The Art and Science of NLP Techniques: The Method Behind the Magic

Everybody loves techniques!

The very idea that we can use simple techniques to make changes in ourselves and others is enticing. We’re attracted to the romantic notion that change can happen quickly, as if magically, by applying a simple technique that’s almost like a magical spell. Presto changeo!

Does NLP Really Offer Such Magic?

NLP became famous (to those who learned about it) because of the techniques it offered that produced rapid and dramatic changes in people. Once, when about to demonstrate NLP techniques at Marshall University, Richard Bandler was advised that because of an error, the only available tape was 30 minutes long. Richard’s response was “What are we going to do with the extra space?”

Anthony Robbins and Paul McKenna both made their careers by performing NLP interventions and creating rapid change in front of live audiences. In minutes, they wiped out fears and phobias live, creating a sensation.

What does this mean? It means the NLP techniques work!

Or does it?

While Bandler, Robbins and McKenna have been able to create dramatic changes in people, other people have applied NLP techniques with mixed results. Some people have miracle stories about their experience with certain NLP techniques… whereas others have piled up experiences of “Well, I tried it, but it didn’t work.”

When and Why Do NLP Techniques Work?

Why would NLP techniques work for some people and not others?
Why would NLP techniques work for some problems and not others?
When they do work, why is it?
When they don’t work, why is it?

Not long ago, I had a client come to me for help with anxiety and fear he’d been unable to shake since a distressing event. His father brought him in, and as they both stepped into my office, his father picked up my business card, sat down and said, “So does this stuff work?”

I looked at him and said bluntly, “Nope!”

You can probably imagine the look on his face. What I then said was this:

“This stuff doesn’t work, people work. If we follow the principles of how people work then we get results. If we don’t, what we do won’t.”

NLP techniques can and do “work.” What I mean by that is that people can make changes on their own or with a coach or therapist through the application of NLP processes. But in reality, when change occurs, it’s not because the technique “worked.”

What are NLP Techniques?

All NLP techniques were developed in the same way: by studying the subjective experience of someone who was getting a certain result.

The notorious phobia cure was created by studying the mental process that allowed phobics to overcome their phobia (on their own).

Timeline Therapy was created by studying how people were able to consistently feel good, despite “bad” experiences.

The methods created by Steve and Connirae Andreas for resolving grief were developed by studying people who had overcome serious grief and been able to move on.

The techniques, or patterns as they are also called, are explicit models of what some people already do naturally with their mind. They are specific ways of thinking that some people use to get a certain result, which others who don’t get the same result don’t use. The purpose of NLP patterns is to help people learn new ways of “thinking” and using their mind that come naturally to others but which they have not learned.

What is the purpose of a technique?

NLP techniques are processes for learning.

Nlp techniques do not aim to change, fix or solve anything. They aim to help a person learn more effective ways of thinking and “running their brain.” The underlying assumption is that if other people use their mind in a certain way, others can too, which is true in most cases, at least when it comes to solving psychological problems.

For a technique to produce a desired change in experience, it must be applied as a learning process. What NLP techniques do is add mental skills and abilities to a person’s repertoire that were not available to them previously.

NLP techniques do not take anything away. Their purpose is not to fix, change or get rid of a problem. When used in this way, they rarely work.

What makes Bandler, Robbins and McKenna so skilled is not the techniques, it’s how they apply them.

The greats of NLP use techniques, but don’t rely on them. They know that there are other aspects of a person’s experience that are more important than the technique, and aspects of a person’s experience that can stop the technique from working (which means stop the person from learning something new).

Whether a technique works depends:

  • How it is used
  • For what purpose
  • In what way

NLP techniques replicate other people’s successful experiences. So what’s the difference between two people who have different subjective experiences? What allows one to be cured while another maintains the problem?

What NLP techniques made explicit between people who have the same problems or get the same results is the structure of subjective experience. The founders of NLP uncovered and revealed patterns in the building blocks of human experience.

They showed that human experiences are made up of:

  • Hidden ideas and assumptions
  • Patterns of focus and attention
  • Coding: the way we think about what we think about

When NLP techniques successfully lead to desired changes, they’ve succeeded in altering these levels of experience. If a person has a problem, applies an appropriate NLP pattern, and changes, what has changed are:

  • Their ideas and assumptions about the problem or problem area (beliefs)
  • Their pattern of focus (what they are directing their attention to)
  • The way the experience is coded (how they think about what they were thinking about)

If, after the technique, the change has not happened, it’s because they are continuing to use or have reverted back to the old assumptions, focus or coding.

Techniques work when or because they get you to do something differently with your mind.

Techniques don’t do anything to you, they help you learn something new and add new ways of thinking about things to your automatic and unconscious repertoire. NLP techniques help you acquire new mentaal skills.

Will it Work?

When applying NLP techniques, many people wonder, “Will it work?” If you’re asking this question, something is missing. The question is not, Will it work?, the question is How will it work?

Unmasking the Structure of Experience

Richard Bandler teaches that changework is 90% information gathering and 10% intervention. His ability comes from all the patient and upfront work he does with a client to thoroughly understand their problem. Using the NLP approach, before applying any intervention, it’s vital to do that upfront work and know how a problem works. Before trying to change anything, you’ve got to find the structure. When you uncover how it works and you understand how the person manages to produce this result consistently, you’ll know what technique to apply. Anything else is the shot in the dark technique.

How do I know what to do with a client so they can experience the changes they want quickly? I spent plenty of time patiently exploring the elements of a person’s experience, and once I’ve found them, I look for what else might be at play. Only then when I have the whole picture do I begin work for change. If things don’t go smoothly or our intervention doesn’t work, I know I have missed something.

How Do You Do That?

One of the benefits of the NLP approach is that it allows a person to understand how they managed to generate a problem. It’s a very special kind of awareness. Before using a technique, I want a client to really get how their problem worked, what was generating it and what kept it in place. I want them to have the “Aha!” that prepares them to say, “Oh, why on earth was I doing that?” Once we’ve unmasked the unconscious structure and they’ve taken a good look at it I am ready to give them some new options.

Before applying a technique, I tell my client what we are going to do, why, and how it will help. Before I do anything I want to know that they see how it applies. If you’ve ever seen Robbins and McKenna work with a client, they do a lot of preparation with the person so the person knows what the problem really is, what they are about to do (the technique), and why/how it is going to help. Many novices skip these important steps.

When applying techniques as a coach or therapist, the magic comes from knowing what works, when and how. And if you know why, that’s a great plus too!

When techniques don’t work, there’s always a reason. The next step is to find and why and discover what will work.

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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