The Myth of “Pure” NLP

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.

Is there such a thing as “pure” NLP? To hear some people talk and read their literature and PR, you would get the impression that this nominalization was not only a reality, but the only reality. So what does this mean? Can it be denominalized? And when we denominalize it, would we even want it?

Recently I engaged several believers in “pure NLP” in a conversation while in Australia. It began as a criticism and with a complaint. It generally went as follows.

“The problem is that you don’t teach pure NLP.”

Oh really, and can you tell me what you mean by pure NLP?

“Sure, the original and pure version of NLP before people began confusing it with the applications of NLP.”

So you make a distinction between NLP and the applications of NLP? How does that work? What is the distinction?

“Pure NLP is the model as prior to 1985. The was first ‘classic’ NLP and then ‘the new code’ of Grinder and DeLozier that brought up the model to 1985. The applications of NLP are therapy, sales, marketing, education, etc.”

Let me see if I understand you correctly. Are you saying there were no applications of NLP prior to 1985?

“No, there were applications.”

So the parts of “NLP” that were applications, how do you distinguish them from “pure NLP” prior to 1985? What patterns from the three therapists, Perls, Satir, and Erickson, were therapeutic applications rather than “pure NLP?” Would you include six-step reframing as NLP or therapeutic application? And what about all of the trance patterns? Are those psychotherapy or medical applications?

“Well NLP is the modeling of subjective experience, so it is the Meta-Model, the Milton Model, and all of the models, not the applications.”

This means that NLP is all theory and framework structure and does not consistent of any pattern? Is that what you’re saying? If I talk about nominalizations, that’s NLP, but if I ask you if you know what a nominalization is and you go inside to think about that– which is trance– then that’s not NLP? I can talk about the set of twelve linguistic distinctions, and that’s NLP but the moment I use and apply it, then that’s not NLP? Seems like a very narrow and unuseful way of defining things and would call in question every “NLP Training” that I have ever experienced or heard about. And why limit the models and patterns to 1985?

Other conversations with those who like to think of themselves as “purists” led me to asking similar questions:

Who has put 1985 or sometime in the mid to late 1980s as the completion of the NLP Model?

Who authorized that person to do so?

Does that mean that the NLP model as such cannot grow and develop now?

Does that mean that it is “perfect” and cannot be refined and corrected?

Does that mean that we have to treat whatever definitions you give to “pure” NLP as somehow special, sacred, and treat it as the official doctrine?

Doesn’t that turn NLP into “dogma” and wasn’t that what Bandler, Grinder, Dilts, and the other co-developers were wanting to get away from in the field of psychology?

Sorting Out the Myths

Myth #1: There is a ‘Pure’ version of NLP.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming as a model took it’s original form and year after year from 1975 has been developing, growing, and evolving as any living set of ideas has. None of the original works in NLP ever suggested that this model, field, or community would ever stop, stand-still, and solidify into a set of theoretical doctrines or dogma that could never be questioned, challenged, or altered to fit more accurately with reality. NLP is only a map of the territory and only the best map that we have developed to date. There never was a “pure” NLP, only a “young” NLP and a developing NLP, and perhaps a more mature version. “Purity” was never a criteria.

We can study the history of NLP and the co-developers and the others that have entered into the field and contributed various ideas. We can trace a socio-historical record of the ideas that came in and through the books and journals and trainings and those that stayed and those that did not.

To nominalize the term NLP by calling it “Pure NLP” and then to meta-state that with the very nominalized label is to go against the very attitude of NLP that defines itself as “an attitude of curiosity and experimentation.” This also violates the NLP principles that encourage us to go outside the box of our thinking and that of modeling excellence. When we nominalize a process and freeze-frame it as if it is a non-changing thing, we prevent it from growing and we say that the process of modeling excellence has come to an end.

Myth #2: Somebody or some group of people have the right to legislate what pure or true NLP is.

Neither the model that we call NLP nor the people who learn it, use it, write about it, and teach it operates under an international board of directors who “control” it. NLP has never been that kind of model or movement. In fact, the spirit of NLP seems to militate against that very thing. We have no Pope in NLP, no Vatican, no World Counsel, no NLP Police Force.

I suppose many of the lawsuits between Bandler and Grinder, and Bandler and many others, might give the impression that someone “owns” NLP and has the right to “control” it, but given that the attitude that began the movement was definitely anti-establishment and against the whole orientation of controlling thought, mapping, modeling, etc. it seems extremely incongruent to now try to control it.

Myth #3: Bandler or Grinder or someone now needs to step up and “take control” of NLP.

What was released in the world as a vision of modeling experience and stepping outside of the box in the early 1970s has always seemed to draw people on the cutting edge and fringes, creative people who new and different ideas and the consequence of this is people who don’t stay put or follow the rules. The creativity and wildness continues. And it has made it challenging to create and maintain NLP Associations. Our model feeds creativity, individuality, autonomy, and freedom more than it does community, networking, associating, and relationships.

I think it was Robert Dilts who commented that we have to remember that NLP was developed by two madman who modeled three wild individualists so no wonder there’s a wild spirit inside it that attracts more of the same.

#4. NLP has to be taught today as it has always been taught.

The correlate of this is that it is heresy to violate the way NLP trainings were originally taught and the number of hours (130 in class hours). Such individuals think that to apply NLP to itself so that new learning acceleration principles and build them into the design of trainings and used to teach NLP or to apply the learning acceleration principles of Meta-States to NLP can’t be right. Further the content that has traditionally been taught at the practitioner level has to be kept there and not mixed with the master practitioner level.

I recently read some of the criticism against our accelerated seven day NLP practitioner course (“seven day wonder programs”). I don’t mind the criticism, not at all. Actually, if the “straw man” presented against our seven day training was accurate at all, I would have the same complaints against them, perhaps even more. The straw man presented was the idea that we are somehow promising people to be accomplished NLP practitioners in seven days. Of course, that is not what we promise. We say at both Prac. and Master Prac. that it will take a year or two to become proficient with the model and patterns and typically five to ten years to become masterful.

Actually, our seven day program is actually more like 27 days given that we require the reading of User’s Manual of the Brain and The Sourcebook of Magic and the listening to the entire seven day program on audio CDs. We require the completion of a questionnaire about all of the terminology and distinctions of NLP, including materials reserved for the master practitioner course by our critics: meta-programs, meta-states, conversational reframing patterns, modeling, etc. We have accelerated the NLP learning in numerous ways, not the least of which is recognizing and teaching how the four meta-domains of NLP correlate and provide redundancy. Knowing that tremendously accelerates the learning.

What is NLP Anyway?

All of this raises the question about what kind of a model NLP is, and what kind of a field and community has arisen from it. As a model, it arose from the tools of linguistics and computer language (notably “programming”), modeled three forms of therapy and is now encoded as a form of Cognitive Behavioral psychology and as a philosophy of Constructionism with some Post Modernism traits. It arose also from the systems of Satir, cybernetics and anthropology of Bateson, and mathematics and neurology of Korzybski.

Then, with all of that interdisciplinary framework, it was first presented as a radical “in your face” paradigm breaking breakthrough by two radical young men. That brought in free thinkers on the edge of a great many disciplines, mostly therapists at first, then business people, sales people, artists, and new agers.

So as a field it has never settled down to develop its methodology with any real rigor or encourage quantitative or even qualitative research, let alone establish professional standards. Instead, it has operated mostly as a business, the training and seminar business, and has been driven mostly by that market. This has led to numerous lawsuits, sub-groups and warring camps, lack of standardization among the different associations around the world, and much abuse and bad press. As a community, it is a community, but one deeply divided and one not living up to the principles within the model, namely those of abundance, respect, pacing, positive intentions, etc.


“Pure” NLP is a myth and a strange one for a field dedicated to the ongoing study of the structure of experience. While we should recognize the genius of the original group of developers that surrounded Richard and John and the many first and second generation of NLP leaders and thinkers, upon whose shoulders we stand, it is in the end, just a map, a human map, and therefore a fallible map that will continually need to be revisited and refined.

In Neuro-Semantics we have sought to use the principles and presuppositions of NLP by first applying to ourselves. We have made this the key prerequisite for Trainers—able to apply to self, and willing to be held responsible for applying to self. That leads to the personal power of congruence and alignment. It establishes the foundation of being ethically professional and upright. With that level of trustworthiness, it then calls into being a community that people want to belong to. “Pure” NLP, it is not. Our goal is rather to take NLP to the next level of evolution.