One of life’s most important challenges to master is how you can control your behavior; as well as understand the way others behave. Personal development is a meaningful aspect of both professional and personal life.

While there are plenty of strategies to use to achieve more control over your actions, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is one of the most popular and effective.

A Complete Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

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This guide will look at the history of NLP, as well as its core concept and strategies. You’ll also be able to understand more about the benefits NLP can provide you with.


NLP was first developed in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. The two Californians drew upon previous theories in the fields of psychotherapy, language and personal development and created their own therapeutic form of improving human behavior. Parts of NLP are deeply rooted in ideas and techniques from people such as Milton Erickson, Noam Chomsky and Carlos Castaneda.

Since early on, Bandler and Grinder wanted to understand the complexity of human nature and how different aspects of the brain interact with others. In 1975, the two published a book called The Structure of Magic I: A book about language and Therapy, which has been the basis of the system and how it is used by therapists and other practitioners.

Bandler and Grinder believed that our neurological processes, language and our behavior are all connected. By focusing on certain skills, we could use the connection to our advantage and possibly treat problems ranging from phobias to psychosomatic illnesses.

The early part of the movement saw the idea develop and draw upon the growing literature of the human potential movement. As neither Bandler nor Grinder were qualified in psychology and therapeutic application methods, they felt it gave them a better ability to cause the paradigm shift in thinking in these fields.

How NLP became commercialized

The system quickly gained in popularity, as the human potential movement began to lift off at the end of the 1970s. Aspects of NLP were seen as a helpful tool for improving personal development and its therapeutic benefits were beginning to shape form even outside the immediate psychotherapy sector.

The system thus became commercialized and its methods were applied for use in industries such as business. Bandler and Grinder also moved away from pure academic writing and began organizing seminars and events for people who were looking to better themselves.

At the time, a community of both psychotherapists and students formed around the NLP movement and it began to gain global attention. Many of today’s famous self-help gurus and motivational speakers have studied NLP and use it as part of their teaching. For example, Tony Robbins trained with Grinder.

The movement has since lost some momentum, with opponents claiming it has no scientific basis. Yet, the movement is still widely studied and used both in academic and non-academic circles.

NLP system is, for example, still used for psychotherapeutic purposes. It is both a basis of other therapeutic disciplines, as well as its own specific form of therapy called Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy.

Furthermore, while the movement began as a therapeutic orientation, it is still widely applied in other sectors as well. Because of the ability for the system to enhance things such as persuasion, negotiation and sales, fields such as business have taken aspects of the system and used them to better the industry. There are many business leaders, managers and sport coaches, who believe the system can provide people in these fields many benefits.


According to Bandler’s own definition of NLP, the system is:

A model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationships between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (esp. patterns of thought) underlying them.

The idea is that all of humans share the same basic neurology. Your ability to do things in life essentially therefore depend on how you control your nervous system. Furthermore, NLP states your neurological system is directly related to your linguistic and behavioral patterns. Since all of them are essentially learned through experience, or programming, you can also gain control of these aspects with the right modeling.

The idea is that external behaviors are controlled by internal processing strategies. So, while you are making a sale, for example, you are using an internal processing strategy to engage in the behavior, even if you don’t consciously know it. With NLP, you are able to understand and utilize different strategies, which can ultimately help you achieve certain goals.

For example, if you are looking to improve your social status, you can learn internal strategies that help you achieve this.

The term neuro-linguistic programming could also be viewed through each component.

  • Neuro refers to the neurological system – the world is experienced through the senses and the sensory information is translated into our thought processes, both consciously and unconsciously. These thought processes in turn could have an impact on our physiology, emotions as well as behavior.
  • Linguistic refers to how we use language to make sense of the world – Because language has a role in the way you capture and conceptualize the world around you, the words you use can influence your experience of the world.
  • Programming refers to the process of learning things – We all use the different internal strategies and patterns to learn things and make decisions.

Three central components of NLP

You can understand the idea behind NLP by focusing on the three central components. These are: subjectivity, consciousness and learning.

1) Subjectivity

Each person experiences the world subjectively, meaning that our experiences of the world leave us to form subjective models of how things are. These experiences are constituted in terms of our five senses, as well as the language we use.

Therefore, these experiences are formed through the senses of vision, audition, tactition, olfaction and gustation and through the language, we use to think and talk about the experiences. According to the theory of NLP, the subjective experiences have a pattern, which influences the way you see the world, talk about it and behave in it.

The human behavior is therefore controlled by these sense-based representations. By manipulating the sense-based subjective experiences, it is possible to change behavior, according to the theory.

2) Consciousness

The basic premise of NLP believes consciousness branches into two separate notions, the conscious component and the unconscious component. All of us experience things in our unconscious mind, even though these unconscious representations can affect our conscious behavior.

3) Learning

Finally, learning is the third central concept of NLP. As you will learn later, NLP sees learning as an imitative behavior, which they call modeling. The theory states that imitative learning can codify and reproduce any desired behavior.

The NLP communication model

The above three core elements form the basis of much of the theory and strategy of NLP. Another central idea of the system is the NLP communication model. While the above section deals shortly on how NLP believes human behavior happens, here’s a deeper look at this guiding principle.

Essentially, the NLP communication model states that a person is constantly in a sort of behavioral loop. Their external behavior always creates an internal response. The internal response, in turn, creates the person to respond in a certain way, i.e. external behavior. As you can probably see, this external behavior then creates the internal response and so on.

As discussed earlier, the NLP system states that all external behavior is caused by the sensory experience of visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory senses. Therefore, your internal response is affected by these senses and they will cause you to further behave in a specific learned way.

Furthermore, the internal response you have for a specific external behavior is made up of a collection of internal processes and internal state. These refer to the different ways you interpret the sensory experience. The internal process refers to things such as self-talk and sounds created in your mind, while internal state refers to the feelings and emotions you experience.


The idea of NLP is heavily based on the ideas of a strategy, as it sees your internal and external behavior uses processing strategies for each behaviour and response. The system uses different ideas of strategies as part of explaining human behavior, as well as a way to change it.

The most common strategies of NLP are dealt in short-detail below. There are further strategies used and some of the strategies and the way they are applied depends on the context of use.


The basis of the NLP theory was built around modeling. Modeling is considered as a means of finding out about a person’s belief system, as well as physiology. It is also used in terms of understanding the person’s mental strategies, which in turn influence the other two aspects of thinking and behavior.

Modeling essentially tries to find the strategies or mental behavior patterns the person uses for doing things. An example of modeling could be about how a person learns a new skill. In order to learn to speak Spanish, the person would need to model three things.

  • First, the individual needs to learn the vocabulary. This simply means understanding that ‘gato’ means ‘cat’, for instance.
  • Then the person would need to learn the syntax. This means the ability to put these words together in order to make a sentence. For example, the ability to say “Me llamo John”, “My name is John”.
  • Finally, the third part of modeling would be about understanding the mouth movements. Different languages have a different way of moving the mouth to pronounce words and you’d need to study this in order to sound truly Spanish.

According to the theory, you can find these models in all of your behavior. By understanding the modeling behind your behavior, you can change it. For example, if you are not as productive at responding to e-mails, as you’d like, you could find out the models you use for responding and change the problematic aspects of your model to something more productive.

NLP strategy of external and internal experiences

The NLP strategies deal with the previously mentioned external and internal experiences. Both of these experiences produce a specific result. In the NLP strategy theory, there is always a specific sequence of both external and internal experiences, which lead to a specific result. If you change the order and sequence, you are likely going to get a different result.

For example, in order for you to get the e-mail sent, you always use a certain strategy of both external and internal experiences. If the sequence is distracted or changed, it won’t happen.

The elements that go to each strategy involve the five different senses: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (feelings), olfactory and gustatory. You might start the external behavior of writing an e-mail, which creates an internal experience of a specific image or smell, which in turn will cause you to behave in a certain way. Note that these five sensory experiences can happen both externally and internally.

When you are meeting with an NLP therapist, for instance, they will focus on noticing your external and internal experiences. For example, how your eyes move when you talk about a certain thing and so on. These will help create a better understanding of the strategies you use.

The T.O.T.E. model

Bandler and Grinder also discussed a model called T.O.T.E. model. This refers to a model of different NLP strategies and it is mainly used in order to explain how a person processes information. T.O.T.E. stands for ‘Test, Operate, Test and Exit’.

The theory is widely attached to Bandler and Grinder, although the concept originally came from a book by Miller, Galenter and Pribram called Plans and the Structure of Behaviour.

The T.O.T.E. model is mainly used to see what are the processes that cause you to react a certain way. The model is used to finding out what is the thing that sets of a specific strategy in motion in your behavior.

The test essentially looks at the trigger, which starts the strategy. As the trigger continues to operate, it is then tested again to see if the process has completed.

Think of it through an example of motivating yourself to write those e-mails. You first want to consider the thing that motivates you to start writing. This would be the trigger. You start the test, by seeing whether you start the strategy of writing.

Next in the model is the part for operation. The operation point looks at the external and internal processes that are needed for the strategy to continue. What are the external and internal responses to writing the e-mails, for example?

Finally, you’ll do another test. Here you will compare if the trigger and operation established in the first test caused the same strategy and behavior. The exit comes about if the test proves to be successful, i.e. the behavior was the same. If not, you’ll need to think whether the trigger was wrong or the experiences differed during the second operation phase.

Watch the below YouTube video to understand more about the NLP techniques:


NLP has been widely used in different sectors and the proponents of the system believe it can have life-changing benefits for most people. Some of the most common advantages of the system are mentioned below.

Reduce anxiety and stress

Most therapeutic approaches are naturally effective in helping people with anxiety and NLP is no different. There has even been a study, which showed NLP helped people suffering from claustrophobia during MRI scans to alleviate the feeling of anxiety.

Part of the reason NLP can reduce anxiety and stress is its linguistic mechanism. Most people, who are anxious, feel calmer when they are able to talk about the anxiety problem. The guided sessions can also provide the person a better sense of the situation as well as reinforce the response mechanisms for stressful situations.

Boost business success

NLP can have a huge impact on your professional life, as you can change your behaviour to better suit your business goals. The system can effectively help you become more productive without having to slave for hours at the office. Since you are able to harness the good behavior and eliminate the bad habits, you are sure to see business success.

Furthermore, the simple fact NLP is focused on learning and improving your strategies to learn is hugely influential in boosting business success. Because it helps you understand how human behavior is taught, you are better able to reinforce the good business mechanisms within your business.

Enhance creativity

NLP techniques and strategies can also help you be more creative. By understanding the impact different sensory elements have on your own behavior, you can start experimenting with different ideas and strategies. This can help you see common problems in a different light.

Remove phobias or fears

Since NLP focuses on understanding strategies that guide your behavior and change them for better, you can use it to remove phobias or fears you have. With the help of NLP, you can change the internal response you get when you see an animal you are scared of, for instance. If you are afraid of public spaces, you can learn strategies that help you control your emotions when you need to take the stage.

Improve your health and relationships

While the evidence to support NLP’s influence on healthy mood is somewhat limited, most people find reduced levels of depression and improved moved after implementing NLP strategies. This is often down to the fact that people are more able to replace bad habits with good ones with the system. Since you won’t need to worry about a negative impact on your health, testing out whether the system works for you is easy.

Overall, because the theory is focused on improving your understanding of the human behavior, you can improve your relationships with other people. By understanding the ways people operate, you can respond to them better and understand their sometimes negative approaches to life more.

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