Model I and 2: constructivism and cognitive linguistics

When Wake (2008, p. 5) made a case for NLP as a therapeutic modality and provided her own interpretation, she pointed out NLP therapy (NLPt) spans many therapeutic philosophies and remarked that NLPt is rooted in the philosophy of constructivism. Rowan, however, in critiquing an NLP-weighted constructivist edition of The Psychotherapist

rather uncharitably suggested, ‘we find articles by people who wouldn’t know constructivism if it came up and bit them in the street’ (Rowan, 2008, p. 16). Rowan goes on to list many constructivist authors that are nowhere to be found in the NLP literature. We will take a further look at how academic psychologists misunderstand NLP by examining Rowan’s critique in Chapter 7 and how this misunderstanding has been a defining factor in the creation of the NLP Zeitgeist. This brings to the fore one of the characteristics of NLP and that is it practices from a utilitarian and pragmatic perspective. Indeed, one of the many definitions of NLP is ‘anything that works’ and is attributed to Robert Dilts. Wake (2008) is absolutely right that NLP does have roots deep in the philosophy of constructivism. However, these roots have not been developed and cultivated in an academic way addressing the constructivist literature. For example, making distinctions between dark and light constructionism (Danziger, 1997), constructionism and constructivism (Greer, 1997), cognitive/psychological constructivism and sociocultural constructivism (Light &Wallian, 2008).

NLP does have roots deep in the philosophy of constructivism;

however, these roots have not been developed and cultivated in an »>

academic way.

In building a model of human functioning, NLP has recognised that a part of the model after Korzybski is the recognition that humans each have their own individual maps of the world and operate from them. This is one of the reasons disagreements break out; people are literally reading from personal maps which represent the same world differently. Because they are emotionally attached to these personal maps, they find it difficult to appreciate the truths which flow from other people’s map of the world. Even before Grinder was involved in NLP, he was writing about the role language played in this distortion and transformation of experience. He pointed out:

In the attempt to construct an explicit set of formal statements that reflect the structure of the language being analysed one becomes aware of the categories and distinctions inextricably interwoven in the fabric of the language system itself. This awareness or bringing to consciousness of the systematic distortion induced by one’s language system gives one the opportunity to escape from the unconscious or pre-perceptual distortion mentioned above.

(Grinder & Elgin, 1973, p. 8)

So N LP coaching is indeed constructivist in nature and it pays particular attention to how language has a role in creating the unconscious maps through which we create meaning. This form of constructivism is rooted not only in the work of Korzybski and general semantics but also in cognitive linguistics as w'e will see later. The intention of NLP coaching is to appreciate and work with the structure of the coachee’s map of the w'orld and co-create new structures in such a way that the experience of the coachee is now' more useful in relationship to their goals. This emphasis on structure within N LP coaching is formalised in one of the NLP pre-suppositions, ‘The map is not the territory’ with a fuller representation taken from Korzybski himself: ‘A map is not the territory it represents but if correct it has a similar structure to the territory w'hich accounts for its usefulness’ (emphasis added; Korzybski, 1994, p. 58).

There could be another linguistic frame controlling that sensory representation.

So while the NLP model of coaching pays particular attention to maps of the world and how language inevitably contributes to the construction of such maps, there is also a whole other level of information processing at the sensory level, which the NLP model of coaching also pays attention to and this is the sensory level. In NLP this sensory level is called first access (FA) or F1 to contrast it from F2, which is the linguistic level. How these tw'o levels interact is key, for often what prevents shifts in experience at the sensory level are higher frames at the linguistic level. So, for example, a coachee who says ‘my boss is like a monster, right in my face’ might struggle to follow' the NLP coach’s lead when invited to put that representation of ‘a monster right in my face’ to one side and make it smaller so they could take a better look. There could be another linguistic frame controlling that sensory representation like, ‘You ignore me at your peril’. So in order for the NLP coach to work at the level of sensory representation and ‘making it smaller and putting it to one side’, some linguistic work may need to be done so as to provide a frame within w'hich it is acceptable to conduct such sensory experiments. So the NLP model after Korzybski is not only is rooted in constructivism, but it is also rooted in cognitive linguistics; how'ever, you will not read of Lakoff and Johnson (1999) in the NLP literature of the late 20th century or vice versa.

Just as with constructivism, as NLP practitioners were building their model of what it is to be human they were doing it starting from Kolb’s active experimentation quadrant of learning (see Table 2.1). I will argue later in this book that this has been the Achilles heel of NLP and that is

Table 2.1 Learning Styles. After McCarthy, Kolb, Honey and Mumford and Jung



Honey and Mumford














What if?




The links between the learning styles are a guideline, often more than one style is necessary to explain another.

it has focused almost exclusively on concrete experience and active experimentation and excluded the development of reflective observation and of theoretical/conceptual understanding. NLP practitioners may have been intuiting similar concepts as Lakoff and Johnson were in 1999, but at that time they chose not to write about them in a similar academic way because the emphasis for the NLP model is that of pragmatics rather than theoretical elegance. This is aptly emphasised by the co-founders of N LP when they say,

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is the discipline whose domain is the structure of subjective experience. It makes no commitment to theory, but rather has the status of a model - a set of procedures whose usefulness not truthfulness is to be the measure of its worth.

(Dilts, Grinder, Bandler, & DeLozier, 1980)

So the N LP coaching model with a commitment to usefulness and not truthfulness has many intuitions about many branches of psychology; constructivism and cognitive linguistics to name just two, but because of a lack of attention to reflection and development of theory, the NLP coaching model is very much a jack of all trades and master of none. Grimley (2016) puts it this way:

For Grinder et al. it is the syntactical nature of the F2 transforms and those limitations which tends to direct humans to this Jackdaw Epistemological stance of only being able to appreciate what surrounds us from one perspective.

(DeLozier & Grinder, 1987, p. xix)

This research suggests that NLP indeed may have moved its practitioners away from a Jackdaw Epistemology; however, they have replaced that with another ornithological metaphor, that of a Magpie Epistemology:

Magpies, as we all know, like shiny things which often makes them symbols of superficiality. As Handler and Gable wrote in their wonderful book The New History in an Old Museum about Colonial Williamsburg, ‘a magpie is a bird that weaves odd trinkets - tinfoil, gum wrappers, coloured yarn - into its nest’.

(Rizzo, 2013)

It is this lack of critical analysis, and attention to detail as well as the lack of credible research and discussion in the academic literature which prevents NLP from becoming a field which can be tested alongside other paradigms in HRD, OD, consulting, and Therapy / Counselling to name a few.

(Grimley, 2016)

What are the other shiny things from psychology or other professions that NLP has assimilated into its nest, or should we say coaching model?

Model 3: systems theory

As we live our lives, often automatically, on the basis of our unconscious constructed maps of the world we inevitably find that life is full of unintended consequences.

A colleague of mine once was attacked and robbed of tens of thousands pound sterling, having pepper spray discharged into his face and violently beaten up. To compound his misery, he was then accused by the company he worked for of being complicit in the robbery, when in fact he was the nicest and most honest person you could ever know. Within two years, this man became a body builder who was regularly benching 350 lbs and who was cynical of any form of corporate governance.

Another colleague I remember once discovered his wife had been cheating on him with a successful local businessman. Again another lovely person, living in the groove and enjoying life. Within a year he was visiting every night club in town, bedding any female who caught his eye, with their consent of course, became the Don Juan of the neighbourhood and the hairs on his neck would rise whenever he saw a business man in a BMW or Mercedes.

Moving to the public arena, those of a certain age will remember the impact of Gerald Ratner’s ‘total crap’ speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991 and even Richard Branson tells an amusing anecdote of how he was charged and found guilty under the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889 and narrowly escaped criminal conviction under the Customs and Excise Act 1952 when he pointed out that customs and excise were more interested in obtaining a lucrative out of court settlement than having to pay expensive court fees.

Branson goes on to point out that night in the police cell, with his freedom taken away made him vow never to do anything illegal or anything to cause him embarrassment again (Branson, 2008). These stories serve as metaphors and invite us to ask the question, ‘do we construct our maps, or are our maps constructed for us as we react to the experiences of life?’ Whatever the answer what is key when one adopts a systems perspective in coaching is that learning from our experiences and consequently modifying our unconscious maps of the world is key to successful outcomes and those who are not equipped to do that as a result of a coaching intervention will be at a disadvantage.

Psychology, from their perspective, has a monadic view focusing on the individual and isolating such variables as leadership, personality, attention, memory, cognition and researching them independently of each other.

Tosey and Mathison (2009) tell us that almost all of the NLP presuppositions come from systems theory and much of the early development of NLP was under the mentorship of Gregory Bateson, a key participant in the Macy Conferences between 1946 and 1953. They emphasise the fact though that after the publication of The Structure of Magic 1 where Bateson wrote an introduction and one letter to Helen Kennedy of Kresge College in February 1974 supporting Grinder, nowhere else in any writings about Bateson is there any mention of his involvement with Bandler, Grinder or NLP. So while Bateson may have influenced the early direction of NLP he clearly did not endorse it. We will discover much more about systems thinking in Part 2 of this book and in particular Chapter 7. One of the interesting distinctions that Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas and Jackson (1967) make is that psychology from their perspective has a monadic view focusing on the individual and isolating such variables as leadership, personality, attention, memory, cognition and researching them independently of each other. These variables then become reifications and are believed to exist or not exist within each person.

As the anecdotes above demonstrate all of us live and work in highly complex and interrelated systems and the NLP presuppositions which support a systems approach are ‘The meaning of your communication is the response you receive (sociocultural constructivism) and ‘The mind and body are part of the same system’ (cognitive/psychological constructivism). This approach presumes sets of relationships are far more important than a focus on the individual and the reification of putative entities such as ability, cognition, personality and so forth. The rift that these differing epistemologies have created between psychology and NLP will also be more fully explored and discussed in Parts 2 and 3.

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