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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/18/13

Why I Stopped Using NLP

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I use NLP in my coaching, but have mentioned that it scared me back in the day, and that I voluntarily decided to stop its use until I matured a bit more.   That comment raised some eyebrows, and I decided to explain.

Neuro Linguistic Programming is a VERY powerful set of tools.   It can be used for self-improvement, therapy, sales, sports performance, or seduction.  I studied it back in the 80's, and got really, really good.  Then something happened that suggested I was so good at it that I could affect people on basic levels that scared me.  Now, I'm not saying I should have been scared, or that someone else should have been.  Just reporting honestly.   I then "backed away" from NLP because I saw that it was power without a moral center, an investigation of how human beings communicate with themselves and others, mostly on an unconscious level.  Later, I found a little corner of the NLP world that DID have a moral core, and was able to approach it again.  Again, this is about my perceptions, MY values, and not whether anyone else could or should practice this stuff.

I first knew that there was an issue when I attended a self-improvement seminar by a major NLP guru, and watched him drop whole sections of the audience into trance and give them embedded hypnotic commands to buy his products.   Scary.  

But my personal epiphany came when I used it to talk a guy out of committing suicide without him ever knowing what I'd done.  That was power.  And as Uncle Ben (he of Spiderman, not Converted Rice) said: "with great power comes great responsibility" and I wasn't feeling hugely responsible back then.


The incident happened thirty years ago,  when the wife of a friend called me in a tizzy.  Call her Maude, and the husband "Mark".  She was crying. "Steve, my marriage to Mark is in trouble.  He's in trouble."   I asked her to explain.  Mark had grown increasingly distant.  Hadn't touched her sexually in a year (and for the record, she was GORGEOUS) and just watched porn on his computer.

And now he'd begun talking about suicide.  She was legitimately terrified.   Now, these were "social" friends, in that I worked with the guy.  HAD worked with him.  We'd been to their house for dinner, but it wasn't like we were close.  This was one of the moments in my life when I realized that people told me stuff that was just unreal.  I mean: why me?  What did she expect me to do?

But"something inside me liked the idea that I might be able to help.   She said he wouldn't go to a therapist, and was a powder-keg.   For whatever reason, I accepted the challenge.

I spent an hour thinking about it, and realized that no frontal assault was gonna work. In fact, I'd been forbidden even to mention to Mark that Maude had talked to me!   Hmmm.

I got sneaky.   Called Mark and, with a heavy voice, said I had some problems, and no one to talk to about them.  Because of some life experience he'd had, I thought he might be perfect.  He was flattered, and agreed to meet me for dinner.

At the restaurant the next day, I played someone on the edge of depression.  Hinted at suicide.   Now, before I did that, I "gained rapport"--matched his speech patterns, body language, breathing rate and depth.  Crossed my arms the same way he did, without being obvious about it.

Then"I slowly began to lead him into trance, using language, rhythmic speech patterns, and deepening my breathing.  When two people have rapport, the one with the deepest congruence and greatest flexibility will start controlling the engagement.

One secret to hypnosis is that it is a projection of an internal state within the hypnotist.  So all I had to do was enter the state of focused calm I wished "Mark" to enter, and the rapport communicated it to him.  Because he was unaware of what was happening, he went heavy, and hard, and it was all I could do not to laugh as I made him sway side to side or cross and uncross his arms.    Powerful stuff!

Now the game really started.  I convinced him I was deeply depressed, and got him to advise me on how to get out of it. (I hope I don't have to explain how appropriate it is to have a client tell YOU what their recipe for an internal state or change).  He suggested I think of the good things in my life (if you want to change your mood, either change what you focus on, or how you use your body.  He was suggesting a change in focus.  Great.)

So"I began to weave the trance a little deeper.  "Are you telling me," I asked, and when I said "you" I pointed to myself.  And when I said "me" I pointed to him, very subtly.    "Am feeling depressed, I should think about all the great things in my life?"

He kind of blinked and nodded.   

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Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, personal performance coach, and martial artist. He has lectured on creativity and human consciousness at UCLA, Mensa, and the Smithsonian Institute. Steve created the Lifewriting system of (more...)

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