The professional, ethical use of NLP in business is a greatly under-rated and over-hyped application. So many trainers and writers focus on the same cliched applications of sales, influence, negotiation, but the reality is - that's not what most people's jobs entail.
I gave a presentation to the Richmond NLP group on this subject, you can watch the video here.
I see many people talking about business applications of NLP – sales, influence, persuasion, marketing… rapport… the list gets shorter, the closer you get to the reality of business life. Contrary to the popular opinion of people who write about sales, the job of a salesperson mostly does not entail sitting in front of customers, negotiating deals. Most of their time is spent planning, creating account strategies, following up, testing and measuring, developing relationships and so on, and none of this is done with ‘matching and mirroring’ or ‘setting outcome frames’.
Furthermore, the great majority of people in business today are not sales people. Most people are not even in customer facing positions. As organisations get bigger, more of their resources are dedicated to ‘back end’ operations; people who come to work every day and just want to do their jobs and go home again. People who benefit from their daily interactions with colleagues being a little easier, more effortless and less stressful.
Similarly, people who work on the therapeutic applications of NLP might talk about transformations and breakthroughs, but the reality is that people achieve long lasting change through counselling or therapy as a result of consistent, persistent, small steps forwards, not huge leaps.
However, the therapeutic applications of NLP might often overshadow the real value of NLP in Business, and that’s what I want to explore, to inspire you to see business applications as equally valid, ethical and professional as any other.
Many NLP books are written for the big, theatrical changes in life. Gurus whip crowds into a frenzy of empowering your life, and skyrocketing your success, and earning millions while you sleep. These fantastical claims simply don’t make any sense to the great majority of people who just want to go to work, earn a fair and honest living and have a nice time while they’re doing it.
Most people want to be good at their jobs, to avoid office politics, to work in a supportive team, to have a supportive, encouraging manager, and to learn something new so that they can have a sense of self-development and growth.
The reality is that your life is not significantly improved by lurching from one transformation to another. Your quality of life will be significantly improved when you enjoy a little more success, a little more easily, with much less stress, every day.
Research has shown that stress can reduce your life span by up to 20 years1, and working in a stressful environment is something that many people feel they have to do, every day. Other research has shown that interpersonal conflict at work reduces cognitive capacity and increases stress23. This affects not only their well-being, but also the well-being of their colleagues, family and friends. When you use your NLP skills to help people have more congruent goals, in better aligned working environments, with more enjoyable working relationships, you touch not only their lives but also all of the lives that they touch. You really make a measurable difference in the world.
Many people who attend Practitioner training are left wondering how to put all of the weird and wonderful techniques into practice. It just doesn’t seem right to hypnotise people at work or wave your hands in strangers’ faces while making wooshing noises, does it? As for touching them on the leg whilst asking them to double their pleasure, there are laws against such things.
In learning to apply NLP professionally, we have to go full circle to NLP’s roots. The therapists who Bandler, Grinder and their colleagues first modelled didn’t use techniques at all; they were the pioneers of what we now call ‘talking therapies’. To create NLP, the researchers turned the structure of those talking therapies into physical techniques so that students had an easy way to learn them. Each technique is actually a way to install a process and a method into the Practitioner student. Whilst you could continue to use the techniques that way, you don’t need to. However, few students progress beyond that early stage. Most students, in my first hand experience, tend to think that they way they’re shown a technique is the only way to do it.
NLP, then, is a proven set of tools and techniques that improve your skills in important business areas such as goal setting and communication. But above all else, these are tools that don’t work in isolation, they are tools that you must use with other people so that everyone benefits from the result. These tools only work within relationships, and you are fully responsible for the way that you manage your relationships, both professional and personal.
Herein lies NLP’s real power in business; as a way to structure your communications so that you achieve results more effectively and efficiently, for the benefit of all involved. I don’t mean the ‘headline acts’ of sales, negotiation, influence and so on, I mean ordinary, everyday interactions. The ‘good mornings’, and ‘how’s it goings’, and the ‘when can I have that reports’. Ordinary everyday stuff that most people take for granted.
As I look around the NLP training industry, I see a number of established and well known training providers moving into corporate consultancy under the guise of “organisational psychology” and other similar concepts. It strikes me that they’ve realised there is more money in corporate training than in their more therapeutically oriented, privately funded customers and now they’re trying to make NLP credible in a business context. I think that they are missing the point: it already is.
I suppose my route into NLP has biased me towards its business applications. My first exposure was on an internal sales training course at a major telecoms company. The three day course developed quite a following , fuelled by many intriguing stories, such as the sales team who used non-verbal rapport to influence their sales manager. During each weekly sales meeting, the manager intended to give the sales staff a hard time about their figures. At the end of the meeting he felt inexplicably good about not having done it. How could you resist finding out more about that?
From that moment on, I used what I knew about NLP on a day to day basis – in sales meetings, in team meetings and in just about every way you could imagine. I was lucky in being able to get the tools and techniques of NLP out of my system early on and instead concentrate on results. No-one cares about swishes or six step reframes – they just want whatever they want. I practised something different every day, and I wasn’t afraid to get blank stares in return, because I wasn’t afraid to experiment and learn.
I recently gave a presentation on NLP in Business at a local practice group, and afterwards, someone asked me, “How did you come up with all this stuff?” and the answer is simple; I wanted to understand more, I wasn’t prepared to take things at face value, so I experimented, I deconstructed, I practiced.
I started with just a few simple ideas that I used regularly. At first, I paid attention to the language that my customers used and when I wrote proposals for them, I used their sensory language. After job interviews, I also wrote follow-up letters in the sensory style of the interviewing manager, and they were always amazed and impressed. Of course, the fact that I bothered to write a follow-up letter was the most important thing. The language I used just made it more powerful. If you don’t bother to get the basics right, no amount of NLP wizardry will help you.
I have come to think of NLP as an operating system. By itself it doesn’t do anything useful. Only the applications you run on it are useful. Consequently, it’s very difficult for companies like Microsoft to sell operating systems, so they partner with PC hardware manufacturers. Similarly, I have found that my NLP skills enable far more useful applications such as facilitation, conflict resolution and problem solving. These are good old fashioned consultancy services that clients are happy to pay money for. Are clients happy to pay money for NLP? If a client asks for NLP by name, I know that I have to find out what’s really going on.
When the time came for me to leave the telecoms industry and set up my own business, I knew that NLP would be a part of it as I saw the basic skills as being highly transferable and without a shelf life. Technical skills such as IT knowledge have a shelf life – if you don’t keep up with the latest thing, your knowledge quickly becomes worthless. The great thing about NLP is that the core modelling toolkit means you can be constantly developing and refining new models of excellence to form the basis of your consultancy, training or coaching work.
For example, I worked with a number of sales people on the challenge of cold calling. I learned a huge amount from them, and that experience created a little niche for me for a while, and I ended up writing a series of articles for a recruitment magazine called “How to love your sales calls”. Similar things have happened with retail managers, future leaders, facilitators and more.
So, NLP is already credible and acceptable in business simply because business is about people. I often say that words like ‘company’ or ‘organisation’ are simply collective nouns for groups of people, acting for a common purpose. They’re no different to any other people. If you want to apply NLP in business then realise that people are already communicating, relating, influencing and learning in businesses. Using NLP, you can make those natural processes even more effective.
I hear from a lot of people in companies who say “we don’t use NLP, it doesn’t work for us”. Whilst HR managers may resist NLP because they only see the techniques, there’s a revolution starting from within that promises to make NLP a mainstream business development toolkit.
At the moment, much of NLP is hidden inside other training courses, consultancy models and professional services. It doesn’t really matter whether the customer knows there’s NLP in there or not as long as they continue to get the professional service they want, the value they expect and the results they need. As I learned on my first customer service course, 20 years ago, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.
I think that, in the past, people have tried to sell NLP without knowing what it does. Many coaches don’t know how to sell coaching, so they offer free taster sessions. That’s all changing now, because established professionals are learning about and applying NLP in the course of their work. Accountants, lawyers, sales people, IT directors and CEOs are learning about NLP because they want to be better at their jobs, not because they want to become coaches or hypnotherapists.
As a global professional community, it’s our responsibility and our privilege to apply NLP in businesses to solve real business problems and help business people develop real, practical business skills. It’s our responsibility to take the spirit of NLP and adapt it to our customer’s needs, not just to take the techniques out of the Practitioner manual and hope for the best. It’s our responsibility to honour NLP’s spirit of curiosity and to use that as the basis for our professional development, not just to say “I know how to do NLP” because you can remember all seven steps of the six step reframe.
NLP has the potential to offer a significant upgrade to the human operating system that powers businesses, maybe even the first since the industrial revolution. I believe that NLP offers us the chance to create a business infrastructure based on open communication, focussed results and truly meaningful relationships. With the power of NLP behind you, you have both the credibility and the proven potential to make a powerful difference in business. The rest is up to you.
1 Ahola et al (2012) Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study.
2 Inam Ul Haq (2011), The Impact of Interpersonal Conflict on Job Outcomes: Mediating Role of Perception of Organizational Politics. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 25
3 Doucet, Poitras, Chênevert, (2009) "The impacts of leadership on workplace conflicts", International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 20 Issue: 4