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Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) in Business

by David Molden(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

NLP is often heralded as the cure-for-all by followers and enthusiasts, like the latest film or fashion fad to hit town. So I am never surprised when I hear the question 'what does NLP have to offer?'

NLP was created by Dr Richard Bandler and Dr John Grinder[1] as a result of their studies and experiences at the University of California in the early 1970s. Over time, many others have added to it, and the co-creators have continued to change and develop NLP. Today it encapsulates a wide body of learning. That said, you like many others, may have heard of NLP, but haven't yet been convinced of what it has to offer – you want to see real tangible evidence.

I could tell you about some of our clients like Jamie, a sales director who accredited an £8m business win to his NLP skills, or Jeff who accredited the success of his new business venture in China to ideas which came to him from learning NLP. I could mention the standing ovation and tears of joy from the audience as Anne gave her inspired wedding speech using NLP techniques, or the elation of Stuart who, in an industry he perceived to be dying, turned around his sales career to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many get their information third-hand from someone who has formed their own opinion of NLP, or maybe they have read a book or attended a short seminar. Some have probably tried to use it for the wrong purpose, and others may have been turned off by an over-zealous NLP trainer or coach. I have empathy with all these people, since I asked this very same question when I first came across it in 1992 as Head of Training and Development at Computacenter plc.

From Cynic to Advocate

Like me, I don't expect anyone will fully accept an answer to this question based on opinion, hype, clever theories or enthusiasm. In the interests of fact finding, rather than relying on hype and opinion, in 1993 I interviewed and researched a host of NLP consultants and companies before deciding to test it out with a group of executives at Computacenter plc. I valued the credibility I had with the executive team, so I was careful to choose consultants who had extensive business experience.

Way back in the dark ages, NLP was very much 'out there' and I was not about to risk my reputation and possibly my career. When I first began training managers at Computacenter, I had some ideas to share taken from Maslow, Hertzberg, Taylor, Mayo and many other eminent proponents of management theory. I was well respected in the organisation for my creativity, and had developed some slides and created some fun exercises and role plays. My groups had a great time, learned some new ideas, and went away with personal action plans. Job done, or so I thought. But I didn't see much change – in fact I saw very little change at all in the way my management students were managing.

As I studied more about adult learning, I realized there needed to be much more in my courses. I had to tone down the theory and step up the practical. I brought in actors and invested in sophisticated games and exercises. I used Myers Briggs and other popular feedback tools. I felt like an innovator, but I still didn't see the results I expected. What was I doing wrong? I had copied and drawn from some very highly paid consultants, but was still scraping around for evidence of improved management skills. Maybe our managers were poor learners? Maybe I was an ineffective trainer? This self-doubt quickly left me when I discovered that other professionals were having the same experience. One example which came to my attention involved a cadre of senior managers selected by the HR Director to attend a very expensive business school leadership programme, and on their return showed no sign of changing the way they related to their teams. Befuddled and disheartened, I came across an NLP brochure which promised magic. I filed it in the bin where most of the wild and wacky ideas went at that time. I received another and filed it in the same place.

Some weeks later a respected consultant told me about some of his friends who were teaching NLP. Ah, at last, a credible voice explaining what it was. I didn't really understand what he told me, but I valued his opinion and so decided to check it out. In fact, I learned so much on the first course that I immersed myself in NLP training for the next 4 years, and am still learning and designing new techniques today. So, what did I learn?

I realized that my early attempts to train managers had little impact because I had been focussing on changing their behaviour by using clever theories.[2] Most of the managers who came to my courses wanted to change other people. Of course I now know that in order to do this they themselves had to change – but they really didn't want to, and I didn't have the means at that time to change their minds. The NLP Mercedes model shows how any behaviour is accompanied by an internal state, or emotion, and an internal thought process of some kind. Unless the desired new behaviour can be generated using the same internal state and thought process, no theory, model or procedure is likely to change the behaviour. If you want behaviour change, begin with the state, and then move on to the thought process.

The NLP Mercedes Model

Here's an example. Let's say you want to have more influence with key people at work. You could learn some current models of influencing, and pick up some useful things to say. You might learn some tricks based on carrot and stick motivation theory. You might even read the leading book Influence by Robert Cialdini[3] (I highly recommend you do). All these are useful but only if you are also able to modify your internal state and your thought process. Most conventional training relies on giving you a new behaviour, maybe from an inspiring trainer (or entertainer). It doesn't often align Internal State (IS) and Internal Processing (IP) with External Behaviour (EB).

Why are your Internal State (IS) and Internal Processing (IP) so important? Have you ever had the experience of wanting to react to a certain person differently? Or maybe you would like to be more confident giving presentations. Perhaps you are being encouraged to engage more with your team, but you don't know how to make the connection with them. Maybe you have been tasked with creating cultural change and people are resisiting. In all these situations, the more you think of different things to say, the less progress you feel you are making. The key to taking control in all these scenarios begins with your Internal State (IS), your beliefs and values, self-talk, and your perception of what is possible (IP). Once your Internal State (IS) is aligned to a successful outcome, then you can begin using a different voice and some different words. You can build your skill on this new Internal State (IS) and Internal Processing (IP).

This is where NLP scores highly, and why more leaders are turning to NLP to help their people embrace change and communicate more effectively. A common desire among business professionals is for increased confidence[4] in various scenarios. Confidence building is a very simple and fast process using NLP because it is a function of IS and IP. People lose confidence when self-talk cuts in with the suggestion "I will screw this up","they're a difficult bunch" or something just as negative. This clearly has an immediate impact on your emotional state. 

Not all Trainers and Coaches are the Same

NLP has tools to change, create and generally work with emotions, or states. In addition to this, a skilled Practitioner[5] should also be able to modify their thought process for any given outcome. This is why it's called NLP – tools to modify thinking (neuro), to flex communication (linguistic) and create brand new behaviour (programming). There is much talk these days of emotional intelligence, or EQ.[6] NLP has a range of techniques for increasing your EQ. One reason why behavioural training delivers such poor results (and I am amazed at how many trainers today are still working solely at this level), is because unuseful habits get in the way. Behavioural trainers usually enter the field because they are experts in their topic, and think that if they impart their knowledge and give good-looking handouts, people will be able to utilize what they are given. A highly skilled trainer knows that people can learn just about anything when the appropriate IP and IS are created first. The best NLP trainers use their NLP to maximize learning, effect change and transfer new skills into the workplace.

The Importance of Habit

Habits are created from past experience and are often thought to be difficult, or impossible to change. We used to think that the only way to send a message was by pigeon, arrow, boat, smoke or runner. Now look at all the options we have at our fingertips! Habits are made up of IS, IP and EB, and so if you only attempt to change EB then you are making things difficult, if not impossible (a gun to the head usually works). People change and learn new things when they have a purpose and desire to do so, and when they can access the optimum IS and IP required for success.

One of the strengths of NLP is the range of techniques available for identifying and changing habits that haven't been working very well. A classic example of this can be found in time management. In my previous life as a Training Manager, I spent hundreds of thousands of corporate training budget pounds on time management courses for people who either didn't need it, or didn't benefit from it. Some managers just didn't seem to get it and were constantly struggling with schedules, appointments and project deadlines. Other people seemed to be able to manage their time extremely well, regardless of any kind of training. Over the years, I used just about every kind of time management course available.

When I learned about Time Coding and Time Lines from NLP, I realized why the conventional stuff hadn't worked. An individual's perception of time is a result of habitual IP, IS and EB going back to school days, and more than likely before this time. At Quadrant 1 we have developed a simple technique for improving time management, based on the emotional and mental connection with your work, other people, and yourself. Then you can build new mental timelines to help you take control of how you utilize the time you have.[7]

Answering the question 'what is NLP?' is a real challenge. How much time do you have? We have got used to having our training served up in easy to understand packages – simple categories by which we can make decisions: Time Management, Communication Skills, Leadership, Managing People, Giving Feedback, Coaching Skills etc. Most of the models used by trainers are also designed for ease of remembering. Myers Briggs will make you aware of your personality through typing; other systems use colours for personality types which make it easy to remember and connect with. These are great tools for marketing, and for a degree of self-awareness, but most fall short of offering effective tools for change – yet people buy them because they can easily relate to them.

Anyone with a little curiosity to explore NLP will soon uncover many different ways of dealing with problems and challenges. When some people approach NLP for the first time, they do so from the same mental frame they use for learning other subjects. This would be like finding two or three fish in the sea and then believing that all other fish in the sea must be of the same variety. NLP is quite different from other personal development systems. It is an eclectic methodology containing many models, techniques and procedures, which is why it defies simple definitions. Those who explore the possibilities reap the rewards not just in their business life, but on a personal level too. We have many testimonials from our clients to this effect, yet a simple description remains elusive. But who needs a description when what you really want are results? From my earlier examples, Jamie's £8m win, Jeff's China business venture, Anne's inspirational speech and Stuart's revitalized sales success – could these people explain what NLP is? Possibly. What you are more likely to get from them is the 'how I did it' which is at the core of NLP. The question at the front of our minds is 'How can I .....'? NLP has many tools to help you find a way.

What is NLP?

  • Neuro – how you use your nervous system to think
  • Linguistic – how you communicate your thoughts to others and to yourself via verbal and non-verbal language
  • Programming – human beings are like robots – most of the things we do each day consist of programmes (habits) we have done before. NLP gives you the tools to upgrade and re-programme your habits
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to describe NLP succinctly, these include:
  • An attitude of mind which leaves behind a trail of techniques;
  • The art and science of excellence;
  • A set of techniques, axioms and beliefs that adherents use primarily as an approach to personal development;
  • The ability to discover and change the way we communicate (internally, with ourselves, and externally, with others) in order to achieve our specific and desired outcomes;
  • NLP is the science of how the brain codes learning and experience.  This coding affects all of our communication and behaviour.  It affects how we learn and how we experience the world around us.

What Can I Use NLP For?

The quick answer to this question is 'anything'. Because NLP gets right into the way you think, emote and behave, it cuts across all disciplines. You will find Leadership programmes designed with it, along with Sales, Communication, Negotiation, Managing People, Motivating Teams, Presentation Skills, Project Management, and just about anywhere you want to develop your skills.8 It is used by tennis champions, golfers, rugby players and other sports professionals. We use it in many areas including Coaching, Executive Presentation and Influence, Real Success Programme, Leadership, Culture Change Programmes, and to keep our own business and people healthy, motivated and positive.


1. The Structure of Magic volumes 1 and 2 by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, ISBN 08314-0044-7/08314-0049-8. 1989.
2. For research and leading theories on Adult learning read the following: The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles, ISBN 0-87201-074-0. 1998; Experiential Learning by David A. Kolb, ISBN 0-13-295261-0 1984; The Wisdom of Strategic Learning by Ian Cunningham, ISBN 0-07-707894-2 1998.
3. Influence by Robert Cialdini, ISBN 78-0321011473. 2000.
4. Read How to be Confident using the Power of NLP by David Molden and Pat Hutchinson, ISBN 978-0273718093. 2008.
5. Refer to Quadrant 1 website for information relating to becoming a 'Certified NLP Business Practitioner'.
6. For information on EQ read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, ISBN 978-0747528302. 1996.
7. For information on NLP and Time Management read NLP Business Masterclass by David Molden, ISBN 978-0-273-70790-5. 2007
8. For information on how to use NLP in business read Managing with the Power of NLP by David Molden, ISBN 0-273-70791-4. 1996.



This article was previously published in the online People Bulletin:


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About David Molden

White paper written by David Molden Fellow CIPD NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer, Director with Quadrant 1 International, author of Managing with the Power of NLP, and NLP Business Masterclass, co-author with Pat Hutchinson on Brilliant NLP book and audio CD and How to be Confident using the Power of NLP, co-author with Denise Parker on Beat Your Goals, co-author with Jon Symes on Realigning for Change. He may be contacted at Quadrant 1 International on Tel: 0870 762 1300;

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