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NLP - The Modelling of Excellence

Updated: Jan 3

I'm going to be honest by declaring from the outset that I've had something of a love-hate relationship with NLP over the course of the last two decades. For years it kept resurfacing in my life, enticing me with seductive promises of power, influence and untold riches, and each time I'd be left disenchanted, disillusioned and deflated, forced to conclude that all that glittered was not gold. My experience is far from unique. I know of many others who've fallen out of love with NLP after reaching for the stars and missing, falling flat on their faces when they came crashing painfully back down to earth. It took more than 15 years before I finally met an NLP trainer who enabled me to apply the techniques in a way which had real and lasting benefit. That's when I realised that the problem wasn't with NLP itself but with the application of it and the manner in which it was being taught and promoted by certain egocentric trainers looking to appeal to people's innate vanity. But when built on firm foundations, and combined with other techniques such as hypnotherapy, NLP in fact has the potential to be a major force for good.

NLP, for those who don't know, stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming - a laughably conceited title which leaves the practice wide open to attack and mockery by its critics, which is a crying shame because many of its techniques are actually fundamentally sound and it has a great deal to offer the world of therapy and personal development when used responsibly and in the appropriate context. It began life at the University of California, Santa Cruz, early in the 1970s when linguistics professor John Grinder teamed up with mathematics student Richard Bandler to conduct a study of human excellence by modelling the behavioural patterns of selected geniuses. They began their quest by modelling three outstanding therapists - Fritz Perls (father of Gestalt Therapy), Virginia Satir (founder of Family Therapy) and Milton Erickson (the pioneer of conversational hypnosis). The aim of the project was to see whether it was possible to achieve the same therapeutic results as the experts by copying aspects of their behaviour and language. Grinder and Bandler coded the results of their work in language-based models and their findings became the basis of several best-selling books, including The Structure of Magic (1975) and Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson MD (1975).

Grinder and Bandler surrounded themselves with enquiring minds seeking investigation into human behaviour. These included the world renowned anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who introduced the pair to Erickson, plus Stephen Gilligan who would go on to develop the Generative Trance model. The pair willingly offered training courses in the application of NLP to prove that their models were transferable to others. Unfortunately Bandler and Grinder's partnership didn't last and they split acrimoniously in 1980, going on to develop their own divergent versions of NLP whilst feuding bitterly with each other for two decades and conducting lengthy legal battles over trademark and theory. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the warring pair finally brokered a compromise in which they agreed, amongst other things, that they were the co-creators and co-founders of "the technology of NLP" and mutually agreed to refrain from disparaging each other's efforts. Both men are still active and conducting training programmes to this day. Bandler has teamed up with world renowned hypnotist Paul McKenna, whilst Grinder went on to develop 'New Code NLP', which utilises games and other practices to induce high-performance states by balancing the hemispheres of the brain. In recent years it has become fashionable to knock NLP and to dismiss it as a pseudo-science. The petty feuding between its co-creators has certainly done no favours for its reputation, providing detractors with an open goal to aim at. As I mentioned at the outset, my own relationship with NLP hasn't exactly been plain-sailing but I've come to the conclusion that many of its theories, techniques and core concepts are completely legitimate and highly effective when deployed properly and as part of a wider skills package.

At the heart of NLP is the concept that we experience the world through our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Our senses are constantly bombarded with so much information that we consciously and unconsciously delete the bits we don't want to pay attention to. The remaining data gets filtered based on our past experiences, values and beliefs, meaning that we end up with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world because some of the original input has been deleted altogether and the rest has been generalised or distorted. The filtered information forms our internal map of the world, which influences our physiology and "state of being". This in turn affects our behaviour and therefore our results. This means that a person's perception of reality is based on the beliefs they hold both consciously and unconsciously. You see what you expect to see based on how you interpret the filtered information received from your senses. If your filters aren’t creating the results you desire then you are the only person who can change them. The first step is to become consciously aware of the filters you have and what kind of reality or results they are creating for you. NLP's most iconic model is the eye-accessing cues which purport to be able to detect, via eye movement, whether a person's predominant way of thinking is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

My first experience of NLP came in the early months of 1998 when I stumbled across two hefty books the size of doorstops, written by American self-help guru Tony Robbins. These gigantic tomes - Unlimited Power and its sequel Awaken the Giant Within - jumped out at me, luring me in with the enticing promise that they would demonstrate "How to take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical and financial destiny". I mean, who wouldn't want a piece of that right? At that point in my life I'd been a newspaper reporter for four years, was beginning to show early indications of job-related stress, was drinking too heavily and just starting to question my life's direction and whether journalism was really for me. These books appeared to have come along at just the right time and to be offering me the clarity I needed - a way of overcoming my fears and insecurities and finding out what it was I really wanted. I bought both volumes and over a period of the next few weeks I read them voraciously, soaking up everything they had to teach about the arts of building rapport, modelling, reframing and anchoring. I found the books utterly intoxicating. Robbins' use of language was hypnotic. Just reading his words made me feel as though I was invincible and capable of anything.

Tony Robbins is a larger than life character in every sense - at a towering six feet six inches tall he has a commanding presence and deep booming voice which he uses to great effect as a motivational speaker and high performance coach. He knows how to crank up a room to fever pitch and also has the ability to project that confidence through the printed word and to make the reader believe that literally anything is possible. A direct disciple of John Grinder, Robbins knows how to use language to instil a sense of power and rampant, unbridled positivity. I started to put his teachings into practice pretty much right away, with quite extraordinary results. Within the space of a few short weeks I had quit drinking, embarked upon a new fitness regime, expanded my social circle, got a mortgage, bought a cottage and a new car and been promoted several rungs up the career ladder at my work to the role of News Editor. All this because I was suddenly projecting a newfound level of supreme self-confidence which was not only giving me the belief to go out and make things happen for myself but was also impressing other people with the notion that I was someone they wanted to know and do business with. The extent to which I had altered my life beyond recognition within weeks was simply staggering. I was living the dream and oozing confidence from every pore. I was drunk with power and starting to believe I was invincible... untouchable... that I could do anything I wanted and have anything I wanted. And then it all fell apart.

Put quite simply, I had risen too far too quickly and set myself up for the mother of all falls. Much of my newfound success had been built on the NLP techniques of "matching and mirroring" - a stratagem in which one builds rapport with people by copying their language and behaviour to make them think you're someone who sees the world in the same way they do. In the short-term, matching and mirroring is a highly effective strategy. It's a great technique for use in sales where there's a strong need to establish a rapid connection with a potential customer to increase the odds of closing a deal. It's not so great for using with people you're going to be working with long-term. Unlike a one-off customer, who you're unlikely to ever see again, colleagues in an office setting are eventually going to notice if you're adopting a different style of speaking and acting with every single person you meet. Any trust you've built with them will soon evaporate if they think you're some kind of human chameleon who's constantly changing your characteristics to fit the audience. It can come across as fake and manipulative, even if it's not intended that way. To some extent we all do this, regardless of whether we consciously realise it or not. For example, the way in which someone speaks to their parents is likely to be very different from how they speak to their mates, their schoolteachers or employers. We all unconsciously moderate our speech and behaviour depending on who we're with and there's nothing wrong with that. Used with subtlety it can also be a highly effective way of putting people at their ease and building trust by projecting yourself as a like-minded soul. But used blithely and without discrimination, it can make you look like a complete prick. What matters is the intention behind it. Something which is a perfectly legitimate technique for making other people feel comfortable can swiftly become a dangerous tool if purposefully deployed for personal strategic gain.

The techniques I'd learned from Robbins had made me over-confident and too sure of myself. I'd secured promotion to a job I was neither ready nor equipped for and was trying to bluff my way through it by being everybody's friend. As a long-term strategy, this was disastrous. Swamped by admin and stuck in the horrible and extremely lonely position of being a middle-man oscillating like a pendulum between my Editor and the reporters who'd once been my friends, I was haemorrhaging support on all sides at the very time I needed it the most. I'd entered journalism because I loved writing but now found myself filling in requisition forms for notebooks and biros and fielding complaints - and frequent threats - from enraged readers who didn't like stories we'd run about them in the paper. No amount of "reframing" or positive thinking could alter the fact that I was out of my depth. Increasingly isolated, I went into a tail-spin of anxiety and depression, cursing Tony Robbins for the irreparable damage he'd done to my life by selling me a pig in a poke. Like Icarus I'd flown too close to the sun and been burned. My brief love affair with NLP had ended in bitter divorce and I was back to square one. By the tail-end of 1998 I was a sinking ship and taking on water faster than the Titanic.

I laboured in a job I hated for three tortuous years before securing the editorship of a smaller paper in 2001 - a position with perhaps less prestige but one which allowed me the freedom and autonomy I needed to slowly but surely get my life back on track. Over the course of the next few years, NLP would keep resurfacing in one form or another. There was some curious part of me - a small voice at the back of my head - that just couldn't let it go entirely. After all, there could be no denying that the techniques I'd learnt from Robbins had worked, even if only for a relatively short period of time. I could still remember what it had felt like during that heady spell in early '98 when I'd been so brimming with confidence - so utterly consumed by self-belief - that I thought I was untouchable. The buzz at the time had been so manic, so affirming, that I wanted to experience that elusive sense of power and purpose again. So periodically I would dust off the Tony Robbins books and dip into them again, only to end up reaching the same conclusions and giving up after hitting a few bumps in the road. It was hugely frustrating - exasperating even. The techniques themselves were sound - I'd demonstrated that they worked, in the short-term at least. But for some reason or other, everything always seemed to end up crashing down around me like a house of cards if I tried to deploy NLP as a long-term life strategy. Something was missing - some vital ingredient that was causing me to fall short each time. If only I could figure out what.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the aftermath of my most seismic psychological breakdown, the details of which have been sufficiently well documented elsewhere that I won't repeat them again here. Around this time I was looking for help in pretty much any shape or form I could get it. I'd discovered the social networking platform Meet-up and through it a series of social groups for those with a shared interest in subjects such as hypnosis and NLP. In the very same week, fate drove me to attend two different Meet-up groups in Edinburgh - a hypnosis one run by Thom Shillaw (which I described in some detail in my last blog Hypnosis - Fact From Fiction) and an NLP group run by Andy MacArthur.

Any apprehension I might have felt about walking into a room full of strangers was swiftly banished by the warmth and authenticity of the welcome I received from the host. Andy was the absolute antithesis of the archetypal loud, brash NLP trainer. There was no Tony Robbins hyperbole or fist-pumping motivational hoo-ha here - just a genuine passion for NLP and a burning desire to use it for the betterment of others. Knowledgeable, humble, generous and enthusiastic, Andy breathed the spirit of authenticity which had been so lacking in my previous dalliances with the subject. I liked and trusted him from the get-go and knew instantly that this was going to be very different from my previous experiences in the field. To put it bluntly, he stripped out the bullshit and made it real. He wasn't offering infinite riches, unicorns and rainbows, but was demonstrating how these tools and techniques could be applied in the real world - a strategy he's successfully marketed as Urban NLP. Andy, who runs his own psychotherapy firm Therapy Edinburgh, has used his considerable skills to help thousands of people to overcome depression, anxiety, addiction, acute stress and loss of confidence; working with everything from professional golfers, footballers and martial artists to business professionals and police forces. In a curious quirk of synchronicity, he even turned out to be a close friend of my hypnosis master Thom Shillaw whose hypnotherapy group I'd also been attending. Both men were highly skilled hypnotherapists and NLP trainers but the pair had ultimately taken different routes in their careers. After spending years modelling Richard Bandler and Milton Erickson, Thom walked away from NLP to develop his own therapeutic systems incorporating aspects of conversational hypnosis, body language and mediumship, while Andy continued to focus on NLP and worked to find new ways of applying its techniques to the everyday world. I've been fortunate enough to learn from them both - two consummate professionals with very different personalities and teaching styles but who've both made incalculable contributions to my own personal development and skills base.

I became a regular at Andy's monthly groups and over the course of the next five years I learned a veritable arsenal of skills with a limitless array of real-world applications. Andy has been trained in John Grinder's New Code system and taught me some remarkable gimmicks such as the Alphabet Game which enables people to access high-performance states by balancing the hemispheres of the brain. Another little gem which achieves the same effect of putting a person "in the zone" is the Croydon Ball Game. These are all techniques I've been able to add to the Phoenix toolkit and have found them hugely powerful and effective as methods of demonstrating the possibilities of rapid changes of state. These games are great for working with kids and also for proving to addicts that altered states of consciousness can be accessed without need to resort to substance use. They're also ideal for enhancing sporting performance and focus.

But where Andy really succeeded in hitting the nail on the head was in underlining where I'd gone so badly wrong with Tony Robbins. Put simply, change work needs to be gradual and it needs to be built on firm foundations. I'd been so intoxicated by Robbins' motivational hyperbole that I'd tried to reach for the stars practically overnight with the inevitable consequence that I missed, crashed and burned. By trying to change too much too soon, and particularly in putting myself forward for a job I wasn't ready for, I'd aimed too high and set myself up to fail. Transformation is a slow and gradual process which needs to be broken down into baby steps in order to ensure that the foundations of your progress are built of solid concrete and able to withstand the fiercest of storms. If your house is built on sand, it will be swept away at the first sign of danger and you'll be left shattered and wondering where it all went wrong. Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Tony Robbins here - far from it. Nor do I blame him for my own misapplication of the principles and techniques outlined in his books. The man is a hugely talented motivator and I would still recommend those books to anyone with a serious interest in NLP and self-improvement, but with the simple caveat that you pace yourself and don't fall into the trap of trying to conquer the world overnight. Lasting change is a process which needs to be undertaken one step at a time, like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly. The field of self-improvement is filled with people who'll try to persuade you otherwise, but don't be fooled. Quick-fixes are the road to self-destruction. Real change is worth working and waiting for.

Used responsibly and with discernment, NLP can be a powerful mechanism for positive transformation. Allowed to run loose it can fuel unbridled egotism, narcissism, hubris, dangerous over-confidence and manipulative traits. Like anything else, NLP itself is neither good nor bad. Its effectiveness is determined by how the user chooses to apply it. Its detractors dismiss it as a "pseudoscience", a "quasi-religion" and even a "New Age cult" but those who knock it outright ignore the very real power it has to produce altered states and behavioural changes. Finding the right trainer is hugely important - someone grounded like Andy MacArthur can help you sift the genuine alchemical gold from the dross and avoid the obvious pitfalls that come with excessively boosting one's confidence. As Andy's fond of reminding people, NLP's original goal was the modelling of human excellence. The schism between Bandler and Grinder caused so many divergent streams and sub-cultures to splinter off from the original NLP model that it can be easy to lose sight of its core modus operandi. But the central technique of modelling the behaviour of experts is a fundamentally sound concept and having used it myself I can attest to the fact that it gets results.

Two NLP techniques I referred to previously, matching and mirroring, are powerful tools which can be deployed in the modelling of excellence. By identifying someone you want to emulate - whether that be a celebrity, a TV character or historical figure - and copying that person's physiology and vocal traits, it is possible to "become" that individual and to take on many of their attributes. It's an effective strategy similar to that used by method actors who inhabit a role they're playing to the extent that they live and breathe the character. But here's the catch. Our choice of who to model has to be - to quote Andy MacArthur - "congruent" with our own morals, values and belief system. In order to avoid the trap of being "fake", it has to be someone we would genuinely want to become. Say, for example, that you want to model yourself on someone powerful and influential in order to try and replicate that person's success. Well, the most powerful man in the world right now is US President Donald Trump, but is he someone you'd really want to model yourself on? Probably not. If you attempted to do so then sooner or later it would all come crashing down because you'd be trying to force yourself to think and act in a way that went against everything you knew to be right. The contradiction between your actions and your values would eat you up inside. So you find someone else - a more positive role model who also wielded great power and influence but in a more positive way than Trump, such as Nelson Mandela perhaps. If the modelling process is congruent with our own core values - and if the person we're modelling is someone who really resonates with us on a deep personal level - then it ceases to be artificial and becomes instead a genuinely transformative experience. That's the difference between being a fake and using modelling to become the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.

The end goal of modelling is not to become someone else but to use the process as a vehicle through which to tap into and unleash your own ultimate self. This is a theme I'll be returning to in future when I come to look in more detail at concepts such as living your myth and identifying with archetypes and heroes - themes which are central to Jungian psychology and also to the work we do here at Phoenix. Having renewed my love affair with NLP, I'm happy to say that I'm now a fully-trained Advanced Master NLP Practitioner and able to incorporate its arsenal of powerful tools and techniques into the comprehensive system of coaching and therapy that we use with clients. At Phoenix we use NLP as part of a much wider skills package, thereby integrating its many benefits into a more comprehensive transformational system, ensuring that the changes achieved are built on firm and sure foundations. Visit our website at or drop us an email at to find out more about how you can unleash the phoenix within.

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