Tuesday, 6 November 2012

NLP notes

I just saw this post get retweet. I had to quickly knock out a reply to it here. It deals with one of my pet hates, Neurolinguistic Programming which has become more popular over recent years in the EFL world but which makes some quite remarkable claims. I'm currently trying to a get an article on NLP published and I don't want to repeat too much of that here, but  since it was retweeted by someone quite influential I thought I would dash off this response. I wrote this in about 20 mins so sorry about typos etc.
NLP is a weird therapy type of system which was dreamt up in the 1970s and makes spectacular claims about both the human body and what NLP itself is capable of. Similar in genre to books promise to help you get rich in 7 easy steps or to eat yourself thin, NLP makes some quite spectacular claims. One book (Agnes 2008:3) for example claims that using NLP can help you to:
Be what you want to be
Have what you want to have
Do what you want to do
Have the personal success you want now
Be more aware of your thoughts
And who wouldn't want all that. Yet there is actually no research that supports any of the claims that NLP makes. This is hardly surprising when you realise just how odd those claims are. NLP practitioners, like the author of the blog that was retweet claim that watching a person's eye movements can tell you what kind of learner they are. That is, in the dubious VAKOG sense of learner styles
You can also listen to the pitch of someone's voice or check the way they walk to find out what kind of learner they are. If this doesn't work then check out the words they use. A person who says "I see what you mean" is visual and and someone who tends to say "I get your drift" is probably kinaesthetic. These are called predicates in the NLP world and no, I'm not kidding, -this is really what they teach.
If you check the blog you see this quote: 

For me, one of the most important core concepts of NLP is the recognition of differences in cognitive style – or what NLP calls “representational systems”. There are five of these systems (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory) of which the first three are most commonly used

Isn't it funny how the olfactory and gustatory learners are always left out? No one wants to deal with learners who learn through smelling and tasting? too silly even for NLP perhaps? Also, if we're going to use this old-fashioned five sense model then what happened to touch? No one fancy teaching touchy learners?
The blog mentions Revell and Norman's book on NLP in EFL which I would advise you to take a look at. There are some quite impressive claims in there, even "live longer with this 3 minute exercise" -worth the price of the book alone I would have thought. The blog also quotes some NLP sayings such as: 

but there is no failure in NLP, only feedback 
This sounds great and appeals to me as a teacher but isn't it just word play? The Chinese girl who paid out £2,500 for a pre-sessional course, not making the grade and being sent home probably wouldn't see that as 'feedback'. Some other claims that NLPers make are these:
There is no failure in learners only in the teacher's intervention (Millrood 2004:29)

There is no such thing as reluctant learners only inflexible teachers (winch 2005:np)

All behaviour has positive intentions (Revell and norman 1997: 106) 

Now it might just be me but these claims are seriously questionable. Learners can fail, they can be forced to study English and they can almost certainly act with negative intentions.

The author of the blog also claims "I'm no NLP expert but...". Well, don't worry, that can soon be remedied. It's easy to become a "master practitioner" of NLP in one short 10 day course. It will only set you back a few thousand pounds and it's so simple that even a cat could do it

The fact that so many teachers have bought into this dubious and expensive practice doesn't really bother me, that's up to them. However the fact that they are wasting students' time (and money) by staring into their eyes, or listening to which words they use does. You can find examples of teachers doing this kind of things here, here and here. Of course these teachers think these things "work" and that's great, -but just remember, the students didn't sign up for pseudoscience, they signed up to learn English.

Agness, L. 2008. Change your Life with NLP Edinburgh: Pearson education LTD
BBC. 2009. Cat Registered as Hypnotherapist. In BBC news. Retrieved September 20 2012, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8303126.stm
Millrood, R. 2004. ‘The role of NLP in teachers’ classroom discourse.’ ELT Journal. 58(1): 28-37
Revell, J. and Norman, S. 1997a.  In Your Hands – NLP in ELT. London: Saffire Press.
Winch, S. 2005. ‘From Frustration to Satisfaction: Using NLP to Improve Self-Expression.’ in EA Education Conference, English Australia, Mercure Hotel, Brisbane, QLD.


  1. I think there probably is something in NLP (I trained in counselling and psychotherapy). However, what there is in it that does work has been filched from other psychotherapeutic approaches, such as Cognitive-Behavioural therapy.

    I am not a fan of NLP either, as it seems to me that the core of NLP is extremely manipulative. This is not to say that practitioners such as Jane Revell are themselves manipulative (I'm certain they are entirely well meaning), but the practice itself is. It has been popular in business as a way of getting people to do what you want without them realising what you're up to (and whether it works or not, that's a manipulative aim).
    It is a multi-million pound business, and I also feel strongly that the whole business of paying a small fortune to train up as a therapist in such a short period of time is terrible. Bad enough teachers using these techniques, but untrained therapists dealing with people who have been traumatised or are deeply depressed?
    Looking forward to reading your article (do bear in mind that the founders are known to be highly litigious!)

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the reply. I really agree with you about a lot of this. I've heard how much a certain NLP person likes to sue so hopefully I haven't said anything that is defamation here.


  2. As the author of the post you mentioned, can I come back to you? When I said I wasn't an NLP expert, I wanted to make it clear that I'm not an NLP practitioner, and don't necessarily buy into the whole thing. But the bits that I mentioned have worked for me in the past in my situation with my students.
    I would also take issue with the idea of the techniques (at least as they can be used in EFL) being manipulative. For instance, I use the eye movement technique to see when learners are ready to start an activity - not to push them into anything. That to me seems the opposite of manipulation, and (I would claim) has vastly improved the learning experience for my students. Before I found it, I would frequently ask them to start a speaking activity before they had thought of something to say, leading to hesitant performance and a "cold" discussion.. Now I wait - I can see when they have come up with ideas and are ready to start, and the activity goes much better. In this way I'm not pushing them into anything which they feel uncomfortable with. How is this manipulation? I'd call it judging "wait time" accurately.

    The title of your blog (which I've not come across before but promise to explore) is "evidence based teaching". Sadly, in any form of teaching, conclusive and all encompassing evidence is very hard to find, because of the enormous number of variables involved. What works for one person in one situation may not necessarily be ideal in a dfferent context. Because of this, my own feeling is that while "evidence" from one context is always something to look at, it's only when we put things into practice that we know if it will work in ours. You'll notice I've been enormously selective in the NLP techniques I've mentioned - what I've talked about are things I've tried and which worked for me. They don't work for you? I can think of a hundred reasons why they might not. But then maybe a lot of other standard EFL techniques work for one of us and for our students but not the other. I can't think of anything normally considered to be EFL "best practice" that I would never adapt or abandon based on when, where and who I was teaching - and a lot of other things that I wouldn't normally do but might in specific contexts.

    This is not, and please don't interpret it as, an argument against gathering objective and scientific evidence. That's important, and the findings should always be taken into consideration. But not swallowed whole. Try things out and see if they work for you and your students. That too is "evidence based teaching".

    1. Ah I didn't ignore this, the reply was written below!

  3. Hi Sue,

    Thanks very much for reading and replying. I hope you don't feel the article is attacking you, -it isn't. I think teacher's who care a lot about their students often want to try as many ways to get the students excited/interested as possible. Lazy teachers won't even try.

    I'm really mad at NLP, not the teachers who use it. I think there is a lot of clever sounding language and intellectual sounding terms (like the name itself) but I can't see that that helps anyone.

    I think teachers feel that certain things may "work" but I would question that (as I have actually here: http://malingual.blogspot.jp/2012/10/why-we-need-evidence-no1-it-works.html ) If you're happier as a teacher then that's probably good for your students and as long as you're not paying out a fortune for NLP training then who can complain?

    The eye movement thing though. What you have described seems to be just waiting for students to have thought of something to say, -which is really really sensible. I don't know what that has to do with NLP though. NLP suggests (correct me if I'm wrong) that you can tell a person's PRS from their eye movements, -not that you can tell when they are ready to start an activity. The claims about eyes and PRS seems to lack any kind of evidential basis though, judging by these:


    A large amount of research has been carried out to test whether eye movements indicate the things NLP suggests and most of it comes up negative.

    I agree with you that there is very little evidence for anything in teaching (the blog sub title says "lack of evidence" haha) and me and michael Griffen argued about this the other day here:


    While I can't tell you that if one method is better than anoter, I can point you to things that don't work or can't work, things like eye movements to show PRS. I also think that some of the techniques of "NLP" may well work, but are they NLP exclusively techniques? I saw "building rapport" once listed as NLP, I'm not sure why it has to be though.

    Thank you again for your reply, -I'm really grateful to have the chance to talk to you directly. If you think anything I've written is unfair then please let me know and I'll change it.

  4. http://www.steverrobbins.com/nlpschedule/random/lawsuit-nlpc.html

    this is interesting

  5. My favourite quote of NLP is 'if it works it's NLP'! Of course, what 'works' means is one thing, but I think it also indicates the magpie-ish and wrong way round-ness of NLP. Science is not just about observing, it's understanding the process and building a model so that you can predict what will happen. If the model can't do that, then it's wrong and you are either misunderstanding what you are seeing or misunderstanding causal relationships. Many of the theoretical proposals of NLP - such as VAKOG and learning styles - simply don't work as predictive scientific models, though clearly visual, auditory etc. are observable modes of taking in information and people do use different words with auditory, visual etc. metaphor. If NLP is simply anything that 'works' it is there will of course be sensible things within NLP, but you don't need NLP to justify it. Essentially it simply tries to take credit for things after the event. On this line: the invention of the internet? it's NLP. The wheel? It's NLP. My beautiful children and the 'successful' part of my parenting. It's NLP. War, failure, abuse - well the problem is they're not using NLP. Sounds more like religion to me and there are plenty of those you don't have to pay for!

    1. yeah. That's excellent. You can't really fail can you? If it is working it's NLP, if not, then you're probably not doing it right (the system can't be wrong).

      Thanks for the comment.

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