3 Reasons not to use NLP to overcome fear of public speaking

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

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14 Comments

  1. I have been a hypnotist and NLP practitioner for twenty years; and although I agree with you on the above three points, I do not agree that NLP should be discounted as a modality to help with public speaking.

    I have successfully helped many, many people with their difficulties in public speaking.

    To your point, most people in my field are a bit “scary” and wwwwwaaaaayyyyy out there.

    You can find the good ones if you look.

    By the way, the 7% thing always gets me wondering how you find something like that out also.

    Successfully,
    Bill Gladwell
    “The Hypnotist”,
    My Wife’s Husband, and
    Creator Of The Impossible

  2. Athough I agree with the 3 reasons you say, I think NLP is very very efective to overcome the fear of public speaking. I have been a NLP practioner for more than 10 year now. As mentioned in one of my recent posts,
    http://phemeypon.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/my-experience-of-learning-nlp/
    NLP have been helping me a lot in terms of achieving personal develelopment, besides helping me to overcome the fear of public speaking.

  3. Thank you for your comment Phemey. I agree that NLP can help people with self-development and overcoming the fear of public speaking. But there’s a lot of hype around it too, and it’s helpful for people who are looking for methods to overcome their fear, to let them know what to look out for. Olivia

  4. Olivia,

    I read with great interest your blog on NLP. I take a somewhat pragmatic approach to the issue of how to overcome nervousness. If it works, stay with it even if you don’t have “scientific proof”. One of the many NLP methods is “anchoring”. You simply recall from your past experience an incident that gave you great confidence while doing something like crossing your fingers. The next time you feel nervous, you cross your fingers and your past confidence comes back to you. It works for many people even though there are no scientifc proof per se. The smae with religion. There are billions of people who believe that their own branch of organized religion give them comfort. And there are certainly no scientifc proof on that. But it works for them.

    Norman

  5. I agree with Norman.
    “One of the many NLP methods is “anchoring”. You simply recall from your past experience an incident that gave you great confidence while doing something like crossing your fingers. ”
    And it really works, and i know a person who overcome a fear of public speaking with this anchoring method. Beacuse he believed in it. It worked for him

  6. Just reading up on your thoughts for NLP versus the supposed scientific approach of psychology or research in general? That is what it sounded like. Psychology, in itself could be called a pseudo science. The biggest reason is, everyone is different and so one must be open to different solutions for each person. Lack of scientific backing for some of the techniques doesn’t mean that they don’t work. It just means that someone has not come along to spend the money on those studies. There isn’t enough money in it to behoove someone to do that. It goes for any science really. We only know what we know today and everyday we are find out more.

    I find that most that speak against NLP don’t really know anything about it. For instance, your concern with using the 7% statistic, I know of many communication fields that use that statistic. Of course it is hogwash. Otherwise, blogging and journalism, where you only have the written word, would be completely ineffective. Words matter, more than they are given credit for, as do yours. I would say that your article of 3 reasons “not” to use NLP to overcome fear of public speaking is somewhat irresponsible. It is clear you don’t trust NLP, but it seems that comes mostly from lack of knowledge about it or any experience with it. While not every technique works on every person, NLP does work. And, your lack of understanding of it, would, IMHO, disqualify you from discouraging the use of it. You can’t “see” the air, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That is where we get the saying, “The proof is in the pudding.” The proof is in how many people this has helped. This has been around officially since the 70s and it is being turned to more and more as time goes by. If it didn’t work, it would have passed on. Why people are turning to it is because science isn’t working. Researched things aren’t working. These days, you just take a pill and that isn’t working. No one has died from the use of NLP. It doesn’t harm you. Why not promote it as an option if it helps someone? As someone that has a blog for helping people make great presentations, I don’t understand why one would discourage something that might actually help someone succeed at that.

    I do not have a fear of public speaking, but I did have a huge fear of networking. More of the one on one, face-to-face stuff. I retired from being an Executive Director in the non-profit field because of it. My anxiety was through the roof. I had one NLP session done. Last night, I attended a party with my husband where I didn’t know a single person, other than my husband. On the drive home he commented, “I hardly recognized you in there. You were so social!” I had not given it any thought, because my neuro-pathways had been rewritten, but having mentioned it, I had to agree. I added how not only that had changed but that it had actually seemed like I was more looking forward to going to this party of unknown people than he had been!

  7. Hi there,

    I wondered if it might be time for you to revisit this article? Even though it was written in 2008 I notice that your article is still ranking highly on google (well done for that!).
    I have an MA in Professional Voice Practice and am also an NLP Master Practitioner. I actually trained in NLP originally as a practitioner in order to carry out my dissertation, which was to see if NLP combined with current voice coaching best practice could elicit faster results in clients than voice coaching alone. The results were significant in favour of the NLP. The results were verified by coaches at the voice department of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
    I was actually so amazed that I carried on to train as a Master practitioner of NLP.
    I understand some of your points and agree that some people working on this subject may know their NLP and not their voice work. If it is just dealt with in the same way as a phobia then the results are limited (depending on the issue at hand), however, I urge you to revisit this as you may find that some of the techniques are extremely valuable.
    Yours,
    Rachel Coffey

  8. Hi there,

    I wondered if it might be time for you to revisit this article? Even though it was written in 2008 I notice that your article is still ranking highly on google (well done for that!).
    I have an MA in Professional Voice Practice and am also an NLP Master Practitioner. I actually trained in NLP originally as a practitioner in order to carry out my dissertation, which was to see if NLP combined with current voice coaching best practice could elicit faster results in clients than voice coaching alone. The results were significant in favour of the NLP. The results were verified by coaches at the voice department of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
    I was actually so amazed that I carried on to train as a Master practitioner of NLP.
    I understand some of your points and agree that some people working on this subject may know their NLP and not their voice work. If it is just dealt with in the same way as a phobia then the results are limited (depending on the issue at hand), however, I urge you to revisit this as you may find that some of the techniques are extremely valuable.
    Yours,
    Rachel Coffey
    http://www.rachelcoffeycoaching.co.uk

  9. Hello! I like your article.

    NLP helps us to overcome our worst fears. It has powerful set of techniques to totally eradicate our unwanted thoughts, negative emotions, and fears.
    Agree?

  10. It sounds like you do not have an open mind at all. Why turn your back on something that can give you your desired results in a very short amount of time?

  11. Well done for writing this post. NLP gets way too much exposure, I think because – as you say – it’s something you can get into without any serious training at all (and by ‘serious training’ I mean training by professional bodies that are externally validated, such as colleges, universities). And people with vested interests are around in abundance to defend it – look how many of the positive comments above have links to websites offering … surprise, surprise … NLP training.

    Basically you have a choice – go with NLP or stick with techniques such as CBT that have been proven to be effective in objective, replicable trials, with results published in academic journals.

  12. I’ve just come across this interesting article and the discussion that has spun off it. The organisation I work for provides non-clinical peer support and education for people who experience anxiety. One of our programmes uses NLP techniques in the individual coaching sessions, with often startlingly positive outcomes.

    When considering the ‘scientific proof’ question there certainly seems to not be a lot of empirical evidence for NLP. Contrast this with the ‘evidence’ for the efficacy of anti-depressants. However recent studies show that this evidence has been manipulated by drug companies suppressing studies that don’t support the efficacy of anti-depressant medication. What is more, for the great majority of people, whose anxiety or depression is lower than severe, an anti-depressant is no more effective than a placebo.

    So despite the compromised scientific evidence anti-depressants continue to be dished out to people who either do not benefit from their use or benefit no more than if they’d been given a placebo. What’s more the placebo has none of the unpleasent side effects. However you’ll never get doctors prescribing placebos except in clinical trials.

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