Neuro-linguistic programming, it is claimed, can improve interpersonal skills and performance - at work and at home. Chris Johnston investigates this 'psychology of excellence'
How many times have you heard a friend or colleague claim not to get along with someone because he or she is not on their "wavelength"? How often do we walk away from a conversation thinking: "She was listening but she just didn't hear what I was saying"? In both cases, the problem is clearly one of communication.
This may not be all that significant in a social situation, but professionals - such as teachers - who depend on communication skills cannot afford to ignore such failure, particularly if the quality of their work is suffering.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a set of techniques that aims to help individuals avoid such frustrating situations. It is based on psychological theory that recognises the way we communicate depends on how we interpret the world, and the ways we use language and organise our ideas. And it is very much about action. The starting point is people - how do we do what we do, how do we think and how do highly successful people achieve their success?
NLP originated in the United States in the early 1970s, when Richard Bandler, a psychology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, started working with John Grindler, the assistant professor of linguistics. They "modelled" the verbal and non-verbal communication skills of a small number of renowned communicators and devised a "psychology of excellence". As authors Joseph O'Connor and Ian McDermott put it in Principles of NLP (Thorsons, pound;5.99), NLP "has a vision of a world in which there is no shortage of excellence and where education is about helping everyone to be outstanding".
John and Anna are behaviour support teachers and teacher trainers who move around one local education authority's schools working with students who have behavioural problems. They became interested in the techniques of NLP as a way of helping pupils who failed to respond to other methods. As well as finding them useful with pupils, they have found methods such as "anchoring" useful personally.
Anna says anchoring, which aims to improve performance of any task by having the subject recall a time of great success and satisfaction, and bring the sensations experienced at the time into the present, helps her improve presentations to groups. The anchor may be a physical gesture - as simple as squeezing your arm or joining two fingers together.
Anna holds her hands together and performs gentle breathing exercises for about a minute. "I put myself back in my centre of excellence, which I remember when I was in a very, very successful situation addressing a large number of people, and focus on that."
John's anchor is a visual interpret-ation of when he first gave a successful talk. "It switches me from the state of 'Oh my God' to 'I can do this'. If it makes me feel better, it works," he says.
Depending on your point of view, NLP might sound like some sort of hippy philosophy, or a more sinister brainwashing technique. But it is increasingly finding favour, particularly in business, where the techniques are being applied in a bid to boost sales and help salespeople get along with customers.
NLP has four main principles. The most important of these is rapport, with yourself or with others. The second is setting your goal or outcome - knowing what you want. This allows you to define success and establish your goals. The third principle practitioners call "sensory acuity". O'Connor and McDermott say this means using your senses - "looking at, listening to and feeling what is actually happening to you", or watching for signs of response from people you address. The final principle, they say, is "behavioural flexibility". Working on the idea that the more choices of action you have, the higher your chances of success, this translates as the ability to change what you do until you get what you want.
According to Adrienne Cutner, a psychotherapist and NLP trainer, NLP is a model of good communication and for personal development. A basic principle is "the meaning of your message is the response you get". In other words, NLP regards the communicator as being responsible for the success of the communication. For example, if someone you are talking to starts telling you about their holiday in Spain, interrupting them to say you went there too last year is considered bad NLP practice - unless it helps to establish rapport (Cutner admits there is a fine balance to be made here).
The NLP key to successful communication is "modelling" -finding someone who is proficient at something you would like to do well, and emulating their positive characteristics. NLP advocates believe this can help people improve their interpersonal skills and performance, whether at work or at home. Trainee teachers, for example, could emulate the style of a more experienced colleague. Cutner says the idea is powerful, but any changes you make to your behaviour must reflect your own personality and what you feel comfortable doing. NLP is not designed to make you into someone you are not. The idea, Cutner explains, is to break out of your "comfort zone" and push your boundaries out to do things you may have considered impossible.
A good example of how NLP can improve interpersonal communication comes in a role-playing exercise during a course conducted by Cutner. It illustrates the idea of matching - mirroring aspects of the behaviour of the person you are talking to - which is important in establishing rapport. Such actions as maintaining eye contact and adopting a similar posture during conversation hardly sound revolutionary until, as in the exercise I took part in, my partner did the opposite. Even though it was an exercise, I felt angry and alienated because my partner's body language indicated that I was being ignored.
The other key tenet of NLP, Cutner explains, is "representational systems". The theory holds that we use all of our senses all the time in communication, but that one of the five dominates. Most people, though, are either visual or auditory, with about 20 per cent kinesthetic, or "touchy-feely".
This concept has significant implications for learning in the classroom. A teacher who makes extensive use of aids such as photographs and overhead projection will communicate well with "visual" students, but might alienate the "auditory" members of the class. Because of the dominance of visual communication, Cutner says it can be harder for teachers to reach kinesthetic students. One solution is to use words that describe actions, such as "it feels like" or "hold on". A kinesthetic person herself, she remembers learning to count not from looking at numbers on the blackboard, but by using coloured wooden rods.
The mantras of NLP might sound odd, or even facile - "our behaviour is always trying to achieve something good for us", "modelling successful performance leads to excellence", "the learning is in the doing" - but for anyone seeking a method of personal and professional development, it may be worth considering.
Chris Johnston attended an NLP workshop conducted by Adrienne Cutner at Lancaster University's summer school. To contact her or to obtain information about courses, call the university's department of continuing education on 01524 592 623
FINDING OUT MORE ABOUT NLP
* Attending a training course is the best way to learn about NLP, but there are resources available to let you make a start before committing to a course. For details of courses, contact the NLP Association on 01384 443 935.
* Books about NLP are often found in the business section of bookshops.
* Audiotapes and computer programs are available from International Teaching Seminars on 0181 442 4133.
* The QUIET Associates markets a video called 'An Overview of NLP and its Relevance to the Management of Learning' as part of a four-tape set, which costs pound;145 to schools. It can be ordered on 0114 230 2605.
PICTURES :TONY STONE