NLP has become hugely popular in the outdoors, and many instructors find the techniques extremely useful for working with anxious clients. However, despite being likely to become hugely unpopular for writing this article (!), I would like to advocate care in application of NLP, and for instructors to think twice before seeing it as the wonder-drug of the outdoors.
Whilst I am not denying that NLP techniques can be useful in certain circumstances, there are a number of underlying difficulties with NLP which mean I would caution instructors to think carefully about how, why and when they use the techniques.
- NLP does not have an underlying paradigm or coherent theory on which it is based. It is a collection of techniques which come from a wide variety of different theoretical backgrounds and models, including cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics and other areas. This means that it is not a ‘thing’ which can be tested in its whole to see whether it works or not. Certain components may work, but this does not mean the system as a whole works, and it does not derive from a psychological principle/ theory unlike most other psychological treatments.
- NLP tends to ignore the biological. Modern psychological models accept that things like biological temperament, genetics and brain physiology play a role in our individual psychological responses to things, whereas NLP tends to assume that everything is responsive to psychological techniques and biological differences are irrelevant.
- The research on which techniques work and why, and which ones don’t (and why) and attempts to understand why they work better for some people and not others is very limited, so we are no closer to understanding the mechanisms at work within NLP or being able to target certain techniques to certain difficulties. The gold standard of any intervention, treatment or programme is its testability and the testing of the mechanisms of change within it, and this is still very limited with NLP.
- Some of the techniques within NLP are powerful, and a concern relates to people with a very limited understanding of psychology and perhaps only a weekend’s training course behind them utilising NLP with people who are potentially vulnerable. A good example is using NLP to overcome a fear of heights. Without understanding the model for how fear of heights is both developed and maintained, it is possible to get some short term success but longer term make things worse. For successful exposure therapy, clients need to stay in anxiety provoking situations until their anxiety dissipates, and not exit situations in states of high arousal. Clients often underestimate how long this might take and in their relief at abseiling or climbing up something, leave the situation with still high levels of arousal. This actually reinforces the anxiety and makes the problem more difficult to resolve longer term.
Instructors also need to be aware of their potential power within situations. As an instructor, you are the most experienced person within that situation and clients’ safety is in your hands. That places you in a position of power, and makes your clients potentially vulnerable to persuasion. Use this power judiciously, and take care to ensure that clients are really in charge of their own learning. Use of more subtle techniques designed to influence clients more covertly can leave some clients feeling helpless or over reliant on the instructor, and NLP is sometimes used as a covert ‘sales technique’ to get clients to buy into what you as the instructor want them to do. In an ideal scenario, you would coach and facilitate the clients in an active learning model, discovering what it is they want to achieve rather than imposing your own agenda on them and seeking to influence them without their knowledge.
I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater; NLP has some useful techniques which can provide a good adjunct to good coaching. But as an instructor, take a critical stance about any technique or intervention – look at the evidence base for it and also look at the evidence base against it. Develop a balanced view of what might work for whom, based on science not on face value. Question and reflect on your own practice as well as ‘received wisdom’, and you will become a better instructor and coach for it.