NLP History - the story so far

One version of the NLP story

Reading time 5 mins

…and, like most histories, the history of NLP is anecdotal, subjective, and based on a mixture of facts, rumour and personal memories!

The ‘true’ history of NLP has yet to be written.  What’s more it’s highly unlikely that a definitive version which all those involved will agree upon will be written.

(This is quite in line with one of the core principles of NLP – ‘the map is not the territory’ which means that the description of an event is not the absolute truth about it but is merely the perception of the person describing the event!)

And, with that out of the way, here are some versions of what occurred…

NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) was first developed in the U.S. in the early 70’s from studying the thinking and behavioural skills used by particularly effective and successful people.

It is now used internationally by millions of people throughout the world in such diverse fields as management, sales, marketing, public relations, education, therapy, the military and police, sport, and personal development.

The early creativity

NLP grew out of the activity of the ‘behavioural modelling‘ activity of Frank Pucelik, John Grinder and Richard Bandler in studying three therapists – Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson. 

Richard Bandler enrolled as a young 20-year old psychology student in the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1970. Frank Pucelik worked with Bandler and then they were joined by John Grinder. Grinder, in his late twenties, was an associate professor of linguistics at the university (reputedly the youngest in the states at the time). 

Soon they were applying Grinder’s linguistic skills and Bandler’s creative genius to ‘model’ or thoroughly analyse the work and the success-rate of Virginia Satir (mother of Family Therapy) and Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt Therapy).

They analysed writings and tape-recordings to discover what accounted for the successful results achieved by Satir and Perls. Later, through a friend of Bandler’s, they got to know and became admirers of Gregory Bateson who, in turn, introduced them to the work of Milton Erickson.

The ‘development team’ grew

As they began to come up with ideas, insights, and techniques they tried them out on friends (including Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron, and David Gordon) who soon joined them in developing and extending the work.

The enthusiastic and highly creative group grew and NLP developed.  And they were joined by others in the visionary and creative search for what accounted for the results that people get.

Out of this search came many of the methods that are still part of good Practitioner and Master Practitioner Trainings such as anchoring, sensory acuity and calibration, reframing, representational systems, and the two Language Models – as well as many of the personal change techniques such as the New Behavioural Generator and Change Personal History.

Books & workshops

Their first book was the two-volume Structure of Magic I and II. (Incidentally, Structure I is believed to be mainly John’s doctrinal thesis on Linguistics. This may account for it being, without any doubt, the most ‘challenging’ and off-putting of the NLP books.

Their productivity and creativity during these early years from 1971 to 1976 is quite amazing.

They were developing new ideas and insights, experimenting with the material, running informal workshops and writing both The Structure or Magic I & II plus Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, MD Volume 1. This was published in 1975 and is their initial model of Erickson’s use of language. ‘Erickson’ Volume 2 followed in 1977.

The tapes of the early workshops were transcribed and edited by John O. Stevens and then published as Frogs into Princes in 1979.

I came across ‘Frogs’ when it first came out. It was aimed at therapists, as was most of NLP at the time, and had a profound effect on me as a then trainee counsellor. It challenged the mythology of traditional therapy and backed up this challenge with practical alternatives.

The book ‘converted’ me to NLP!

John O. Stevens later became better known as Steve Andreas and, with his wife Connirae, went on to edit more Bandler and Grinder books, produce their own books, and founded the excellent NLP Comprehensive organisation, in Colorado.

By the late seventies the workshop bandwagon was touring the States and word of mouth fame ensured that the workshops were packed. Articles began appearing in the press, too.

Then NLP became a product

To many people it appeared that the excitement and creativity in NLP in the seventies became overshadowed, from the early eighties, by more mundane ego-issues and commercial considerations such as who was doing the ‘right’ kind of NLP, who owned it, and so on.

By then Grinder and Bandler had parted (not without some acrimony, it appears) and each went on to develop his own ideas.

And soon NLP was being marketed not as a route to discovery but as a way of having power in your own life and over others – NLP was now a product being sold to people who wanted quick results.


There is no longer anything called NLP.

There probably hasn’t been since Bandler and Grinder – the main two initiators of the movement – parted company over three decades ago.

First there was just NLP. Then there was the Bandler camp and the Grinder camp. Soon there was also the Lesley Cameron-Bandler camp and the Tony Robbins’ camp. And more groupings followed.

NLP was coming of age – healthily – and was reflecting the diversity that it celebrated.

From then on NLP stopped being an ‘it’ and became a movement. It had become a rapidly growing, diversifying and developing body of knowledge and insights. Rather than being a neat, tidy product or system it began to resemble what the Internet is now – anarchic, uncontrollable, ‘owned’ by its many contributors and developers throughout the world, and wonderfully creative.

Even here, within the UK, there are different ‘brands’ of NLP. And, hopefully when someone goes through a training course in one ‘type’ of NLP they quickly individualise and develop and enrich their learning and end up having their own ‘type’ of NLP.

To some people this lack of a body of cohesive standards and styles is unacceptable in a ‘discipline’.

But then NLP never has been a discipline nor has it been disciplined. It is always been a little anarchic, a little iconoclastic, a little bit ‘off message’ and, perhaps, it’s strength lies in this diverseness. Perhaps it’s creative potential requires this healthy ability to not be standardised…

Note: As I mentioned above, this is neither an accurate nor a definitive ‘history’ of NLP.  Much of the above is based on ‘folk memory’ and gossip and is, rather like NLP itself, based on subjective experience. Additionally it seems that members of the early development group have tended to have different memories of what exactly was done and by whom. 

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