Avoiding Cult-Like Pitfalls that Could Arise in Neuro-Semantics

I was recently in Geneva, Switzerland where I presented the Genius track with Brief’r Formations in the full seven days.  That meant three days of Accessing Personal Genius (APG) and four days of Living Personal Genius (LPG).  On this occasion my translator was Henry Roux de Bezieux and  one evening he brought up the subject of how NLP has been confused with cults in Europe and how the charges have undermined its influence.  From our conversation we decided to write something about NLP and cults.  It is from that original article that this one has been adapted.

Why write about this?  Primarily in order to create the best context and atmosphere within which Neuro-Semantics can thrive and grow in the coming years.  In that way, Neuro-Semantics will maintain its foundation and basis in science and give no opportunity for it to be confused with a cult, as has happened in the field of NLP.  Obviously, anyone who knows the history of NLP knows that it is not a cult, but that certain people within the field have behaved at times in ways that could lead to that conclusion.  NLP narrowly escaped this in France in early 2004, which has immediate effects of negative publicity.   NLP Trainers report that there are times when they are asked to conduct trainings in communication and are told, “Do not call it NLP.  People will be afraid to participate if you do.”

A number of years ago, Henry was involved with the leading pressure groups that advocates increased public awareness against cults in France (www.prevensectes.com/adfi.htm and www.unadfi.org).  They have successfully brought more than one organization to court and won about 50% of the lawsuits against organizations that were seeking to control people’s lives.  These trials have been rather public affairs with quite some press coverage.

In my travels, I have seen NLP labeled a cult, or accused of such.  This has occurred all around the world, from Germany, American, Australia, and South Africa.  Obviously this has done immeasurable harm to NLP.   Further, there is what many of us consider as a thought-virus in the NLP community with so many leaders and trainings adopting all of the external signs of being a “guru” to their followers.   I think this can be seen more evidently in the Robbins organization which came under the threat of being called a cult in Germany and accused of being Scientology.  This has led to what we are now experiencing in many places in the world what can only be called “Kingdom Wars” between various NLP leaders.

Years ago also, I co-wrote several articles on the “Downside of NLP,” critiquing some of the things that endanger NLP as a field and model.  In those articles, I warned about the danger of over-selling NLP as many were making NLP sound like the panacea for everything.  I noted this especially in the article, “Ten Years and Still no Beef”—a critique of DHE.

The most searing criticism of NLP comes from a recent book by French therapist, Norbert Vogel.  It is entitled Rotten Psychology: How to Distinguish a Good Therapist from a Quack  (“la malpsy, conseils pour distinguer le bon psy du charlatan.”  The author argues that NLP is #1 danger to public health, and although some of his arguments may seem objectionable, there is at least one that made me smile.  He says if Bandler and Grinder had really understood modeling and known how to do it, they would have modeled NLP into a thriving multinational business and community and not a motley collection of brave people isolated in small institutes and fighting each other more than they should.

Cult Proofing Neuro-Semantics

During and after the initial conversation about “cults,” Henry and others suggested that there was a possibility that some facets of Neuro-Semantics could possibly be criticized in a similar way.   I didn’t think so, yet what they said concerned me.  So I began discussing such with several people and dialoguing about what we could best do that would completely avoid any of those possibilities.

1) Imposition of Values on Followers or Participants

Criteria #1 that is used to determine whether something is a cult or not is to check to what extent leaders incite followers to adhere to their own value system.  This raises the question:

Is there true freedom for those who follow a discipline or course to choose their own values or is a value system imposed upon them?

Now, the essence of any training such as APG (Accessing Personal Genius) and LPG (Living Personal Genius) is that it is “a program.”  It is a designed to train a set of skills and competencies for participants to learn and master.  In a structured course of this nature, participants are invited to try on and to meta-state themselves with values that are chosen for them in the course.  In Meta-States, I have highlighted several of these, namely, acceptance, appreciation, respect, honor, resilience, seeing opportunities, love, permission, etc.

Yet regarding these values, we must ask several questions:

Where do they come from?

How well are they established?

The answer is easy.   These values come from basic psychology, especially from Developmental or Lifespan psychology.  These are also the key values that anyone will find proposed as critical in Freud, Adler, Jung, Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, James, and a host of other psychologists and theorists.  They have proposed these for a hundred years as characteristic of “healthy and well-functioning human beings.”  In that, there is a century worth of research supporting this.

Yet, what about the question: Are these values imposed?   And the answer is no.  In a public workshop, nothing is imposed, we there is no “obligation.”  We do, however, highly recommend and lead participants through processes that involve meta-stating themselves with these values.   Further, regarding public trainings—people learn about these values as they read the promotional literature, the books on Meta-States, and the website with more than 3000 pages of information.  From that they can engage in a dialogue with any sponsor and then self-select as to whether they want such.  In this, they come and are then invited to go through these, rather than make their own choices about what to do.  In this, there are no surprises.  Sure they are our values as Neuro-Semanticists.

Further, to some extent, the way they are presented is a matter of any given trainer’s style.  How forceful or non-forceful they are presented depends on a present’s style and even culture.  The question arise, “What if a participant resist accepting one of the values, say “appreciation or awe?”  What then?  Does the trainer push, force, embarrass, harass, or does the trainer allow it and give that participant space?  Obviously, we recommend the latter.  In fact, the style of Meta-States and Neuro-Semantics is especially designed to encourage a kinder and gentler approach.  We say things like, 7

“Give yourself permission to try this on for a period of time and see what happens.  Would that be okay?”

So in terms of cult-proofing our approach with the powerful patterns we have, we highly recommend that each and every trainer and coach err on the side of being overly permissive rather than authoritative (and never authoritarian).  We constantly teach that every person lies in his or her own Matrix of frames and that in building rapport we meet people at their model of the world, we do not expect or demands that they meet us at our model.

If the pace of the trainings seem to give little time and space for participants to access their own feelings and make their own decisions, that is simply the nature of any intense or packed training.  That’s why manuals and other sources provide a list of the patterns and processes used during the trainings.  All of that is public and open to inspection, as it should be.

Having traveled in so many parts of the world and having had participants from just about every part of the world in our trainings, much of this is simply a matter of cultural preference and taste.  In some parts of the world (especially in the USA, England, Australia, etc.) people like and want (even demand) a faster pace to the typical preference in Europe and other parts of the world.  In Europe, especially France, there is a much greater emphasis on talking, abstracting, and philosophizing.  For native trainers, I would recommend pacing that culture.  Here an international trainer has some advantage as people will more typically grant some leeway in terms of how each culture handles and manages time.  Edward Hall (no relationship to me) had much to say about this.

Some of the old ideas about cybernetics or the early models of systems dynamics (as described in detail by Bateson) by no means involved one person “doing” anything to another person.  Bateson was far more systemic than that.  He recognized that systems co-mingle and intertwine, that they co-evolve or co-create, which has been the thinking that I have brought to all of the models that we have developed for Neuro-Semantics, namely the Meta-States, Matrix, and the Axes of Change models.

This emphasis, in fact, is so dominant in Neuro-Semantics that when Michelle Duval and I constructed the Axes of Change model, the central coaching role is that of Co-Creator.  We have also articulated that among the principles of Coaching, “It is the client that sets the agenda, not the coach.”  “We coach to the client’s agenda, not ours.”  And in both coaching and trainers training, we emphasize repeatedly the importance of getting the ego out of the way, and even have some patterns to assist in doing that.

All of this emphasizes the importance of respect for the values and beliefs of clients and participants and the non-imposition of our values and beliefs.  We invite and suggest; we do not impose.  We honor each person’s right to choose, to run their own brains, and to even turn down empowering and enhancing choices.

2) A liberal use of hypnotic language patterns

In the model of the world of those who are looking for cults, who sniff out and suspect “cults” under every rock, they typically see anything that even smacks of “hypnosis” as suspect.  To them, hypnosis is seen as a tool by which most, if not all, cult leaders seek to seduce and convince their followers.

What then is a field like NLP and Neuro-Semantics to do?  What is therapy itself to do?   When so many therapies, communication models, and fields of study hark back to the insights and patterns of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., his medical hypnosis, and hypnotic language patterns, what are we to say?  We say that the truth is that all communication is hypnosis and all hypnosis is communication.  In this, there is no escape from “hypnosis.”  Anytime anybody turns inward, engages in introspection, in self-awareness, in guided imaginary, in storytelling, etc., they are involved in “hypnosis.”

So what else can we do?   We can make our use of such patterns more conscious as we use them.  Teaching people how language works, in fact, is central to Neuro-Semantics.  It lies at the heart of the Meta-Model in NLP—the questions to the use of imprecise language de-hypnotizes.  That is actually much of its power.  Then, to use the hypnotic language patterns enables us to effectively install new beliefs, belief systems, and principles into our very neurology. That this is the structure of language and relationship and “is” hypnosis is not the problem. Doing so apart from people’s awareness and choice—that is the problem.

In Neuro-Semantics, we liberally use patterns that promote the values (or meta-states) as meta-frames which build up the matrix of frames that create our sense and fabric of reality.   Again, doing this is not the problem; doing it apart from a person’s understanding and permission is the problem.  So, to cult-proof what we are doing, letting people see and understand hypnotic language patterns puts the power in their hands and minds so that they can run their own brains as they so choose.

As a future development for Neuro-Semantics, we can further model, teach, and practice antidotes to hypnosis.  We can enable people to become even more aware of hypnotic language patterns so that a person can shrug their influence off as they so choose.  Learning these would be of value to escape all the spontaneous hypnotic language and suggestions that occur in everyday settings.  The benefit would be that making these part of the NS curriculum would demonstrate that an antidote is given and freedom of choice respected.  After all, our basic assumption is that it is the right, privilege and even responsibility for each person to “run his or her own brain.”  We do not assume the right to do that for anyone.

3) The lack of a Scientific Approach

Cults will often use “science,” but not the scientific method of inquiry.  They use a pseudo-science.  Scientology is a good example of this.

Similarly, in Neuro-Semantics we use many scientific words (semantics, neuro-, consciousness, state, structure, etc.).  And yet in the public trainings (i.e., APG, LPG, Wealth Building, Slim and Fit Games, Business Experts, etc.), we do not present the scientific method (at least not very often).  Why do we not?   We do not mostly because we do not offer our courses as studies in the academics of research methodology.   Of course, we do have some Neuro-Semantic courses which do this to a high degree.  These include those courses in Modeling, Cultural modeling, and Advanced Flexibility, and the newer work we are doing in benchmarking (operationalizing terms) in Meta-Coaching and Trainers Training.

Yet it is true that at the entry level courses, there is very little of the scientific methodology or methodpresented.  Can this be seen and interpreted so that someone could reproach NS as a “pseudo scientific” approach that is now a standard hallmark of modern cults?  And if so, what can we do about it?

To cult-proof this, I encourage that every writer put an extensive bibliography in every training manual and do so myself as an exemplar, holding “open frames” and “debriefings” in the trainings for at least some debate, and encouraging differences of opinion.   I do this a lot especially in the trainings that I use co-trainers.  When co-training with Bob Bodenhamer, Michelle Duval, Denis Bridoux, Colin Cox, Mike Davis, Reg Reynolds, Anne Renew, and others, I always encourage disagreement among the trainers so as to not present a monolithic presentation.  This is one of the real values of having someone to co-train with and something I always encourage in our Trainers Training courses.

While it would be nice to do more of our work in a way similar to scientists by introducing contradictory debate, multipolar leadership with various teams suggesting various approaches, peer review and validation, experimental validation, open and published research strategy and programs with decent funding, network with existing scientific laboratories, etc., these do not describe what happens in “public trainings” as adults are engaged in continuing education.  They happen more in the background in journals and/or at Universities in graduate programs.

Actually we have been doing some of this for some time.   In the trainings that I did with Denis Bridoux in England since 1997 we encouraged debate and experimental validation with the groups especially in the trainings that we called “The Merging of the Models.”  That also occurs in the modeling trainings inasmuch as that is where I teach the scientific methodology as part of the modeling process.  Of course, that is an advanced course for those well-versed in the field.  Also, from the beginning of the Meta-Coach Training System, I have always brought in two to three expert coaches and/or entrepreneurs to model.   Frequently, I don’t have a clue as to what they will say or present.  The issue isn’t conformity, but practical experience in modeling and letting everyone choose what they find valuable in such.

Similarly, in the Writing Workshop and in Neuro-Semantics Developers, there is a strong emphasis upon individual research, and seeking to falsify one’s own premises in order to truly put an idea or hypothesis to the test.   So the scientific approach is there.  True enough, it is not prominent in the entry trainings for the public and for an obvious reason.  That’s not why people attend the trainings.  They attend for skill development and for new inspiration and learnings.  For that, we have to put to the more academic books, research projects, and even egroups that are designed to do that.

4) Structures and Policies that are not Open to Scrutiny

Last, but not least, anti-cult groups are sensitive to leadership structures.   Cults are generally characterized by a mixture of centralization and opacity. In cults leaders are revered and even “worshiped.”  They are gurus.  They tend to be all-knowing, beyond fallibility, bigger-than-life, beyond reproach, and guarded against contradiction.  Controversies are shunned because they are interpreted as a challenge to their leadership, policy debates are either suppressed or kept secret, outside scrutiny is not welcomed.

Obviously, it is clear that the Neuro-Semantic movement does not fit this model at all.  The fact that I have used co-trainers for years and have turned over the leadership of Neuro-Semantics to a leadership team (the Neuro-Semantics Guardians) and that this group is made up of men and women from different countries, cultures, races, and creeds speaks against the possibility of building it around any one individual.

Henry said that organizational science indicates that as organizations go through various stages of development, in  their infancy the focus is generally on getting the organization established, not on structuring it as a rule.  Explicit structures (like formal roles and responsibilities, R&D processes and priorities, marketing processes, recruitment processes, ethical codes, etc.) generally do not appear before organizations have been through at least one severe crisis that shows the need for them.  His conclusion was that only now is Neuro-Semantics starting to arrive at the stage where the need for explicit policies, structures, and systems is being felt.  Creating these will provide the structures that will help to completely cult-proof the movement.

All of that is too strong of an indictment since Neuro-Semantics is primarily a network of people who voluntarily associate with one another and who voluntarily ascribe to a common Vision—a vision published on the website.  This means that it is not a corporation, that nobody “owns” it, and so nobody “controls” it.   We have positioned Neuro-Semantics as a community of men and women who voluntarily associate because of a common understanding about some of the models.

Accordingly, in terms of that association and networking, the rules and structures are explicit even though they are not extensive.  We have published on the website details of what it means to be a member and what the leadership roles of Trainers and Coaches entail, the Vision, Mission, and Values, the conflict resolution agreement, and more recently, we have detailed the credential processes in Meta-Coaching.  All of this is public and we constantly update changes on the website.

Regarding the role of leadership in Neuro-Semantics, while my name may be the most dominant one, it is certainly not the only name.  There are articles by many others, and Bob and I have published a description of how anyone can write articles and have them published on the website.  Again, all of that is public.

Further, the current focus in the NS Trainers Training is that we have 9 co-trainers of men and women from different cultural and ethnic groups who are providing a leadership group rather than a single leader.  >From these will come the first group of Master Trainers and the first board of Neuro-Semantic Guardians who will collectively guard the value and vision.  The same applies to the development of the Neuro-Semantic Developers group. We already have designated six people as “Neuro-Semantic Developers” and in the future will be conducting Developers colloquium which will expand this leadership structure.  In this, we are setting down many of the goals of Neuro-Semantic as an association, its rules and policies, its research, development and management programs.  For more details about the various people who have co-created Neuro-Semantics, see the article that celebrates the tenth anniversary of Meta-States, Ten Years of Meta-Stating.

Similarly, we have already created many of the explicit policies, rules, and leadership structures to create internal controls.   Michelle Duval and I have set up two systems of controls.  In Meta-Coaching we have established a Foundation (e.g., Meta-Coach Foundation) and will be inviting the Neuro-Semantic Trainers who are also Coaches to become a part of the Meta-Coach Guardians (see the Meta-Coaching website for details).  These will operate as a board of examiners entertaining complaints against coaches.

All of these things are designed to assist in making Neuro-Semantics an organization that is open to public scrutiny and know how to make outside criticism as a means to improve collective skills, programs, and products, and its services to the community at large.


The concern that we avoid the mistakes that have haunted, and continue to haunt, NLP is a healthy one and I am glad that these concerned have surfaced.  It enables us to more consciously and mindfully examine ourselves as we grow and to put in place the things that will help us ever to avoid any semblance to a cult.

For those who know Neuro-Semantics, it’s all about honoring and respecting the unique model of the world that each person comes from.  It’s all about inviting and protecting choice, about empowering people to think and feel and act from their own center of power, about creating enhancing relationships and associations that benefit all, about creating new models for making a difference in the world, and about actualizing all of the potentials that are just waiting to be awakened in each and every one of us.