In the early stages of my self-development journey, before iPhones were a thing, I downloaded a Paul McKenna audiobook to

In the early stages of my self-development journey, before iPhones were a thing, I downloaded a Paul McKenna audiobook to my mp3 player. I’d started reading self-help in an attempt to make sense of depression and anxiety. But there was something different about this recording — it started my fascination with the power of the subconscious mind.

As well as a hypnotist, McKenna is one of the world’s most esteemed Neuro-Linguistic Programmers, or NLP Practitioners. NLP is an approach to self-improvement that taps into different parts of the human mind. Closing my eyes and listening to guided meditations on positive thinking and confidence shifted my understanding of imagination, the role of visualization, and the influence of thoughts.

I’m not sure how I found the recording, or what drew me to it. But I do know from experience that NLP techniques are a powerful addition to self-development, many of which I’ve continued to use over 10 years later. 

But what is NLP? Some industry gurus portray NLP as a source of miraculous transformation. Critics call it pseudoscience lacking in evidence. This article will provide a balanced overview of NLP, before sharing the most effective techniques you can try for yourself. 

What is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)?

Neuro-linguistic programming was developed at the University of California in the 1970s. As the name implies, there are three components to the technique. 

They are the physical, emotional and mental components of neurology (neuro) combined with language processing and communication (linguistic) and behavioural patterns (programming). The foundation of NLP was developed by linguist John Grinder and information scientist and mathematician Dr. Richard Bandler.

The pair’s book, Structure of Magic: A Book about Language of Therapy, was released in 1975. Inspiration for their theory was drawn upon the study of leading therapists such as Fritz Pearls and Virginia Satir, who were able to get outstanding results with their patients. 

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By identifying cognitive patterns, expressed through language, NLP claims to be able to replicate behavioural traits of successful people.

Human language & Communication as foundation

Communication is the foundation of NLP — both internal and external. Proponents of NLP refer to it as a “map of the mind” which leads to a greater understanding of internal processes, with the opportunity to transform and grow. 

NLP’s focus is on non-verbal communication, which accounts for up to 93 percent of all communication, and the study of subjective experience. In other words, it’s a technique that boosts self-awareness and transforms unconscious processes that limit potential.

Although there’s no clear scientific consensus of its effectiveness, over 200,000 people in the US are trained NLP practitioners, and in the UK, NLP-based psychotherapy is recognized by the UK Council of Psychotherapy. Clearly, it works for a lot of people, myself included, and could contain elements that lead to significant growth.

Natural Language Processing — Machine learning methods and the other NLP

If you research NLP online, be careful not to get it confused with Natural Language Processing. The two share the same abbreviation. However, Natural Language Processing is a form of artificial intelligence and machine learning methods that learns and adapts to using language. 

Natural language generation, deep learning models, speech recognition and machine translation use this other NLP a great deal within the field of computational linguistics and computer science. It helps solve problems related to “word sense disambiguation,” which is the problem of determining what “sense” a word is being used in.

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It’s an important function with a range of everyday uses, from predictive text, search results, it’s a part of speech-tagging, and is even a crucial component in something as simple as spell check. It’s also based on linguistics and allows computers to understand and work with language. But it’s not related to the psychological NLP which we’re focusing on in this article. 

So, if you hear a coach or self-help guru use the abbreviation, it’s highly unlikely they’re talking about computer programming, unless you find yourself at the world’s first Neuro-Linguistic Programming NLP technology Conference, or self-development for robots.

How does NLP work?

Let’s begin by addressing the potential elephant in the room. NLP has been identified as pseudoscience due to a lack of scientific evidence for claims made by leading practitioners. 

It always pays to remain skeptical, and if “gurus” are making outlandish promises based on NLP, linked to paid courses or quick fixes, it makes sense to question their validity.

However, there’s no denying that NLP is an extremely effective technique that many people benefit from. Leading athletes, world-renowned public speakers, actors, and leaders in multiple fields all apply NLP to their repertoire. When it comes to psychology, a lack of objectifiable “evidence” doesn’t always equal a lack of personal benefit.

Even the terminology of pseudoscience has been questioned. American Scientist have called for the term to be dropped completely because it lacks a coherent meaning and can confuse scientific issues, with the term often being used as a form of defamation to ideas and theories outside of the mainstream. They explain:

“The distinction between science and pseudoscience is not clear… But with the hindsight of history it is clear that what exactly was labeled pseudoscience in both popular media and scholarly studies had as much to do with culture and ideology as it did with logic and fact… Using the term pseudoscience, then, leads to unnecessary polarization, mistrust, disrespectfulness, and confusion around science issues.”

They point out that pseudoscience is a wide term that ranges from outright fraud or lies, to claims that lack substantial evidence, or even scientific consensus. What’s most interesting about NLP being labeled pseudoscience is how closely it resembles Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a form of therapy that works with language and behaviour, and is viewed as one of the most effective treatments for a range of mental health issues.

Eventually, NLP’s reputation as pseudoscience could change. The University of Derby also notes the need for more rigorous studies into NLP. They highlight that only 3,000 studies have been carried out, with the majority not empirical but theoretical discussion. To put this in context, CBT has around 23,000, with mindfulness and coaching 7,000 and 8,000 respectively. 

5 types of NLP techniques

When it comes to NLP, it pays to keep an open mind. The purpose of this article is to equip you with practical tools that can be incorporated into a wider approach to self-development. I find the best approach is not to expect magic results but to apply techniques to your own subjective experience, and assess if they’re worthwhile or not.

When it comes to the techniques, what better source than Tony Robbins, the life-coach extraordinaire and multi-million book-selling sensation? Robbins is another famous practitioner of NLP techniques, which he incorporates into his own system “neuro-associative conditioning.” 

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In Tony’s words, “how can you change your mindset so that life is happening for you, not to you”? The below techniques help:

1. Imagery training

Also known as mental rehearsal, this is a visualization technique, and one I first discovered on the Paul McKenna mp3 all those years ago. The practice utilizes imagination. So often, our minds wander, we daydream, we might even experience flickers of worst-case scenarios on the movie of the mind. But what if you use your imagination as a catalyst for growth? 

The imagination isn’t only for storytelling. Visualization techniques involve picturing yourself in a future situation, thinking, and behaving with full confidence. For the best results, be as vivid as you can. How is your body language? How do you feel? How do people respond around you? How do you feel once the task is complete, knowing you’ve excelled?

Mental rehearsals are useful for anything from work presentations to difficult conversations. This is one of the core NLP techniques for a reason. High-performing performers and athletes use visualization as an integral part of practice. Tennis player Novak Djokovic, as one example, has used mental rehearsal his entire professional life. “I try to play the match in my mind before I go on the court. I always try to imagine myself as a winner. I think there is a power to that,” he said.

2. NLP swish

This involves playing around with mental imagery. The process is straightforward, but starts off appearing counterintuitive — you bring to mind an image of something you don’t want. Make the image vivid and bright. Then, you think of an image of something you do want, starting with it dull and small. The “swish” occurs by making the image of what you want brighter and brighter, and bringing it to the foreground, as you make the image of what you don’t want small and grey.

Another similar practice I’ve used for anxiety is to picture the images that appear in your mind’s eye on a movie screen. Then, take a step back, and imagine yourself in the audience of the cinema, watching the screen. This is a form of cognitive distancing, which the founder of Cognitive Therapy, Aaron T. Beck, defines as: “the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of ‘reality’ rather than as reality itself.”

3. Modeling

This practice makes common sense. To achieve success, surround yourself with mentors and peers who are already being and doing what you’d like to emulate. 

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Looking to start a business? Network with entrepreneurs. Dedicated to a career as an athlete? Ask successful performers in your field their secrets of success, and study the greats to see how they perfect their technique.

A key aspect of this practice is curiosity, not comparison. It’s not that you want to become a carbon copy of people you admire. Instead, find out what works, and see how you can integrate this in your own unique way. I’d go a step further and say there are two types of modeling — external modeling and internal modeling.

External modeling is effective if you’re looking to model a sports star, an actor, a charismatic public speaker, or even a friend who is able to tell riveting stories. It’s a process of looking at external processes, such as technique or body language. Internal modeling is understanding the mindset and perspective of top performers. What practices do these people apply to feel confident or at ease in high-pressure situations?

Because I experienced extreme anxiety from such a young age, I developed a fascination with elite performers who could keep their cool under pressure without having to sit down and read inspirational anxiety quotes. I struggled to compute how far apart our worlds appeared to be. But, it acted as a great motivator to understand the thought processes and self-development techniques that could bridge the gap, leading me to eventually become a public speaker myself. 

4. Mirroring

This is one you might be familiar with. Mirroring is a natural occurrence with body language, often in play unconsciously. When two people build rapport, they tend to act in sync. I read about this years ago, and I always smile when I find myself mirroring a friend whilst we’re in deep conversations. It’s quite common for me to notice how our body language is an exact symmetry, or when someone moves, the other does too.

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In NLP, mirroring is used as a way to build rapport with people, as a kind of “hack” to this inherent trait. It can be beneficial in bonding, dating, sales, or persuasion. But there is a word of warning: be too robotic with it, and you might end up creating a worse impression. A study by the University of California found that knowing when to mirror is just as important as how. The authors write:

“Mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence. But it is not enough to simply know how to mimic. It’s also important to know when and when not to. The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate.”

5. Incantations

These are affirmations on steroids, and a hallmark of the self-development and NLP field. They combine affirmations with entering a peak state by embodying the statement with as much intensity as possible. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster defines incantation as use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as a part of a ritual of magic or a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect. Both act as nice metaphors for this particular NLP technique.

According to Robins’ website, “incantations are about embodying the meaning behind the words, which is why they are so powerful. With incantations, not only are you speaking words of empowerment, you are using your body and your voice. You are changing your physiology and changing your state, leading to a different and more positive outlook and approach to each day.”

This might feel a bit silly at first, but give it a try. Find what style of language works for you, and give it some gusto. Combine with looking in the mirror for maximum effect.

How to integrate NLP into your self-development practice

I’m a big believer in cherry-picking and integrating what is most optimal. Believing NLP to be a magic fix or cause of overnight transformation is misguided. But there are many techniques, as listed above, that can give you an edge in different situations. 

A reasoned approach to NLP is to try out different techniques, and judge their usefulness for yourself.

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I wouldn’t prioritize NLP over other tried and tested techniques, but I wouldn’t outright dismiss it either. When looking at NLP as more of an umbrella term that borrows from different areas, then you can distill the things that work for you, without strictly sticking to any set practices.

I felt nostalgic writing this piece, as it took me back to techniques I’d research a long time ago to deal with social anxiety. I look back on how I felt back then, quite lost, depressed, anxious, and buried under unhelpful thoughts. I believe applying NLP techniques can be a catalyst to understand the power of thought and attitude in changing your life, one step at a time.

Forget the hype or the lack of scientific evidence. If experimenting with NLP techniques causes the slightest shift in the direction of growth, and provides you with a sense of empowerment and control over your own destiny… Well, I’d say it’s absolutely worth it.