My post on NLP the other week provoked a mixed reaction, and certainly NLP has a mixed reputation. On one side, it is an effective tool of win-win influence on an ethical basis. On the other side, NLP has a bad reputation in some circles, due to accusations of its use as a tool of manipulation. I am personally averse to the evangelical NLP fringe. Politicians in particular have been criticised as exponents of mass-hallucination. Somewhat coincidentally, Alice Cooper recently suggested that he should be the candidate for U.S. President. Let’s see why…
What is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) anyway? Simply stated, NLP is a branch of practical psychology, which offers a suite of strategies and techniques to use language to impact the way in which you and others think. Naturally, the ability to inform, influence and persuade others is on a lot of leadership agendas. It is therefore popular in business, politics and other walks of life where influence and persuasion matters. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barak Obama are thought to be NLP disciples. Given the current interest in the US elections I will restrict myself in this article to the use of language, flagging up some NLP related constructs.
Mind Your Language
NLP offers two language models – the so-called Milton and Meta models. Put crudely, the Milton model is about ‘loose language’ and the Meta model about ‘specific language’. Loose language is beloved of hypnotists, orators and rock stars, for example:
“Peace, Land and Bread” – Vladimir I Lenin
“Power To The People” – John Lennon
“Yes for a Great Russia” – Vladimir Putin
“Ronnie Talk to Russia” – Prince
“Yes We Can” – Barak Obama
“Yes We Can” – Bob The Builder
“We must build a bigger, stronger society” – David The Cameron
Notice that these phrases carry no real meaning at all. Yet, taken in the context of a great performance, they can inspire. By saying nothing they communicate everything to an audience who wants to believe the generalisation. Most successful politicians are masters of generalisation, partly because they use broadcast media most of the time, where specifics would divide people. What separates the sheep from the goats is the extent to which they then deliver such promises.
The Meta model is about specific language. It’s a good idea to be specific if you are a computer programmer or an accountant, but it’s rare to hear politicians use specifics. Obama is rather good at using loose language to stir people’s emotions. Romney is rather good at using specific language to get things wrong:
“Middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less” – Mitt Romney
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women” – Mitt Romney
Does this mean that Obama has studied NLP and Romney hasn’t? Does that mean that Romney is inept with language and Obama is not? Does that mean that either of them would be better at running the country? Does that make NLP wrong? No. There may be a high correlation between an ability to speak convincingly in order to be elected but there is a low correlation between speaking well and running the country. Unfortunately, the voting public tends to believe otherwise when it comes to elections.
The Hypnotic world of Barak Obama
A slightly cranky group of people have suggested that Obama uses hypnotic language to lure his audiences into trance. This is utter rubbish. Obama certainly uses linking phrases, repetition, what NLP calls anchoring, marking out certain words for effect, but these have been hallmarks of great speakers since time began rather than NLP sorcery. In any case, all this assumes that the people listening are mindless drones without free will.
People who love Obama point to his great oratory. People who hate him most often suggest that he lacks authenticity – in other words, that his beliefs have been bought in a shop rather like you might buy some spray tan for your legs as a warm up for a summer holiday. A gap between promises and delivery is always a problem for politicians. Obama is also at something of a disadvantage as the public has had 5 years to test his authenticity, whereas Romney has no track record. i.e. people are comparing actions with words. Nonetheless that’s what elections are about. The whole question as to whether you vote for someone is to do with trust. But, if you are going to lie, you will lie anyway. NLP does not make you lie. It may just make you a better liar. It’s pretty much a case of “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” to misquote Bananarama. Let’s see a master of the art in action:
- If you give bad people good tools, they get better at doing bad stuff. That, of course, is not the fault of the tools, it’s the people.
- NLP has been going on since the world began. All great orators speak in generalisations, use metaphor, multi-sensory communications and hypnotic language. Listen better to what’s being said and what is not and be a tad skeptical.
- Setting aside the poor use of NLP by people who do not operate from an ethical value base. I personally have found NLP to have immense practical value as part of a set of strategies for making difficult things happen. I find it helpful to see NLP in the round of the wide range of approaches to personal excellence rather than seeing it as an all-embracing ‘answer’. Take out the pieces that work, leaving behind the more doubtful or dangerous elements.
For business and personal coaching using MBA and NLP related tools get in touch via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
My own ‘election’ takes place in January, when we release a new book “The Music of Business” and a free iPhone app. We’ll see how many people say YES to the book then.