why didn't Human Resources think of this sooner?

To bring this all back to speaking to groups: many self-anointed NLP "experts" have successfully intruded the corporate performance improvement market with promises of "programming" employees' public speaking fears and inadequacies down the drain.

There is, however, a problem with this approach: it doesn't work.

Although we can't speak to how well NLP might achieve other performance goals, one thing we do know a good deal about is what goes in the minds of people who are facing a audience— the classic "one-against-many" scenario that always occurs when the brain senses there are more of them than there are of you. The physiological processes that this scenario sets in motion are not something that the common conscious mind can control (not that you'd even want it to, as the processes exists for the purpose of keeping you alive).

The "fear" that so many feel when facing a group is not the same as one experiences when the tire on one's minivan blows out at 70mph, but the protective chemicals coursing through the bloodstream are, and all the mental gymnastics in the world are not going to slow the heart rate or metabolism or lower the blood pressure.

"Picturing" oneself in a calm frame of mind is not going to calm someone down as long the stronger forces in the body— the involuntary ones— are presented with specific pre-programmed stimuli. In the case of speaking, we were programmed to recognize the threat of being alone while facing a hostile tribe back in a Few Million Years BC, and some feel-good theories from the California redwoods of the 1970's are not likely to change that overnight. Or over a couple café-lattes.

The only way you can change the body's response is to change the stimuli, something that is easily achievable by changing specific behaviors in which most speakers engage when thrust in front of a crowd.  In other words, it's not a matter of changing what you perceive— it's about changing what you do. 

Here is where we really take issue with the NLP religion: people who are sold on drinking this "change your thinking and you'll be fine" Kool-Aid are much worse off when they step out in front of that corporate meeting and find it just doesn't work. Unarmed against the realities, they fail. And when they fail, whom do they blame? They blame themselves. They chastise themselves for not being strong enough to really tell themselves they're OK. They must not have tried hard enough, or practiced long enough, or believed deeply enough. 

These exact feelings, by the way, are why by far the largest market for self-help books is people who bought a self-help book on the very same topic six months prior. When the last book didn't produce the desired change, they don't blame the book. They blame themselves and try (read:buy) again. 

If there is any doubt left about the veracity of the claims of NLP, we'll leave it to readers to determine for themselves. But it is helpful to know that from a linguist, someone who supposedly has a complete understanding of the power of assembled words, here is how Grinder offers "proof" that NLP really works:

"The primary criterion for the evaluation of a model is its effectiveness— that is, either the implementation of the model (or coded patterns) deliver the benefits proposed or it does not. Thus, while the processes of actually creating the model— the codification of the critical difference are wholly congruent with the general scientific methods of discovery and testing, models differ from theories by their independence from such issues as truth, fit with reality,… Models are, of course as part of the general scientific discourse, subject to criteria such as intersubjective verification, replicability, internal consistency,…"

Well, there you have it— anything that takes that many words to say must be true, don't you think?

Oh, an interesting side-note: while firms continue to hire NLP training companies to achieve painless process improvement, others feel the jury's still out on its efficacy. The jury is definitely not still out on Richard Bandler.  In 1988, two years after the murder and five years after Bandler's NLP training firm, Not, Inc. filed for bankruptcy, the jury acquitted Bandler on strict legal grounds. They simply couldn't find beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the NLP guru, and not his only friend, a major Santa Cruz cocaine dealer, who pulled the trigger of Bandler's .357 Magnum that sent its projectile at very close range up the nostril and into the brain of the dealer's 35 year-old girlfriend. No doubt that his NLP training allowed Bandler to believe he was not guilty, and that at least this time, that did make it true.