Find a course

How is Neuro Linguistic Programming applied?

It is argued that neuro linguistic programming looks at the way in which an individual views their world and the way in which they exist within it; meaning that no two people experience the same reality. Therefore, this suggests that if people are constructing their own reality, that are given a choice about how they do this and as such their views and subsequent behaviour can be altered or amended if they are causing distress or concern of some kind to the individual.

Techniques used within NLP are numerous and varied and we will go on to discuss some of them in more detail within this unit. NLP is not strictly a therapy but its techniques can be used to very good effect in a therapeutic way. Since NLP is used to achieve goals and outcomes it stands to reason that one of the most effective techniques used within it is modelling. What this means is that people who have achieved excellence in a certain area are used as models for individuals to aspire to, something usually of great motivation for someone who desires a change within an area of their life. Models do not need to be someone famous, they can be anyone known to the individual whose behaviour reflects what they would like to attain. For example, someone who wishes to lose a lot of weight might use their friend who achieved the same as a model for their own expectations.

The history of NLP

NLP originated in California in the early 1970s through the work of Richard Bandler and Dr John Grinder who studied the work of famous psychoanalysts who they considered to be excellent communicators and agents of change.

The people they studied included:

  • Dr Virginia Satir – developer of family system therapy
  • Dr Fritz Perls – founder of Gestalt psychology
  • Dr Milton Erickson – developer of clinical hypnotherapy
  • Dr Carl Rogers – founder of person-centred therapy

They then used these people as models of how successful people can be at getting others to change and this began what is now widely known as NLP. Despite having very different backgrounds, all of the therapists that were studied by Bandler and Grinder used language as a way of facilitating change in their clients but this was done in very diverse ways. This reflects the fact that NLP is now considered to be a very flexible approach where each therapist can adapt its techniques to work with their clients to help bring about positive outcomes in each individual case.

How is Neuro Linguistic Programming applied?

NLP can be applied in various scenarios including one to one sessions, group sessions and often in seminars as well because many business people find it to be an extremely effective way of learning about effective communication with their colleagues.

Its application is very useful in assisting in a wide range of issues that include (but are not exclusive to):

  • Negative thinking patterns
  • Anxiety
  • Mild to moderate phobias
  • Motivational strategies
  • Sales training
  • Psychology training

Group therapy session with colleagues

Core skills 

The skills used in NLP therapy have their foundations in those used by many other therapeutic techniques, some of which you are likely to be familiar with, however it is worth revisiting them as a refresher. Firstly, the building and maintaining of an effective relationship between therapist and client is of the upmost priority. This is done by having good rapport between the two and rapport, for NLP purposes rapport takes on a level of high importance, so much so that we will discuss it at length later on in this unit.

Active listening is also very important because this will allow the therapist to ascertain precisely what the issue is that the client presents with. It is worth keeping in mind that observing body language and facial cues are also a crucial part of active listening. Having a positive regard for the client is also key because this helps build trust between the two parties as does effective communication, all of which we will discuss further later on.

The application of these skills alongside NLP concepts must be done in a competent manner by the therapist in order to bring about the most positive result possible for the client.

We will look at the concepts of neuro linguistic programming in greater detail but first, let us take a look at the process, which brings someone to therapy. We must assume that when someone undertakes a programme of NLP that there is something about themselves that they want to change. This might be something obvious, which the client frequently discusses amongst others, such as the desire to stop smoking but it might also be something, which is not quite so obvious, such as the manager of a business wanting to change the way they communicate with their staff in order to raise morale and productivity. Whatever is motivating change though, it usually goes through several stages, which we will now examine in further detail.

Stages of change

The stages of change that most people will encounter when they wish to amend something about themselves occur in five stages:

  • Precontemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance & relapse prevention

In order to give some context to each of these stages, let’s use fictional client Jim, who wants to lose weight, as an example of how they might progress through each one.

Precontemplation: In this stage, the client does not believe that their behaviour is of any issue and that it will not bring about any negative consequences. People in this stage often defend their behaviour and may be quite insulted or irritated if they feel that others are trying to change them.

Jim may genuinely not realise that the extra weight he is carrying is having a negative effect on his overall health or he may be aware of it and choose to ignore it, instead adopting the ‘it won’t happen to me,’ belief in order to avoid the issue. He may also have tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to lose weight and has therefore lost heart in trying again, justifying this by believing that because nothing negative has yet happened as a consequence of him being overweight, it is perfectly acceptable for him to remain so.

Contemplation: People who have reached this stage have now become aware of the consequences of possible change and might be considering how they will go about making any necessary changes. They may however, choose to remain at this stage and not go ahead with any amendments to their lifestyle. The choice is usually made by doing some form of personal ‘cost benefit analysis’, where they will weigh up the benefits of change against what they stand to lose.

Jim will consider the benefits to his health; he will be less likely to get diseases such as diabetes and conditions such as heart disease. His joints will move more freely and his overall level of fitness will be higher. However he will be weighing this up against the fact that he will have to give up eating some of his favourite foods as often as he does. He also knows that he will have to start exercising and cut down on his alcohol intake in order to lose weight.

Preparation: When someone has reached this stage, they have decided that a change is needed and will have made a commitment to do so. They may have already begun to make small amendments to their lifestyle to experiment and see what effect it has. This will work alongside finding out other information, which will help to facilitate the change.

Jim now knows that he must lose weight and has made a commitment to himself to do just that. He has already cut down fast food to a once weekly treat and has started to take his dog for a 20-minute walk per evening, with the goal of eventually increasing this to 60 minutes every day. He has looked at joining a weight loss club and has decided that he is going to motivate himself by awarding himself something each time he loses five pounds.

Action: By now, if the client is going to visit a therapist to help them achieve their goals, it will be at this stage. This shows complete commitment to change and the ‘action’ stage will take as long as is necessary in order to achieve the goal.

Jim has decided that he cannot motivate himself enough to lose the amount of weight that he needs to. He thinks there may be a problem with the way in which he views food and so this is what has prompted him to seek assistance with his goals.

Maintenance and relapse prevention: It is also at this stage where therapy can prove to be very useful, as it can help the client to stop reverting back to old habits and as such getting stuck in a cycle. It also helps them to appreciate that a small setback in making a change is not the end of the world and should this happen they should not give up.

Jim has tried to lose weight in the past and has seen over indulgence at one party as enough of a sign that he should give up because he clearly cannot lose weight and is just destined to be overweight forever. However, therapy has shown him that this is not the case at all, and that he should change the way he thinks about setbacks in order to know that he can get over them and move on to achieve his goals.

The Four Pillars of Wisdom

NLP, like other therapies, involves the application of positive communication and within NLP, this is done by adhering to what are known as the ‘Four Pillars of Wisdom’, which are:

  • Rapport
  • Behavioural flexibility
  • Well-formed outcome
  • Sensory awareness

Rapport: This is probably the most important aspect of the relationship between the client and the therapist. Rapport refers to how the relationship is built and how it is maintained. Having good rapport means that when there is a difficult situation in therapy, it can be dealt with and move on because the relationship is strong enough to deal with it. When we think about having a good rapport with someone, we know that this means we get on well with them and that it is likely that we respect and appreciate their views. It also probably means that we feel as though we can discuss anything with them and that our views will also be respected and appreciated, even if the other person does not necessarily agree with them.

Behavioural flexibility: This refers to the fact that in therapy, sometimes things do not work out the way that we thought they would, and that when this happens, we must be both prepared and able to make appropriate changes. NLP is very adept at being able to change to fit the needs of clients and when the therapist can tailor the programme for individuals, the chances of success are far greater than if they use the same techniques with different people, expecting to get the same results.

Well-formed outcome: This means getting the client to think clearly about what it is that they actually want to achieve. All therapy includes the setting of goals because without them, it becomes difficult to monitor whether or not the work being carried out is having any effect. When clear goals are set, strategies and techniques can be devised in order to meet them and it becomes much clearer what the client needs to do in order to ensure that by the time therapy ends, the goals are either met or the client has been empowered enough to leave and meet them for themselves.

Sensory awareness: This means that the therapist will pay close attention to any communication and non-verbal signals that they receive from their client. This is important because what a client says and what their body language indicates do not always directly correspond with each other. When the therapist shows great sensory awareness, they will have a much deeper understanding of what is going on between themselves and their client.

Adherence to these Four Pillars of Wisdom, increases the likelihood of a successful outcome for clients.

Therapy Session

Further NLP techniques

As you will see, some of the techniques we will discuss within this unit and further along in the course are very specific to NLP and some of them you may never have heard of before at all. Don’t let this put you off because despite the fact that they may appear difficult to get to grips with, this is not the case and once you have given them some consideration, they should make complete sense. Let’s begin by examining the main techniques at a basic level to prepare you for when we look at them in further detail later on in the course.


In this instance, anchoring refers to the relationship between emotional feelings and physical sensations. As humans, once we have experienced a response to a certain situation, we usually go on to expect this response again and the expectation leads us to actually experience it. For example, if a client once had to stand up and be involved in a training course at work, and on their way to the platform where they were due to speak, they tripped up in front of a hundred colleagues and made a fool of themselves, the next time they are invited to speak in front of an audience will make them remember what happened and the feelings of humiliation will return, even though the probability of it happening again is very small.

This is known as a ‘conditioned’ response. In this example, feelings of humiliation may even occur when the person goes past the room where they tripped up or when they see a large group of people sitting together, which will remind them of the audience in front of whom they tripped. Conditioned responses can become very difficult to break but anchoring can help because it encourages a client to replace old responses with new ones in a very specific way, which we will examine more closely later on.


This is a very common technique used in many different types of therapy. It involves getting clients to alter the way that they perceive a situation from negative into positive, hopefully leading to a permanent change. For example, when people are anxious, it is usually because they perceive a real or imagined threat. Getting them to reframe the situation in which they find themselves feeling like this can focus the client in a new direction, which should help them to rid themselves of previous perceptions. In order to achieve this, the client will be taken through a plan with what their achievable goals are and how they will try and fulfill them within their current personal circumstances.


In general terms, presuppositions are beliefs that underlie a system. In NLP, the presuppositions are what guide it in terms of its application and development. Many view the presuppositions with scepticism but they have been shown to produce very useful results.

There are many presuppositions within NLP that have been developed over the years and we will have a look at some of the most common ones here.

The map is not the territory: Everyone has their own individual ‘map of the world’, which is the way they see something, which may not necessarily reflect how it actually is but people have to make sense of things in a way that is meaningful to them. Someone’s ‘map of the world’ may be what is causing them problems because their interpretation of something is not how it really is.

People have all the resources they need: This opens up possibilities for change because here, it is acknowledged that people have resources that can be diversified to fit into many scenarios. Someone may have excellent communication skills at work but find it difficult to speak with strangers; they have not previously considered the fact that the resource of good communication can be amended and applied elsewhere.

You cannot not communicate: Even where there are periods of silence this is still communicating something; possibly that someone is thinking about something or that they are showing they need time to reflect. People are continually interpreting what is happening in their world and sometimes words are not needed at all.

Behind every behaviour there is a positive intention: Sometimes a person’s behaviour is completely baffling to others. For example when someone commits what appears to be a mindless act of vandalism. However, for the person committing that act, their reasoning might be that they are trying to impress their peer group. It is important that therapists get an understanding of their client’s map of the world and not judge them by their own standards. Understanding clients’ intentions can also help therapists to work with them on strategies to change behaviour.

Mind and body are part of the same system: Our emotions, thoughts and behaviour are all linked and when this is realised, clients can understand how they can directly affect each other. Sometimes, just a small amendment is all that is needed to change things. For example, when faced with a difficult situation, someone’s normal pattern of behaviour might be to avoid it completely because their feelings of fear or dread overtake them. However, by encouraging them to smile and walk confidently before facing it might make them feel more positive and their behaviour might be changed because of this. Obviously this is a very simplistic application but it is just to make the point of how the systems work together.

The more flexible people are the more they will success they will experience: Many people who want to change, continue to behave in the same way in the same situation with the belief that eventually, the outcome will be different. Once they can appreciate that they will have to try something different in order to bring about a different outcome, this can lead to a change in behavioural patterns. The same applies to the therapist, if something is not working with a client, it is in everyone’s best interests to change something and to keep changing it until the right result is achieved.

There is no failure only feedback: In science, it is often noted that even results that are not significant are still results. This means that the scientist has learnt something about what not to do and can therefore change something about their work and try it again. When applied to NLP or any other kind of therapy, this means that when something fails to make a change to a client’s behaviour, the strategies used will be re-evaluated and then changed until there is some kind of progress. The term ‘failure’ will never be used in this therapeutic context.

Not all presuppositions will be useful with every client and it will be up to the therapist to determine which course of action to take. However, they are a very useful foundation to take forward into any initial session and so knowing about them is really useful.

Counselling course level 2 online

Interested in becoming a Counsellor?

We offer TQUK qualifications to help you launch a career in counselling.

Learn more about our courses

Read another one of our posts