NCP Logo

The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

Patrick Jemmer                                  Alowvelkí Consulting Limited

Neuro-linguistic Programming and the Unknown Tongue…       Part 1 of 4


Part 1: Principles and Presuppositions


“A three minute introduction to ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming’ would go like this:

Ladies and Gentlemen, to be successful in life you need only to remember three things:

1.      Firstly, know what you want; have a clear idea of your goal in each situation.

2.      Secondly, be alert and keep your senses open so as to know what you are getting.

3.      Thirdly, be flexible enough to change your behaviour until you get what you want.

Goal, Sensitivity, Flexibility” [2].


Neuro-linguistic Programming  (NLP) encompasses epistemology, by examining ‘how we know what we know,’ and methodology, by developing practical descriptions of particular functions. In essence, NLP provides a ‘toolkit’ to examine and modify our processes of thinking, available modes of communication, and patterns of behaving [3]. The NLP toolkit began life with the ‘modelling’ experiments of computational linguist Richard Bandler and psychologist John Grinder in the early 1970s, and its development has been cross-discipline and largely outside traditional academic fields of study, although it might be described as relating to cognitive psychology [4]. This paper draws on my experiences as a lecturer as well as a therapist undergoing supervision, and practitioner of NLP. The core of this material was presented and debated at the Third Northumbria Conference – Educating for the Future 3. It examines the nature, development and applications of some of the tools and presuppositions of NLP in an educational setting and the relationship of their utilisation in therapy. We end with an illustration of the nature of the “structure of magic” as this was conceived of by Bandler and Grinder [5,6].

… or all ablaut how eating Blue Öyster umlaut can give you verbal diæresis!   [1]

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"

The Walrus did beseech.

"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each."

From: “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll (1872)

Let’s start then with a basic but fundamental question: What is Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)? The actual phrase ‘Neuro-linguistic Programming’ is derived from the elements neuro, indicating ‘mind,‘ linguistic, referring to the use of language, and programming, which alludes to behavioural patterns [5,6]. Given the technical complexities implied in this naming, we could say that NLP is an ‘unknown tongue’ [1]. This is because it is essentially an attempt to describe the gestalt arising from the interaction of all human communication channels, and their coupling with our neurally-programmed behavioural patterns which in general are utilised out of conscious awareness [7]. Since one of the tenets of NLP is “If you want to understand: act” [8], then let us act by trying to understand where, when and how NLP originated, and how it can be applied in practice. 

Through the 1970s, Richard Bandler (a psychology student) John Grinder (a linguistics professor) developed the idea of ‘modelling’ in a highly specialised sense. They studied in minute detail, audio and video recordings of highly successful communicators, initially in the arena of personal change and development. The individuals chosen for these studies were Fritz Perls (Gestalt therapy), Virginia Satir (Family therapy), Milton Erickson (Hypnotherapy). In each case, exhaustive investigation of the patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication skills used in each scenario led to the generalisation of a set of techniques for highly effective communication [6,8,9]. In order to calibrate and test this ‘toolkit,’ the same ideas were then used in sports, business, sales, education, and many other areas of ‘external’ communication. They were also tried out for ‘internal’ communication: that is, in helping individuals in self-actualisation and personal development [10,11]. In all cases the techniques were found to be not only transferable but highly effective in enabling individuals to achieve their desired goals. Thus NLP has been described as ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience,‘ which leads to a description of ‘the psychology of excellence,’ and so produces a  toolkit of techniques which ‘increases choices’ [5,6,7].  The techniques of NLP stress capability and are used to answer the question ‘how can I achieve a desired goal?’ They are not a set of theories, but they do form a bridge between the Behaviourist theories of action-reaction and environment-behaviour interaction, and the Value-psychology ideas based on descriptions of beliefs, relationships and self-actualisation [12]. Bandler and Grinder summarised things like this: ‘[NLP is]… an attitude which is an insatiable curiosity about human beings with a methodology that leaves behind it a trail of techniques’ [13].

Next, we can consider the basic principles underlying the practical techniques, bearing in mind that these are not academically motivated theories, but rather ‘presuppositions’ which provide the necessary framework for utilising the NLP toolkit. To achieve results with NLP techniques we have to be able to establish rapport with other individuals; be able to define appropriate and precise outcomes; exhibit acuity in discerning exactly whether these outcomes are being achieved, and if they are not, in what ways they are not; and we must learn to be flexible in modifying our behaviour to allow the desired goals to be reached [14].  In fact, to most people, all of this seems like ‘common sense’ and this is indeed true. Another way of summarising these NLP presuppositions is to say that we either already have all the resources we need or we have the resources to create them: it is just a matter of utilising resources in the right way. NLP can aid us in finding out what ‘the right way’ is, and then in following that path quickly and effectively [15].

In terms of our experience of our own internal world, and our activity in the external world, we perceive things on a variety of ‘logical levels.’ These are: environment (where and when we produce some outcome); behaviour (exactly what we do); capability (how we do it); beliefs and values (why we behave in particular ways); identity (who we define ourselves to be); spirituality (connection with the ‘bigger picture’). NLP presupposes that change is possible at any level [16]. For example, if someone is dissatisfied in their job, one person would find it easier to change their environment (by changing their job, or habitual working patterns); whereas another might more easily be able to ‘reinvent herself’ (that is, change her own self-identity and so her relationship with her current job). The kind of question therefore that NLP concerns itself with is ‘Given that change is possible at all levels, how do we optimise results?’ Moreover, you can imagine that change of environment will lead to change of behaviour, which in turn leads to change of capability, and so on down the chain (in a ‘top down’ cascade from the very specific to the more general). In some cases, or with some people, it might be more appropriate to aim to effect change ‘bottom up’ so that a change of identity leads to a change in beliefs and values, and so on. What is essential is to apply the presuppositions of NLP to each particular case, and do what is right and appropriate for each person encountered: we should bear in mind that with NLP there is no ‘one size fits all!’

Given that NLP is all about change and development, and that we must be acute and observant, we can ask ‘how do we express exactly what we want, get it, and hear what others need and aid them in achieving these outcomes?’ This question leads us to realise that at the heart of NLP is communication, and as O’Connor and McDermott (2001) say: ‘There is no such thing as failure in communication – you always succeed in communicating something’ [17]. However, the particular ‘something’ that you communicate is crucial, and a caveat to the first statement is that ‘The meaning of communication is the response that you get.’ In other words, no matter what you may mean to say (or show or do), it is what the listener themselves hears (or sees or imputes from your actions) which is critical. You may think you are being speaking perfectly clearly and being heard loud and clear, that they can see precisely what you are showing them, and have a good feeling about what you are doing, but until you develop the skills presupposed by NLP, you will never know for sure and this is the nub of most of our (sometimes spectacular) breakdowns in communication! We will investigate the subtleties of communication in more detail in the next section of this series.


[1] Bouchard, A. and Roter, D. (1980). Blue Öyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Unknown Tongue. Pun borrowed and extended from Ross, D. (2004). My So-called Life: Why do I become totally loony in Ikea? Independent. Argument 11 February 2004.

[2] Maguire, T. (1996). The Internet TESL Journal. II (6). URL:  [2 September 2004].

[3] Collingwood, C. (2003). Inspiritive ® Teaching lasting life skills. Neuro-Linguistic Programming FAQ. What is Neuro Linguistic Programming NLP FAQ. URL:  [2 September 2004].

[4] Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Neuro-linguistic Programming. URL:  [2 September 2004].

[5] Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1975) The Structure of Magic I. A Book about Language and Therapy. Palo Alto CA: Science and Behavior Books.

[6] Grinder, J. and  Bandler, R. (1976) The Structure of Magic II. A Book about Communication and Change. Palo Alto CA: Science and Behavior Books.

[7] Grinder, J., Bandler, R., DeLozier, J. and Dilts, R. (1980). Neuro-Linguistic Programming: The Study of the Structure of Subjective Experience, Volume I. Meta Publications, Capitola, CA.

[8] O’Connor, J. (2001) The NLP Workbook. London UK: Thorsons.

[9] Dilts, R. (1998) Modelling with NLP. Meta Publications.

[10] James, T., Flores, L., and Schober, J. (2000) Hypnosis: A Comprehensive Guide. Crown House Publishing.

[11] Lewis, B. and Pucelik, F. (1985) Magic of NLP Demystified. Metamorphous Press.

[12] Bandler, R., Andreas C., Andreas, S.  (eds.) (1986), Using Your Brain for a Change. Real People Press.

[13] Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1979) Frogs into Princes: Neuro-linguistic Programming Psychology. Real People Press.

[14] Hall, L. M. and Belnap, B. P. (2000) The Sourcebook of Magic. Carmarthen UK: Crown House Publishing Limited.

[15] Hall, L. M. (1998) The Secrets of Magic. Carmarthen UK: Crown House Publishing Limited.

[16] O’Connor, J. and Seymour, J. (1995) Introducing Neuro-linguistic Programming. London UK: Thorsons.

[17] O’Connor, J. and McDermott, I. (2001) NLP, Thorsons.

[18] Korzybski, A. H. S. (1994) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (5th edition), Institute of General Semantics.

[19] Jemmer, P. (2004) Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk… Now where’s my Map? Fundamentals of Neuro-linguistic Programming in Therapy. The APHP Journal. Spring 2004, Issue 5, p 14 - 15.

[20] Hayes, P. (2002): The Psychobiology of Stress and Healing Part 1, Stress News 14(2).

[21] Robbins, A. (1998) Unlimited Power. Simon & Schuster.

[22] James, T. (2004) Advanced Neuro Dynamics. Strategies: The Mind-Body Connection to Behaviour. URL: [ Accessed 2 July 2004]

[23] Acusound Holistic Healing. URL: [2 September 2004]

[24] eNotalone: Flirting and NLP: You are not Alone. URL: [2 September 2004].

[25] Ellenberger, H. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious. New York: Basic Books.

[26] Hunter, R. (1995) The Art of Hypnotherapy. Kendall/Hunt.

[27] Battino, R., and South, T. L. (1999) Ericksonian Approaches: A Comprehensive Manual. Carmarthen UK: Crown House Publishing Limited.

[28] Jemmer, P. (2004) Methodical Meta and Magical Milton Models: Language and the Nature of Therapeutic Transformation. Fidelity: The Journal for the NCP. Summer 2004, dition 16, p. 7 - 10.

[29] McAdams, D. P. (1993). Stories We Live by: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: Morrow.

[30] Dilts, R. (1995) Strategies of Genius Volume I, II and III. Meta Publications.

[31] Inspiritive: Teaching lasting life skills. URL: [2 September 2004].

[32] The Performance Institute of NLP. URL: [2 September 2004].

[33] Miller, G. A., Galanter, E. and Pribram, K. H. (1960) Plans and the Structure of Behaviour. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

[34] Kitaoka, T. (2004) This is the Genuine NLP! Issue #5: 2003.11.28, Methodology for Accelerated Learning a la Kitaoka. URL: [2 September 2004].

[35] O’Connor, J. and van der Horst, B. (2004) Neural Networks and NLP Strategies - Part 3 The NLP Strategies Model. URL: [2 September 2004].

[36] Boyley, S. (2003). The Performance Institute of NLP: NLP Training Seminars: "Test Drive NLP" NLP Mind Training Webinar August 25th 2003. URL: [2 September 2004].

[37] Jemmer, P. (1989) Schema Aleolinguistica. [Thesis: Projects fund awarding Committe, Trinity College Cambridge 1989; Univ of Wales Swansea. Subject: Linguistics. Location: LIC Theses. Call number: P28 JEM].

[38] Jemmer, P. (1990) Ars Aleolinguistica. [This volume is a 'sequel' to Schema Aleolinguistica (Jemmer (1989)) writen in fulfilment of the Projects Fund Award conditions. Univ of Wales Swansea. Subject: Linguistics. Location: LIC Theses. Call number: Theses]; Jemmer, P. (1990) Ars Aleolinguistica: a thesis, being the continuation of Schema Aleolinguistica. [Imprint Swansea. Privately Printed 1990.  Trinity College Library Cambridge. Lower Library. Subject: Linguistics. Class No. LL 130 J 102].

Part 2 of Neuro-linguistic Programming and the Unknown Tongue will be published in the next edition of FIDELITY


Article Menu - Members Directory - Navigation Page - Home