Sunday, May 21, 2006

Swish! And their problem is solved.

  Jon Ronson's article on NLP deserves a little poking. He shows some of the weird bits of it, but ends up believing that it works in some small way. Let's take what he found apart and question it. I myself have some books on NLP, I read about it, and practised hypnosis before I started my psychology degree. Now I have a little more education under my belt, what do I think about them? And what will all this say about business, one of the main 'consumers' of NLP thinking?
Let's start with Jon's intro:

"But from what I can gather, NLP is a way of "re-patterning" the human brain to turn us into super-beings - confident, non-phobic, thin super-beings who could sell coals to Newcastle and know what people are thinking just by their eye movements. It is the theory that we are computers and can be reprogrammed as easily as computers can. You were abused as a child? Forget therapy: just turn off the bit of the brain that remembers the abuse. You want to become a great salesperson? NLP will reprogram you. Our winks, our ticks, our seemingly insignificant choice of words - they all make up a map of our innermost desires and doubts: read the customer and make the sale."

  Neuro-Linguistic Programming obviously does rely on the idea that the brain can be reprogrammed, it is hard to not draw that from its name. And is that possible? Can the brain be rewired? That is one of the problems that we will have to examine.

Modelling, invented by Bandler, is a practice at the heart of NLP. This is how McKenna describes it: "If someone's got a skill that you want to master, you 'model' that skill so you can learn to do what they do in a fraction of the time it took them. Say someone's a master salesperson - they'll be doing certain things with their body, and certain things with their language. So you 'model' that. Study it, break it down, work out the thinking behind it."

  You want to do something effectively. So talk to someone who is good at it and model them! This seems like a simple and commonsensical approach. In fact, monkeys seem to learn how to do clever things like use sticks to get at termites by copying each other, developing little cultural practices in certain areas. Why should it not work for people?
  Then again, how often do we learn by modelling others? We do not learn to drive by copying our driving instructors, usually, because they may have bad habits (mine certainly admitted to this).   It is therefore possible for a driving instructor to teach us what they want us to do, what we should do, and not what they do do.
OK - do we learn by modelling the teacher? Well, the teacher is not taking the assessment.   Modelling the teacher will not work unless we are learning to teach, and therefore we need to model good students. I am sure that this would have many benefits, but it is also not something that students may be likely to do, for there are often issues such as motivation. The worse student would also have to model the good student's commitment and intrinsic motivation, which is something they may not want to find the time to do. Is modelling the answer, then, or should we accept that people are different and do things in different ways, from different perspectives, with different backgrounds, and need to learn their own ways of doing things? I would certainly rather that my students did this than all copy each other's methods.
  It is obvious that we can do well without modelling in these situations, yet does this mean we should not model at all? I am sure it has its successes as a practice, for example copying a 'master salesperson' might be very helpful indeed. But there are limitations to this idea. In business, 'innovative thinking' is prized. Can you copy someone else to be innovative, take on their methods and skills? It seems unlikely that there is a set method to being innovative other than thinking unusually, so unusually, in fact, that it has not been done before. Is there any way we can model that?
  And will what works for one person always work for another? The people you are talking to will be different, for one thing - are the skills of a master hoover salesperson transferable in entirety to a struggling salesperson of bathroom shower rails? Their audience is going to be different, and so is their product. And, also, the salespeople will be different. In fact, they may be different enough to be better off to have different methods.

  The central question to point at the method of modelling is this: has there ever been a specific recipe for success? Has any one person ever found a method that is universal in the field? Or do different people need to do similar tasks differently to fit the different needs of themselves and the people they are selling to, teaching, etc.?
  If there are such recipes, how can we get to them? Is it enough to copy them, or must we also understand what we are doing? Consider a driver who has modelled other drivers and can now drive.   They stop at red lights and go at green. It would be easy to model this behaviour (as shown by the film Starman). But what would such a driver do when the traffic lights were not working? They would not understand fully why the traffic lights are necessary, only what they represent (going or not going). They would not be able to decide what to do as well in a situation where they were not being told what to do.

  Understanding is even more important than modelling. If you are modelling a technique, you can copy it, and keep doing it. Conditions change, however, and you will need to be able to modify your technique at some point, for a myriad of reasons. Only if you understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it works can you be this adaptable.
  Unless, of course, there is an endless supply of successful people to copy in any situation, perhaps selling books to help us do what they do. This seems like an odd way to behave, unless all of us are going to make money selling books about copying successful people to others who wish to be successful selling books.

If you hear voices in your head, he says, tell the voices to shut the fuck up. "If you suffered childhood abuse, don't go back and relive it in your mind. Once is enough!" He says psychotherapy is nonsense and a racket: therapists are rewarded for failure. The longer a problem lasts, the more the therapist is paid. Who cares about the roots of the trauma? "Don't think about bad things!" Bandler says. "There's a machine inside your brain that gets rid of shit that doesn't need to be there. Use it! I can give myself amnesia. I can just forget." He clicks his fingers. "Just like that."

  It is hard to comprehend the full nature of this statement. As a pragmatic 'tool' to stop thinking about something unpleasant, yes, it is obvious how it would work. But in terms of what it would make people, it is viciously uncaring.
  There is too much of a chance that, even if forgotten, trauma will affect us. In a world where we are coming to appreciate conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, should we allow someone to say 'just forget about it'?
  What would a person be if they forgot everything painful? They would be a list of normalcy and successes, and they would have few failures to look back on to learn from. Physical pain is a very important thing, without it we would not be aware of our surroundings, and unable to react properly.   Mental and psychological pain has its benefits too - it tells us what is wrong, and makes us do something about it.
  Although I am not so fond of psychotherapy myself, I see much more benefit in understanding a trauma, in 'coming to terms', rather than just forgetting (or pretending that you are forgetting) all about it.

He and McKenna have made particular headway in the business world. In fact, Ian Aitken, managing director of McKenna's company, says the individuals looking for a cure for their phobias are now in the minority. I ask him what is it about NLP that attracts salespeople. Bandler, he replies, teaches that everyone has a dominant way of perceiving the world, through seeing, hearing or feeling. If a customer says, "I see what you mean," that makes them a visual person. The NLP-trained salesperson will spot the clue and establish rapport by mirroring the language.
  "I get the picture," the NLP-trained salesperson can reply, rather than "That rings a bell", or "That feels good to me".

  I have not noticed many people that are dominantly 'feeling' people going around touching things rather than look at them (unless they are using poor or none-existent vision as an excuse for fondling people of the opposite sex).
  To take it more seriously, does saying 'I hear ya' really differ from 'I see where you're coming from'? Does that really improve the way business does business, or just make businesspeople feel like they are doing more to connect with each other and their customers?
  It seems to me that people could establish rapport, relationships, and sales before this idea. It also seems to me that concentrating on selling a good product to people who want it will do more than mirroring language (especially if the other person has an accent or other vocal mannerism, and you no-brainfully start to copy it, y'know what I'm saying).
  Many people, in fact, prefer those who have a different accent or way of speaking. It is not only those with Irish accents who feel an affinity for those with Irish accents.

Vish pokes my elbow. "Brilliant!" he says. "Now. Did you notice what I was doing?"
  "You were poking my elbow every time I expressed positive feeling," I say.
  "Now," says Vish, "when I want to sell you something, I'll touch your elbow and you'll associate that touch with good feeling and you'll want to buy. That's deep psychology." Vish pauses. "What I really like about NLP is how it can hypnotise and manipulate people - but in a good way."

  Every time I do a poo, I sit on the toilet. However, if I was to sit on the toilet, I would not feel like pooing, nor would I necessarily be thinking about pooing.
We definitely associate things together, as people. These associations are not so close to the surface, though, for a little bit of elbow poking to make a new one. If every sunday your mother makes a delicious roast, you might for the rest of your life associate sunday's with roast dinner, and always want one. And you also might quickly learn, when you move out, that you prefer takeaway on a sunday.
  People learn new associations quickly, drop old ones quickly, and can figure out that an association is not useful in this situation quickly too. Dogs might go crazy everytime you say 'walkies', but people are not that trainable.
  Again, this technique probably makes businesspeople feel like they are more effective. They associate it with being a better salesperson, so at least it works for someone.

On stage, Bandler and McKenna cure a stream of delegates of their phobias and compulsions. There's a woman who's barely left her home for years, convinced the heater will turn itself on when she's out and burn down the house.
  "Do they pay you to think like this?" asks Bandler. "It seems like an awful lot of work. Aren't you fucking sick of it?"
  The woman says a bossy voice in her head tells her the heater will do this.
  Bandler gets her to turn down the knob in her brain that controls the volume of the bossy voice. Then he gets the bossy voice to tell her, "If you keep worrying about this heater, you're going to miss out everything good in your life." This, Bandler says, is an invention of his called the Swish technique: you take a bad thought, turn it into a radio or TV image, and then swish it away, replacing it with a good thought.
  "I don't care about you any more, heater, because I want to get my life back," the woman says, and the audience cheers.

  I wonder if this approach can work with moral concerns as well? "Oh, shut up you stupid conscience."
  It is possible to consciously stop thinking about something, and 'swish' it away without requiring a therapist - we must be able to do it all the time, otherwise we would not be very successful at concentrating on things.
  What is someone can't stop thinking about it, though? Bandler has the answer: turn down the volume (and then stop thinking about it). Is Bandler actually doing something, or is it just giving the other person's mind an 'excuse', or some sort of 'mental placebo'?

He does Bandler's Swish technique on me. He gets me to picture one of my horrific imaginary scenes. I choose my son stepping out in front of a car. He spots, from my eye and hand movements, that the mental image is situated in the top right hand of my vision, big, close to my eyes.
  "Part of the neural coding where we get our feelings from, and ultimately our behaviour, comes from the position of these pictures," he says. "Pictures that are close and big and bright and bold have a greater emotional intensity than those that are dull and dim and further away."
  "And Richard Bandler was the first person to identify this?" I ask.
  "Yes," he says.
  He chats away to me, in his hypnotic baritone voice, about this and that: his own worries in life, etc. He is extremely likeable. Suddenly, when I'm not expecting it, he grabs the space in the air where my vision was and mimes chucking it away.
  "Let's shoot it off into the distance," he says. "Shrink the picture down, drain the colour out of it, make it black-and-white. Make it transparent..."
  And, sure enough, as the image shoots away, far into the distance, the neurotic feelings associated with it fade, too. This is Paul McKenna "re-patterning" my brain. He says it isn't self-help. I don't have to do anything. This is reprogramming, he says, and I am fixed.
  "Oh yeah," he says, "you don't have to do anything now. It's worked."
  Three weeks pass. I don't have a single paranoid fantasy about something bad happening to my wife and son. And so I have to say, for all the weirdness, I become very grateful that Richard Bandler invented NLP and taught it to Paul McKenna.

  Can you re-programme someone so that they do not care about eating food anymore, by 'pushing' a mental image around?
  Could we have re-programmed Hitler's dislike of Jews, and swished it away?
  To what extent does this technique work? I might conjecture that it only works when the NLPee is already convinced that their belief is irrational, that they do not want it, that it only annoys them. Perhaps it gives them a 'mental reason' for believing that something has been done, so there is no reasing thinking about it anymore.
  Is Jon so re-programmed that he will not become agitated at the idea that his son is in danger from a car? So re-programmed that he would not notice if it was actually happening in front of him?

  What does this 're-programming' mean, and to what extent does it change your thoughts?

  NLP's practices deserve criticism and ridicule, even if people feel that they work. It doesn't matter if people say 'it works for me', as that is not the proof of usefulness when it comes to a system of thought. How far it approximates what is actually happening, how it can justify and explain its methods, and what it can teach us about each other is important too.
  NLP might make people feel helped, but it fails in every other way. There is a system of thought about people behind NLP that is alien and unpleasant. It similarises us all, making human thought and action so basic that it can be 'modelled'.

  No. We cannot model each other so easily. We are each our 'own person' and must understand the world in our own way. NLP hides such philosophical self-realisations and questions about existence by computerising us, by making us think about how we are programmed. What if we are not running mental programmes in our heads? What if we are more complex and changes are not made so easily?
  It is also illuminating to consider how businesspeople come out of this, from their fascination with NLP. Perhaps they are looking for simple answers to very hard problems. The good side of this is it makes them feel as if they are directly in control and actually have power to influence people, "what I really like about NLP is how it can hypnotise and manipulate people - but in a good way."
  And the bad side is that it is questionable, it is silly, and it makes us think things about people that are repellent. However, I would imagine that a businessperson looking to improve their sales-technique is more driven by pragmatic issues than me - ironically, even if it means that they 'pragmatically' choose something that does not work.

  A little story to leave you with: my students often bring up big questions like "what should I be doing?" If I was an NLP practitioner, I might say to them, model those who you respect.
  "OK, I respect Tony Blair."
  After my heart-attack of surprise at a young person liking Tony Blair, I would ask, how did he get to know that he wanted to get into politics? What did he do? What can you model?
  "Well... he learned about things, looked into stuff, and thought about himself. And, er, knew what he wanted to do."
  Exactly!, I would reply, and all their problems would be solved.