What is NLP?

NLP has been likened to the user’s manual for the mind. When each of us arrives in this world, a user’s manual is conspicuous by its absence. As we grow up, we learn about ourselves from our individual experiences and from others around us, and we build up our own manual, which we then use for want of any alternative.


NLP is the study of the structure of subjective experience.

NLP is not a replacement for your personal manual, but it can certainly add a lot of information to it that makes much more sense of what you do and feel and think.

The definition shown here is one way NLP has been described, but what does that actually mean?

It simply means that NLP is the study of how we create our experiences of being alive. Things happen, and then we create within ourselves an experience to make sense of what happened ‘out there’. If we study how we create these internal experiences, we can make changes in the way we do it and thus have better experiences.

NLP teaches us how our minds operate; it gives us insights, and from these come skills which we can use to start making improvements that will in turn lead to a happier and more satisfying life.

The acronym

NLP is an acronym for Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

The name was an attempt to encapsulate the scope of this extensive body of knowledge. This mouthful was created by academics rather than marketing people, and these days it is the acronym NLP that is commonly used.

  • Neuro refers to the mind and body, and how they interact via our neurology, which processes all the information from our five senses. Many NLP tools come from recognising how the mind and body affect each other.
  • Linguistic refers to the words we choose to describe and catalogue our world, and give it meaning. Another set of NLP tools relates to language patterns and how they reflect our thought processes.
  • Programming refers to the way we habitually use repeated sequences of thought patterns to do things. Once you can identify and understand habitual thought patterns – your own and other people’s – you can not only communicate better, you can start experimenting to find and use the patterns that will work best for you.

The study of excellence

NLP has often been called the study of excellence, and that is a good way to think of it. It had its origins in the study of how people who were excellent at something were doing it so much better than others in their field. Once an understanding was gained about how an exemplar did something, it was possible to start developing tools and techniques that would enable other people to get similar results.

This study of excellence started in the mid-1970s with the work of John Grinder and Richard Bandler, who pulled together the findings of many people from diverse fields and added some new insights of their own. Their work has been built on extensively during the last 30 years to create a robust set of tools and techniques that are now taught as NLP.

Notice that NLP is based on models created through this study of excellence. There is no underlying theory of NLP. A model does not have to be ‘true’ or ‘correct’. It just has to be useful in a specific context. One of the uses of the models is to produce tools and techniques based on them. If a tool works in practice, then the model was useful, whether or not it was ‘correct’.

Because of the underlying models that have been used, the tools and techniques from NLP are useful for changing the way you use your mind so that you get better results in all the areas of your life. In other words, you too can seek to be excellent.

Using NLP

NLP is most effective where people are seeking personal change and thus it is used extensively in areas such as therapy, self development and coaching. Indeed, most practitioners report that they improved their lives by doing a training course in NLP, simply because of the exercises involved in the learning process.