What's the evidence for... neuro-linguistic programming?

,

I'm not an NLP expert but use some NLP approaches amongst others in my coaching practice. There might not be strong scientific evidence for it as a technique/skill but it's worked with clients of ...


Read More Helen
Add a comment

Sometimes HR professionals need to ask themselves why they use a particular process. Rob Briner examines the evidence behind NLP

Here’s a question. What’s your first thought when you see the term neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)? Is it ‘I am an NLP master practitioner/did some NLP training and think it’s great’? Or perhaps it’s ‘I went on an NLP course once/have read about it and it seems to be a cult based on pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo’? Or even ‘I’ve heard of it but not too sure what it is – is it like neuroscience and should I take a course’?

Whatever you think about NLP, you may be wondering what it’s got to do with HR. It’s certainly not a core HR practice, but it does raise some key issues around what it means to be an evidence-based HR practitioner and the importance of scrutinising evidence for claims.

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

The aim of NLP is not to fix any particular problem but, it seems, every problem. Which is itself a problem because magic wands are found only in fairy tales. NLP practitioners as a whole make a wide range of very strong claims for the impact of NLP interventions; not only on things like performance, relationships, wellbeing, and communication, but also in curing medical conditions such as phobias (in an hour), OCD, dyslexia, depression and cancer. Many individual practitioners make more limited claims for NLP, but they are clear and strong claims nonetheless.

What is it?

This is where it gets really tricky. NLP is often described as a ragbag of techniques, some similar to those used in counselling and psychotherapy – including modelling, reframing, and imagining and reacting to the future. Practitioners themselves do not have shared views about what NLP is and what NLP is not, and there is no single accreditation or certification body.

Does it work?

I was recently involved in a debate with a leading NLP trainer. My preparation included a search of the scientific literature, an appeal for good evidence to NLP practitioners on Twitter and LinkedIn, and a discussion with the only academics (two) who have talked about NLP in a business context. So what was I looking for and what did I find?

To spread the net as widely as possible, I searched for good quality evidence about any technique described as NLP used to achieve any outcome. But what counts as good quality evidence?

All NLP practitioners claim that the techniques they use produce tangible and important outcomes. So, given such claims, what constitutes good quality evidence is quite straightforward. It is findings from studies that measure the outcome before and after the NLP intervention and compares this group with a control group and/or some other intervention. This is precisely what you’d do to examine the effectiveness of almost any intervention, such as training, coaching, counselling or a diet regime. This is basic stuff. Nothing fancy or complicated.

So what did I find? Firstly I could find no good quality evidence in the scientific literature about the efficacy (or otherwise) of any NLP technique for any outcome. Second, my online appeal to NLP practitioners produced no good evidence (but several anecdotes). Third, my discussion with the academics confirmed the absence of published evidence. This doesn’t conclusively mean that NLP is not effective. It means we just don’t know either way.

But what about my opponent in the debate? Did this leading NLP trainer have good evidence to demonstrate the value of the product he sells? In my view he did not. But this wasn’t surprising. The only type of evidence on his website was testimonials, which are very bad, if not the lowest possible, quality evidence. I am convinced he is sincere in his beliefs and means well. But that is not enough.

The burden of proof is always on those who make claims for what they do. An evidence-based HR practitioner should demand to see the evidence for the claims made by those selling or recommending techniques. If there is nothing but anecdotes and testimonials such an HR practitioner should think very carefully indeed about adopting that technique. They might also start to wonder why some of their HR colleagues proudly list their accreditation to practice that technique on their LinkedIn profile. I know I would.

Further reading

What's the evidence for... evidence-based HR?

What's the evidence for... talent management?

This is the evidence for talent management

What's the evidence for... performance management?

Comments

thanks for this. Not news of course. And unlikely to change things. But still worth saying / resaying.


,

Having effectively used tools I learnt on a NLP workshop for the last 15 years here's my response http://thepurchasingcoach.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/nlp-does-it-work.html. If you need to see the research to be sure of something's efficacy then that's not what my blog is about nor provides. Attending NLP, other personal development, soft skills and emotional intelligence workshops has taught me we're all different - my evidence criteria are not the same as yours nor another person's. If a technique (whether NLP, HR, Purchasing, gardening or any other activity) doesn't meet your criteria I can understand you won't be convinced - it doesn't mean those who are convinced of it's efficacy are flawed in their decision making - just that they use different criteria. Making false claims about something's efficacy, when we know otherwise, is something different but we get those when research has been undertaken to support the false claim so I'm not responding on that aspect either. May the debate continue - I think 'NLP' is a lot like 'soft skills' and has come to mean more to people than perhaps it should. It's perhaps aligned with the discussion about whether to change the name of HR so people stop thinking of it in a way we don't want them to, and rebrand it so the good that it achieved by undertaking the activities is remembered not past negative associations.


,

I'm not an NLP expert but use some NLP approaches amongst others in my coaching practice. There might not be strong scientific evidence for it as a technique/skill but it's worked with clients of mine. Everyone's different and so it may not work for everyone. That's why I would never advocate anybody having just one tool or approach. I think in the west we're over-obsessed with evidence and facts to make something worthy when, in fact, if it helps and makes a difference, who cares what the research says?


,

I'm not an NLP expert but use some NLP approaches amongst others in my coaching practice. There might not be strong scientific evidence for it as a technique/skill but it's worked with clients of mine. Everyone's different and so it may not work for everyone. That's why I would never advocate anybody having just one tool or approach. I think in the west we're over-obsessed with evidence and facts to make something worthy when, in fact, if it helps and makes a difference, who cares what the research says?


,

Thanks Tim. I agree it's not 'news' but given the content of the few responses I've had it does seem to be news to some people. For me this isn't a debate about whether NLP techniques work or not - but rather the quality of the evidence for the claims made about NLP. My understanding is that the quality of evidence poor making it difficult to reach any sort of judgement. In other words, there is an absence of evidence.


,

Thanks Alison. I'd recommend anyone interested also read your fuller comments in your blog. So to keep it simple here: 1. In asking about the evidence for the effectiveness of NLP I'm deliberately not referring to your experience or opinions or my experience or opinions or anyone else's. 2. One of the points of doing research is it's about collecting data that is relatively independent of people's opinions and bias. So it's not about what people believe or have seen. 3. It IS about evaluating claims. If you say X does Y even if it depends on many other factors then this is a strong and researchable claim. 4. In terms of my opinion and the ethical standards of many professions it is wrong to make claims in the absence of reasonable or good quality evidence to support those claims. From what I can tell in the case of NLP there is not good quality evidence. 5. I guess many of us can imagine why it's wrong, for example, to suggest to a cancer victim that they should just try to be positive as that will help them recover if the evidence shows fairly clearly that it won't (it does). Or if we can see it might be wrong to say to someone who has recently suffered a bereavement that we can communicate with their dead relative who is sending them messages (assuming dead people can't communicate). Or that it might be wrong to say to someone they should try some NLP technique to resolve some serious psychological problem if there is no body of good quality evidence that shows that this technique is effective. So in a way, I don't think this is necessarily a complicated set of issues. If you are making a clear claim about anything from NLP to a HR practice to a vitamin pill to a soap powder then it's probably researchable and people's experience and opinions are not the best form of evidence to test these claims.


,

Thanks also Helen. I note you and Alison say everyone's different. That's true but does it matter? It doesn't mean you still can't find out if things work. I appreciate you are saying sincerely that you believe what you do works. Fine. But is that good enough? Every practitioner believes that what they do works - spirit mediums, astrologers, water diviners, fortune tellers, medical doctors, etc. That's why we need to go beyond what individual practitioners believe to what a larger and independent body of evidence can tell us. In other words, any individual practitioner knows relatively little about whether what they do makes a difference as they can only observe relatively few cases, for a short time, are likely to be biased, and cannot compare what they do with what would happen if you did nothing or something different. So I don't know whether what you do works or not - all I do know is that it's very hard for any individual practitioner to know.


,

Interesting viewpoints raised about NLP and what it is, whats it's purpose and what impact it has. Personally, from my studies of NLP, I have always believed that it is not a 'tool' or technique but a science. If that is true then surely, like the other traditional sciences taught at school the key thing is to understand the science first then how that knowledge is used can be adapted to whatever scenario you are in or whatever you are trying to achieve, personally or professionally. I would love to see the science of NLP taught on a similar level and at the same stage in a child's development as the three traditional sciences are. Isn't it at least equally as important for children to understand the relationship between the brain and the body and the impact they can have upon this as it is to understand the physics and chemistry of the environment we live in. I work with the education sector, although not an academic, and would love to see NLP more prominently covered in human biology and at an early stage of development. After all, NLP is not a 'fad' or an 'HR tool' it can be traced back through ancient history. Where I have seen the practice of coaching, utilising NLP knowledge, used in schools at all levels in both the staff and pupils the positive impact is clear to see. With this knowledge and understanding embedded at an early age, NLP does then become part of our 'toolkit for life'. It's then how we use those tools that define who we are and what we can become.


,

Hi Glenn - thanks for this comment. I guess the point (and there is quite some evidence for this) is that NLP is NOT a science. Many the principles it is based on are inconsistent with our scientific knowledge of how the brain and learning works - see for example - http://skepdic.com/neurolin.html


,

"If it helps" can only be established by evidence isn't it. Humans have invented the scientific method to overcome all kinds of biases. A lot of comments demonstrate many people are not even aware of our biases. Surely not of the dangerous mix of confirmation bias (often seen as experience) and consistency principle (I was trained, paid and used it, now I need to show consistency). The truth is some claims like gaze direction and adapting your communication style have been researched and refuted. It is immoral to use a method that is ineffective or that even can cause harmful effects. Take a look at skepdic, look for NLP and think again.


,

I believe you get the results you search for depending on the quality of your sample group. No one contacted me for interview (I am also an ex HR Director of an international company) however this seems to be an unevidenced practitioner based piece of research. I have over 200 students who have completed NLP based Masters dissertations (UK University) both qualitative and quantitative studies and can provide strong evidence of success using NLP in business. I personally have an NLP based Doctorate from a UK University. Much of NLP is based on mainschool psychology, which has been evidenced in its own development e.g. Bateson, Erickson, Gestalt, Satir - see Encyclopedia of NLP. Having said that, NLP is about the practical techniques used to manage change processes whilst mainstream psychology provides the theory behind them. I am sure HR professionals use any interventions with care and of course in any profession there are those who manipulate information for their own ends or merely to start debate. If you choose to interview the 'happy clappy' bridgade rather than the professionals you get the biased answers you are looking for.


,

Hi Sally - There be hundreds or even thousands of pieces of NLP research, but if this research is not published or not made available for public and scientific scrutiny then we don't know what it means or what it may tell us about NLP. We can only judge the validity of claims about NLP on the basis of the evidence that is available. The evidence which is available does not provide reasonable support for claims about the effects of NLP.


,

Witkowski, (2010) asserts that NLP is ‘pseudoscientific rubbish’ and Roderique-Davies, (2009) finds that NLP has ‘no credible theoretical basis’.


,

What is credible and what is not credible? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? I couldn't find any reason, or evidence, to suggest that the NLP course I attended via a company called Communicating Excellence was worth either the trip into the city each week, or the cash paid out to Nigel, my guide and mentor, to take part. I entered the course sceptically but with an open-mind. What I gained, which may never be cited as plausible or credible evidence (but it worked for me - smile) was: 1) The freedom to enter a room with 20+ others and feel we were all in the same boat, all on a mission to achieve something (I didn't care what. It felt good to be a part of something positive) 2) The potential to 'try out' a variety of techniques I had never before encountered, i.e. for the purpose of personal development; identifying with oneself and others; self-reflection; deeper analysis of thought-patterns and behaviour of oneself and others, almost like entering a hall of mirrors, but where every individual present reflected something back 3) An opportunity to be in a room with a wide-range of professionals, from GP's to lawyers, teachers, office-staff, personal-trainers, musicians, healers, podiatrist, locksmith, business-owner, retiree and gain insight into their lives, light and dark 4) Inspiration, from seeing that very 'simple' techniques can and do work, within a realm where such simple creatures as we are have over-complicated what might have been a less complex means of living/interacting/being - it became evident that everyone present had something they wanted to figure out and NLP was a fantastic vehicle/providing tools (or perhaps 'ways') to do so 5) Knowledge, from a guide/mentor who was obviously 'into' what he was doing and very passionate about the subject of personal development (thus influencing social development of others as a knock-on effect) - Nigel's techniques silenced to NLP-sceptic in me) At a personal level, a short way into the course, I decided I was going to be selfish and 'work myself out', delving as deep as possible into any of my own personal traumas; whilst exploring what ways I could then be of any assistance to others in the group. As the course progressed I felt more and more 'unravelled'. We sought not to fix and yet, a great many issues, troubles, defects, problems, seemed to become more remedied. As they did I found myself feeling more confident to be 'who I was' - at a personal level this felt as though it was increasing both my energy and ability to feel 'balanced. I took a liking to using 'Clean Language', but also developed my own style of interacting, often using only words written on paper, or 'no-spoken-language' at all. These proved highly effective during counselling-type sessions where the other individual could not find their own words, but had plenty of feeling on a particular, e.g. past event. To be able to 'experiment' in a room filled with professionals from all walks of life was hugely liberating. During the final weeks of the course we were asked to use 'Modelling'. This single exercise, with the lead up to the final 'performance' taking several weeks, showed me that every one of us in life is simply playing a role. And, given opportunity/time/cause, we could all equally play one another's roles. The modelling element of the course, to me, summed up the entire year or work (and it felt like work in the same way as attending college/university/any course). The modelling showed/proved to me that if I can mimic/copy/become, as close as I can, to a certain state of being/feeling/sensation, then I am no longer striving toward it, or wanting it - I am it! In my work, which led on from this, I engage young people with very low levels of esteem/troubled pasts/emotional and social barriers. With each one of these young people I see (on a DAILY basis) who sit there in the classroom and even consider the notion of believing in themselves, I can understand that they are one step closer to mirroring what their (perhaps higher) nature suggests to them is their true worth, or value, as an individual human being. I think/feel that if anyone is seeking proof or evidence that NLP, as a practice/way, actually words, then look not to the teacher, but to the student. Then, not to the student, but to the next in line who inherits what they do from being associated with the NLP way. There are many ways in life. On a personal level I feel that had I been privy to NLP and all the subject encompasses from an earlier age, I could have been of greater assistance to both others and to myself from an earlier age. Long live NLP and may its way become less and less credible as more and more practitioners seek their own ways to be of use on this manic-volatile-beautiful oblate spheroid of a planet! TAB - eyeofthefly at hotmail.com for http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/whats-the-evidence-for-neuro-linguistic-programming#comment-21566


,

As a all-purpose skeptic myself, I understand Rob Briner’s quest to find scientific evidence for or against the efficacy of NLP. I’ve watched the famous Tony Robbins perform the techniques with success in a live environment (anecdotes). And thanks to my wife who raised her hand and then pointed me out in the crowd, I was even one of those characters broadcast up on the big screen in front of a live audience of 2500 people to work out our issues in front of everyone. It was somewhat embarrassing but I played along to see if there could be value. It certainly proved to me that these people Robbins speaks to at events aren’t plants and that he can work on the fly. The “intervention” didn’t help our marriage, but it helped me immensely and eight years later, I’m still reaping the rewards (more anecdotal evidence). I believe it is worth considering Rob’s premise that there must be evidence that somehow meets standards of the Scientific Method in order to determine the usefulness of NLP. He reveals his own bias when disclosing how he gathered his own research: “...and a discussion with the only academics (two) who have talked about NLP in a business context.” If there are only two such people, it suggests you might be fishing in the wrong pond. He reveals another bias, here: "The only type of evidence on his website was testimonials, which are very bad, if not the lowest possible, quality evidence.” One could argue without much effort that circumstantial evidence would be lower quality than a testimonial. Testimonials are analogous to eye-witness accounts in a trial. They are often erroneous but absolutely worth more than circumstantial evidence, when the source is credible, and as a result, they can make or break a case. So why the superlative? I suggest there is a pre-conceived notion about NLP. By confusing lack of evidence with evidence of lack, we draw a conclusion too early, especially when we are looking for special cases of evidence, such as those discovered by academic researchers. I know Rob knows the difference between the two, but he appears to be stuck, in this case, as a result of that difference. As he points out, some things are very hard to test because we don’t know how things would have turned out in that specific case with that specific individual if NLP hadn’t been tried. Clifford Nass wrote his book, The Man Who Lied to His Computer, to describe how he addressed this very problem with certain kinds of research. It’s a very interesting read, if you like research. Can Rob find evidence that beliefs and biases play a strong role in our lives? I haven’t seen the "business academics” research paper on that yet, but does anyone dispute it? The next question is, “What happens if we change one of those beliefs or biases?” We actually don’t need to answer that. We only need evidence that it’s possible to change beliefs and biases intentionally. That’s all NLP seeks to do. Here’s what might be missing. Bandler and Grinder, in their famous book, Frogs Into Princes, announce early in the book that what they are teaching is total bunk. They don’t even try to convince you that it’s real. So why would we? Their only advice is to do what works. Use the tool if it works, and not if it doesn’t. A practitioner would be foolish to continue applying a technique that yields no positive result. I’m sure Rob isn’t suggesting that our beliefs and biases don’t play a strong role in our lives. So if we know that, let’s work with those facts, and others of equal importance and usefulness as we find them. Comparing NLP with Astrology and other hokus pokus gets the analogy wrong. Astrology (which I believe is as real as Hogwarts) works for some people precisely because of how the human brain happens to work, whether we understand it or not. Wouldn’t it be good to know how that is? The manifestation of our “wiring” opens us up to all manner of bunk. NLP addresses that wiring and works with it directly (without concern as to whether there are actually wires!). NLP provides a methodology and a lexicon to talk about how and why something works for this or that person and how and why something does not. It’s not at all like Astrology and that ilk. Rather it addresses the thought processes that make such beliefs and many others seem either real or ridiculous, and helps guide us to what is useful.


,

Wow, here we have someone explaining that they have both qualitative and quantitative studies (Dr Sally Vanson), and instead of simply asking if they can share that information Rob chooses to ignore that part of the response. Rob, whether you are right or wrong, I would ask that you think for a moment and ask yourself whether you are choosing to ignore potential evidence that does not support your preformed view. Is this not the case for many human beings, if something does not fit our world view we ignore it or put it down. How many scientific studies are we now finding discredited or how many absolute truths in science are being refuted. So just maybe there are things out there that work and we cannot understand why. Perhaps it is faith based, seems to have worked for religon for thousands of years?


,

Sounds a little like the question of whether you believe in a God or not. Ultimate faith, or scientific evidence. I have to say I was taken aback to read someone suggesting 'who cares about evidence'. If you were needing life-saving cancer treatment, you would generally want something tired and empirically tested, although I understand those, in these circumstances, who would try anything as a cure. NLP seems to feature in the homeopathic type of treatment as opposed to the tried and tested.


,

Here is a perfect example of what does happen in a NLP session!https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/beware-nlp-marketing-bullying-scams-pierre-bonhomme?trk=hb_ntf_MEGAPHONE_ARTICLE_POST


,

As human beings we have a tendency to confirmation bias and to overlearning from single episodes so are often inclined to believe in magic recipes such as NLP which suit our own prejudices. NLP is an odd mix of snake oil and practices with some basis in prior research and practice. Perhaps about what you would expect from a couple of bright Californians spending a wine fueled weekend in a shack in the hills (the origins of NLP).


,

OK, So this discussion can be summed up so far as Dr Rob Briner saying 'NLP has not produced any scientific evidence to support its significant claims over 30 years, and is therefore unethical practice' to which he receives the response 'I have been using it for 15/20/30 years and have seen it work'. If someone asks you for scientific evidence, your own unsubstantiated opinion is not an appropriate or valid response, and reinforces the view to an outsider that you are peddling smoke, mirrors and snake-oil. The REALLY interesting response was from Dr Sally Vanson, who stated that she has substantive, well-researched evidence from potentially 200 scientific studies. This is what Rob Briner was asking for in the first place. So Dr Vanson - which University, and where are these studies published? This is important stuff, and should not be mouldering on University shelves. Given the barrage of criticism of NLP in recent years and the increasing numbers of scientific studies demonstrating it does not do what it says it does, these studies could prove a very timely counter.


,

thanks for your comment. I too noticed that there's not evidence-based support for NLP as a counselling and therapeutic tool. Sometimes I even think some NLP concepts are borrowed and repackaged from other psychology approach too. Nevertheless, in terms of communication style, is there any other model well researched and supported, so that ppl in the society can choose to learn from?


,

I want to add, there is some NLP related research going on. Some people in the German NLP community collected a number of articles and papers here (the website looks a little bit old and broken in the meanwhile, but if use the green navigation bar at the bottom of the page it should work): http://www.nlp.de/cgi-bin/research/nlp-rdb.cgi If you read through those almost 370 entries, you may find many reports that seem to prove a significant evidence for the effectiveness of NLP, as well as many articles that suggest other parts might not work at all. But, it is a wide field that developed over more than 40 years. Some parts were already abandoned, while others were added. You can only reseach it "bit by bit". And if one aspect proves as wrong it does not mean, the whole thing has no evidence. As I understand NLP, it is constantly "under construction". So, why not focus only on the bits and pieces that seem to work? [p.s. dear moderater, please delete my previous comment. it can be replaced by this one]


,
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 

All comments are moderated and may take a while to appear.