Hear And Now

An innovative listening technique may be the key to improving communication.
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This story appears in the December 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Stuart Kirk used to rely on facts, logic and reason when he was talking to someone. That's understandable--he's a trained mathematician and statistician, and worked as a corporate information technology director before founding Taconic Woods Consulting, a one-person Yorktown Heights, New York, leadership and communications training firm.

But Kirk says of his former ways, "I don't think it worked very well at all." Now when he sits down to speak with a client or business associate, he thinks less about facts and logic and more about hypnotic language and using words or gestures as anchors. This works a lot better, he says, especially when it comes to creating a sympathetic mood with others. And, says Kirk, "the ability to sit down with somebody and establish rapport quickly and easily makes a tremendous difference to your presence in a meeting."

Kirk's new techniques--and the arcane terminology used to describe them--came from a self-improvement and communication discipline called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. The concept was developed 25 years ago to help psychotherapists. Since then, it's been applied as an agent of personal change, most notably by motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Now, however, NLP is filtering into business, where it's presented as a solution to many managerial problems.

NLP's promise that it can help people improve their rapport with others is especially attractive to salespeople, who are among its biggest fans. But NLP also helps people better interview job candidates, negotiate contracts, run meetings and motivate employees, says John Emerick Jr., a former NLP trainer and author of Be the Person You Want to Be: Harness the Power of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to Reach Your Potential (Prima).

Companies such as Reuters, American Express and Sony have trained salespeople, customer service representatives and others in NLP, according to Rachel Hott, co-director of the NLP Center of New York in New York City. "That's one of the great things about NLP," she says. "It's very easy to apply in [a business environment]."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

The Basics

NLP is a loosely connected set of ideas and techniques drawn from areas such as hypnosis, nonverbal communication, linguistics and general semantics. The term was first used as far back as 1933 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski, but it didn't get much use until the two men who invented NLP, linguist John Grinder and psychotherapist Richard Bandler, used it in their 1975 book for therapists, The Structure of Magic (Science and Behavior Books).

NLP's central premise is that people are programmed to think, act and feel by their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, language and behavior. The idea is that identifying and changing these influences can make us more effective both personally and professionally. NLP teaches trainees to recognize and understand body language, including eye movements, nonverbal communication such as vocal rhythm and tone, and key words that carry extra meaning. These skills are used to identify trainees' or others' changes in emotional state or mood.

NLP uses a grab bag of techniques to accomplish this. Mirroring is the practice of duplicating words and postures exhibited by others as a way to build rapport. Anchoring is the skill of using a word, gesture or even touch to elicit a particular thought, feeling or visual image. And there are numerous other NLP tools, ranging from tricks to induce light hypnotic trances in listeners to methods for deciphering moods by studying eye position. NLP students learn to apply their skills in a variety of contexts, including hiring interviews, sales calls, meeting presentations, teleconferences and even e-mail messages and faxes.

Know The Limits

NLP is clearly a complex topic; its trainers have produced numerous books, videotapes and audiotapes explaining it. Most of these products, however, are of limited use, experts say. The best way to learn about NLP is through personal training, which can be expensive and time-consuming. The basic NLP course costs about $2,500, takes from two to four weeks, and may require travel since there are only a few hundred trainers nationwide. More advanced courses require additional commitments of time and money.

Less extensive training can be helpful, says Hott, who was first exposed to NLP at a three-day introductory seminar. "That [training] lasted me a year," she says. "I was able to apply those things right away, and it's a good way for people to start."

Some students, like Kirk, have found NLP more difficult. "It requires a ton of hard work to master," Kirk says.

NLP also has image problems. It isn't widely accepted by psychologists, partly because of the controversial professional and personal style of co-founder Richard Bandler. And it's suspect among businesspeople, in part because of the hyperactive promotion of practitioners like Tony Robbins.

But NLP's biggest image problem is that it's perceived as manipulative, a trick to get other people to do what you want. NLP fans counter that while it can be used to influence others, it's no worse than any other method people use to make themselves more attractive, popular or influential. "The tool itself is neutral," says Kirk. "It's how you use it that's important."

The negative perception remains, however, to the extent that Kirk recommends NLP practitioners use their craft discreetly. "In a lot of situations, it's probably not wise to talk about what you're doing because people react negatively to it," Kirk says.

To become more popular in the business environment, Emerick says, NLP must lose its manipulative image. He stresses the need to take a win-win attitude toward its application, using the techniques to identify and fulfill both your goals and the goals of others. That's not as easy as it may sound, however. NLP was developed to aid therapists in dealing with profoundly troubled patients. When applied to the relatively superficial concerns of business, it's not always a good fit. "NLP hasn't yet made the full transition from the context it was designed for to the corporate context," Emerick says.

That's where entrepreneurs come in. Many entrepreneurs started their own companies to escape the political infighting and complex communication issues of big corporations, Emerick notes. For them, NLP may be a way to help deal with similar issues that arise as their own companies grow and prosper. "It makes interpersonal skills [seem] more like a science than an art," says Emerick. "And that's desperately needed by a great many people."

Entrepreneurs like Kirk who have embraced NLP are few and far between. If its relevance is widely accepted, that will likely change. Meanwhile, says Emerick, "NLP has a tremendous amount to offer people in business. And it's only going to get better."

Contact Sources

NLP Center of New York, (800) 422-8657, http://www.nlptraining.com

Taconic Woods Consulting, (914) 245-5783, http://www.taconicwoods.com


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