Debunking Ignorance around NLP

November 2015

I could write a dozen posts on Neuro-Linguistic Programming because there’s a lot of value in the main presuppositions as a philosophy for life. I’ve already blogged about them in:

This post is about how the linguistic focus of NLP can influence language teaching.

You’ve probably heard the phrase: “The map is not the territory” but may be unaware of the full implications of this maxim. “The map” refers to the fact that our five senses combine to form a representation of reality. That’s how people see the world — through their own experiences, and through those of others.

Map
Life is a journey and language leads us down many roads, both well trodden and new. That's why the map metaphor works.


Connected to this is another tenet of NLP, that “Genuine understanding only comes from experience.” For example, you can’t really learn English from a book. You have to use it to truly learn it. This is the same with any learning. You can’t learn to fly a plane from a book and you can’t with credibility pontificate on teaching if you don’t actually teach.

Likewise, some people have limited life experiences and as a result their maps contain deletions which may cause them to frame the world in overly simplistic or pessimistic ways. And if an individual’s map is not particularly rich from experience and learning, it will hold them back in life.

Network
You can't convincingly tell someone how to get somewhere unless you have actually been there.


Deletions in the map become evident in a linguistic checklist called the Meta Model. In life, people don’t always speak adhering to reality. We all have irrational, emotional beliefs and cognitive biases and this is reflected in the language we use and habitually use. We are straightjacketed by our language. The Meta Model tackles this by analysing the speaker’s grammar and then forming mainly ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions around assumptions, assertions, generalisations, distortions and deletions.[1]

The Meta Model is valuable for language teachers to get handy with, not necessarily for therapeutic value, but a) because it trains people to communicate more effectively, with precision and reason, and b) simply because it’s such a straightforward way to increase student talk time. The language classroom is the perfect place to use the model because by building context through clinically focused questioning, the learner stretches his or her communicative competence.

Of course many teachers do this intuitively, but by learning the model and applying it consciously, you get a much more thorough approach. Obviously if you do it too much in the outside world you become a nitpicker and that drives people crazy. But in the classroom it’s extremely helpful to be a nitpicker because it stimulates thought and interaction while at the same time it coaches people to think more deeply and rationally. And if that helps learners become more motivated and improve their outlook on life, then that’s an added benefit.

As well as this, the Meta Model helps the listeners in the room to see things a bit more clearly too. And it makes us better listeners which allows us to understand our students better, and that can never be a bad thing.

Road
We can't see the destination. We can only see a few hundred yards in front. But we can get there because we have a map, and because some have given us directions.


The 12 Language Patterns — Start by purposely trying to notice one pattern at a time and then build on that over a period of days. You learn it by doing it.

1. Simple Deletion — We delete most of the environment and thoughts around us all the time. If we didn’t we would have to question and think about everything. Life would take forever, and so deleting makes life easier. To a point. It’s also a lot easier to come out with somewhat emotional and half-formed statements rather than think through the situation. The deletion may represent a knee jerk reaction to something, and these statements need to be elaborated to tease reason out.

  • ‘I hate this.’ (unspecified noun)
  • ‘What do you hate?”
  • 'How much do you hate it?’

  • ‘He always says stupid things.’ (unspecified noun and adjective)
  • ‘What exactly did he say?’
  • 'What was stupid about it?’

2. Comparative Deletion — The same as above, but selectively failing to specify the object in the comparison in order to create an all encompassing easy get out.

  • ‘It’d be better if I could see the answers.’
  • 'What would be better?’
  • 'How much better would it be?’

3. Lack of Reference — Blanket and lazy generalisations are still all too common today even in a world where people are more circumspect about boxing and labelling whole groups. Again, generalisations in the physical world for the most part make life easier. We have to assume all concrete is the same and therefore we can walk on it, and so it goes on. But when extended to among other things, humans, this thinking invariably becomes unstuck as people are: a) individuals and not that glibly predictable, and b) overwhelmingly the same and behave the same under similar conditions. See this post for a full explanation of this concept.

  • ‘I don’t like [insert nationality or ethnic group].’
  • ‘What don‘t you like about them?’

  • ‘People only care about themselves.’
  • ‘Who do you mean?’

4. Unspecified Verbs — The very free use of verbs often unfairly and loaded with different meanings. This is often done in order to castigate people or to offer vague reasons for doing or not doing something.

  • ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
  • ‘What wouldn‘t I understand?’
  • ‘How could I understand?‘

5. Cause and Effect — A non sequitur (see also: post hoc ergo propter hoc) whereby blame is appropriated to someone or something when in reality the connection is loose, indirect, or non-existent. Often the reality of outcomes in life are that a multitude of factors were involved rather than one simple event.

  • ‘If you hadn’t have done x then y wouldn’t have happened.’
  • ‘She’s upset because of x.’
  • ‘How do you know that?’
  • ‘What else has caused this?’
  • ‘What else has happened to make her act like this?’

6. Mind Reading — The often massively assumptive language and value judgements regarding other people’s thoughts and beliefs. In other words, the speaker has some erroneous belief that is clouding his or her thinking towards another person (see also: psychological projection). Often this takes the form of black and white, extreme and absolute language such as: never, always, can’t, won’t, hate, love, etc and may be based on little, none, or spurious evidence.

  • ‘She doesn’t like me.’
  • ‘How do you know that?’

7. Complex Equivalence — Reading too much into things or conflating two things which are not necessarily linked. Complex Equivalence is basically flawed logic and very similar to Cause and Effect.

  • ‘I messed up on that exam — I’m stupid.’
  • ‘How does messing up on an exam make you stupid?’

8. Lost Performatives — Value judgements and subjective calls that may be limited in scope or raise disagreement with a wider audience. We all judge, but those who rely on judgements and generalisations inevitably get it wrong more often. This is related to Comparative Deletion and Lack of Reference.

  • ‘You shouldn’t do it that way.’
  • ‘Who said you should do it that way?’
  • ‘What would happen if you did it that way?’

9. Nominalisations — By turning an idea into a noun you simplify the process or the matter into something that is often unquantifiable. Nominalisations are like covering the area in a blanket and again can represent an escape hatch for people wanting to write something off easily. As with Unspecified Verbs and Lost Performatives, these words mean different things to different people.

  • ‘There’s not enough communication.’
  • ‘Who’s not communicating with you?’
  • ‘What haven’t they told you?’

10. Universal Quantifiers — A form of Mind Reading, hyperbole and a lack of critical thinking that taints and distorts how we see people. Universal Quantifiers include the words: everyone, we, always, never, no one, etc, and are used to apply a broad brush to a group. Linked to Lack of Reference.

  • ‘Everyone hated that guy.’
  • ‘What, absolutely everyone?’
  • ‘What did they hate about him?’

11. Modal Verbs — We all impose rules on ourselves, and as a society this is necessary. However, our beliefs about what life should be and how people should behave is often restrictive. This can cause conflict with how things really are and with people whose value systems differ from our own. People’s rules are reflected in their use of modal verbs e.g., should, ought to, can, must, have to.

  • ‘They can’t change it.’
  • ‘What’s stopping them?’
  • ‘What would happen if they did change it?’

12. Presuppositions — These are the most complex forms and require a habit for reading between the lines. If something is presupposed it is assumed to be true and does not need explaining. Every statement presupposes that a load of concepts exist but again, in overuse these can be cause for counter-factual and unfair statements. In presuppositions there is an unsaid and often highly loaded meaning that may need to be consciously addressed.

  • ‘If you really cared about this, you would do it.’ (the assumption being: ‘You don't care.’)
  • ‘How do you know I don’t care about it?’

  • ‘Well, Student X‘s grammar is good.’ (the assumption being: ‘His other skills are below par.’)
  • ‘How good is his fluency/vocabulary/listening/pronunciation?’



In facing reality and getting to the truth of the matter these concepts clearly share a lot with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In fact, they grew directly out of it.[2] However, I’m yet to hear CBT called a pseudoscience.

These frameworks are effective for the simple reason that training people in language clarifies and enhances their view of the world. That’s not pseudoscience. It's an absolutely central field in mental healthcare. And while in therapy this is about changing attitudes, in language teaching it’s about putting the learner first by creating speaking opportunities and promoting clarity of communication.


1. Questioning in the Meta Model avoids the easy ‘why’, which is often taken subconsciously as a knee-jerk challenge rather than a basic inquiry and tends to make people answer defensively.

2. 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Korzybski
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Satir
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Perls