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Does your brain need a reboot?

News & Articles 27-01-2016

Neuro Linguistic Programming has been lauded as the future of entrepreneurial success. Andrew Stone takes a look at both sides of the NLP coin.  

By studying the speech and body language of others, we can make social and professional interactions go our way more often. We can also study our own thoughts and language to identify negative psychological patterns and so ‘reprogramme’ the way we think and act.

This is the promise of Neuro Linguistic Programming, or NLP, a study of ‘human excellence’ that can give us the tools to take control of our consciousness, according to John Grinder, a co-founder of NLP. “The strategies, tools and techniques of NLP represent an opportunity unlike any other for the exploration of human functioning or, more precisely, that rare and valuable subset of human functioning known as genius,” he has claimed.

NLP has been around since the 1970s. Its originators, acting on insights from emerging scientific thinking around how our minds worked at the time, developed tools which they claimed could help individuals change their behaviour and improve their personal and working lives. Students of NLP would work with practitioners to learn certain techniques and skills, for example mirroring the posture of clients to gain their trust or empathy.

There are still plenty of NLP advocates and practitioners today, perhaps most famously the UK the self-styled entertainer and mentalist Derren Brown. In the US, life coaches such as Tony Robbins have in the past drawn heavily on the insights from NLP.

Entrepreneurs, it is claimed, can also use NLP tools in a variety of ways. This includes accelerating their ability to learn, improve relationships and build leadership skills by inspiring loyalty, co-operation and enthusiasm. The outcomes, it is claimed, can be more effective meetings, better customer relationships, clearer strategies, better presentation and ultimately higher sales and profits.

The Millionaire MBA programme, for example, aims to use the principles of NLP to ‘model’ successful millionaire entrepreneurs. It promises to help “tap into their millionaire mindset and rewire your own brain to think this way too” by sharing the insights from 29 UK-based self-made millionaires, entrepreneurs and business experts with the aim of uncovering what makes up the ‘millionaire mind’.

The entrepreneurs interviewed included Duncan Bannatyne and Simon Woodroffe from Dragons’ Den, Sir Tom Hunter, Lord Harris, Lord Billimoria and 20 other high-profile and ultra-successful business leaders, according to the website, which went on to claim:

“Each answer was recorded using high-quality digital recording equipment, and their responses were chopped up, edited, and using the principles of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), analysed to find a consistent thinking pattern which is common amongst self-made millionaire entrepreneurs.”

It’s a bold promise and one any business owner who aspires to take their business or businesses to the next level would be interested in. Who wouldn’t want to rewire their brain in order to tap their innate genius? Who wouldn’t want to learn the shortcuts to getting employees, business partners and customers to do what we want?

But NLP has plenty of sceptics who question its worth, both as a body of thought and as a way to improve performance. Part of the problem doubters have is that it is has not been possible to verify empirically whether NLP works or not. As such, NLP can only be said to work, the sceptics claim, if the recipients of the training believe it does and that it is only this belief that leads to improvements in behaviour or performance. If so, this is little better than ritual magic.

Robert Todd Carol of the Skeptics Dictionary puts it this way: “NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether or not the claims behind their origin are valid.

“Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether or not it works. However, how do you measure the claim ‘NLP works’? I don’t know and I don’t think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enrol in more training sessions.”

Critics assert that the lack of rigorous proof from a series of studies over the years suggests it is a largely discredited pseudoscience, that there is little research evidence supporting its usefulness as an effective counselling tool and that it is an unsubstantiated therapeutic method.

So if this science is discredited does more recent research suggest an alternative? Perhaps. Recent behavioural science, for example, suggests that it is possible to identify how and why teams are effective or not and improve their performance.

It does this by looking at the non-verbal signals humans use to communicate beyond language (something that NLP also promises it explores in part). This signalling happens more or less on an unconscious level and is therefore something we have a limited ability to control or exploit at an individual.

What this research suggests is that in our interactions with others we have less control than NLP practitioners suggest we have, but that we can apply its lessons on a larger scale by measuring these interactions, studying them and then identifying how to make the most of them.

Professor Sandy Pentland is a leading academic applying this area of research to a business context. His basic argument is that language is a recent evolutionary development and older ways of communication signal dominance, interest and emotions, shaping the way we make decisions and collaborate together.

It’s a relatively new discipline that he calls sociometrics, which measures what people say, how they say it, their gestures, tone of voice and body language and what that tells us about group dynamics. Professor Pentland uses wireless ‘sociometers’ to gather reams of data from wearers to measure their non-verbal signalling, to observe and measure the dynamics of high performance teams and gather insights that can be used to strengthen performance of low performers.

“The patterns we see are consistent regardless of the type of team and its goal whether it’s an R&D team or a group of call centre workers,” he says. “We’ve predicted who will win a business contract or which team will invest successfully, based only on the data. Companies can use this to achieve transformations, engineering high performance into their teams.”

It is, however, a new field that is currently only making its way out of academia and into the workplaces of large organisations and so for now is of limited practical use to smaller owner-managed businesses.

And since these insights explore social interactions and not our internal dialogues, is there a stronger case for NLP in helping business owners with their internal motivations? Can business owners use NLP to improve their internal processes and so their performance?

The answer is a tentative, qualified yes. NLP shares some features with cognitive behavioural therapy, which is an accepted, thoroughly researched and widely practised psychological tool. Practitioners use it to challenge their clients’ negative interpretations of events as well as to use it to encourage them to cultivate a more positive outlook.

As a treatment for anxiety and depression it is accepted and can produce good results. Improving the confidence and outlook of a business owner through comparable NLP techniques isn’t too much of a stretch.

The problem for NLP as a body of knowledge, however, is that its claims are no longer seen as being grounded in sound scientific theory. Its claim, for example that eye movement or use of key words, gives reliable insights into how another person is thinking or what the nature of their motivations are, is not backed up convincingly by peer-reviewed scientific research.

Researchers Sergio Della Sala and Barry Bayerstien claim NLP’s insights derive from widely accepted but now outmoded theories from psychology, linguistics and neuroscience in the 1960s that the scientific world has since abandoned. “NLP remains mired in the past or the never-was,” they conclude.

Yet perhaps there is still merit in the notion that we have the power to change our thinking and so improve the way we work and function. The quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right” surely has merit.

Editor of Psychologies magazine and life coach Suzy Greaves says NLP can provide useful tools but advises caution about accepting the wilder claims for its effectiveness. “I think it has some useful insights about how to create rapport with other people, but I think it has been over-marketed.”

Similarly there is surely no harm and potentially much to be gained by studying and attempting to emulate the successful behaviours and strategies of well-known entrepreneurs.

But there are other established ways to do this from finding experienced mentors to work with or development programmes aimed at owner managers. What there are not, it seems, are any quick fixes we can use to rewire our brains to become overnight business geniuses.


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