What is NLP modeling?

Definition of NLP modeling

NLP modeling is a methodology for turning a skill that one person can do into a “recipe” that other people can follow to achieve similar results.

For instance, Richard Bandler famously developed the NLP Fast Phobia Cure by modeling people who used to have phobias, but had gotten over them. Many of NLP’s therapeutic techniques were modeled from successful therapists — most famously Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson.

An NLP “recipe” for a skill is called a model.

NLP models subconscious processes

NLP models include aspects of the skill that the exemplar (the person being modeled) doesn’t know they do.

If you ask someone who used to have a phobia how they got rid of it, they probably can’t tell you enough about what they did that you can do it. That’s because a lot of what makes a skill work happens outside conscious awareness. The former phobic might be able to tell you what to do (“Detach yourself from those negative feelings…”), but they probably can’t tell you exactly how to do it.

Most people don’t consciously know about important aspects of skills they have. This makes skills difficult to teach and learn using conventional methods.

Spelling, for instance. As you probably know, good spellers all over the world use the same strategy: remembering a visual image of the word, and then verifying whether or not it looks correct via a feeling that the word looks right or wrong. People who spell poorly use a variety of other strategies, including auditory, kinesthetic, and visual constructed.

Prior to NLP, good spellers could teach other people how to spell. But because good spellers didn’t know how they spelled well, they couldn’t teach their students how to make useful internal representations of correctly spelled words. Students who happened to represent words using remembered visuals learned to spell well. Students like me, who used other strategies, spelled poorly no matter how smart we were or how hard we tried.

The NLP Spelling Strategy teaches students how to spell well, using remembered visuals and connecting them with feelings. When students learn spelling using a successful “recipe,” they all learn to spell well.

In this example, spelling was hard to teach because the most important aspects of the skill happened outside people’s conscious awareness. I often find this to be the case.

Someone who falls asleep quickly and easily, and sleeps well all night, has a great skill that millions insomniacs would love to learn. But since most of the important parts of the skill happen subconsciously, the sleep genius can’t teach her insomniac friends how to snooze better. However, you can model her skill and then teach it to others.

Some skills require knowledge and practice

An NLP model supplies the structure a person uses to do a skill. In some cases, NLP models also supply some content. For example, David Gordon’s Experiential Dynamics modeling method specifies the beliefs necessary to make an exemplar’s model function.

However, many skills depend heavily on content — particularly knowledge and practice.

Imagine that you model a great musician. Your model won’t include the musician’s extensive knowledge of melody, rhythm, sight-reading, or improvisation. Or their thousands of hours of practicing and playing.

Without including knowledge and practice, what is your model good for?

A model can help you learn the skill of playing music. If you think like a great musician, act like a great musician, and pay attention to what great musicians pay attention to, you will probably learn to play your instrument quickly, easily, and effectively… the way great musicians do. (You’ll also love to play and practice, a crucial skill for becoming great.)

Your model can also help you improve skills you already have. The more musical experience you have, the more content you already have available to help you flesh out the model. An experienced musician with the necessary knowledge and technical skills might find your model provides all they need to quickly go from good to great.

However, your model can’t turn a person with no knowledge and experience into an instant expert. Just as spelling depends on making the right kind of visual remembered representations, and linking them with feelings, playing great music depends on having physical playing skills and understanding music the way musicians do. Someone who wants to learn to play great music needs to start by learning to play! They then need to practice and play a lot, until they build the skills they need.

When I learned the NLP spelling strategy, my memory held literally thousands of visual images of words I had misspelled over more than 30 years. Purging the misspelled words from my memory took several months of looking up words and memorizing their correct spelling. Happily, over those few months I went from spelling poorly to spelling consistently well. I would not have gotten that result without adding the content necessary to make the strategy’s successful structure work.

So how can NLP eliminate a phobia in a few minutes? Models like the Fast Phobia Cure depend on knowledge and experience the person already has, so they work instantly.

NLP has done tremendous good in the world by transforming skills that people used to find difficult to teach or learn into skills that any of us can learn. What skills do you have that others would love to learn?


In a future post, I’ll tackle the controversial topic of what kinds of modeling constitute NLP modeling.


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