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The Origin of NLP


Understanding our roots also allows us to acknowledge sources as any professional would do as well as to be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the models that we have inherited. The narrative provides an insight to the past of NLP, how a group came together and set up an original direction. Aim is to provide a historical perspective of NLP and Neuro-Semantics. It started with a bunch of coincidences coming together. How Richard discovered Gestalt?

A student named Richard Bandler, who was in need of money, worked in the stock room for Science and Behavior Books at the Kresge College at the University of California. Later somewhere in 1970 he was asked to transcribe tapes of Fritz Perls. While playing guitar once, he had an insight which led him to the realization that he could mimic what he heard. So later Dr. Robert Spitzer would write that he would go into the room where Richard was transcribing the tapes and Richard would speak in the voice, tone, tempo, etc. of Fritz Perls and Dr. Spitzer would sometimes accidentally call him “Fritz”. Which is why Richard got interested in Gestalt. After when Fritz died (January, 1970) Spitzer asked Richard to finish the transcribing and editing the book. That later became the book, The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy, published in May 1973.

How he partnered with John Grinder?

This process of transcribing and editing gave Richard some experience about the field of Gestalt and so around somewhere in his fourth year of college he got an opportunity to create his own curriculum where he decided to conduct a student directed seminar on Gestalt Therapy. While working on this he was required to work under the supervision of a professor, that’s where he met John Grinder. The fact that was most surprising to them was when they found out that by merely repeating the Gestalt language patterns. Richard could actually be able to “Do Gestalt” and significant changes could be seen in the lives of participants. John would himself then analyze the linguistic patterns to perform the magic of Gestalt and Richard would show him how he was doing so that John could also learn to do it as well. This strange collaboration led to this mythical discovery.


Meanwhile, Dr. Spritzer wanted audio tapes made of Virginia Satir for which he asked Richard to go to Canada and transcribe the tapes. Which resulted in integrating the Satir’s language patterns with those of the Gestalt processes. Further it led them to make use of the Encounter group which they had learned primarily from Fritz, but because they were not therapists themselves, they were keen to understand the result of using the tools from other field’s primarily linguistic and computer modeling.

Discovering NLP

NLP began with the surprising effectiveness of certain linguistic patterns that Richard found in Perls and then Satir. It was the real start to the adventure. Both Bandler and Satir were the leaders behind the famous Human Potential Movement, they were excellent in facilitating change and development in people by using their separate models. By simply replicating those patterns and figuring out the reason behind the changes taking in people due to the re-language and the re-patterning, they came across a theory which is free form of therapy. At the beginning, theoretical foundation of NLP were primarily based on transformational Grammar which was largely Grinder’s contributions. He was looking to work on it for some years, as it was his specialty. He even wrote a book in the early 1970s with Suzette Haden Elgin, A Guide to Transformational Grammar (1973). All the premises and assumptions of cognitive psychology go all the way back to the Transformational Grammar, it was in fact the most pervasive influence on NLP. TG was the work of Noam Chomsky who along with George miller are credited with being the founders of the Cognitive Revolution in psychology. Therefore, NLP has a theory, which involves the premise that any individual could find Cognitive Psychology, in General Semantics, in Humanistic Psychology, in Gestalt, Family Systems, Bateson, etc


The ideas of communication and how people respond towards it, the idea of how map is not the territory is highly based on the studies primarily done by Maslow and Rogers, which could be found in scattered works of Satir, Perls and others of the Human Potential Movement. When the history is traced back to the time Grinder when he rejects to follow the original form of NLP, he preferred to postulate it on something more vague “the unconscious mind” which he called “The Classic Code” During this time period where both men were struggling through this curiosity to make something work, each had a different lust toward life and a peculiar attitude which led them to emerge with the idea of NLP as a model in 1972 which later in 1975 it turned into a Meta Model. THE CONFLICT BETWEEN THE FOUNDERS John Grinder and Richard Bandler first went to war in the late 1970s. There’s no evidence behind the war, although a lawsuit was settled between them in 1981. “The Society of NLP” went bankrupt after a few years which marked the end of an era in the history of NLP. In the lawsuit that was settled, Grinder agreed to train in only six American cities for the next ten years, only in the cities which would be specifically approved by Bandler. Terry McClendon wrote in The Wild Days of NLP: 1972– 1981 that Bandler and Grinder “realized that the stage was not big enough for both of them” and so decided to go their separate ways in 1978. There was a lot more to the story which hasn’t been discovered, perhaps it was the indifferences they had towards the approach of NLP, the differences over the style they perceive it, or because they thought that they could do better when they decide to separate ways from each other. Over the years Richard got into the clutches of cocaine, which perhaps could be another reason behind their split. Grinder signed the lawsuit because he thought that Richard wouldn’t be alive a decade later. The article about Richard’s murder trail (1986-1988) in Mother Jones magazine said that “Bandler bragged about using large amounts of cocaine” (1989) and described his life story as one of “a blur of fact and fiction, obscured by cocaine and gin”, so it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. As a result, Bandler and Grinder both went separate ways. The 1980s saw a tremendous growth rate in the field of NLP taining, as new training centers and associations emerged around the world. Robert Dilts in a magazine quoted:

“NLP was given birth by two mad-men who modeled three wild individualists and who they never stayed around to father the community.”

As a matter of fact, both of these men don’t apply NLP to themselves. They created a profound communication model but don’t use it. This very fact was quite controversial for over the years, until recently Grinder confessed to a complaint and they communicated perfectly. This is the whole story behind the cold war of the two profound founders who developed the world class famous communication model.


NEW AGE NLP All this while NLP has been confused with therapy and many times with the New Age movement as well. “The New Age” movement began around the 1960s in the USA as freedom of various sorts were explored during the Civil rights movement etc. It has also been found that it was also part of the Human Potential Movement (1962-1985) and later eventually became the part of Trans-Personal Psychology during 1965. It was the beginning of the time where “East and West spirituality” was ready to get explored and mingle in new forms and Esalen being one of them played a vital role as it served as a New Age Centre. Thoughts like What if my emotions could be transferred to another person? What if we could understand what is going on someone else’s mind just by looking at them? What if we are reincarnated from previous life? All these absurd thoughts that come to our mind which are unusual and are slightly out of the box. Wild and imaginative ideas can sometimes lead the person to actually believe these thoughts which is the result of self-validating and self-reinforcing nature of a belief and a person will begin to “perceive” evidence of their belief. Although it doesn’t happen to be true in reality which becomes problematic because then these thoughts never happen to take a break. So the real challenge here is to maintain a realistic approach by checking things out, demanding for valid proof along with staying imaginative and open. It is believing-while-being a skeptic until there’s external evidence that even an unbeliever has to acknowledge. Therefore, The New Age Movement was quite a complex idea. A New Age Believer is a term for a person who is fully convinced about something and also believes to have evidence to caters his belief. On the other hand, a non-believer does not perceive what the believer does. This is what differentiates actual science from pseudo-science. Therefore, in science double blind and triple-blind research design projects are so important, as it allows the study from being free from personal biases. Alfred Korzybski described in great detail in Science and Sanity (1933, 1995), that how the information we store inside our brains is different from how we perceive it. As a cognitive-behavioral psychology based on a constructivist philosophy about reality and a phenomenological philosophy of human nature, we start from the assumption that there’s a difference between our mental maps about the world and the world. We start from this “the map is not the territory” distinction. We know that the way we “bring the world” into ourselves is through the “abstracting of our nervous system with its sense receptors.” This is what NLP began with in saying that

“We do not deal with reality (the territory) directly, but through our maps.”

People started jumping over the evidence stage and become a believer, especially the New Age Believers and often turns into a fanatic one. They tend to believe in stuff and were not available to have open minded discussions and feedback that person could be wrong. NLP was therefore designed to be creative, playful, and imaginative and to open various possibilities for developing new human resources, it was seen as a child of Human Potential Movement. During that time, so many New Agers were attracted towards NLP for this particular reason and for the matter of fact ended up being Trainers themselves. Which gave rise to another concept called “New Age Religion” where these trainers not only taught and trained the Cognitive-behavioral psychology of NLP but started amalgamating it with their religious belief system. Interesting thing was that they had a right to whatever religion they wanted to practice which turned out to be problematic as they were fusing together a model of human nature with a set of beliefs.


On the other hand, the concept of Neuro-Semantics had been kept clean and free from these religious biases. It’s important to keep these beliefs separate from science of NLP and in fact there were many people who practice this model which governs language, emotions, performance, mental filters etc along with their own personal spiritual beliefs. In conclusion, Neuro-Semantics has proved to be free from the idiosyncratic beliefs of certain people and surely has nothing to do with the model.


This article on 'The Origin of NLP' has been contributed by Plabita Borah, who is a Psychology student from Jain University, Bangalore. She is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is under the leadership and guidance of Anil Thomas. GIRP is an Umang Foundation Trust initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

She is ambitious and driven and thrives on challenges, and constantly sets goals for herself, so she has something to strive towards. She loves meeting new people and learning about their lives and their backgrounds.


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