NLP begins...

“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. [..] Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, ravelling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began…”

Terry Pratchett: Hogfather 1996 Gollanz

The Wild Days

Ever since I started studying the subject of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) way back in 1991 the origins of its development were shrouded in mystery, confusion and some suspense. There was the book “The Structure of Magic” but that was NLP , it wasn’t about NLP. This is odd because so many people in NLP would tell me, quite correctly, that stories and narrative are vital to understanding and teaching any subject. Curiously, the models for NLP; Fritz Perls, Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir & Gregory Bateson delighted in spinning stories, although now that I think about it they were never the actual focus of the action or thread of their stories.

Some stories are detailed and finely tuned to the content of the issues; the creation of how we measure longitude or of the discovery of the structure of DNA or how our legal system and Parliament developed. Other stories are more vague and expansive “In the beginning was the word…..” or “Once upon a time……” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…..” As the son of an engineer I was exposed to the stories, and fantasies, that scientists tell each other; how this works, what makes that go, what would happen if?, do this and see how it works for you. When these work well they are rich in detail and intense in passion. However, until now the story of how NLP was created has been a bit like looking into a broken mirror – with many of the pieces missing.

So I welcome the publication of the new book “The origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming”. Far from being ‘A Complete History’ – the book provides several voices new to me about those clearly heady and passionate days in the early 1970s. Having read it I went back to Terrence McClendon’s book “The Wild Days NLP 1972 – 1981” with a new perspective. Published in 1989 and with a brief introduction by Richard Bandler it’s an impressionistic and thoughtful, both visual and kinaesthetic, journey – it actually has pictures, not photographs or diagrams but drawings.

There is nothing really technical or detailed (small chunk) about what was actually happening, the building blocks, or why and yet it gives the temperature almost the smell of the action. More than any other book so far it induced for me a delightful trance state.

When a Soviet Cosmonaut saw the film 2001: A Space Odyssey he said that he felt like he had been in space again and in some respects, and although I’ve experienced only modern California, having read this book I feel like I’ve visited the California of the 1970s, however briefly.

Whispering in the Wind is in a different category. Published in 2001 it is John Grinder’s almost begrudging contribution to the history and it follows on from the settlement between Bandler and Grinder about who “owns” NLP and how they will behave to each other in public about their work on NLP. The agreement is published as an appendix.

There is much in this book to commend it and it needs to be read by every NLP practitioner and NLP trainer. But, my heavens they make you work for it and at £35 a copy (much, much more at Amazon) its circulation may be restricted. It’s a self-published book which in itself is no bad thing and, like most if not the majority of NLP books, there is no index. What the benefit is in leaving out an index is anyone’s guess but it infuriates me as I can’t navigate the book as I would like. Also it’s laid out in MSWord style, by which I mean the typeface and layout appear to have been a second or third consideration so it looks like it’s come off the screen and onto the page with no intermediate thought, or care.

Getting over all this and the “bolt on” trance inductions and there is a treasure trove of ideas, concepts and one or two illuminating stories:

On page 120 and beyond some personal reflections on Grinder’s family life and experiences

  • On page 120 and beyond some personal reflections on Grinder’s family life and experiences

  • On page 149 we get some of the actual modelling conclusions that came from Perls and Satir; the challenges to deleted nouns, verbs, universal quantifiers and mind reading

  • On page 164 we are given a narrative about how some of the groups were run by Bandler and Grinder

  • On page 173 and beyond a narrative of how Bandler and Grinder paced and lead Milton Erickson

..and lots, lots more detail on linguistics, some philosophy and politics and pages of footnotes with yet more detail. I have the distinct sensation on reading this book, ploughing through it really, that it could use a good editor. The language is dense and many of the explanations I needed to read again and again to begin to understand them. I wonder if what we have here are lecture notes rather than a written exposition. Every time I delve in to it I feel as if I should be getting a grade for my attention.

And in some respects that is what we get in “The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming”. Published in 2013 we get a more rounded narrative and included is a kind of Rosalind Franklin character in the name of Frank Pucelik. Pucelik contributed much in the early days with Bandler and Grinder whose name has been forgotten until here where his story is reclaimed. All the stories are rounded, yes and with a very illuminating commentary from John Grinder, but with the continuing absence of the voice of Richard Bandler.

Gone are all the linguistic definitions and lecture notes from Whispering in the Wind (which is a shame as they deserve a clearer outing somewhere) and instead we have eight new voices with Grinder commenting on most contributions. Grinder seems most happy when he agrees with comments which he is happy to develop and really uncomfortable to the point of silence when he doesn’t. See the ‘Note’ on page 171 where Grinder states there are “serious and profound differences” between his recollection and that of Dilts’ contribution such that Dilts adds is own ‘Note’ to Grinders’.

Where Grinder does comment we get some interesting thoughts on some NLP basics, although he seems to assume that everyone has his extensive knowledge and grasp of linguistics such as his “puzzlement” at the inclusion of the TOTE model as described by Eicher (p140). He chides the use of the term ‘subjective experience’ “what the hell other kind of experience is there !” and underscores the requirement for context and relationship when considering representational systems (p214) and lots more besides.

Other than that we have a variety of practical experiences during and since the development days. Sadly it seems that no one kept full diaries during this time as they had no idea that what they were doing would have the powerful impact that it has. Were they to have been formal ‘scientists’ then they would have kept detailed notes of their work so that the process could be followed and replicated elsewhere at some time in the future. Such is often the way when one is steeped in work that is both as personal as it was for those involved and so exciting as to be considered ‘a life’ rather than just ‘a job’.

I was not surprised that this book came, again, without an index. Then reading the contents page I read ‘Index 285’ when I get there it’s blank – literally.

I wrote to Crown House: “Is this an error or just the editors being ‘playful’?”

Crown House replied: “There was an error on contents page I’m afraid. An index will be added to the next printing but, as it was so late, we didn’t want to delay production further by indexing the first print run.”

I have asked for a PDF version which they promise to send me.

This book is a great read, full of engaging narratives that whether you were there or not – and I certainly wasn’t (too young you see) – what emerges is the energy, excitement and mystery of people guessing but not really not knowing that they were leading from the front. I closed the book with a sensation that here were honest people in a worthy engagement doing their best. I salute their willingness to begin to disclose to us details about their decisions and actions that help me understand what lies within the material of NLP.

In his book and television programme The Ascent of Man (BBC 1973) Jacob Bronowski (1908 – 1974) talks about John Dalton (1776 – 1844) and how every day for 57 years Dalton measured the rainfall and temperature in Manchester, UK. Apparently nothing came of all that data. However, in other work Dalton began to question the properties of the weights of elements that make up compounds and why they were always the same.

Bronowski concludes:-

“Out of that came modern atomic theory. That is the essence of science:

ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to the pertinent answer.”

That’s what Bandler, Grinder, Pucelik and everyone else did to create NLP – by the willingness to ask of clients unexpected, bold and impertinent questions the directions, methods and structures that lead to the pertinent answers was built and continues to be built. This book is another step that recognises those who took that road, who lead us and whom someday someone, somewhere will overtake.

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