The Origins and Evolution of NLP

by admin on January 30, 2012

Dr. Joseph Riggio
Master NLP™ Trainer and Architect of The MythoSelf® Process

The Meta-Model

What is now know as Neurolinguistic Programming, or NLP, has its origins in the early 1970′s when a student Richard Bandler and a professor of linguistics by the name of John Grinder at the University of California, Santa Cruz, began a process of discovering how masters and wizards in the domain of therapeutic communications performed what these researchers began referring to as magic.

What distinguished the work of the individuals whom Bandler and Grinder studied was their unprecedented success with cases and clients that other reputable and otherwise successful therapists had had no success with before. The few individuals whose work Bandler and Grinder studied included renowned names such as Fritz Perls, M.D. of Gestalt Therapy fame, Virginia Satir the internationally famous Family Therapist and Milton Erickson, M.D. the premier Medical Hypnotist of the twentieth century, to name a few of the more well known and distinguished exemplars that formed the basis of what would become known as Neurolinguistic Programming.

The initial work that Bandler and Grinder embarked upon began largely coincidentally. Bandler had an opportunity to observe Fritz Perls working and as a master mimic Bandler modeled the behaviors and performance of Dr. Perls when he was working with clients. Part of what Richard Bandler modeled included the language and communication patterns of Dr. Perls, including his non-verbal communication patterns – his tone, rhythms, attitude, etc.

Subsequently Richard had the opportunity to replicate Fritz’s style of working with students at the university and remarkably generated results similar to those attained by Perls himself. He brought this to the attention of Dr. Grinder and they agreed to do some research regarding how this was possible when Richard had no formal training or education either in psychology or as a (psycho)therapist. The result of this research, as well as similar research into the patterns of other folks like Virgina Satir, laid the groundwork for what would later become known as Neurolinguistic Programming.

What Bandler and Grinder found was a pattern of communicating used by these master therapists when working with clients, what they called the Meta-Model of Language1. This meta-model is formed from three sub-patterns of communication, Generalizations, Deletions, and Distortions, they identified that people use when linguistically modeling their experience. These sub-patterns formed the basis of what Bandler and Grinder went on to describe in terms of conditions of wellformedness, constituent structure and logical semantic relations – together these sub-patterns form the basis of the intuitions native speakers of a language use when communicating that make communication meaningful, both to themselves and others.

Bandler and Grinder developed a method of using the language patterns to access the way an individual represents the world to themselves and others using the Meta-Model as they describe it. They further identified specific sub-patterns of language utilization that lead to specific cases of ill-formedness, which comprise the larger patterns of the Meta-Model’s Generalizations, Deletions and Distortions. Using this information they developed a training process for therapeutic communication using these sub-patterns leading to greater linguistic wellformedness, which they playfully refer to as “Incantations for Growth and Potential2.” The representation of the world as contained in the language an individual uses becomes for the individual the world as they know it to be for all intents and purposes, their “Map of the World,” a phrase often used by Bandler and Grinder when presenting this work.

The individual’s Map of the World then forms the basis for their choices, the decisions they make and the behaviors and performance that result from their choices and decisions. It is the link between perception, cognition, behavior, performance and outcome(s). When the language a person uses to represent the world is “ill-formed,” generating a misrepresentation, their behaviors and performance will subsequently be ill-formed as well. By re-representing the world in language that is “richer,” more complete, specific and precise, the Map of the World that the individual is acting upon will be closer to what they have actually experienced and are experiencing. This results in behavior and performance that is more wellformed, leading the individual to generating outcomes more in line with and closer to what they want and expect then could ever be realized when acting upon an ill-formed representation of their experience.

Another thing that Bandler and Grinder suggest is that with a richer description of experience available an individual will have access to a greater number and variety of choices. This in turn will lead to making more high quality choices and better decisions, this is what became known in NLP circles as greater “resourcefulness” a topic discussed at length by virtually all Neurolinguistic Programmers. The expectation is that with greater resourcefulness an individual will have access to a wider range of behaviors – “flexibility” – that generate a performance manifesting in more of the individual’s desired outcomes regardless of the context – therapy, education, business, relationships, etc.

What Bandler and Grinder had described was a way of accessing how an individual represented their experience behind the language they used to describe it consciously. They referred to the conscious description as the “Surface Structure” and the representation that generated the description as the “Deep Structure” of language. Using the terminology of transformational grammar they refer to the accessing of the “Deep Structure” in generating the description that became the “Surface Structure” as a “Transderivational Search” or T.D.S. The Deep Structure is a more complete linguistic representation of their experience, while the Surface Structure is a less complete representation based on choices that are rule governed as a result of the TDS they make. When the Surface Structure description leaves out essential information that is contained in the Deep Structure for making high quality choices and wellformed decisions the individual’s behaviors, performance and the outcomes they produce will suffer as a result.

The essence of the research leading to the formation of the Meta-Model and it’s use as a therapeutic tool is described by Bandler and Grinder in their book, “The Structure of Magic,” first published in 1975. Using this tool an individual is led to a more complete, specific, precise and wellformed linguistic description and subsequent conscious representation of their experience. At that time this work was received as a seminal breakthrough in therapeutic communication. Bandler and Grinder believed they had found the holy grail of therapy, defining what caused therapy to work and codifying it in a way that could be replicated with others. Many others agreed with them, including reviewers of their work in publications such as “Science” and “Psychology Today.”

Building on the base of linguistic analysis and modeling of excellent therapeutic communication presented in “The Structure of Magic” Bandler and Grinder began building the larger model and methodology that we now call Neurolinguistic Programming or NLP. Using this model it became possible to replicate the performance of the therapeutic masters and wizards by those who did not have the intuitions these masters and wizards had developed, but instead by using a reliable, replicate model of communication based in the recognition and utilization of language patterns that Bandler and Grinder identified, codified and described in detail – the impact of this was revolutionary, reducing the time it took to produce the results attained by giants in the field of therapy from decades to days. To say the least overnight Bandler and Grinder became an acknowledged threat to the established hierarchy in the world of psychotherapy.

Bandler and Grinder continued their research and discoveries presenting their findings in books that followed including “Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson,” a book that deals with the structure of ambiguity and its artistic usage in therapy and communication, they also co-authored books describing what they began calling Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), which include “Frogs Into Princes,” “Tranceformations,” and “Reframing.” In subsequent articles in this series we’ll review the continuing development of NLP and what these books and those that followed by both Bandler and Grinder, as well as other NLP authors, contributed to the methodology and application of this breakthrough in the technologies of therapy and professional communication.


1 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic, 1975 Science and Behavior Books, Inc. – pp. 24-25 
2 Ibid – Chapter Four, pp. 57 – 110