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Is NLP a Cult?

Is NLP a Cult?

 A colleague of mine, Andy, who is also a Master Practitioner of NLP, was teaching a variety of psychological change approaches to a group of sports science students some years ago and he had given the class the assignment of researching and making a short presentation on an approach they had been given.

One young man had been given the subject of NLP and Andy waited with curiosity to hear what description would be given of this approach that was particularly close to his heart.

“NLP…” the student announced to the listening class, “is a cult!”

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Andy didn’t actually tell me what his response had been but I suspect he experienced something of a ‘heart-sink’ moment.  It is an experience that may have been shared by others involved with NLP when we realise that this particular misconception is held by some people about NLP.  Well, I want to look at the claim and see whether it is at all justified.

Before I start I want to freely admit that some people within the NLP community would probably like it to be a cult.  Some of the NLP trainings we see out there by a few of the best known names in NLP (i.e. the best self-publicists) certainly bear a resemblance to some of the Large Group Awareness Trainings (LGATs) or evangelical religious missions, but these gatherings are in no way representative of the true nature of NLP and most serious-minded NLP Trainers and Practitioners that I know shudder at their very mention.  So in this article I would like to look at some of the key characteristics of cults and then see how the field of NLP compares.

Different sources on cults will give different key characteristics but I want to look at a number of characteristics that most authorities will agree on.

  1. Cult Characteristic: Zealous, unquestioning loyalty and commitment to the cult Leader, living or dead.


NLP: Since NLP does not have a Leader, but is rather a dynamic, developing field of interest with a multitude of contributors and developers, this characteristic is clearly not evident.  Certainly there were some key originators and co-creators, one or two of whom have attempted to control the field, but such attempts were quite rightly thwarted and NLP is ‘open source’ material with no one arbiter of ‘the Truth’.  Innovations and developments within NLP tend to gain traction or be discarded depending upon whether they are useful or not, rather than whether they have been ‘blessed’ or ‘endorsed’ by a Supreme Leader.  NLP actively encourages autonomy and independence of thought, rather than mindless compliance.

  1. Cult Characteristic: Questioning, doubt or dissent are actively discouraged or even punished.


NLP: We have implicitly looked at this in the first point.  The NLP community is an open one that is not controlled by any one figure, group or hierarchy.  There is no ‘Credo’ (although there are a number of generally agreed-upon principles) and innovation, creativity and appropriate challenge are encouraged and judged on their merits.  This does not, of course, mean that some NLP Trainers don’t establish their own cliques or attempt a bit of Empire Building but such activities tend to be a side-show that are looked at with some derision by the majority of those in the NLP community.

  1. Cult Characteristic: Members are encouraged to live apart from society and subject their lives to the complete control of the Leader or Leadership, down to the smallest details such as eating, sleeping, dress, socialising etc.


NLP: NLP is a set of skills that people train to acquire and then use in their lives to the extent that they personally choose. Training in NLP is no different from taking a course in basket-weaving, a language course or cookery lessons (except I would suggest it is perhaps more useful in a greater range of contexts).  Some people will use the skills a little, some will never look at them again and some will find that a passion has been ignited and NLP will become something more significant for them.  People do not live in ‘NLP Cults’ with locked gates, dormitories or the like.  NLP offers skills for people to take away and use in the lives that they choose to live for themselves.

  1. Cult Characteristic: Members are discouraged or forbidden from leaving the cult and, if they do leave, attempts are made to lure them back.


NLP: As mentioned above, people who train in NLP do not join anything (except perhaps a professional body that they can leave at any time) so there is nothing for them to leave.  I have yet to meet an NLP Trainer who is interested in the living circumstances of their students or their life beyond the training context other than to give support, by invitation, to help students integrate NLP concepts into some part of their life where they think it can help.  On the contrary, I suspect that if NLP Trainers as a group had any complaint, it would be about the occasional less-than-boundaried student who takes up too much of their time and intrudes outside of training hours.

  1. Cult Characteristic: The cult is pre-occupied with recruiting new members, making money for the Leadership and expects members to devote an in-ordinate amount of time and other resources to the cult’s activities.


NLP: I suspect that some of the points made above will already have addressed this characteristic.  NLP does not have a Leader (although there are a few self-appointed ‘Gurus’ who are viewed with disdain by the majority) so there is no ‘membership’ as such or ‘drones’ making honey for the Queen Bee.  Some NLP Trainers who make a living of sorts from teaching NLP will push students to take more and more training and may use rather unethical hard-sell methods, but this is really no different from any other type of business.  You will get ethical and professional builders and you will get unethical, ‘cowboy’ builders.  This is no reflection on the nature of the building industry – it is a reflection on human nature and how people choose to ply their trade.  Perhaps I delude myself but I suspect that the majority of NLP Trainers and Practitioners market themselves reasonably ethically and certainly do not have legions of minions recruiting new members and lining the ‘Leader’s pockets whilst neglecting their own interests.  I doubt that the vast majority of NLP Trainers have any involvement with their trainees outside of the training room or beyond the end of the course, with the possible exception of some form of mutually agreed mentoring or supervision relationship.

Clearly there are many other common characteristics of cults that we don’t have time to go into now but I suspect that those I have discussed above are the major ones and we can see by a simple contrast that whatever NLP is, it certainly isn’t a ‘cult’.

So what is it?  NLP is simply a body of skills, concepts and knowledge that constitutes a useful way to interact with the world because it is often effective and empowering.  People from many different walks of life choose to train to acquire these skills because they want to be more effective, successful or happy.

It’s as simple or as complicated as that.

For more information visit NLP Training & Courses at Watt Works

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