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Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a controversial topic.

I started my research for this post with a relatively open mind.

I say relatively, because I do have some biases against NLP. Many NLP-trained people spout the nonsense about only 7% of your communication being based on the words you say. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I like to have scientific research to back up what I say – my experience was that NLP doesn’t always meet this standard.

Nevertheless, I decided that I would have a fresh look at NLP and the research to see whether I could recommend it as a method to conquer your fear of public speaking.

My conclusion is NO.

Here are my reasons:

1. NLP methods are generally not scientifically proven

NLP consists of a collection of different models and techniques – some of which are supported by research and some of which are not.

NLP has its roots in psychological theory, but has developed in its own separate silo, and does not have a large body of independent research (ie: research carried out by non-NLP practitioners) to substantiate it.

I did find two research studies from the 1980s which tested NLP treatments for people who were nervous about giving a speech. The people who received the NLP treatments did no better than people who had sat in a waiting room for an hour (the control group).

However, some aspects of NLP cures for fear of public speaking seem to be well-grounded in cognitive psychology and some NLP processes have established counterparts in mainstream psychology (eg: anchoring is classical conditioning).

2. Some NLP techniques are just plain wacky

In some NLP trainings, “mind juggling” is taught to relieve anxiety. It involves throwing a heavy ball from one hand to the other (here’s a video demonstration of “mind juggling“). Some NLP practitioners make extravagant claims for it:

This is one very simple technique that cures panic attacks, anxiety disorders, sleep problems, chronic pain, grieving and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviors in a safe and non-intrusive way.

On the same website the supposedly scientific explanation for this cure is given:

It is a basic neurological process that resynchronizes the blood flow to both hemispheres of the brain which leaves you feeling centered and calm.

Starting to sound a little wacky here – but I dug deeper… and found the website of the apparent originator of this NLP cure – Nelson Zinc:

After researching the neurophysiology of anxiety and conducting experiments with anxiety sufferers, we concluded that anxiety was closely associated with a functional imbalance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It has been theorized that when the sensory and motor functions of the two hemispheres were uncoordinated, anxiety resulted.

If you have any psychological training – this will sound a little strange (the amygdala and hippocampus are the regions of the brain more often associated with the biological basis of anxiety). But further on he provides proof!

The March 1985 issue of Scientific American contained a vivid confirmation of the theoretical aspects of the technique. A photo of a positron emission tomography (PET) scan showed unequal blood flow in the brain of a victim of panic disorder. The left side of the brain is overactive, while in the right activity has decreased significantly. The photo made it abundantly clear that anxiety results from the isolation and imbalance of hemispheric activity.

This makes the basic mistake of confusing correlation with causation. I wasn’t able to go back to the 1985 issue of Scientific American to check out the original photo, but a 2000 review of Neuroimaging Studies of Human Anxiety Disorders does not support Zinc’s conclusions.

3. The competence of NLP trainers is highly variable

There is no uniform training and qualification system for NLP pracitioners – so it’s difficult to judge the competence and experience of a person who claims to be an NLP practitioner. In some places, you can do a 7 day training course and then call yourself an NLP practitioner.

I have met some people who have NLP training and claim to be able to help other people – and they are totally clueless. It horrifies me to think of the damage that they could do.

And the skill of the practitioner is key. Andrew T Austin an experienced English NLP practitioner says:

Well-meaning therapists and NLP practitioners will often attempt the phobia cure with an inadequate understanding of the process and of how and why it works.

In summary, I don’t write off NLP as a whole – after all its borrowed a lot from other more rigorous areas of psychology. And if I really wanted to use an NLP practitioner, I would find one with a proven medical or psychological background who also draws on NLP techniques as part of their toolkit.

This is the third post in the series “Review of the top ten methods to overcome fear of public speaking”. Previously I’ve looked at:

1. Affirmation and visualization

2. Hypnosis and Relaxation training