Butterflies in a Box


THERE ARE RUMOURS that the name was just a joke: Neuro-linguistic Programming! However, the label 'NLP' has no doubt helped to success­fully market a package of marvellous ideas and techniques. But I want to argue here that the very label that links NLPers throughout the world also causes all their troubles.



In the spring 1977 I took an exam on Bandler and Grinder's Structure of Magic as part of my BA in psychology. I was more than excited about their approach: it seemed to me that clinical psychology had at last moved on to its next stage of development. And although I noticed that it was a bit 'far out' for most academics, I was sure that this new para­digm would prevail. The fact that a psychiatry professor nicknamed Bandler and Grinder 'Bandit and Swindler' in class did sting at the time but not yet alarm me.

To read that Bandler and Grinder called their work 'NLP', gave me a strange feeling. But I didn't give it much attention - what's in a name?



Frogs into Princes, Reframing and Tranceformations were totally revolu­tionary. NLP. Wow! It was as if science fiction psychology had become real!

In the first practitioner training on the Continent I met at least ten other psychologists; several hypnotherapists, a body therapist, train­ers, psychomotor therapists, linguists, a doctor, a nurse, a Jesuit monk, a behavior therapist, a psychiatrist and some holistic healers. All these pioneers agreed that NLP was new, was fine, was the best. Suddenly I found myself talking with pride and enthusiasm about 'NLP'.

I had turned into an NLPer with a vision and a mission; but to my growing disappointment, my message proved to be very hard to get across to sceptical academics. In contrast, psychologists who did imag­ination therapy, psychosynthesis, hypnosis, Gestalt or voice dialogue found it much easier to explain what they were up to. And my problem was that NLP did all of that, and more - and far better! No matter how boldly or subtly I paced and lead as a missionary, none of my psychol­ogy friends started to do NLP, despite my best efforts. But many others did.


Something wrong?

Before I had even had time to consider if I really wanted to 'join' NLP, I was already asked to teach it. For an increasing number of days a year I became a (certificate free) NLP trainer. NLP educators were scarce, and from 1986 on, when I stopped doing research in social psychology, all my income came from NLp-related activities. I wrote several books and articles to promote, explain and develop NLP, investing a lot of time and effort in it; and I must say, it has really paid off.

However, realizing I was a full-time NLPer gave me an uneasy feeling: was my unconscious mind signalling anything important? Could it be that there was something wrong with NLP? And if so, what?

For me, one of the major reasons for admiring Bandler and Grinder was their critical attitude; I placed them in the Palo Alto and anti­psychiatric corner. They criticized the existing psychotherapeutic establishment flat out, and I liked that. But not only did they criticize, they also offered a sound alternative. I liked that even more.

For the highly critical scientist I took myself to be, I could find hard­ly any drawbacks to NLP. On the contrary, rather. If for instance some­body said that 'NLP' was a stupid name, I immediately countered with a defence such as: 'When one uses all NLP'S powertools in combination, you have something with superior impact, and of course such a com­bined technology needs its own name. "It" takes an auditory anchor to be able to talk about "it", doesn't it?'

Other NLPers were more successful in expressing what was wrong. They stated for instance that NLP has a bad reputation; it lacks depth,leadership, spirituality and ethics; practitioners of NLP are oppor­tunists; NLP is too positive and na"ive; it lacks creative development and a forum to test new models; it has lost its connection with science; NLP is about modelling, but only a few people actually do it; there is no real NLP community; NLP has failed to develop international standards for training, marketing and certification; it is mechanistic; it uses the wrong metaphors and it is based on a hippy philosophy.


Several well known NLPers responded to this criticism with: we must organize NLP; set standards; do research; work our way back into the scientific community; organize platforms and condemn all those who have been corrupting the business with bold commercialization.

But being an anarchist, I don't like institutionalization. To me, the absence of control and regulations are extremely attractive. NLP is free! Free to develop in all directions. Free to accept the contributions of all, not just of some elite. My anarchistic background also taught me that freedom takes courage and comes at a price. When I observe the authoritarian structures in well-organized psychology movements with their franchise constructions, or when I see the pseudo detention cen­tres that house academic psychology and regulated mental healthcare, I would rather live wild in the untamed jungle of NLP! This libertarian view helps me to be at peace with the rather disorganized state of affairs in NLP.

Besides being an anarchist, I am also a historical relativist. Look at NLP from a historical perspective and you are sure that NLP can't be the crown of creation. If the earth is not soon destroyed by a cataclysm, we can expect NLP to be seen as a primitive fossil in the future. Perfection kills development: let NLP be incomplete forever!

But being a NLPer, I had to pay attention to the positive intention of the part of me that gave me the uneasy feeling about being a full-time NLPer. So I asked it, 'Please, part of me, give me a hint as to what's wrong about NLP.'

Years went by, and I had almost forgotten that I had ever made this request. But then recently a deep inner voice started to speak to me. It said: 'There is one thing most NLPers fail to mention. It is a point that, when made by an outsider, they turn a deaf ear to. This is an obstacle NLPers have chosen to be blind to. It is a notion that always slips through the fingers when NLPers try to grasp it.' It went on, 'Listen buddy! The only thing that is really wrong with NLP is "NLP".'


A marketing success

'There are many pop psychologies in the world and we call ours, Neuro­linguistic Programming. Spread the word!'

Bandler and Grinder & Co gave their work this interesting sounding fantasy name. So what? Around 1978 it appeared completely justified and logical. It was also strategic: it showed the world that something new had been created. NLP entered the competitive market of psycho­therapeutic movements. And this specific name did not limit its poten­tial applications to psychotherapy. It could be sold everywhere: to the whole worldwide market of professional communications and beyond. And yes! It-all worked perfectly. . . .

In the remainder of this article I am not trying to suggest that we would have had a greater impact under any other name. Nor willi argue that we should change any syllable, or change the meaning of any syl­lable, in 'NLP'. As a brand name it is fine: three letters; it sounds good, a bit mysterious, a bit technical. . . . No problem. What I would like to do, on the other hand, is to demonstrate that the very act of labelling this complex intersection of science and application lies at the root of most of the evils that beset us. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the methods of NLP, nor should we try to give them a different name, but it is time to realize that all that is troubling us in the field aris­es from giving names to very complex things.

Furthermore, I consider it pointless to attempt to blame anyone for having come up with the name; I wish I could have done it myself. The rationale behind writing this article, then, is to make sure that we don't overlook this crucial point before we start discussing anything else. And even more important: recognizing that 'NLP' is a serious obstacle will enable a larger proportion of mankind to enter the age of science fiction psychology too.


Making problems

So my main message can be summarized as follows: by packing a lot of wonderful stuff into one single box and printing 'NLP' on the sides, the founders of NLP also created most of the current problems. In what fol­lows, I will be more specific on this.


1 The box becomes a caricature in the media

Journalists want to be famous. They love to put themselves in the pic­ture and they make use of others for that purpose. They want to move, shock, or amuse the public with a story about NLP. However, NLP is very complex and hard to define to outsiders. Rather than grapple with the difficulty, most journalists prefer to write about NLP in a sensational way. Are there any scandals or crimes? Is NLP a sect lead by a malev­olent guru? Or some secret cult of weirdos? But to journalists' dismay, NLP is not sensational in this way and it's hard work to write a sensible piece about it, let alone to make a balanced tv show. For the media, 'NLP' is difficult. But a single tool, like the timeline for instance, could easily be presented in the media without being torn out of proportion.


2 The box is taken for its tools

Before 'NLP' existed, people were confronted with the Meta Model, the 4Tuple, the Milton Model and the Satir categories. But after putting these inside the magical box, it was the box that drew all the attention. Now people started to argue about the box, its color, its size, how it compared to other boxes and whether it was really new and whether it was ethical.

For instance, instead of asking if the use of anchors is supported by scientific research, people wonder if 'NLP' is scientifically sound. But anchors are just an other name for classical conditioning, something based on the Pavlovian paradigm; there exist thousands of established studies to prove anchors, but almost none to support 'NLP'.

What went totally wrong was that testing the eye movement hypoth­esis (eye cues) was regarded equal to testing 'NLP' in its entirety. When most research findings proved statistically insignificant, this led to the rejection of NLP by the US National Academy of Science in 1988. The fail­ure, under test conditions, of one of the tools led to the disqualification of the box and everything inside it.


3 Everybody can fill boxes

Looking at it from a marketing perspective shows how from the early 80s on, the NLP box became its own coffin. By calling the whole enter­prise 'NLP', Bandler and Grinder and the members of their experimen­tal work groups lost their claim of paternity over individual products within the box. Furthermore, the very concept of 'modelling' also con­tradicts ownership of techniques that are copied from experts.

As a result it became very easy for clever business people to take one or more tools out of the NLP box and sell them in their own boxes, like Anthony Robbins did with his Neuro Associative Conditioning (NAC) box. Individual tools can be taken out and repackaged without any legal or cultural objection. NLP tools can be sold together with other tools from different origins, like oriental medicine, yoga, hallelu­jah, new age stuff or whatever. Like Roy Martina, who packaged sever­al Bandler and Grinder tools and merged them with kinesiology and holistic medicine. By applying direct and hard sell marketing to such a remix, some repackagers have became rich gurus, leaving the founders of NLP with frustration.

Bandler and Grinder each tried to start anew with their own 'repack­ages'. They tried Design Human Engineering and New Code. But these labels didn't flourish as well as the old one does.


4 Investment in a box

After a decade during which people tried to sell the tools in their own boxes, the market now has changed, since it proved to be pretty hard to beat 'NLP'. Retailers that have tried their own mix often return to NLP's old mystery box.

What is keeping NLPers hooked is not only the superior stuff inside the box, but most of all its commercial success. The package reaches an ever-growing segment of the market. If you drop 'NLP' you lose the investment that you and others have made in the brand image. That is why we now deal in an 'NLP+' market. And I believe this is here to stay. Retailers need to make it clear to the public that their product does all the good things that NLP does and more. You need to add this 'extra' to deal with the competition, since the NLP market is beginning to be sat­urated.


5 The box is public property

The NLP label sells well; however its status in the public domain has become a major problem. Every retailer is free to sell complete non­sense, claiming it to be the next step in NLP. This of course harms and discredits the reputation of the other shops. The market value of NLP's image goes up and down under the influence of how independent retail­ers advertise and sell it.

The brands 'Bandler and Grinder', 'Bandler', or 'Grinder' lost it to 'NLP'; many of today's NLPers don't even know them anymore. Today we

are all stockholders of NLP - don't most certification papers look like company shares?


6 Fighting over boxes

People are forever getting organized. Societies for NLP have been founded around the globe. This raises questions like who may join them and who may not? Who may organize an NLP conference and who may not? Who safeguards standards of behavior and decides on what certificate is a 'yes' or a 'no'? And besides these troublesome things, everyone on the board of the company has a personal stake in it . . . fighting, splitting up, suing each other, and starting fresh societies over and again. In the end the box will be torn to pieces. And, hey, it was empty!


7 The box is an offence

We should remember that NLP started as part of a revolt against an aca­demic and psycho-therapeutic elite. Bandler and Grinder were demon­strating that other people were stupid. To take the best of applied psy­chology, develop it into something really effective, teach it brilliantly and conquer the world with it is a great act of provocation. NLP shows academe its impotence; but to everyone's dismay academe prefers to look the other way! In 1980 I believed the whole field would embrace NLP within a couple of years. But I was totally wrong.

Carrying the letters 'NLP' on your banner does not make you a rebel for ever and few academics are brave warriors who want to conquer the unknown. Every revolution calls for counter-revolution and restora­tion. In Holland some 'enlightened psychologists' immediately knew, without any research, that NLP was wrong, and helped to protect those students who might otherwise have wandered off into the dark. How many established psychotherapists do you know who converted to NLP?

Looking back, I believe that Bandler and Grinder & Co's products could easily have been assimilated into social science. For instance, I myself was able to graduate on a number of research proposals con­cerning elements of NLP in 1982. And some doctoral dissertations on single NLP tools have been successful. Later models like EMDR demon­strate how new therapeutic procedures can fit in. However, the EMDR box contained only one tool.

Bandler and Grinder and & Co's box is filled with many multi-disci­plinary tools which can only be assimilated by specialized branches of science. 'Sleight of Mouth', for instance, is a contribution to rhetoric. Few clinical psychologists know about rhetoric. I'd like to meet the scientist who is enough of a Renaissance man to possess an overview of all the qualities of NLP. The relatively isolated position of NLP within the social sciences can be attributed entirely to the presentation of all its knowledge and skills in one single trans-disciplinary box.


8 The box is sacred

Looking back also raises a crucial question for the future: What is the value of preserving NLP as an independent discipline?

In the first place we must face the fact that Bandler and Grinder's work is an excellent example of trans-disciplinarity! But a trans­disciplinary discipline sounds paradoxical to me.

In the meantime we see NLP technology going everywhere without its origins being mentioned. Will all this become mainstream practice, in the hands of people who have forgotten about its roots?


9 Professionals don't buy boxes

After working with its tools for over twenty years, I am convinced that the box contains fantastic instruments. And it is a shame that the most professional therapists and coaches are still unaware of its potential.

Even great stuff can be hard to sell in a 'one package'. Well educated customers may wonder, 'Do I really want this package deal?' As NLP­salespersons we have learned to respond to this buyer's resistance with 'Yes, you must buy everything together. 'Cause one tool doesn't work without the others; timeline without rapport is useless!'

Other NLP-salespeople would solve this with logical levels: 'NLP is more than just a technology; it is a general attitude to life, a way of being in the world. NLP is not about fixing people with some techniques! Nor is it about just doing things differently. Yes, you need the Meta and the Milton models and the Anchors and the SubmodaIities and the Parts to become an NLPer and play your part in the NLP universe!'

However, a package deal is not the right deal for all customers. Those who buy it most easily are those who come empty-handed. They may say to the salesperson: 'I don't know anything about these things. So just give me the entire kit.'

Being a visual artist myself, I see the same thing happening with sets of oil paints: beautiful cedarwood boxes with twelve primary and sec­ondary oil colours, three types of brush, medium, siccative, furnish, grounding, two pieces of canvas, a palette, a palette knife, some pic­turesque predrawn examples for painting by numbers, and a twenty­ page booklet written by a real expert. All wonderful quality.

Guess who buys boxes like these!

A paintbox salesperson may tell you, 'No, you cannot paint without all these items. You need the medium to make a glaze, you need the knife to make an impasto and you need the sable to make a sfumato.' If the customer objects, the salesman will continue, 'This box is not just about painting; it will make you an artist!'

But it is difficult to sell the package to customers who already pos­sess things they believe to be similar to what's inside such a presenta­tion box.


10 The difficulty of identifying with a box

Many NLP pioneers with a background in the social sciences never wanted to be 'NLPers'. But they had a passion for hypnotherapy, Bateson, communication, or Erickson. And suddenly they found near­ly all their interests met in this one box.

Already in the early eighties I heard people saying that they never mentioned that they were using NLP in their work. Neither do I know trainees who have learned NLP because they wanted to be NLPers. No, they just saw the results of their NLP-trained colleagues, and wanted just that. Most of my trainees work in fields where they are little hin­dered by the fact that what they do is called NLP, because in their envi­ronment people don't bother so much about what it's called as long as the results are fine. But many of the good people we failed to reach, like most clinical psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists, just can't buy the package. To them, what they do, what it is called and its repu­tation is vital. Many consider the NLP package silly and they fear their colleagues won't take them seriously if they purchase one.

Similarly, I don't know any professional artist who goes to an art shop to buy 'one Rembrandt box'.



So what are we to do?

In many disciplines it is quite acceptable to end an article with a list of unsolved and even unsolvable problems. NLPers hate that. So what should we do as step one?

My first advice to my NLP colleagues is: try to forget about this arti­cle, make money, be happy and become an NLP hero. My second is more complex and more in harmony with the principle of ecology and it comes in three steps:


1 Re-read the foregoing list of problems and evaluate which ones you consider to be serious.

2 Feed these problems (away from criteria) into your 'critic' and process them using Dilts's Disney strategy. What new behaviours can you come up with to resolve these problems?

3 Share the fruits of your reflections with other NLPers through the

pages of NLP World. By taking these steps you will contribute to a future in which the tools will be so widespread that nobody cares about boxes any longer.


Lucas Derks 2000




In my article "NLPeace talk" in NLP World for March 2000 (Vol. 7, No.1) I wrote: "Bandler and Grinder themselves have been quarrelling over the rights to NLP for several years now."

Some colleagues have pointed out that this statement was mislead­ing because it overlooked the fact that Richard Bandler filed a lawsuit against John Grinder (and several other members of the NLP commu­nity), whereas Grinder never laid claim to the rights to NLP. A recent court decision brought this conflict to its conclusion. May this bring NLPeace.



* Just as we were preparing this article for publication, a letter appeared in the journal of the (British) Society of Authors, recommend­ing NLP - 'a dreadful and off-putting name for a truly remarkable set of techniques.. : (The Author, Autumn 2000, p.143). Editor