The Art and Science of NLP Techniques: Six Tips for Technique Troubleshooting

NLP was like nothing else in the field of psychology. It promised rapid and dramatic change, and in many cases, it delivered. The history of NLP is filled with impressive cures and life-changing results before live audiences, on TV and radio too.

Paul McKenna’s miracle results were featured on his nation UK TV show I Can Change Your Life and on TLC’s I Can Make You Thin.

Anthony Robbins’ impressive live interventions now can be found all over the web through the Robbins-Madanes institute, such as a recent video in which he helps a man overcome a life-long problem with stuttering.

What made NLP different was the cutting-edge “psychological technology” it offered; simple and effective techniques that produce impressive and rapid change.

But do they always work?

The answer to this is no. And it’s not because the techniques are ineffective.

Many people have experienced important changes with NLP methods. But others have wondered why what they tried didn’t work. NLP techniques are not magic. There’s an art and science to their application… and when they don’t work, there’s always a reason.

Here are six things to do when techniques don’t work:

1. Ready… Set… hm

There are stages of change, and not everybody who tries to change or wants to change is really ready to change.

People have lots of reasons not to change, and this is why change can be hard. The problem is that these reasons are unconscious. Part of the change process is to get all these hidden reasons out into the open.

What reasons do you have for not changing?

One major saboteur of NLP techniques is fear:

People are afraid of what would happen if they really changed.

Fear of change can take two forms:

The person has a fear of change in general
Some people fear the unknown. They tend to stick to the what they know because its safe, and fear change because they see change as threatening.

In cases like this, before changework and techniques, I explore the person’s relationship with change itself. We look at where it came from and if it’s still valid. I work to expand their relationship with change so they can then make the changes they want comfortably.

The persons fears making a specific change

If the problem is all a person has known, the change they want to make might be huge for them. It’s going to be revolution instead of evolution, and that can be frightening.

Also, a person might associate the change with negative consequences. To them, if they make the change, it will bring along with it unwanted circumstances.

In these cases, what’s missing is clarity. Before engaging in changework, we need to clarify what really will be different if they make the change. This helps one see for themselves if the change will take them where they want and second, it helps them paint a clear picture of what will be different so they can become familiar with it. We must do the upfront work and deal with the fear effectively before change will be possible.

Clarity is key. We have to know the effects of the change we are about to make and clear out any reasons for not changing. A person won’t change until they’re totally ready.

2. Model

The first step to any NLP intervention is to model and map out the problem to uncover the structure. The basis of NLP is modeling to understand how things work, how a person does the problem, how they manage to get a result consistently.

The structure of the problem always tells us how to intervene effectively.

Applying techniques without sufficient information gathering is like shooting in the dark. If you’ve tried to make a change and haven’t succeeded, you missed something. It’s great when someone finds an NLP technique, applies it and gets the result. But other times it takes NLP training or a skilled practitioner to uncover what is really going on.

Neuro-Semantic modeling is the best tool for this. It helps us map out the complexity of a problem’s various levels, unmask how the system works and determine how best to intervene for effective change.

3. Clarify the Goal

NLP thinking states that before change can happen, we need an outcome. Before we set out on a journey, we need a destination.

Often when a person has a problem, they’ve been trying to not have the problem or get rid of the problem. What they don’t know is what they want instead. It’s important to clarify this before changework.

When people have clarified a goal, sometimes it’s the “wrong” goal:

i. Too Much Too Fast
The goal may be too big of a leap, and so it’s just not possible from where the person is without intermediary steps. We’ve got to “shrink the change.” Also, when the goal is too far or too big, the person’s safety mechanism may put on the brakes. It says “too much too fast!” and we have to take heed.

ii. Alarm Bells are Ringing
The goal is something which, if the person succeeded in having it, would cause problems in some area of their life. Something in them knows that and objects.

We must explore these objections and use them as valuable information to help the person achieve what they want in a way that is ecological, meaning will only have a positive impact on the various areas of their life.

iii. It’s a Magical Solution
When children, we decide on important life goals and many of these stick with us into adulthood. Sometimes a person’s goal is not really a realistic outcome, but an ideal or “magical solution.” It’s a romantic notion or a perfectionistic aim. As such, the very outcome is the problem.

In all of these cases, the goal needs to be explored or revised.

4. Explore Objections
Very often, when someone has tried to make a change, it’s because at some level for them, it’s not OK to make the change.

Any problematic pattern, behaviour, state or persistent symptom a person experiences developed for a purpose. Nothing in human psychology occurs without reason. Although the person wants change, a part of them objects, perceiving some negative effect to change.

To uncover these objections, I will tell a client:

“Since you’ve tried to change and fail, there may be some part of you that says its not OK to change. Which part of you is that?”

When we bring this part to the surface and give it a voice, finding out what it wants and what it’s objections are, we’ll usually find some valuable information. From there we can revise the goal so everyone’s on board, or resolve the conflict so change is OK.

5. Explore Identity Issues

Identity is a powerful force in human psychology. Our identity, or our collection of beliefs and hidden assumptions about ourselves, acts like a software program telling us how to think, feel and act.

When people have struggled to make a change, it’s often a clue that identity “issues” are in play.

One’s identity is their narrative about who they are. By dictating the confines of who we are, what we can be, do and have, our identity can prevent or negate changes we’re trying to make.

Often what stops people from making a change is the very thing causing the problem: What they want is outside of their self-definition. Ideas and beliefs decided long ago such as:

I can’t be happy.
Success is not for me.
Fat. That’s just who I am.
I’ll always be alone.

Beliefs like these sabotage our best intentions, but they are unconscious. Few people wake up one morning and go, “Eureka! The problem is my identity! No one comes into to my office and says, “Well, my problem is that I believe happiness is not for me,” they say, “Why can’t I be happy?

These type of beliefs are like parasites hiding in the mind that subvert our efforts. They need to be effectively dealt with for change to be possible.

6. Is a Technique the Answer?

Using the techniques of NLP successfully is an art and a science. When they don’t work, there’s always a reason… and the above troubleshooting tips can help guide you through stormy waters.

But there’s something else that’s important about techniques.

NLP thinking has seduced many into false thinking that the solution to a problem is a technique.

Is this true?

Not a chance!

Not not every problem can be solved with a technique.

The techniques of NLP apply to very specific cases, but there are many times when they aren’t the answer.

Change is a science and an art. Knowing what to do, when and why is key… And so is knowing what to do differently when what you hasn’t worked.

David Kynan

David Kynan will get you there with practical cutting-edge methods for change and performance. President of Personis Coaching and Training ( and Former Vice President of the Canadian Association of NLP, David coaches, teaches and consults on how to make change happen when change is hard. He also lends his skills to individuals, professionals and businesses on topics related to strategic intervention, problem solving, marketing and sales. His expertise has landed him training and consulting contracts with companies such as Sun Life Financial, Medisca Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pure Water Technologies. He has been featured in the Montreal Mirror, interviewed on CTV and presented on his work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

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