My Transformative Experience With NLP and Integral Theory
by Leigh Williamson Reis
My very first experience of NLP was transformative. I began the practitioner training with very few expectations (apart from being in the presence of skillful and engaging trainers at The Coaching Room, having completed their Integral-Semantics Facilitation course!). While I had heard of NLP, I had no previous experience of it. I also had little awareness of its frames or applications, except that it was used as a communication tool.
As I shared with my friends that I was training in NLP, I became intrigued by the reaction I consistently received: mostly, NLP was perceived as a ‘manipulative’ or even ‘aggressive’ tool. More broadly speaking, there was confusion about how it was aligned with my fascination for evolutionary human development and my embodied inquiry into in Integral Theory in practice.
The reactions I received felt incongruous with my subjective experience of NLP and I was curious about why.
I could certainly see how NLP tools may be used for coercion. Yet I was curious about the lack of awareness among many of my friends and colleagues (often students of Integral Theory and engaged in self-actualisation) in the powerful contribution NLP makes to the Human Potential movement.
I had noticed that some of the NLP jargon, used to describe humans being human, felt mechanistic. I noticed that at times, the language jarred and disrupted my learning and I would become lost in my own internal map of reality. I attached meaning to the mechanistic metaphors and my perceptual capacity in the moment was limited by these meaning filters, as was my openness to learning.
I had associated the NLP metaphors of machine, including ‘fire the anchor’ and ‘meta programs’, with those widely and unconsciously appropriated by orange organisations (using Ken Wilber’s colour coding of developmental stages of consciousness). And there was my hook; my unconscious filter: to put it simply, “orange values are bad”.
As this filter moved from unconscious (subject) awareness to conscious (object) awareness it shifted. I noticed that from a place of diffuse receptivity, full acceptance was completely available and from this place I thrived in the training: my listening expanded to depths far beyond the words, I allowed the teaching in without judgement, and, I was completely engaged!
Paradoxically, I had been resisting NLP due to pre-established frames (belief structures, values, memories), and yet only by using NLP to release the frames I moved beyond resistance.
I had focussed on self-actualisation for years, yet NLP tools helped me to identify how I - or at least my representational ‘I’ - was getting in my own way, and it did so with greater clarity than I had ever experienced before.
A small example: I realised during the training that the positive intention behind my external referencing pattern was to reach my full potential (I somehow thought that others could help me get there and didn’t fully trust myself!) Yet in this process of seeking, I had confused ‘full potential’ with ‘purpose’; or more specifically, with doing. It was as if I had unconsciously outsourced the decision of what ‘purpose’ looks like; as if it indeed it is a ‘thing’ that others could recognise, a static form. I realised that my needing to know, by checking in with others and with my super ego, was actually preventing me from getting there (and, more importantly, that ‘there’ doesn’t exist!).
Instead, I realised that what I deeply desire is freedom; to be, to speak my truth in any moment: essentially, to experience dissolution of the self-construct. NLP can powerfully facilitate this process; a movement back to the senses to deeply listen and respond authentically to the present moment, free from the representational-self.
Inquiring into others’ judgements of NLP had (not surprisingly!) helped surface my own - both of the judges and of the tool itself!
The inquiry had also surface other insight: I saw that, as with many other worldview clashes that show up in our communication, the developmental stages map could help to clarify some powerful frames for these polarities. In particular, the original mapping and languaging of NLP, and the continued training, interpretation and application of its tools, are all influenced by the stage of development of trainer, student, and practitioner, and will clearly influence application.
(I was starting to see what The Coaching Room trainers meant when they said that the NLP communications model is more powerful than perhaps even its creators had realised!)
Where NLP training is delivered by an individual (or organisation) showing up as achiever (orange) its coercive power may be foregrounded, and then its application driven by individualist goals of success: the sensitive, communitarian and ecological frames of green, and the evolutionary purpose or holistic systems frames of teal, would likely inform very different applications of the tool.
If many of the individuals and organisations that use NLP operate in orange environments; including many sales, marketing and communications contexts, and most NLP trainers experience reality through perceptual frames earlier than green, it is clear why NLP has the reputation that it does among individuals at green and beyond!
Yet as illustrated above, NLP offers so much more, particularly when integrated with Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant model (the four integral perspectives of reality) to build a more robust epistemological and ontological framework.
The way I see it (and the way I believe it is taught in The Coaching Room), NLP is a powerful upper left quadrant tool, with immense potential to facilitate the transformation of individual subjective experience.
And, the mechanistic language actually invites a broader audience to the table. It breaks down complex human patterns into easily digestible chunks, demystifying the (unnecessarily so) ‘airy fairy’ journey of self-actualisation: growing up is unavoidable – we’re all doing it without even intending to – and experiencing freedom from the self-construct is actually available to everyone. It’s simply that the dissolution of these structures can be more efficiently and powerfully enacted using NLP, particularly with the support of an experienced practitioner.
NLP simplifies the process: it’s all about meaning. NLP is the study of how we create, sustain, and deconstruct meaning. It maps out the human meaning making process, and how we construct and reconstruct the boundaries of self, reinforcing our dualistic frames of reality.
The NLP meaning matrix is primarily a filtering process; a mind-body experience that taps into our pre-existing representational system of reality. This is basically how it goes:
- we experience an external event;
- abstract it from reality;
- distort and delete significant parts of the event, according to our various filters (pre-existing values, understandings and belief structures, or our preference for a quadrant perspective);
- the filtered experience is replayed in the ‘movie of our mind’, using our internal senses to recreate the visual, auditory, kinaesthetic elements (in addition to other senses); and
- we understand and retell the experience in a way that makes sense to us.
Ultimately, our experience is an incredibly partial representation of what actually happened. So our meaning making both abstracts us from reality and then guides our reaction to it.
NLP has helped me see with greater clarity that all of our meaning is inherited, a lot of it as young children. And that as we evolve we continue to inherit the pre-existing frames of the stage of development we transition into: collective consciousness of each stage of development exists well before we come along!
As a trainer at The Coaching Room once put it, we're all simply travellers. And, as I see it, the souvenirs we fill our homes with are beliefs, values and meanings; the collection of which seems to fit at the time but ultimately they end up cluttering the space, so covered in dust that we can't see them anymore, and have no awareness of how much they're restricting our movement.
As we (humans) begin to see this can we gain the opportunity to identify the frames that no longer serve us (because they all did at some point). It helps us see that we have the power to change the frame, or even remove it, and that as these constructs are shed it is possible to come back to our sensorial experience; moving closer to first order reality and to being able to respond to it authentically and appropriately.
In a developmental coaching context, my understanding of the role of an NLP practitioner is first and foremost to get their own self structure completely out of the way, to effectively mirror the client's representational system back to them.
I have seen NLP tools such as ‘pacing and leading’ described as powerful weapons; “the big guns” for persuasion psychological in marketing. The use of these tools for coercion is clearly ongoing. In a client-led, developmental coaching relationship however, the tools are used in full service of the client.
Here are a few examples:
- ‘sensory acuity’ is a process of fine-tuning our sensory awareness to pick up tiny changes in a person's physiology;
- ‘pacing’ involves matching a client’s breath rate, or other physiological, conceptual or verbal cues that reflect his or her internal world;
- ‘eliciting’ supports the client to become conscious of factors that are usually outside of their awareness;
- ‘state induction’ is a process of inviting the client into a more resourceful state, one that they have indicated they would prefer to experience.
These tools help the practitioner to strengthen rapport and to enter into the client’s world experience. The intention is to understand reality as the client sees it, and to reflect their map (the ways they remove themselves from it) back to them. The client essentially does all the work for themselves, being supported by the coach to see the constructs they are struggling with and then to remove them.
My very early experience of NLP has helped shift a fundamental question, one that for the moment remains seated in the forefront of my mind. Rather than asking “how do I develop spiritually?” I realise a more powerful question for me is “what is getting in the way of me being Spirit?” What is getting in the way of flow, of responding to every moment from a position of open-discriminating, embodied presence? A powerful way to explore these questions is through direct inquiry into my self-structure, which NLP can help with!
This leads me to what I see as the most important NLP presupposition held by The Coaching Room trainers: “Personal power and congruency comes from ‘applying to self’ first”!