NLP as a valid cognitive linguistic psychology

Universal for this approach are not innate cognitions filtered through a specialised syntactically oriented LAD, but rather are a direct mapping of our sensory experience as filtered through primitive categories of space and time.

Bostic St Clair and Grinder (2001, p. 66) credit transformational grammar (TG) as the ‘single most pervasive influence in NLP’. The assumptions are that all humans have some kind of innate language acquisition device (LAD) and they suggest intuition is a valid form of methodology whereby native speakers of natural language can intuitively code experience using language in grammatically correct ways without even understanding how. So from this standpoint NLP assumes too, because language has structure, and in TG’s case that structure is syntactical so too our experience has structure as well. What is more to the point in the context of modelling excellent performance, there is a competency and performance distinction. There are not a multiplicity of grammars for different states of human experience; there is one universal grammar (competence) and then varying degrees of linguistic performance. The linguistic performance of someone who is very drunk is not very good. So the corollary for NLP is when we find an excellent exemplar in a particular domain, their experience has a very definite structure, as suggested by the well-known sporting meme: Form is temporary class is permanent. The heart of NLP is about explicating that unconscious structure, making it explicit so it can be coded and then transferring that structure and associated processes to other people who are keen to learn.

Suffice to say this has never been demonstrated in the academic literature yet which is a big problem for NLP. However, for cognitive linguistics and cognitive semantics, linguistic organisation of language is held to reflect embodied cognition. So the universal for this approach are not innate cognitions filtered through a specialised syntactically oriented LAD, but rather are a direct mapping of our sensory experience as filtered through primitive categories of space and time. Much more in accord with NLP’s emphasis on embodiment, which we have discussed above. Such theorists suggest the basis for language is not grammar but ontological categories, some of which are what Jackendoff, (1983), calls primitives. Examples of such primitives are ‘Thing’, ‘Place’, ‘Direction’, ‘Action’ and ‘Event’. Each of these corresponds to a ‘wh’ question: what? when? who? where? NLP would add how? Jackendoff (1983) argues that these semantic primitives in language do not derive from a language acquisition devise of a syntactical nature, but the domain of spatial experience and are hardwired and innate. This area is actively being explored by NLP trainer and social psychologist Lucas Derks at his Institute of Mental Space Psychology in Holland and is another typical example of how NLP is currently being developed in accord with modern understanding rather than as Tosey and Mathison (2009) suggested, pointing out that the NLP knowledge base is somewhat anachronistic being rooted in the 1970s and currently being recycled rather than extended. The difference this texturing makes can be appreciated by the sense of a sentence when taking into account the gestalt laws of perception, which were developed by one of the ‘healthy’ people Maslow above wished to model according to Hall - Max Wertheimer. As we know any map is nowhere near as rich as the territory it seeks to represent. Different maps are used for different purposes. A London underground map is great for getting around London quickly, but is not very good for telling you where you can get a good meal. Wertheimer and other gestalt psychologists noticed that there are certain rules concerning how our sensory systems process the territory out there. Take the following two sentences:

  • 1 The car is near the church.
  • 2 The church is near the car.

Grammatically both of these sentences are well formed. We could ask more questions such as When was the church built? What type of car is it? How far is the church from the car? to give us more information, but generally the sentence is well formed. So why is it that the second sentence semantically does not feel as right as the first sentence. It is because according to the gestalt laws of perception, the first sentence accords with how we naturally process visual information. The figure that stands out from the ground is smaller (principle of smallness). Also usually the ground generally is immovable and creates the background and the figure that stands out is moveable. So when applying TG to the above sentences we can assume they are both well formed, but when we deconstruct the sentence semantically according to our sensory experience and according to the principles of gestalt, the first sentence is well formed and the second one is not because the figure (car) precedes the preposition (near) and the ground (church) follows the preposition.

When cognitive linguists deconstruct language in this way, they argue that words do not label individual semantic primitives but rather bundles of primitives that combine to create complex concepts that words denote. As we go down this route, we discover the idea of the conceptual metaphor and this is another area of NLP that has been researched and developed by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins after modelling the therapist David Grove.

A sense of their work and how the modelling of what they call clean language led to an appreciation of metaphor and symbol can be seen in the following excerpt from their website:

What he discovered was the more he used Clean Language, the more clients naturally used metaphor to describe their symptoms. When Clean Language questions were then directed to the metaphors and symbols, unexpected information became available to the client, often with profound results. He found that the less he attempted to change the client’s model of the world, the more they experienced their own core patterns, and organic, lasting changes naturally emerged from ‘the system’.

(Tompkins & Lawley, 1997)

Their credibility is because there is always some compelling psychological content.


1 have very briefly dipped my toe into embodiment, humanistic psychology and cognitive linguistics and could easily and in a very valid way continue with social psychology, constructivist psychology, systemic psychology and pragmatic psychology.

While some, like those mentioned above, are developing NLP and integrating modern scientific findings into their trainings many of these trainers are dropping the name NLP as they move forward. Conversely those who are retaining the NLP brand often do not integrate these new models and the associated scientific literature into their trainings and continue to offer three weeks trainings in order to become an “NLP practitioner” and a further three weeks training to become an ‘NLP Master Practitioner’. That one is entitled to the title ‘Master’ after a six weeks exposure to a discipline in itself demonstrates the paucity of understanding within the NLP community concerning the very subject it proposes to study - that of human excellence. Mastery for one modern researcher, whose ideas are popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, says Gladwell (2008) misunderstood his work and was incorrect when he came up with the figure of 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert. Ericsson makes the point it takes sometimes up to

  • 20.000 or even 25,000 hours, or over ten years (Ericsson, 2016, p. 110). This is the frustration of working as a psychologist using the NLP paradigm. Even though the idea of learning from the best of us and making their expertise available to the rest of us is admirable, the development and testing of NLP patterns which are developed through modelling is incredibly poor and it is for this reason NLP still attracts the pejorative label of pop psychology. It could be that ‘ordinary people’ do not want complex explanations to help them succeed and excel; they just want what NLP offers simple techniques to help them move up a level. They want simple answers such as practice for
  • 10.000 hours; Malcom Gladwell, the five-second rule; Mel Robbins, the secret; Rhonda Byrne, and immersion coaching; Tony Robbins. Many of these catchy movements like NLP have avid following and their credibility is high because there is always some compelling psychological content. For example, 10,000 hours is a catchy number, ‘5 second rule’ is easy to remember and these are therefore popular with a general public wanting answers to their problems. However, the truth is not everybody will solve their problems by counting 5-4-3-2-1 lift off when they get up in the morning, not everybody will be an expert after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or immersing themselves into a particular domain, and to say this is so is both unethical and unprofessional. Psychology, with its insistence on measurement and meta model questions, is perceived as ‘spoiling the party’ so to speak. However, without a critical and reflective aspect becoming a new characteristic of N LP, it will never develop as discussed in Chapter 2. Having a theoretical orientation is important if any discipline is to grow. That this is so is nicely demonstrated by the development of treatment for malaria. People thought that malaria was caused by the bad air created in marshlands, which was, in fact, methane. As a result of this, they found shutting windows reduced the incidents of malaria and thus was a really good practical solution. However, it reduced incidents for the ‘wrong reasons’ and if this practical solution had been regarded as the final solution, treatment of malaria would not have developed. Only when Alphonse Laveran discovered that malaria was caused by microscopic parasites that were carried by mosquitoes could more effective advances be made and more people cured. This is very much the current case with N LP; it claims many practical solutions to many problems, but only a very small proportion of the NLP community is interested in developing and testing their ideas in a critical and academic way. Like the work of Lucas Derks, James Lawley/Penny Tompkins, Michael Hall,

Peter Schuetz, Frank Bourke, Richard Gray and others in the NLP community, my interest is in developing NLP with an intention to be more academic and more scientific and for this reason this book has been written as well as for an audience that share this vision of the future for NLP. In this sense NLP is as valid a psychology as any other.

Questions to make you think

  • 1 What does the word ‘valid’ mean for you? How would you persuade somebody else your current work is valid?
  • 2 Do you think George Bernard Shaw’s quote is fair to both academics and teachers? Give reasons for your answers.
  • 3 In what sense does the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice hold true concerning psychology and N LP and in what sense does it not? Give reasons for both perspectives.


1 In an email to me Grinder pointed out the initial grouping of representations were in fact precisely differentiated and much more so than a linguistic label would offer. He suggested the anchoring process therefore is managed ideally by the non-dominant hemisphere with only slight left brain hemisphere intrusions (for example, labelling), and this emphasises the status of calibration as a prime skill set within NLP. The observation of initial differentiation and the subsequent integration of groups of representations therefore in the anchoring process require great skill and experience in using language as a support function to manage exquisite state management, timing, placement of anchor and future pacing (J. Grinder, personal communication, 9 August 2014). This state of affairs precisely explicates how NLP embraces the importance of embodiment of both knowledge and skill in a particular context and the NLP emphasis on calibration of both hemispheres.


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