NLP and Critical Dialog

James Swingle



In this issue's interview with Judith DeLozier, one piece of advice she gives to NLPers is to "be critical in a useful way."


It's a challenge I think about a lot.  How does one achieve critical thinking and critical dialog that are useful?  That lead to learning and doing things better, rather than unproductive negativity?


Disagreement is easy.  Every week one can turn on network news, CNN, various hour-long news magazines, a broad range of TV programs that all cover issues of the day by defining them into two positions, finding one person to represent each position, and then letting them fight it out in thirty-second sound bytes.  If one wants to get in one's own thoughts on the matter, there are call-in shows, talk radio and thousands of discussion boards and blogs where all manner of issues are argued. 


Of course, one might wonder:  How many people develop a new take on the issue under discussion from these exchanges?  And how many just end up with their existing views more entrenched? 


That said, simply striving for agreement hardly seems a sufficient goal.  In fact, groups of people full of passionate agreement on what needs to be done have gone out and done some ugly things.  I imagine we can all point to our own personal list of moments in history where we wish a voice of dissent had arisen.


So how does one create a constructive critical dialog about NLP?


I've seen NLPers respond in different ways to disagreement over whether NLP processes work: some look for the positive intention behind the critique; others talk about possible meta-programs; some reframe the critique; others say "there's no failure, only feedback," and that if something doesn't work, just try something different.  Given my tendency to rhapsodize about the importance of the scientific method, I fear a couple of my NLPer friends respond to disagreement from me simply by bracing for impact.


All of these responses can, of course, be useful in certain contexts.  However, I'd like to suggest a useful starting point for critical dialog would be to take the content of the critique or disagreement at face value. That is, ask: Well, does this process work, or doesn't it?1  And if it does, under what conditions?  What percentage of the time?  Does it work better than other processes available?  Does it work better than just having a conversation?  Does it work better than doing nothing at all?


That's the beauty of the scientific method.  Science not only asks those questions, it gives us a framework for moving forward; it provides a methodology for getting answers to those fundamental questions.  Science makes possible a constructive critical dialog about what works and, just as importantly, what doesn't.


Now, I am heartened that members of the NLP community are starting to respond to this need for scientific study of NLP's claims and techniques.  In the same interview, Judith DeLozier also discusses IASH,2 an organization whose mission includes scientific research on NLP, and whose website includes the criteria that the research should be "replicable or disprovable by others."3  I'm encouraged to see leaders in the field of NLP feeling this urgency to study NLP scientifically.


And what do scientists look for when they study whether something works or not?  Also in this issue is an interview with Dr. Michael Shermer.  He provides a beautiful elucidation of the scientific perspective. 


Trouble is, that perspective does not currently see scientific support for the claims of the self help movement.  I hope we can all take what Dr. Shermer says to heart.  If IASH is to succeed in its mission, and the field of NLP is to achieve scientific rigor and respectability, his are among the criticisms and concerns it will need to address. 


So please take what Dr. Shermer says to heart.  Or, at least, brace for impact.




1 To test a process scientifically, we will need to define specifically how we measure whether that process "works."   This is not a trivial problem—in many cases, how we measure the success of a process is not obvious.  However, it is certainly the sort of challenge researchers in psychology and sociology regularly have to solve.

2 Institute for the Advanced Studies of Health,

3 IASH's "About" Page,


James Swingle (Noneuclidean Cafe's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief) offers business training and consulting.  You can find out more at  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Aoife's Kiss, Black Ink Horror, Susurrus, Byzarium and other publications.  You can find out more about Mr. Swingle's writing at



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