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Understanding Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) From An Objectivist Perspective [1]

Andrew Breese

Forum: Enlightenment's First Annual Meeting
This paper will be defended at the June Meeting. Participants are invited to draft written commentaries of this work for inclusion in the published Proceedings of the Meeting.

Focus. That's what it's all about.

Objectivism is the philosophy of focus. [2] NLP is the technology of focus. Objectivism emphasizes that your mind has a nature. It teaches that you are self-programming and self-responsible. NLP gives you some detailed understandings of and methods for responsible self-programming. Looking at the subconscious as a computer to be consciously shaped, [3] NLP outlines an effective programming language for the mind.

NLP and Objectivism share a basic philosophical outlook and method. NLP is rigorously scientific, obsessed with the heroic potential of humanity, grounded in sensible reality, and all about individuals increasing awareness and self-mastery.

NLP is a collection of psychological tools for real-life thriving. It is a set of practices, with attendant attitudes and principles. NLP technologies highlight and work within the mind/body relation — and the complex interactions among external reality, internal perceptions, and human expressions.

NLP does not try to be a complete philosophy of life. At most, it presupposes some philosophical and scientific outlooks. NLP is an open system of practical psychology, an ever-growing family tree of related ideas sharing one common root in the work of two 1970s scholars.

All existing styles or schools [4] of NLP build from the same three fertile goal/method pairs, each pair giving rise to its own family of psychological tools. The three goal/method pairs are:

I) learning by modeling what works,

II) self-mastery and unlimited achievement by attention to detail and continuous improvement, and III) working well with other people by building rapport and staying focused.

(II) is really the heart of NLP. Most writings and seminars in the movement devote many more words to this self-mastery goal/method pair than to either of the others. Accordingly, NLP texts are usually found in the “Self-Help” section of bookstores and libraries. Anthony Robbins, by far the most widely influential figure in the modern movement [5] , calls what he does “the psychology of change.” Within the self-help world, NLP is distinctive for its rich taxonomy of the subconscious combined with its number of clear suggestions for harnessing that complexity.

I. Learning By Modeling

Modeling is the most widespread NLP tool. Where NLP is a science, modeling is its formal scientific method. Simply put, to model is to observe and record what effective people actually do, not so much what they say or think they do—and then to test your knowledge of what they do by seeing whether you can replicate the desired results of what they do. [6] More fully, modeling is:

  1. starting with an idea of something you want to do well or better,
  2. carefully observing others doing it better and remembering yourself doing it at your best,
  3. paying special attention to the actors' behaviors, mannerisms and apparent attitudes during their successes, and
  4. forming and testing hypotheses on how to consistently get yourself into those specific resourceful states.
Gail Wynand in his youth modeled when he 1) decided to make a lot of money, 2) observed that rich people have books in their homes, 3) figured they must be finding valuable stuff in those books, and 4) began a lifetime of reading and liked the results.

II. Principles of Self-Mastery and Continuous Improvement

Self-mastery and unlimited achievement are, unsurprisingly, a little more complicated. They involve training your subconscious to process more and more perfectly in each life situation you care about. NLP preparation for new any life activity aims to move an individual up this ladder of success: “Unconscious Incompetence -> Conscious Incompetence -> Conscious Competence -> Unconscious Competence” [7] This ladder presupposes that human learning is about getting it right and then making it automatic.

Human awareness is largely associational as opposed to perfectly conceptual. Seeing one of my books on your shelf reminds me of a paper I've been meaning to write. Breathing that salt air with those flowers brings me back to my Florida childhood. Standing near that computer makes me want to check my e-mail. If I hear the word “bunny,” I usually picture our pet rabbit at home. When I do that, I'm likely to feel some of how I felt when I last saw him.

As individuals with long-range goals and short-range associational tendencies, we experience some inner conflicts. We can fight some repeated battles within the self (maybe by telling ourselves to “stay on track” or “be more disciplined”) or we can make tensions work for us. Association is an available tool, not an irrational disease. We make the most of association by creating and strengthening useful and inspiring associations in and for our everyday lives. This is one of the ways that success breeds success. Also, we can make the most of associations by combining them in creative ways.

Words evoke. Connotations matter. Denotations are easy to debate as “right” or “wrong,” but connotations often are deeply personal or wildly idiosyncratic. In your own inner dialogue, you can make your present word associations work for you by choosing idiosyncratically useful phrasings. You can focus your inner speech to more often orient on what is resourceful in your world. (There are few specific rules for this one; self-experimentation and careful attention are your sharpest tools.) If you are not retired to a deserted island, you will also wish to adjust some of your own word associations for interfacing with the rest of the world. (For example, you may choose to smile rather than growl when your neighbor keeps misusing “intrinsic”, “subjective” or even “nuke-u-lar”!)

NLP, like Objectivism [8] , usually encourages greater precision in language. NLP experts rarely use passive voice constructions. More strikingly, experts speak too precisely for most uses of the verb “to be”. Passive voice tends to disguise an actor in a thought; “to be” tends to hide the exact kind of relationship being expressed.

Every question suggests its own answer. This principle (that questions cause relevant answers) gives rise to NLP's single most specific suggestion for orienting on your own best resources: Ask yourself a lot of outcome questions like “What do I want from this phone call?”, “What's the likely consequence of my saying that?”, “What am I trying to do here? How can I do it better?”, and “What's my real motivation behind that question?” Outcome questions are similar in practice to Nathaniel Branden's sentence completion exercise stems [9] . Each brings us closer to the young Francisco d'Anconia's perennial state of self-knowing self-motivation.

“3Anchoring” generalizes connotation beyond words—and makes it purposeful. Athletes anchor when they strongly associate a particular warm-up routine or garment with high performance states. In medicine, the placebo effect works through unconscious anchoring. NLP presupposes that conscious anchoring can be useful and good.

Grinder and Robbins have a tongue-in-cheek label for all these principles and presuppositions: “the lies of success.” This memorable phrase emphasizes that the principles exist because they are attitudinally useful in most real-world situations. They don't establish metaphysical terra firma . Here are some of the best self-mastery lies of success:

These “lies” have a lot in common with Rand's Benevolent Universe Premise. [10]

III. Presuppositions of Working Well With Others

NLP focuses your internal resources to respect other persons' own associational minds as such. Rapport makes this easy: If you can align most of your behavior with another's expectations, then that other can cleanly focus on your messages. Clear, consistent communication creates comfort.

The essential lies of social success:

Communicating with an individual, an NLP expert focuses first on creating rapport, on matching or mirroring the other's verbal structures and overall physiology. Once mutual comfort creates clear usable communication channels, the participants can start introducing new content to take the interaction in any valuable direction. For the expert communicator, attention to feedback and commitment to flexibility tend to increase whenever new content comes up — because that is when understanding is most difficult.

Speaking with a group rather than an individual, NLP experts choose words differently in three main ways: 1) Specific rapport based on commonalities gets downplayed, because each group is heterogeneous with respect to almost everything. 2) Consistency and comprehensibility more often win out over precision and flair (“blue”, “blue”, “blue”, rather than “navy”, “midnight”, “aquamarine”), because someone not following is more of a risk in a group situation. [11] 3) Key points get illustrated from several different angles so everyone can hear what is being said.

IV. So, Where Did All This Come From?

Out of the ranks of modern psychotherapy have emerged a number of charismatic superstars. These people seemingly perform the task of clinical psychology with the ease and wonder of a therapeutic magician. They reach into suffering, pain, and deadness of others, transforming their hopelessness into joy, life and renewed hope. Though the approaches they bring to this task seem varied and as different as day and night, they all seem to share a unique wonder and potency.
...To deny this capacity or to simply label it talent, intuition, or genius is to limit one's own potential as a people-helper...Our desire in this book is not to question the magical quality of our experience of these therapeutic wizards, but rather to show that this magic which they perform--like other complex human activities such as painting, composing music, or placing a man on the moon--has structure and is, therefore, learnable, given the appropriate resources...We especially do not wish to make the claim that we have discovered the "right" or most powerful approach to psychotherapy. We desire only to present you with a specific set of tools that seem to us to be implicit in the actions of these therapists, so that you may begin or continue the never-ending process to improve, enrich, and enlarge the skills you offer as a people-helper.
That is how Grinder and Bandler introduced NLP to the world in 1975, with their first book.

Future expansions on this paper include more detailed histories and other things. Until then, let the search engines light your way.

Comments on this paper and any hopes for future expansions are appreciated at now and always.


[Note 1] This is surprisingly new territory. There is only one preexisting document on the web (at ) with similar goals, despite the many affinities and possibilities that exist between the verbally prolific worlds of Objectivism and NLP. It is amusing, though, that two separate fringe movements (Neo-Tech and especially Terra Libra) have organized themselves largely around combining self-help technologies with anti-government and anti-faith sentiments. Each of these movements (which are much less culturally mainstream than Objectivism or NLP) base a lot of their rhetoric on both Rand and NLP concepts.

[Note 2] In Objectivism, evasion (a willful failure to focus on what is important) is the root of all evil. Rand pinpointed “the choice to focus” as the crux of human free will. See, e.g.,

[Note 3] As Ayn Rand did, in The Art of Fiction and probably elsewhere.

[Note 4] There's an amusing quote about different NLP schools' flavors of approach:

NLP has been going in three different directions from the beginning. One school championed by John Grinder and Tony Robbins asserts the primacy of physiology and behavior. They say first to change physiology and behaviors and that everything else will follow. This is the Klingon school which adheres to the maxim that "When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." A second school championed by Leslie Cameron-Bandler and recently by Michael Hall asserts the primacy of internal states. They say first change your emotional state and everything else will change. This is the hearts and flowers or Dr. Bones McCoy school. The third school championed by Bandler and Dilts asserts the primacy of internal process. They say first change your strategies, sub-modalities, beliefs and identities and everything else will change. This is the Mr. Spock or Vulcan school. attributes that to Wyatt Woodsmall.

[Note 5] Anthony Robbins is known for his pioneering infomercials, for his impressive list of celebrity endorsements, and for penning two #1 bestselling non-fiction books outlining his system of practical psychology. He calls his system NAC (Neuro-Associative Conditioning) — for trademark reasons. NAC is uncontroversially part of the NLP family tree.

[Note 6] Adapted from a fine scholarly history of NLP at

[Note 7] This is called the “Learning Cycle” at It is also known as the “habit formation process.”

Bandler and Grinder (1979) wrote the following in Frogs Into Princes (p. 37) :

Don't get caught by the words 'conscious' and 'unconscious.' They are not real. They are just a way of describing events that is useful in the context called therapeutic change. 'Conscious' is defined as whatever you are aware of at a moment in time. 'Unconscious' is everything else.

“Everything else"! NLP experts do sometimes list what they mean to include in 'unconscious'. For example:

1) Consciousness that has become unconscious

2) The autonomic nervous system that remains "out of conscious awareness"

3) Subconscious information -- below the threshold level for consciousness

4) The Forgotten Mind

5) The Repressed Mind

6) The Meta-Levels of Awareness (Hall and Bodenhamer, )

[Note 8] Both sides of the Objectivist gender-neutral language debate seem to share this concern. For example:

>How does one determine what correct English is?  By appeal to



>Or better yet: what makes some utterances "grammatically correct

>English" and others "grammatically incorrect English"?


Precision. Grammar is not an affectation devised to expose

ignorance. Grammar is the tool of thought. Dulling the tool

of thought dulls the wits. Invariably, the primary advocates

of dulling the wits do so in pursuit of power. Men adept

at clear thought are difficult to enslave.


>Anyone who disagrees with me about this should examine their premises.


Your error is failing to see that you are being inculcated

into blurring the distinction between the individual and

the mob.

>Your assertion that my proposed usage is PC or collectivistic is

>simply kooky.


No, you are blind to the means and motives of the people

who _will_ be your masters when they have succeeded in

destroying the tools of reason. They are relentless, and

you are easy prey.

[Note 9] For an Branden's own introduction to his sentence completion exercises, see

Branden's focus here is therapeutic and about gradually increasing depth, while NLP's is more everyday and about breadth of applicability.

[Note 10] gives a good explanation of the Objectivist Benevolent Universe Premise:

The benevolent universe premise is the idea that the world is fit for human habitation, that it is a source of infinite joy and pleasure, and that pain, ugliness, and disappointment need not be the focus of one's waking moments. Pain is addressed head-on, resolved to the best of one's ability, and then relegated to the back of one's mind while more pleasant issues are attended to. Difficulties that cannot be solved are endured, but they are not be the focus of thought. People who believe in and act on the benevolent universe premise are said to have a good sense of life.

In everyday social situations, a good sense of life means that one can acknowledge problems with someone's, say, hairstyle, choice of clothing, or complexion without dwelling on them. It means being able to see and enjoy what is good about a person, even about a hairstyle or clothing or complexion, that one does not like.

[Note 11] This brings to mind a Usenet saying about large newsgroups: “If a message can possibly be misread, it will be.”