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Conversations with Richard Bandler - a Leading Questions review

Almost twenty years ago, I was introduced to Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP through the Anthony Robbins Unlimited Power tapes. At that time, I found that NLP to be a communication technique as an excellent device for manipulation and control over others. When offeredConversations Bandler - NLP the opportunity to review Conversations with Richard Bandler, who is co-founder of NLP, I welcomed it as a chance to revisit this perspective of human development to see whether my original skepticism was justified.

Owen Fitzpatrick, a student, mentee, and friend of Richard Bandler recorded a series of conversations that he conducted with Bandler over several years. The book as a result is not an introduction to the techniques of NLP, but rather a book that celebrates Bandler’s ideas and perspective about self-development.

For those who are uninitiated into the world of NLP, Fitzpatrick provides a description.

NLP studies the way we represent our experience through our neurology (neuro), how we communicate with ourselves and others (linguistic)  and how we can change our habitual ways of thinking, communicating and behaving (programming). … NLP is described as an “attitude,” “methodology,” and “technology.” It is an attitude that enables you to live life in a happy, productive, and successful way. It is a methodology that enables you to usefully model successful people in different areas, such as education, medicine and business. It is based on the principle that no matter what someone else can do, you can learn how to do the same thing once you understand what that person did in the way they thought as well as in action or behavior. It is a technology that contains within it systems and skills that enable you improve the quality of your life.

The book provides anecdotal illustrations of this approach to human development. It is written for people who already are practitioners and fans of Richard Bandler and NLP. It does not take a critical nor introductory approach to the methodology.  As a result, I found it less that helpful in providing a perspective of NLP that addressed my original skepticism.

The fundamental psychological assumptions that are the basis of the NLP philosophy I don't believe are credible. Their conception of personal freedom and the "chains of freedom" is confusing.

Personal freedom is the ability to feel what you want so that the "chains of the free" - of fear, sadness, and hate - are broken. Real personal freedom is about being able to go through and break as many of these chains as you possibly can. These chains are made up of negative feelings, limiting beliefs, and destructive behaviors. It's about being able to build the kinds of internal states that take people to good places through curiosity.

To be free you have to be moral, because then you won't have dilemmas about what's good and bad. If you are doing the right thing for the right reason, then every part of you will line up and do it perfectly.

Over simplifying emotions as either good or bad provides a false resolution to the link between our emotions and the outside world. A false dichotomy between good and bad emotions sets up a binary trap for those seeking to implement NLP in their lives.  Any emotion, regardless of whether labeled good or bad, can affirm and enhance the quality of our lives. The task is not to label them, but to interpret them in the situational context.

For example, sadness is considered a "chain of freedom." In other words, sadness is a bad emotion that inhibits our freedom. Is sadness the opposite of happiness, or is it a depth of emotion that affirms some good within us?

Sadness is a natural and often an affirming emotion. When we feel sad at the loss of a loved one, that feeling of sadness is not a bad emotion as it can affirm their contribution and place in our lives. Thirty one years and two days ago, I lost my mother. On the anniversary of her death, I feel more acutely her passing, and the loss of her relationship and the opportunity for her to know her children's spouses and her grandchildren. Because I feel sadness in her absence, I am closer to her because her memory lives on in me. The experience of sadness is an important part of the grieving process and I'm freer to love her because of my sadness links me closer to the reality of what I and my family have missed in her not being with us.

The underlying philosophy of freedom, as described in the book, reduces freedom to a psychological state. 

Freedom from these chains really comes from intelligence. Real freedom is not based on a personal inventory. It is based on bathing your neurology in other chemistry. Freedom is not about following rigid ideas. It is about going into a state where you find your own personal destiny. It is about having flexibility in your behavior, not rigidity. It is your ability to change your own internal state.

NLP is a way of thinking that places the self at odds with social obligation. Freedom is being released from rules that inhibit the self. The self lives by it own self-appointed rules. As a result, our personal freedom is at odds with our relationship to others and to society as a whole. In effect, NLP's conception of personal freedom is prescription for interpersonal conflict and social decline. This is what I concluded from Tony Robbins description of NLP. I don't believe this is their belief. I do believe this is logical outcome of a quest for personal freedom being at the center of life.

Fortunately, people do live by social rules and desire to fulfill the expectations of their social relationships. Those rules are the source of our freedom. They provide us values that establish a basis for relationships within a social environment. As a result, there is no self-development distinct from our development as social beings. The measure of our personal freedom is not what we feel inside, but how we live. It is not what society does for us, but rather what we give to society that is the measure of our freedom. 

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is described as a technology. Technologies are tools. It is the purpose and application of the tool that matters. My skepticism has not changed toward this approach to human communication. I find its philosophical foundation lacking a sound basis in human experience.

Practitioners and followers of NLP and Richard Bandler will find Conversations with Richard Bandler a reminder of Bandler's thought and contribution to NLP. However, those who are looking for an introduction to the techniques of NLP will need to look elsewhere. And for those of us who are open skeptics, the book lacks the critical perspective needed to provide a clear and compelling case for NLP.

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