Judith Baker and Mario Rinvolucri look at what NLP entails and its relevance to ELT.

The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a complex set of beliefs, skills and behaviours that can help a person communicate more accurately, effectively and respectfully. It is a theory and practice of human communication that heightens self-awareness and sensitizes its user to some of the complexity of other people, to their conscious and unconscious wishes, to their ways of seeing and knowing the world and to many things they may not even consciously know about themselves.

Let us here offer a concrete example: as a knower of NLP, Mrs L is aware that some people tend to act to avoid bad consequences, while others will act because they want to move towards a positive goal. If Mrs L knows that John mostly does things to avoid trouble, she will encourage him to act by getting him to think of the unpleasant consequences of not getting an essay done on time. In directing his thoughts this way, she is feeding his dominant pattern and getting the result she wants. Mrs L is using knowledge she has and which John may be unaware of.

Learning about NLP

Initially NLP evolved from a study by John Grinder and Richard Bandler of excellence in communication. They focused on the work of US therapists and teased out conscious and unconscious patterns that constitute a blueprint for excellence in human communication. The application of NLP is not confined to the therapies: it is used in health care, policing, selling, social work, anger management, mediation and many other areas.

The ELT community has shown considerable and growing interest in NLP, with many plenary presentations at conferences and articles in teacher magazines and a number of ELT colleagues round Europe go on to take NLP courses in their own mother tongues and so continue to build up their awareness of, and their skills in, NLP.

NLP in language teaching

A window on language

When, on an elementary NLP course, you learn how to achieve voice rapport with another person, by gently adjusting your own speed of speech (your tempo) to theirs, you suddenly realize just how much a part of an oral message the tempo is. You understand that there is a great difference between a message delivered slowly and the same message delivered fast. It dawns on you that the speed of the voice, the pitch of the voice and the volume of the voice emotionally condition the message carried by the words and that oral language is like a rope in which the words (propositional meaning carriers) are just one strand, woven in with voice features, with facial expressions, gesture, breathing and body posture. You understand just how complex a symphony of features an oral utterance is. NLP reveals the degree to which words draw their strength from the human sensory system. Take this sentence:

'The boat chugged its way up the broad Mississippi.'

In some readers, boat will evoke a picture, in some a sound, in some a feeling of the movement of the boat, while boat could also mentally materialize as a smell or taste in the mouth.

NLP throws light on how we create conversation, somehow selecting from the myriad perceptions that assail our senses second by second. To be able to communicate at all, we are constantly generalizing, deleting and distorting the information we take in and store.

If I say to you, It's cold today, I am generalizing, chunking up from all sort of variables.
If I say, Yes, I came by taxi, I am deleting the fact that I took my car to the station, that there was engineering work on the line which necessitated a short bus journey between trains and that I took a taxi from the station. Without deletion, conversation would be informationally encyclopaedic and self-smothering. If I say, A pity, yes, it got broken, I am using the passive to distort the fact that the action has a subject and that subject is me!

NLP has plenty more to teach us about the way language functions.


Imagine you have an area of conflict with a colleague in your place of work. Naturally enough, you will have your own strongly-held point of view and this ego or 'first' position will be strengthened by the powerful defensive emotions you generate in yourself when faced with a conflict. Using a human ability highlighted by NLP, by psychodrama and by sheer common sense, it may be worth mentally role reversing with your colleague: putting yourself in her shoes.

Imagine yourself acting as she typically does. Mentally become her. Now from this 'second position' have a good look at yourself; see yourself, listen to your voice, feel what the other person's emotions may be in the face of this conflict. Let what you imagine she may be feeling flow through you.

Now leave this 'second position' and place yourself mentally somewhere that you can observe this inter-personal situation from a remove. Notice what each person is experiencing but stay outside of the situation, an interested but neutral observer.

You may gain real insights by moving out of your natural, initial ego position into the other two. People will suddenly see ways of either solving the problem they have with the other person, or at least moving out of a repetitive and unuseful cycle and on into a new stage.

You may well use this sort of conflict resolution technique already. If you do, NLP simply makes you aware of what you are up to and offers you ways of making the process more dynamic, streamlined and replicable.

Let us apply 'three-position' thinking to school situations.

In a training session, a group of secondary teachers working with students who were referred to as 'disruptive' were asked what most annoyed them about these young people. Some of the answers were:

  • pushing other people
  • often chewing gum
  • throwing things
  • being late to class
  • showing lack of respect
  • being thoughtless

The first three behaviours above are observable, while the last three include the teacher's interpretation from her own 'first' or ego position.

Even when a behaviour can be observed, it is rare for it not to be coloured or tainted with belief-driven interpretation. One colleague's lesson typically opened with her asking student A to stop chewing. This colleague felt that the action of chewing showed disrespect.

The NLP trainer asked her how she would feel if she mentally 'uncoupled' gum-chewing from lack of respect. She looked surprised and said she would feel a lot better.

She decided to try to 'uncouple' the two. After the next class with student A, she reported an immediate improvement. Not only did she feel better but the boy worked well. Her success came from the imaginative leap of seeing the gum-chewing from the boy's perspective, from second position.


If you are participating in a joint project with colleagues, it is useful to have some self-knowledge in the area of the gifts and defects you bring to the project. You may know that you are good in the idea phase and pretty good at taking the practical steps needed to set the project up, but that you tend to be over-critical when it comes to standing back, having a second look at what has been done, evaluating, trimming and finishing the task.

In this case, you should stay away.