Book Review: Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Critical Appreciation for Managers and Developers


Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Critical Appreciation for Managers and Developers by Paul Tosey and Jane Mathison

Kathy Greethurst joined Oxford Brookes University as a Staff Development Consultant in November 2013. She previously worked in HRM in business and ran her own learning and development consultancy. She is a Master NLP Practitioner and an NLP Coach.  Her main work interests are leadership, management development, culture change, learning and coaching.

Unlike most books on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Paul Tosey and Jane Mathison’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Critical Appreciation for Managers and Developers is not a ‘how to’ guide; instead it is a serious study of NLP. The authors claim that it is the first academic text to ‘fulfil the need for an enquiring, research-based and critical approach to the practice of NLP…’ and state that it is aimed at NLP Practitioners and HRD professionals. This review demonstrates how critically important this book is for the world of NLP and shows how well the authors succeed in their claim.
The book is divided into four parts. In the Part One, Tosey and Mathison set out their research agenda with a series of questions about the nature, purpose and state of NLP. They acknowledge the challenge of defining NLP and put forward their own ‘Six Faces of NLP’ model which they represent as an iceberg and base on the ‘three P’s’:

  • Practice (NLP as a behaviour or practical communication – what people do);
  • Philosophy (NLP as a body of ideas and principles)
  • Product (NLP as a commodity that can be consumed).

From combinations of these ‘three P’s’, the six different aspects of their model emerge – ‘Practical Magic’ – communication in action, Methodology – modelling, Philosophy – epistemology and presuppositions, Technology – frameworks and techniques; Commodity – consumables and self-help products; and Professional Service – coaching, consulting and psychotherapy.

The authors use their ‘Six Faces of NLP’ model to examine what NLP is and draw on ideas from NLP’s founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder and other experts in the field. They present their own working description of ‘NLP in practice’:

‘NLP is interested in how people communicate, perform skills and create experiences through patterns of thought and behaviour, mediated by language. NLP helps people create more preferable and useful (to them) experiences of the world, typically by attending to and modifying those patterns of thought and behaviour’ (2009:24).

Tosey and Mathison explore how NLP has been successfully employed in organisations and highlight the problem that NLP is not backed by compelling or substantive academic literature despite abundant and enthusiastic anecdotal evidence from practitioners.

In Part Two, their welcome and refreshingly detailed history of NLP tracks its emergence as part of the 1960s Human Potential Movement and describes the roles played by its founders and other key players like Bob Spritzer, Judith DeLozier, Christina Hall and Leslie Cameron-Bandler. It catalogues the influences of collaborations with Milton Erikson (the ‘father’ of hypnotherapy), Fritz Perls (the founder of Gestalt theory), Virginia Satir (renowned family therapist) and Gregory Bateman (anthropologist, social scientist and linguist). It reveals less well-known linkages with Cybernetics and Constructivism.

In Part Three, Tosey and Mathison discuss the controversy around NLP’s insufficient theoretical base, reporting that when asked for the theory, NLP Practitioners often simply refer to the NLP Suppositions and point out that, based on their own personal experiences, it is enough that ‘it works’ which causes sceptics to denounce NLP as a pseudo-science or cult. The authors suggest John Heron’s Model of Knowing to show that NLP is based on ‘alternative unorthodox (in Western Scientific terms) forms of knowing.’ They respond to accusations that NLP’s use of hypnotic language and techniques is manipulative by pointing out that all communication can be regarded as hypnosis and that NLP is no more likely to be used unethically than any other mode of helping people.

Part Four contains a useful synthesis of the book and identifies six landmarks to enable HRD professionals to navigate the world of NLP. These are its focus on language, the body-mind connection, inner worlds, metaprogrammes, its practical applications and the systematic nature of human communication. The authors conclude with a challenge to launch a research agenda into its efficacy to escape its ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ image, build a bridge between practitioners and sceptics, and ensure its future which, they argue, is currently, by no means secure. They identify eight areas for a research agenda – action research by practitioners, case studies, modelling projects, the review and testing of specific models and techniques, incidence surveys, critical reviews of NLP philosophies, sociological and historical studies and using NLP in research methods.

This book is critically important because it tackles NLP’s key issues and controversies head-on and challenges NLP aficionados to make connections between theory and practice and engage in academic debate. It fills in the gaps in its history, champions the roles of its previously under-represented female contributors and makes a valiant attempt at addressing accusations by sceptics that it is a pseudo-science or cult which, as Tosey and Mathison argue, are often made by people with little practical knowledge of NLP or a limited scientific view. It brings to the fore overlooked influences from accepted and established theories and demonstrates that it has evolved through hard work and collaboration over the last fifty years.

On the other hand, the examples in the chapter on organisational applications are not substantial enough to convince the reader of its success and potential. The authors’ attempts to bring clarity to NLP by putting forward their own definition of NLP and model distract the reader from the book’s prime purpose to provide a critical, research-based analysis of NLP. Their definition is over-complicated – as is their graphic of the Six Faces of NLP model. The latter is not helped by the presumably accidental omission of the second face – ‘methodology.’ The illogical order of the chapters exacerbates these complications. It would be clearer if the history came first, followed by the examination of the issues surrounding its base in academic research and theory. Also, the authors’ explanation of using Heron’s Model of Knowing to explain NLP and how it works experientially at many levels is limited and needs to be expanded to earn its place in the study.

The challenges for this book are analogous to the challenges for NLP. Who will read it? Who will take up its ‘call to arms?’ It is probably too academic for the majority of NLP practitioners engrossed in making ‘it’ work with their clients. The absence of ‘how to’ explanations and its references to NLP models and techniques are likely to be too specialised to appeal to non-NLP-trained HR Professionals.

It is five years since this book was published and its objectives to generate meaningful academic debate, a research agenda and a recognisable theoretical base are largely unfulfilled. NLP is still not accepted as a widespread mainstream practice and it could be doomed to drift into the margins despite that fact that we, the practitioners, still find that it helps us in all aspects of our lives and we cling to our knowledge that we know ‘it works.’


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