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The Collected Papers of Joseph Riggio

What's Missing in NLP

Questions of Philosophy or What’s “Missing” in NLP?

The question, “What’s ‘missing’ in NLP?” presupposes of course that something is missing, and according to the author not only is something ‘missing’ but it’s both evident and obvious.

NLP as a “Sensory-Based” Model/Technology

NLP is built around a model that depends on “sensory-based” observations. This is both a tremendous boon and a debilitating fault. Whether it is a boon or a fault is dependent on what the model is being used to address. If it is something that resides within the domain of “sensory experience” (NLP would say ‘everything’ is in the domain of sensory experience) then the NLP model is a fantastic tool. An example of this is when it is used “therapeutically” to help someone “get” the sensory experience they are missing through Deletions, Generalizations and Distortions. So when someone operates off of a primary Meta-Model violation NLP provides a significant and powerful tool in redirecting their awareness and perception of what they are considering in formulating their operating position.

This idea of “sensory-based” experience stands among the fundamental principals of the NLP model. The origins of the model were in the linguistic analysis of therapeutic applications in changing the “reality tunnels” of clients being worked with using other models of therapeutic intervention, e.g.: Gestalt Therapy or the Satir Model of Family Therapy. Using the modeling process taken from transformational linguistics Grinder and Bandler modeled the interventions used by masterful therapists in response to their interactions with clients. They found specific aspects of language ill-formedness and codified these into what became known as the Meta-Model of language. The NLP model is built the premises of this work.

From this seminal and breakthrough work they were engaged in (which generated the body work presented in “The Structure of Magic” I and II) they had an opportunity to become acquainted with the body of work of Milton H. Erickson. Using the same modeling process they’d applied to ill-formedness in language they modeled the hypnotic protocol of Dr. Erickson. What they found was a methodology (verbal and non-verbal hypnosis) that they could apply to the linguistic intervention model they’d uncovered in their earlier work. This new model, the Milton Model, gave them access to the non-verbal aspects and unconscious processes of the clients they were working with. Using the Meta-Model to elicit and uncover the areas of linguistic ill-formedness in perceptual descriptions and the Milton Model to access and utilize the non-verbal and unconscious processes they now had a powerful technology model for therapeutic interventions designed to shift the perceptual experience of their clients.

In working with this model they found that clients had observable neurological responses that could be utilized to further explicate the internal perceptual processes of their clients, e.g.: eye accessing. Bundling these learnings and the results of the modeling they had done and continued to do they developed the model known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. This model depended upon the astute sensory-based observation of the client, the ability to modify the internal processes of the client in respect to their sensory-based observations and re-form the client’s perceptual processes in relation to a more well-formed structure in relation to the client’s expressed desires, e.g.: motivation to act in a particular way, freedom from phobic fear responses …

NLP as an "Epistemological" Model/Technology

This work remained and remains founded in this sensory-based model of experience. This model is epistemological – or built on and addressing “how” a person knows what they know (to be true). The co-founders of the model/technology of NLP, Grinder and Bandler, both spent – and continue to spend in the author’s observation – large amounts of time harping on the distinction between “Why?” a person does something and “How?” a person does something. The first question form “Why?” is the darling of the psychology community who seek to understand the motivations and drivers of experience, perception and behavior, while the second question form “How?” is the darling of the NLP founders and disciples who seek to uncover the patterns and processes used in generating perceptions and responses that lead to experience and behaviors.

Largely the NLP model is directed at reforming the patterns and processes an individual uses to generate their perceptions and response to any given sensory-based experience (internally or externally organized). These patterns and processes are in turn largely dependent on the “Beliefs” of the client in regard to sensory-based experience. A concept that John Grinder, one of the co-founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, is fond of including in his presentations is that of “feed-forward perception” a concept that in its simplest form states that the perceptual system is “set up in advance by what is expected.” Richard Bandler the other co-founder of the model has taken a slightly different approach to the work he’s developed since he and John Grinder were associates. Bandler’s approach is heavily organized around the idea of “submodalities” or the smaller elements of perception that comprise the sensory modalities of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. He has taken the idea of the processes, patterns and structure of perception based in submodalities beyond working with elicitation, utilization and modification of those the client currently uses – to working with clients to generate new processes, patterns and structures based on organizing to what they want regardless of what they have.

Both John and Richard have emphasized the idea of “choice” in their work with and continuing development of the NLP model through time. This choice is embedded in the epistemology of the individual. They work with clients to assist them in developing new ways of organizing their thinking and its resultant behaviors by assisting them in accessing, utilizing and modifying the processes they use to think and act. This orientation is based in the fundamental organization around the question form, “How?” as in “How does this person do (i.e.: think and/or act) like that?” Then they offer their clients new choices in how they want to be thinking, acting and in the subsequent results/outcomes this produces for them. In this regard the author knows no better model for accomplishing this task elegantly.

Beyond Both "Sensory-Based" and "Epistemological" Models

So what’s “missing?” Everything that isn’t sensory-based, e.g.: “Is something right or wrong to be doing?” as in “Is it right to steal something from a friend?” This is what philosophers call the domain of Ethics and more significantly the sub-domain of Meta-Ethics. While this is not an article on Philosophy, Ethics or Meta-Ethics it is an article on what these domains include that is missing in the NLP model. This includes from the author’s point of view the entire concept of “right/wrong” and “good/bad.” The NLP model as it is presented by Bandler is not about “right/wrong” or “good/bad” just about choice and more choice, where more choice is always better. Grinder considers what he refers to as “wisdom” which he suggests is the ability to consider any given data from more than one point of view (see “Turtles All the Way Down” with Judith DeLozier). Yet even Grinder does not suggest a “right/wrong” or “good/bad” paradigm, instead choosing to present the options that are available only in regard to consequences.

So this raises another significant question, “Is it important to consider “ethics” in regard to personal development training models like NLP has become and is most often used for in application?” From the author’s point of view this is essential. The simple reason is that there are significant aspects of human experience that are beyond sensory-based experience. That some of our most compelling experiences as humans are only accessible as abstract concepts, without corresponding extant material form – e.g.: beauty. NLP says that there are no such things and that what is being done is what is called “nominalization” or the transcoding of a verb form into a noun, as in, “I want “beauty” (or “love” or “happiness” …) in my life.” What would be more accurate to fact (read: sensorily organized/based) is to say, “I want to be experiencing (that which is)”beauty” in my life.” or something more to the effect of making the experience active. Another example might be, “I want to do those things which allow me to more experience the beauty that is around me in my life.” This shifts the attention and focus of awareness from the nominalization, “beauty” to the actions associated with the experience of that which is beautiful, i.e.: filled with or representing “beauty.”

I understand NLP’s desire to shift from place the attention directly on beauty to “de-nominalizing” it by shifting the attention to what can be done in regard to having the experience. The concept of “What ‘beauty’ is (or is not)” is one of the longest standing philosophical inquiries that has been recorded. Going beyond the “traditional” standards of the Meta-Model analysis and the process of de-nominalization more contemporary approaches to NLP might ask, “How would you know if you have/had ‘beauty’ in your life?” This approach then shifts the attention from “having beauty” to what is desired from “having beauty.” This allows the NLP practitioner to then address the process the client can use to have this experience of what is desired from “having beauty.”

Yet, the idea/concept of “beauty” itself is not ever addressed using either the “traditional” or “contemporary” approaches of NLP. This would require addressing what is not present in sensory-based experience, what is beyond the realm of ordinary sensory-based experience. The questions of “ethics” or what is “right/wrong,” “good/bad” can only be addressed using a different structure than that which is available in the NLP model as such, i.e.: presented by either Bandler or Grinder and their direct disciples. Yet this may be totally appropriate to what the NLP model/technology is designed for and intended to address.

What's Beyond the NLP Model/Technology?

There are two fundamental forms that are outside of the NLP model/technology that must be present to address the “ethics” issues present in the human condition. These are an ontological vs. an epistemological orientation. Primarily this refers to the organization of “being” before and a priori to “doing.” This would make the question form, “What?” primary to “How?,” which must follow “What?.” The other is a shift from a deductive model to an inductive model of analysis. A deductive model is based sensory observation, while an inductive model goes beyond or outside of what is present in purely sensory based terms. The simplest representation the author can present of deductive vs. inductive reasoning is as follows: Deductive – “All stop signs are red, that is a stop sign therefore it must be red.” The one statement DOES by necessity of the form involved follow from the other. Inductive – “All stop signs are red, that sign is red and therefore must be a stop sign.” The one statement DOES NOT by necessity of the form follow from the other, BUT it can inductively be reasoned that it is possible.

This is a critical distinction, deduction is based in “necessity” and induction is based in “possibility.” The forms used in addressing questions of ethics are those that are questions of “possibility” not questions of “necessity.” Therefore there is no absolute that can be arrived at beyond a certainty of the range of examples considered. The conclusions reached will then not cover those examples not specifically considered. Yet conclusions of deduction can be applied to examples beyond the range of those considered specifically in arriving at the deductive conclusion. This is the essential difference between possibility and necessity.

While NLP poses as a model/technology of possibility it is actually based in forms of necessity. The primary techniques of NLP are at their best in shifting from one form of necessity to alternative forms of necessity. When multiple forms of necessity are available to an individual they have choice of selection – i.e.: this or that or that or that …

What is beyond the NLP model is a functional form to address what comes before choice or the means to access pure “choosing.” The NLP predicates choice in relation to outcome, while pure choosing requires no such consideration. However, within the model of ethical consideration the choice can be either “right or wrong,” “good or bad” inspite of the consequences depending of the frame of consideration which is the domain of ethics.


What is “missing” in NLP is the ability to consider those aspects of the human experience that are beyond or outside of sensory-based experience. These considerations are in the domain of philosophy, and specifically are considered in the domain of ethics and meta-ethics, these both reside within the domain of philosophy of metaphysics which is also the domain of ontology. The shift from an epistemological model to an ontological model allows the user to consider a different range of considerations, from what is “known” and “how it is known” to what “exists” or “is.” This is related to a shift from deductive reasoning and the domain of necessity, to inductive reasoning and the domain of possibility.

While this article doesn’t attempt to address the intricacies of the philosophical questions it raises, it does intend to address the areas of human experience that are beyond or outside of the NLP model/technology and to give some specific information and examples in regard to this. In order to address this area of consideration that is beyond or outside of the NLP model/technology a different model/technology must be employed, some or all of which may be present in the domain of philosophy.

© 2003 Joseph Riggio and Applied Behavioral Technologies, Inc. • All rights reserved, may not be reproduced or distributed by any means whatsoever, including electronic and/or mechanical without express prior written permission.

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