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News / November 26, 2021

An exploration into your mind

by Siobhan Kelleher

NLPSiobhan Kelleher speaks to Mark Oborn about neuro-linguistic programming, why it is so powerful and its potential in dentistry.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) gets talked about a lot in team management and particularly sales training. 

In this article, I want to explore what NLP is, and how you might be able to use it in a way that goes far beyond managing others and sales!

Please give us a brief history of NLP

Mark Oborn (MO): NLP started back in the 1970s when Richard Bandler (who has a BA in philosophy and psychology and an MA in psychology) and John Grinder (who has a PhD in linguistics) worked together on the theories of transformational grammar and syntax. They publishing several articles on the syntactic structure of language. Particularly, around the concept of ‘deletions’.

They quickly recognised that many people could use the work they were doing on language and the encoding of the world around us in our brain. So, they came up with the phrase ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ (NLP).

What is NLP?

MO: At its core, NLP takes our subjective experiences of the world around us and looks at how we encode that subjective experience. 

The way we encode the world around us affects our beliefs, our values, our internal representation of things, and ultimately our behaviours.

Once we understand how an individual encodes the world around them, we can recognise unhelpful patterns in that encoding. 

Then, once we recognise the unhelpful patterns in that code, an NLP master practitioner can work with a client to rewrite the coding and make radical changes in perception and behaviour.

Derren Brown’s TV shows are an absolute masterclass in utilising some of the core principles of NLP. Although, he mixes it with a variety of other techniques. 

Utilising his knowledge of the way people think, he is able to linguistically take people (metaphorically) to places they’ve never been before. He can pay for items with pieces of paper instead of cash. He can get people to forget where they are going on the train journey. This is all done by understanding how they have encoded the world around them. Also, by understanding how the structure of language can impact that encoding.

Of course, Derren Brown is using the techniques for entertainment purposes, but they have far more therapeutic uses.

Is it more than just techniques?

MO: This definition often leads people to think that NLP is just a series of techniques. This is far from the truth.

NLP is also a mindset. A mindset of:

  • Curiosity: How was it possible we think like this? How is it possible that this other person can think the way they do? How do we actually do that behaviour? When we are curious, we begin to ask questions that lead to solutions and to understand others
  • Flexibility: There is no single technique or concept that works universally. Having continuous flexibility means that if something doesn’t go the way we planned, we give ourselves a pat on the back. We congratulate ourselves for learning what doesn’t work. Then, we move onto something else. Being continuously flexible and adaptable in our approach means we always find a solution to the problem.

Something to point out here: notice that in the bullet point above about curiosity I didn’t suggest asking the question: ‘Why do we think like this?’. The question NLP asks is: ‘How do we think like this?’

NLP is resolution and solution focused. It doesn’t get concerned with why we do things, it is just concerned in resolving unhelpful or unwarranted behaviour and thinking patterns. Why we do those things is irrelevant to NLP, we just want to stop doing them. Let’s get the problem solved!

What is NLP used for?

MO: Because NLP looks at how individuals encode the world, it can be used in two primary ways – understanding others and understanding self.

For instance, when we understand the way other people think and, most importantly, how they think that way, it allows us to relate to other people more effectively. This is useful for:

  • Understanding and managing teams
  • Understanding and managing personal relationships
  • ‘Sales’. 

Indeed, when we understand how we encode the world around us, we can begin to recognise unhelpful patterns in the way we think and perceive things. We can then work on that encoding to change it, if appropriate. This can be useful in:

  • Improving performance in business
  • Improving performance in sport
  • Rapid learning
  • Removing unhelpful habits
  • Removing phobias
  • Dealing with OCD
  • Dealing with unwarranted anger, sadness, fear, hurt and guilt.

Please give us a practical example?

MO: Let’s examine this idea of encoding. NLP recognises many different ways that we encode the world, one of the most common is called: sub modalities. 

The easiest way to describe this is to get you to try the following little experiment.

Remember a time, a specific time when you were doing something very pleasurable. (I’m not going to ask you what it was or share it, so it can be anything you like). Now get an image of that time in your mind’s eye.

Now you can visualise this specific pleasurable time, I want to ask you some questions (feel free to pause between each question and really focus on that image):

  • Turn off any sound in the image and make it silent
  • Make the image still as though it is a photograph, not video
  • Make it so that you can see yourself in the image, as though you’re looking at the situation from another person’s point of view
  • The image should be black and white
  • Make that image slightly blurred
  • Place a frame around that image
  • Identify where that image is in your mind’s eye and move it a long way away from you, so that you can only just about make out the frame and can’t really see much of the image at all.


Now, with that image black and white, silent, blurred, seeing yourself in the image and far away, how does that pleasurable experience seem to you?

Most people will feel a less intense memory, this is changing with the encoding of that memory.

Using this technique, you can see how quickly NLP works and how we can change the way we encode and perceive things relatively simply, when we know how.

All of these things – sound, colour, focus, location, distance etc – are sub modalities and you will have sub modalities attached to all of the representations of things you have in life.

Habits such as smoking or comfort eating will have sub modalities attached. 

Memories will have sub modalities attached.

If we wish to change how we encode those memories or habits and, therefore, our behaviours attached to those memories or habits then sub modalities can be an incredibly powerful tool (amongst many others) to make sweeping and rapid change.

Of course, if we were doing this for real on an unhelpful memory/habit then we would ‘fix’ those new sub modalities so that they change our encoding permanently, in our example, we havent done any fixing.

Before I sign off, visualise that image again of your pleasurable experience, do it now.

  • Turn on the sound again and increase the volume to make it perfect
  • Make the image moving
  • Make it so you’re seeing the image through your own eyes
  • The image should be made bright and colourful. Adjust the clarity to make it the most compelling image
  • Bring the image as close to you as you need in order to make it the most compelling image.

So, now you have your pleasurable experience back. You can play with those sub modalities for other memories you have. 

Be curious, be flexible and be the change you need. 

This article first appeared in Irish Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.