NLP: why this therapy has failed to join the mainstream

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) was developed during the 1970s in California and has been practised ever since. It can help a person overcome a phobia in less than an hour. And yet it still hasn’t achieved mainstream recognition. Yasuhiro Kotera, our Academic Lead in Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Derby Online Learning, investigates its journey.

Despite being around for nearly half a century, NLP is currently not recognised in mainstream psychology and research into the practice is still underdeveloped. In a new paper I have written with Associate Professor Michael Sweet, we compared its characteristics with other well-used psychotherapy approaches: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and coaching.

What is NLP?

NLP is an approach to communication and personal development that focuses on how individuals organise their thinking, feelings and language. It has been used to assess and treat a variety of clinical symptoms, including depression, anxiety and stress.

As a tool in psychology, it was originally developed by Dr Richard Bandler and John Grinder. They observed sessions by psychotherapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson, identifying common patterns and positive suggestions which they used to help their clients change. Once they had identified these patterns, Bandler and Grinder applied them in their own sessions and were able to reproduce similar results. This was the start of NLP.

Along with its clinical applications, what practitioners paid attention to was the methodology used to elicit those common patterns. NLP analyses people’s subjective experience in detail, creating a recipe to duplicate excellent results. Compared with other approaches, it can potentially offer unique strengths such as micro-analysis and active use of body movement.

It is highly applicable, able to be practised wherever and whenever a client chooses. It also offers relatively quick results. While traditional psychotherapists believe any meaningful change in a person needs a long time to take place, it offers a much quicker intervention. It can help someone overcome a phobia in less than an hour, for example, or eliminate an unwanted behaviour in just a few sessions.

The widespread use of NLP

Because of its high applicability, NLP has been actively practised around the world. It has allowed healthcare professionals to better understand their patients’ problems and has led to more effective treatment.

In the US, more than 200,000 people have undertaken some form of training in the practice. In this country, NLP-based psychotherapy was recognised by the UK Council of Psychotherapy in the 1990s, and the NHS embedded NLP training in more than 300 facilities between 2006 and 2009. Additionally, the UK’s education sector employed NLP training in their Fast Track Teacher Programme, teaching more than 2,000 teachers between 2003 and 2010. Looking to the East, one of the established NLP organisations has certified more than 1,700 practitioners in Japan between 2003 and 2016.

Books about NLP have been read widely. For example, Bandler and Grinder’s Frogs into Princes has sold more than 270,000 copies and Anthony Robbins (a life coach who uses it in his practice) has sold more than 85 million copies.

Tidal power

Lack of research

Despite its active practice around the world, the science of NLP is still underdeveloped. As we reported in our systematic review, written with Professor David Sheffield and Associate Professor William Van Gordon, the quantity and quality of NLP research can be improved.

When we wrote our paper, the number of academic journal papers on NLP was about 3,000, while that of CBT was about 23,000, mindfulness 7,000 and coaching 8,000. Furthermore, most of the existing academic journal articles on the subject were not empirical and were often discussion or theoretical papers. This suggests the need for more rigorous research about NLP and its effectiveness.

Lack of governance

Another weakness of NLP is its governance. We compared the certification levels and criteria in major NLP organisations, and found inconsistent titles and requirements. Also, unlike counselling and psychotherapy, the regulations about supervision or continuous professional development were not established. Universal regulations on the certification and practice are needed. This may be one area that separates it from coaching. While both approaches relate to similar techniques and concepts, coaching is more accepted into the mainstream psychology. For example, coaching psychology was acknowledged by the British Psychological Society in 2004.

Through comparisons with other approaches, more rigorous research and universal regulations are needed for NLP to be recognised. I am a Certified NLP Trainer and Accredited Psychotherapist, having learned and practised various approaches. NLP and its relevant techniques and concepts have been most useful to my practice. I have written previously about its use in supporting employees’ mental health in the workplace. I hope that discussion around our new paper will contribute to the development of NLP to the next level.  

Find out more about studying Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Derby.

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