Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a method for controlling people’s minds that was invented by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s, became popular in the psychoanalytic, occult and New Age worlds in the 1980s, and advertising, marketing and politics in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s become so interwoven with how people are communicated to and marketed at that its use is largely invisible.
It’s also somewhat of a pernicious, devilish force in the world — nearly everybody in the business of influencing people has studied at least some of its techniques. Masters of it are notorious for having a Rasputin-like ability to trick people in incredible ways — most of all themselves.
After explaining a bit about what NLP is and where it came from, I’m going to break down 10 ways to inoculate yourself against its use. You’ll likely be spotting it left, right and center in the media with a few tips on what to look for. Full disclosure: During my 20s, I spent years studying New Age, magical and religious systems for changing consciousness.
One of them was NLP. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum: I’ve had people ruthlessly use NLP to attempt to control me, and I’ve also trained in it and even used it in the advertising world. Despite early fascination, by 2008 or so I had largely come to the conclusion that it’s next to useless — a way of manipulating language that greatly overestimates its own effectiveness as a discipline, really doesn’t achieve much in the way of any kind of lasting change, and contains no real core of respect for people or even true understanding of how people work.
After throwing it to the wayside, however, I became convinced that understanding NLP is crucial simply so that people can resist its use. It’s kind of like the whole PUA thing that was popular in the mid-00s — a group of a few techniques that worked for a few unscrupulous people until the public figured out what was going on and rejected it, like the body identifying and rejecting foreign material.
What is NLP, and where did it come from?
“Neuro-linguistic programming” is a marketing term for a “science” that two Californians—Richard Bandler and John Grinder—came up with in the 1970s. Bandler was a student at UC Santa Cruz, then a mecca for psychedelics, hippies and radical thinking (now a mecca for Silicon Valley hopefuls). Grinder was at the time an associate professor in linguistics at the university (he had previously served as a Captain in the US Special Forces and in the intelligence community, ahem not that this, you know, is important… aheh…). Together, they worked at modeling the techniques of Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), family therapist Virginia Satir and, most importantly, the preternaturally gifted hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Bandler and Grinder sought to reject much of what they saw as the ineffectiveness of talk therapy and cut straight to the heart of what techniques actually worked to produce behavioral change. Inspired by the computer revolution—Bandler was a computer science major—they also sought to develop a psychological programming language for human beings.
What they came up with was a kind of evolution of hypnotherapy—while classical hypnosis depends on techniques for putting patients into suggestive trances (even to the point of losing consciousness on command), NLP is much less heavy-handed: it’s a technique of layering subtle meaning into spoken or written language so that you can implant suggestions into a person’s unconscious mind without them knowing what you’re doing.
Though mainstream therapists rejected NLP as pseudoscientific, it nonetheless caught on. It was still the 1970s, and the Human Potential Movement was in full swing — and NLP was the new darling. Immediately building a publishing, speaking and training empire, by 1980 Bandler had made over $800,000 from his creation—he was even being called on to train corporate leaders, the army and the CIA. Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins used NLP techniques to become millionaires in the 1980s (Robbins now has an estimated net worth of $480 million). By the middle of the decade, NLP was such big business that lawsuits and wars had erupted over who had the rights to teach it, or even to use the term “NLP.”
But by that time, Bandler had bigger problems than copyright disputes: he was on trial for the alleged murder of prostitute Corine Christensen in November 1986. The prosecution claimed that Bandler had shot Christensen, 34, point-blank in the face with a .357 Magnum in a drug deal gone bad. According to the press at the time, Bandler had discovered an even better way to get people to like him than NLP—cocaine—and become embroiled in a far darker game, even, than mind control. A much-recommended investigation into the case published by Mother Jones in 1989 opens with these chilling lines:
In the morning Corine Christensen last snorted cocaine, she found herself, straw in hand, looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum revolver. When the gun exploded, momentarily piercing the autumn stillness, it sent a single bullet on a diagonal path through her left nostril and into her brain.
Christensen slumped over her round oak dining table, bleeding onto its glass top, a loose-leaf notebook, and a slip of yellow memo paper on which she had scrawled, in red ink, DON’T KILL US ALL. Choking, she spit blood onto a wine goblet, a tequila bottle, and the shirt of the man who would be accused of her murder, then slid sideways off the chair and fell on her back. Within minutes she lay still.
As Christensen lay dying, two men left her rented town house in a working-class section of Santa Cruz, California. One was her former boyfriend, James Marino, an admitted cocaine dealer and convicted burglar. The other, Richard Bandler, was known internationally as the cofounder of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a controversial approach to psychology and communication. About 12 hours later, on the evening of November 3, 1986, Richard Bandler was arrested and charged with the murder.
Bandler’s defense was, simply, that Marino had killed Christensen, not him. Many at the time alleged he used NLP techniques on the stand to escape conviction. Yet Bandler was also alleged to actually use a gun in NLP sessions in order to produce dramatic psychological changes in clients — a technique that was later mirrored by Hollywood in the movie Fight Club, in which Brad Pitt’s character pulls a gun on a gas station attendant and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t pursue his dreams in life. That was, many said, Bandler’s MO.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Bandler was indeed let off, and the story was quickly buried — I’ve never spoken to a student of NLP who’s ever heard of the murder case, I’ll note, and I’ve spoken to a lot. The case hardly impeded the growing popularity of NLP, however, which was now big business, working its way not only into the toolkit of psychotherapists but also into nearly every corner of the political and advertising worlds, having grown far beyond the single personage of Richard Bandler, though he continued (and continues) to command outrageous prices for NLP trainings throughout the world.
Today, the techniques of NLP and Ericksonian-style hypnotic writing can be readily seen in the world of Internet marketing, online get-rich-quick schemes and scams. Their most prominent public usage has likely been by Barack Obama, whose 2008 “Change” campaign was a masterpiece of Ericksonian permissive hypnosis. The celebrity hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown also demonstrates NLP techniques in his routine.
How exactly does this thing work?
NLP is taught in a pyramid structure, with the more advanced techniques reserved for multi-thousand-dollar seminars. To oversimplify an overcomplicated subject, it more or less works like this: first, the user (or “NLPer,” as NLP people often refer to themselves—and I should note here that the large majority of NLP people, especially those who are primarily therapists, are likely well-meaning) of NLP pays very, very close attention to the person they’re working with. By watching subtle cues like eye movement, skin flush, pupil dilation and nervous tics, a skilled NLP person can quickly determine:
What side of the brain a person is predominantly using;
What sense (sight, smell, etc.) is most predominant in their brain;
How their brain stores and utilizes information (ALL of this can be gleaned from eye movements);
When they’re lying or making information up.
After this initial round of information gathering, the “NLPer” begins to slowly and subtly mimic the client, taking on not only their body language but also their speech mannerisms, and will begin speaking with language patterns designed to target the client’s primary sense.
An NLP person essentially carefully fakes the social cues that cause a person to drop their guard and enter a state of openness and suggestibility.
For instance, a person predominantly focused on sight will be spoken to in language using visual metaphors—”Do you see what I’m saying?” “Look at it this way”—while a person for which hearing is the dominant sense will be spoken to in auditory language — ”Hear me out”, “I’m listening to you closely”.
By mirroring body language and linguistic patterns, the NLPer is attempting to achieve one very specific response: rapport. Rapport is the mental and physiological state that a human enters when they let their social guard down, and it is generally achieved when a person comes to the conclusion that the person they’re talking to is just like them. See how that works, broadly? An NLP person essentially carefully fakes the social cues that cause a person to drop their guard and enter a state of openness and suggestibility.
Once rapport is achieved, the NLPer will then begin subtly leading the interaction. Having mirrored the other person, they can now make subtle changes to actually influence the other person’s behavior. Combined with subtle language patterns, leading questions and a whole slew of other techniques, a skilled NLPer can at this point steer the other person wherever they like, as long as the other person isn’t aware of what’s happening and thinks everything is arising organically, or has given consent. That means it’s actually fairly hard to use NLP to get people to act out-of-character, but it can be used for engineering responses within a person’s normal range of behavior — like donating to a cause, making a decision they were putting off, or going home with you for the night if they might have considered it anyway.
From this point, the NLPer will seek to do two things — elicit and anchor. Eliciting happens when an NLPer uses leading and language to engineer an emotional state — for instance, hunger. Once a state has been elicited, the NLPer can then anchor it with a physical cue — for instance, touching your shoulder. In theory, if done right, the NLPer can then call up the hungry state any time they touch your shoulder in the same way. It’s conditioning, plain and simple.
How can I make sure nobody pulls this horseshit on me?
I’ve had all kinds of people attempt to “NLP” me into submission, including multiple people I’ve worked for over extended periods of time, and even people I’ve been in relationships with. Consequently, I’ve developed a pretty keen immune response to it. I’ve also studied its mechanics very closely, largely to resist the nonsense of said people. Here’s a few key methods I’ve picked up.
1. Be extremely wary of people copying your body language
If you’re talking to somebody who may be into NLP, and you notice that they’re sitting in exactly the same way as you, or mirroring the way you have your hands, test them by making a few movements and seeing if they do the same thing. Skilled NLPers will be better at masking this than newer ones, but newer ones will always immediately copy the same movement. This is a good time to call people out.
2. Move your eyes in random and unpredictable patterns
This is freaking hilarious to do to troll NLPers. Especially in the initial stages of rapport induction, an NLP user will be paying incredibly close attention to your eyes. You may think it’s because they’re intensely interested in what you’re saying. They are, but not because they actually care about your thoughts: They’re watching your eye movements to see how you store and access information. In a few minutes, they’ll not only be able to tell when you’re lying or making something up, they’ll also be able to figure out what parts of your brain you’re using when you’re speaking, which can then lead them to be so clued in to what you’re thinking that they almost come across as having some kind of psychic insight into your innermost thoughts. A clever hack for this is just to randomly dart your eyes around — look up to the right, to the left, side to side, down… make it seem natural, but do it randomly and with no pattern. This will drive an NLP person utterly nuts because you’ll be throwing off their calibration.
3. Do not let anybody touch you
This is pretty obvious and kind of goes without saying in general. But let’s say you’re having a conversation with somebody you know is into NLP, and you find yourself in a heightened emotional state — maybe you start laughing really hard, or get really angry, or something similar — and the person you’re talking to touches you while you’re in that state. They might, for instance, tap you on the shoulder. What just happened? They anchored you so that later, if they want to put you back into the state you were just in, they can (or so the wayward logic of NLP dictates) touch you in the same place.
4. Be wary of vague language
One of the primary techniques that NLP took from Milton Erickson is the use of vague language to induce hypnotic trance. Erickson found that the more vague language is, the more it leads people into trance, because there is less that a person is liable to disagree with or react to. Alternately, more specific language will take a person out of trance. (Note Obama’s use of this specific technique in the “Change” campaign, a word so vague that anybody could read anything into it.)
5. Be wary of permissive language
“Feel free to relax”. “You’re welcome to test drive this car if you like”. “You can enjoy this as much as you like”. Watch out for this. This was a major insight of pre-NLP hypnotists like Erickson: the best way to get somebody to do something, including going into a trance, is by allowing them to give you permission to do so. Because of this, skilled hypnotists will NEVER command you outright to do something — i.e. “Go into a trance”. They WILL say things like “Feel free to become as relaxed as you like”.
6. Be wary of gibberish
Nonsense phrases like “As you release this feeling more and more you will find yourself moving into present alignment with the sound of your success more and more”. This kind of gibberish is the bread and butter of the pacing-and-leading phase of NLP; the hypnotist isn’t actually saying anything, they’re just trying to program your internal emotional states and move you towards where they want you to go. ALWAYS say “Can you be more specific about that” or “Can you explain exactly what you mean?” This does two things: it interrupts this whole technique, and it also forces the conversation into specific language, breaking the trance-inducing use of vague language we discussed in #4.
7. Read between the lines
NLP people will consistently use language with hidden or layered meanings. For instance “Diet, nutrition and sleep with me are the most important things, don’t you think?” On the surface, if you heard this sentence quickly, it would seem like an obvious statement that you would probably agree with without much thought. Yes, of course diet, nutrition and sleep are important things, sure, and this person’s really into being healthy, that’s great. But what’s the layered-in message? “Diet, nutrition and sleep with me are the most important things, don’t you think?” Yep, and you just unconsciously agreed to it. Skilled NLPers can be incredibly subtle with this.
8. Watch your attention
Be very careful about zoning out around NLP people — it’s an invitation to leap in with an unconscious cue. Here’s an example: An NLP user who was attempting to get me to write for his blog for free noticed I appeared not to be paying attention and was looking into the distance, and then started using the technique listed in #7 by talking about how he never has to pay for anything because media outlets send him review copies of books and albums for free. “Everything for free”, he began hissing at me. “I get everything. For. Free”. Obvious, no?
9. Don’t agree to anything
If you find yourself being led to make a quick decision on something, and feel you’re being steered, leave the situation. Wait 24 hours before making any decisions, especially financial ones. Do NOT let yourself get swept up into making an emotional decision in the spur of the moment. Sales people are armed with NLP techniques specifically for engineering impulse buys. Don’t do it. Leave, and use your rational mind.
10. Trust your intuition
And the foremost and primary rule: If your gut tells you somebody is messing with you, or you feel uneasy around them, trust it. NLP people almost always seem “off”, dodgy, or like used car salesmen. Flee, or request they show you the respect of not applying NLP techniques when interacting with you.
Hopefully this short guide will be of assistance to you in resisting this annoying and pernicious modern form of black magic. Take it with you on your phone or a printout next time you’re at a used car sales lot, getting signed up for a gym membership, or watching a politician speak on TV. You’ll easily find yourself surprised how you allow yourself to notice more and more NLP techniques… more and more… don’t you think?
For more on NLP, check out the book Introducing NLP by Joseph O’Connor or the immensely useful Neuro-Linguistic Programming for Dummies.
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