Should Life Coaches Learn NLP?

10,000 sad men sat drinking alone in 10,000 sad dive bars aren’t as misunderstood by their wife’s as NLP is.

And I’m not just talking about the public at large, but also by many people in the Life Coaching industry and people who write Wikipedia pages and articles for sites devoted to skepticism. 

I’m going to try and dispel some of the myths in this post, but because it’s such a huge topic it’s impossible for me to cover off everything.

Therefore,  if you have any particular question I haven’t answered, please ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.

What Is Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)

Neurolinguistic programming is an umbrella term coined by Richard Bandler one of the original co-developers (the other was John Grinder) in 1975.

Santa Cruz home of NLPBandler was at the time a Math undergraduate at the University Of California (Santa Cruz) and Grinder was a Linguistic Professor at the same University.

The two hit it off, which on reflection and bearing in mind their very different personalities and the extent of the antipathy that developed toward one another later on, is quite amazing.

They decided to model three of, not just the leading therapists of their day, but the greatest of all time in hypnotherapist and psychotherapist, Milton Erickson, family therapist, Virginia Satir, and the developer of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls.

They were convinced that if they replicated the behavior and actions of the 3 therapists they could get similar results.

They weren’t wrong.

They spent hundreds of hours watching them work and studying how they achieved results that others often couldn’t.

In time they became skilled therapists in their own right with Bandler in particular becoming highly proficient at replicating Erickson’s inimitable style and achieving similar results.

That’s not to diminish Grinders achievements, because he also became a brilliant hypnotherapist in his own right.

Concurrently, Bandler was working on his thesis that was to form the basis for the first book on NLP, ‘The Structure of Magic Vol 1’ (al) which was founded in large part on the work of Virginia Satir, co-authored by Grinder and had input from linguist, Gregory Bateson.

The Meta Model of Language

‘The Structure of Magic Vol 1’ introduced the Meta Model of language to the world.

The Meta Model deals with the specificity of language (deep structure and surface structure – hence the name of the book)  in a therapeutic setting.

I’m not going into the details of how it works because that is beyond the scope of this post.

But in short it removes, or at least minimizes, the chances of the therapist jumping to conclusions by presuming she knows what a client means even if some information is deleted, distorted or generalized.

Intriguingly, even though this was the basis of NLP along with the Milton Model of language which followed shortly after in the form of ‘Patterns of Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H Erickson  Vols 1 & 2‘, (al) based on how Erickson used artfully vague language for trance work – most people who know a little (but not a lot) about NLP think of the rapid intervention work as being at its core.

This maybe due in large part because it’s more flashy and can illicit spectacular results.

I mean lets face it, if you can cure a phobia for somebody in under half an hour (and I have done it many times) that’s going to get peoples interest piqued a lot more than telling them they just committed a meta model violation by saying all Life Coaches are idiots, and you’re now going to spend the next hour unpacking it.

The reality is somewhat different.

Stop Right Now, I’m a Life Coach, Not A Therapist!

Indeed you are, and so am I.

However, the Meta, and to a lesser extent the Milton Model of language, can be highly useful in a coaching setting too.

Even Life Coaches shouldn’t jump to conclusions, so understanding how language works and what it can tell you about how your client is thinking can only be a good thing, right?

Of course, which is why I’d definitely encourage you to read ‘The Structure of Magic Vol 1‘, if you don’t read another single book on NLP.

It’s not super exciting, in fact you may have to glue your ass back on by the end, but it’s well worth sticking with.

Soon others started to take a closer look at NLP and the speed with which it developed started to accelerate.

People like Robert Dilts, David Gordon (a personal hero of mine for his work on metaphors), Judith DeLozier and Steven Gilligan to begin with and then Steve and Connierae Andreas (the latter developed the Core Transformation process with her sister Tamara), Leslie Cameron (who became Mrs Bandler and then ex-Mrs Bandler) and a whole host of others.

Over the following years there was much in-fighting between Grinder and his supporters with Bandler and his, especially when the latter unsuccessfully tried to trademark NLP.

Since then Bandler has also tried and failed to sue Grinder for $1,000,000 and I doubt they will be hugging and making up any time soon, sadly.

Fortunately though, the in-fighting didn’t stop the further development of NLP.

Do I Need NLP To Be A Good Life Coach?

The easy answer to this it so say, no of course you don’t.

I’m sure there are many brilliant coaches practicing who don’t know their NLP from their NFL, but that’s probably not the best questions to ask.

A better question would be, can NLP make me a more effective Life Coach?

And the answer to that is almost certainly, yes.

I say almost certainly, because there is a chance it could make you a worse coach if you half-ass it and don’t take the time to learn the basics.

It can also be detrimental to your credibility if you buy into a lot of the unsubstantiated and sometimes ludicrous claims that some NLPers make.

NLP really cannot cure blindness (this myth materialized from some work Grinder did, but just forget about it), the common cold, and it definitely cannot cure cancer as a surprisingly sad amount of NLP practitioners seem to believe.

I had a woman call me recently who wanted me to help cure her best friend of brain cancer.

And make no mistake, she was not stupid, she was a very intelligent lady.

However, she was desperate, her late husband was heavily into NLP and she’d heard this may be possible.

No doubt some less than scrupulous Practitioners would have taken her money. I gave her my sincere sympathies and suggested she stuck with traditional medicine. 

The problem is that NLP can create an almost Law of Attraction type of blind devotion with some people abandoning all critical thinking.

This is polarizing and harmful, both to people using it responsibly and understanding its limitations, as they can get lumped together with the evangelicals who think they have found the meaning of life.

And also for the clients of inexperienced, unethical or plain gullible Practitioners who may spend good money looking for a solution to their problem that doesn’t exist – at least not in NLP.

The reason I get frustrated by people and websites that say NLP is quackery is because there is no ‘thing’ called NLP.

As such it’s easy to focus on the idiots making crazy claims and the snake-oil salesmen selling false hope whilst ignoring the silent majority of  psychotherapists and coaches using it on a daily basis to great success.

As I said at the beginning, it’s an umbrella term.

Even the people who developed NLP and those who have followed with its development cannot agree on a common definition, although ‘the study of subjective experience‘ (whatever that really means) is probably as close as you’re going to get.

The best way to look at NLP is at the component parts and decide on an individual basis whether they can add value to you as a Life Coach.

There are elements like the Meta Model where there’s not really any doubt as to the benefit it can add to any coach prepared to learn it.

Then there are parts like ‘eye accessing cues’ that have zero basis in science and are so hit and miss that they are best avoided.

NLP: Science or Magic?

I wrote a post a couple of years ago called NLP: Science or Magic at A Daring Adventure.

I took a look at some of the more popular patterns of NLP and whether they had any basis in science, or were more smoke and mirrors.

For the sake of brevity and to avoid me writing it out again I’m going to replicate the relevant parts with a few additional notes and minus the terrible language!

Anchoring – Science

You can see me demo anchoring here if you like and it has been scientifically proven to work.

The whole Pavlov’s Dog experiment was a process of anchoring. Or as neuroscientists call it, setting a conditioned reflex or response.

Anchoring occurs when you do two unrelated things simultaneously enough times to cause the independent neurons to physically wire themselves together (if you want more on that, check out the brilliant The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge – al)

Neuroscientists use an expression for this and it’s, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”

The issue with anchoring is that some trainers don’t seem to even know what it is.

I have seen NLP instructors claim to anchor a state with a few gentle touches of a subjects shoulder during a training program.

Quite bluntly that’s bullshit. You cannot set a positive anchor that quickly.

What they’re doing is using suggestion techniques the same way as a hypnotherapist or stage magician may do so.

Anchoring works.

But unless it’s a very traumatic event, it will probably take you many attempts to set an anchor intentionally because you’re trying to rewire your brain.

And an anchor set using suggestion with a willing volunteer on stage is not really an anchor and will probably have evaporated before the person leaves the room.

Eye Accessing Cues – Magic 

I think even magic is pushing it with this one, because as I said above, it’s completely devoid of any scientific support worthy of the name.

A brief explanation of the theory: 

When you’re talking your eyes will naturally move in certain directions depending on what it is you’re talking/thinking about.

If you’re thinking about future plans and visualizing them in your mind, then the belief is your eyes will move up and to the right – this is called a visual construct – as in your are constructing the future.

Thinking about the past visually would be up to your left (i.e. looking backwards into the past) as a visual reconstruct.

If you’re an auditory thinker i.e. with sound rather than images, then the eyes would be level and to the same sides as above in both instances.

Bottom right means you are constructing a feeling, and bottom left means you are thinking in auditory digital or the written form to you and me.

Imagine if this worked all the time, how easy life would be!

The Police would have no problem telling if somebody was lying and neither would you.

The sad fact is that trained body language experts often get this wrong and they are taking into account a lot more than eye movement.

Not only that, but there is an increasing body of research that casts doubt as to whether learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) even exist.

Sorry Bandler fans that adhere to this belief, but it’s a myth of Unicorn proportions and one that even Bandler concurs with.

Reframing – Science

Reframing or as it’s also known in therapy and CBT, reappraisal or cognitive restructuring, is possibly the single most important coaching skill any Life Coach can learn.

5 years ago I couldn’t have told you why it works, but if you get my favorite self development book of all time ‘Your Brain At Work’, (al) David Rock does a brilliant job of explaining what is actually happening in your brain when you use reframing.

Here’s the thing though.

NLP may have made the reframing name popular, but it has been around since the dawn of time.

Ben Franklins quote “I haven’t failed 10.000 times, I’ve found 10,000 ways that didn’t work” was an awesome reframe long before Bandler and Grinder were on the scene.

NLP also looks at preframing, deframing and (to a lesser extent) contextual reframing, which can all be useful when coaching which is why I teach them, but none were invented by NLP.

Six Step Reframe – Magic

This is a John Grinder developed strategy not to be confused with the reframing mentioned above, which is used to help people change habits.

I used to employ it sometimes in my early days, but don’t any more because I’ve found methods I prefer and it’s a tad too woo-woo for me.

It involves putting the client into a trance and communicating with their unconscious mind so that the positive intent behind the negative behavior can be established.

When the positive intent has been established e.g. smoking to relieve stress, then the practitioner can call on the creative part of the unconscious to look for alternate ways of relieving stress.

Then there is a process of evaluation to decide which idea (presuming there is more than one) is best and whether there is any internal dissonance.

If not, then the new behavior is implemented.

I have seen this work,  and I have also seen it fail, and that’s what leads me to believe it’s merely suggestion.

In some respects it doesn’t matter if the result is the desired one, but I highly doubt this technique would work with somebody who is skeptical to begin with.

Fast Phobia Cure – Magic

Now this is brilliant magic because even though I have never seen any research done it on it (if you have please let me know) I have seen it work literally dozens of times and I have used it with clients and helped them remove, or seriously reduce phobias they have had for years.

My first exposure to it was over a decade ago when a psychotherapist used it on my sister to cure a phobia of snakes that was so severe she couldn’t even say the word!

I don’t teach this because on Coach the Life Coach because it really should be done in person because of the risk of causing a panic attack if you push things too far.

The risk is tiny if you know what you’re doing and set things up properly (it’s never happened to me), but that risk is real for somebody playing about with it who doesn’t have any practical supervised experience.

Language Patterns – Science (mostly)

I have already explained why the Meta Model is useful and whereas it looks for specificity and really drills down to the deep structure of language which is useful in a therapeutic environment, the Milton Model does the opposite.

That’s why good politicians can make a speech that never really says anything, but everybody agrees with. It’s also what cold readers (clairvoyants) and horoscope writers use to help make them appear plausible.

Oh and Esther Hicks uses the Milton Model when she is ‘channeling’ Abraham, but come on, you’re bright enough to realize that and she’s a bs artist.

The Swish Pattern – Magic

A bit like the Fast Phobia cure, I have seen this work lots of times, but I have absolutely no idea why.

It’s another technique for removing bad behaviors and I use an adapted version of it with clients to good effect every so often.

But What About Tony Robbins And His Amazing Fire Walk???

I like Tony Robbins, I really do.

I think the guy genuinely wants to help people, he’s not the snake-oil salesman some people seem to believe and he’s a very competent NLP Practitioner.

He’s not at the level of Richard Bandler, John Grinder,  Andy Austin, Steve Andreas or even the awesome Derren Brown in my opinion, but he’s very good.

Awaken The Giant Within‘ (al) was the first book I read that I actually knew was about self development and it’s a great book!

But, and you knew there was a but, right?

None (that I can remember) of the material is original.

At the time, the rights to the NLP trademark (which were never granted as it was decided too much of it was already in the public domain) were undecided.

So Robbins talks about N.A.C. (Neuro Associative Conditioning) presumably to avoid any future litigation, as though he developed it himself.

He ate Bandler and Grinders lunch for them as they bickered with each other over who owned what.

He knew marketing and how to hustle – they didn’t, so good for him!

As for his fire walk, well forgive me if I sigh.

The only way you will ever get burned doing a fire walk is if you either walk too slowly, a hot cole flips up and gets stuck between your toes or you decide to lie down and have a nap.

It’s not about the power of belief as some poor soul (pun intended!) tried to tell me on my blog recently, it’s about science.

The skin on your feet is very thick and very resistant to heat, so if you keep moving you won’t burn.

Sorry if I shattered any illusions.

Hardly A Ringing Endorsement of NLP

yin and yangAs human beings we love to deal with binary information.

Our brain is much happier when deciding if things are black or white, up or down, good or bad, right or wrong.

It’s less happy when asked if things may have elements of black and white, up and down, good and bad, right and wrong because that just confuses it.

But like the Chinese yin and yang symbol with the good, the bad, the good inside the bad and the bad inside the good, life isn’t like that.

NLP isn’t, as some claim, quackery because it’s way to broad in its scope.

But neither is it the cure to all mans ills as others seem to think.

The success of some of the more esoteric patterns may be as much down to the confidence of the practitioner which in turn transfers to the client and leads to a placebo effect.

However, placebos can be incredibly powerful with recent research showing they can even be effective when the person knows they are being administered a placebo.

I know for a fact I have helped many people remove fears and phobias.

I have had clients happily get on planes after years of being terrified by them.

I’ve had others drive over bridges for the first time and yet others lose their fears of everything from needles to snakes and their boss.

How did it happen?

I’m honestly not sure, but I do know I was using NLP at the time so I think it’s silly to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I have no doubt whatsoever that NLP has made me a much better coach and a more adaptable one too, and I’m pretty sure it could do the same for you.

However, there are some caveats.

Proceed With Caution

If you want to learn some of the intervention patterns, such as the Fast Phobia Cure or the Swish Pattern, you cannot do it from a book.

At the very least you need to be able to see the person teaching you.

On the Coach The Life Coach course I only teach 3 patterns and I encourage coaches to practice the crap out of them with their coaching buddy before using them on clients.

My NLP training consisted of a 15 day practitioner course, two 10 day Master Practitioner courses, a 2 day Core Transformation course, a 2 day Time Line Therapy course and a 10 day hypnotherapy course (there are a lot of cross overs between hypnosis and NLP) and reading a lot of books.

That’s 45 days before the book reading in case you were struggling with the math.

Even so there are vast swathes of NLP that I avoid and would never use with clients.

In some cases that’s simply because I’m out of practice, but in many it’s because I have no confidence in those particular patterns.

John Grinder is disappointed in the move to shorter and shorter training because he believes you cannot really learn this stuff in a few days.

And who am I to argue with one of the men that founded it?

Even Bandlers NLP Practitioner course is 8 days, although having trained with his company, it’s not an 8 days I would necessarily recommend other than to watch Bandler himself work a room.

I was fortunate to be on the Master Practitioner course with only 9 other people, but there were 60 doing the Practitioner course and it was like a cattle market.

In other words, don’t sign up for a 2 day diploma thinking you will come away ‘knowing’ NLP’, and more than you should spend 2 days learning Life Coaching and presume you’re a great coach.

If you’re going to do some training, research the crap out of the company you’re planning to use because a bit like Life Coaching, anybody can claim to be an NLP instructor and take your money off you with no guarantees.

Then if you think they know their shit – go for it! I feel sure you will enjoy it because I’ can’t ever remember meeting anybody who didn’t, and you will almost certainly be a better coach by the end.

Now ask away in the comments if you have any questions.

And thanks for sticking with a long post.

Image 1 ‘Sizzler’ Courtesy of Clint

Image 2 ‘University of California, Santa Cruz’ Courtesy of Wayne Hsieh

Image 3 ‘Tao_Yin_yang’ Cortesy of William Cromar


  1. Nicola

    I have about 40 days “NLP” training, although only about 4 of those would be recognised as ‘traditional” NLP. The group I worked most with was working with David Grove, in the couple of years before he died. It was a wild ride and we all wish someone had written more of it down. A lot of what he and we were working to elicit became “clean language”.

    I moved away from NLP as I didn’t like things like swish, which appeared to be discounting the value of someone’s experience and removing access to that information. It seemed to me you could never know the full purpose of a belief or behaviour and to extinguish it could do unforeseen harm. I liked clean language as it further removed the coach from the clients process. You quickly get to a point where you don’t even need to understand what they are talking about to facilitate their process, which is always fun :-). I prefer to keep as far out of the clients stuff and contaminate it with my language as little as possible.

    I also did a fair bit of working with metaphors with people like James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. Metaphors are so much fun to work with and become so much more about the client exploring their own stuff rather than me trying to transform them in some way. Seems much more respectful of the clients process to me.

    I don’t currently coach because I don’t feel I know enough to do so. It frightens the crap out of me when people do a couple of days on a course then launch straight into burrowing about in people’s stuff.

    • Tim Brownson

      I agree Nicola that some people dive in too soon without understanding the basics.

      But I also think some people wait too long and feel the need to be perfect.

      What we do is a practice and we never become perfect.

      My guess from what you’ve said is you’re perfectly fine to coach, but then again what do I know?

  2. Hi Tim

    You wanted yo know if any research had been done on the Fast phobia cure. I found this at

    “Until recently there has been little research into the rewind technique (also known as the fast phobia cure). However a new study of four years’ use of this phobia treatment technique at the Nova Trauma Support Services (part of the Barnardo’s charity) has shown remarkable results. The Nova team provide therapeutic support to individuals and families who have been psychologically traumatised, primarily as a result of their experiences in Northern Ireland.
    The team worked with forty seven people, 57% of whom were treated with only the Rewind Phobia treatment Technique. Twenty six would have met the criteria for PTSD. The results show that after treatment none of the forty seven people treated met the criteria for PTSD. There was also a significant reduction of all sub symptoms associated with PTSD, five categories had zero reports after this phobia treatment.
    Martin Murphy, lead clinician in the study, said ‘….the case notes repeatedly identified not only relief from symptoms but also the emergence of qualitative positive changes in the individual’s daily lives.’ He suggests that it is effective in children as young as 8 and adults at least to the age of seventy; and that the rewind phobia treatment technique is effective for both single and multiply traumatized individuals. (Human Given journal Volume 14, No 4- 2007)”