Unconventional NLP Practice – Ethical Objections

Many people avoid certain types of NLP practice on ethical grounds. Before I really get into this, I must first say that (in my opinion) there are unethical applications of NLP. However, there is nothing inherently ethical or unethical about NLP itself.

Think of NLP as a set of tools. The ethics are dependent on the choices and intention of the person applying them. For example, a knife can be applied to prepare dinner or may be used to save a life during surgery. Or it can be used as a lethal weapon. The application itself is key.

Let’s look at some examples where a misunderstanding or misreading of the situation can raise unnecessarily limiting concerns:

  • not safe to practice NLP informally
  • unethical or manipulative to practice NLP on unsuspecting people

Informal NLP

NLP can be used to create powerful change. It’s quite natural that this should be treated with due care. However, I think it’s going a step too far to think that it’s only safe to practice NLP in ‘formal’ settings. Here’s why.

Think about this: where did NLP come from in the first place? If your immediate thought was ‘from modelling therapists’, you’re thinking too specifically. More broadly, it came from modelling effective human behaviour.

If the only applications of NLP were therapeutic, I could understand keeping such behaviours within a strict formal setting. However, what would be the sense of limiting how we apply effective behaviours? Especially considering how many of those behaviours occur naturally outside the therapy room.

Part of the goal of NLP training is to integrate the skills into your everyday behaviour. Some of the skills are already present in virtually everyone to some extent, yet are perhaps selective in their effect, or somewhat unreliable. For example, most people can get some rapport with some people. To integrate the NLP rapport skills would allow them to get rapport with a greater range of people in an increasingly reliable way – conscious access to a more reliable unconscious process.

And rapport is a skill you exercise virtually every day. Further, people anchor each other fairly frequently. Just watch some people in a cafe, bus queue or bar and you will notice this.

However, it’s much better to be aware of when we are and aren’t anchoring someone, so we can be sure our behaviour is guided by positive outcomes, rather than accident. So restricting NLP practice to the therapy room could actually be considered unethical.

And if you stopped doing all of the NLP-related behaviours in your daily life, it would be really hard to communicate with anyone or achieve anything worthwhile. So the more responsible choice is to bring NLP awareness and skills into every area of your life and move towards positive, ethical outcomes.

‘Covert NLP’

I’ve heard it said that it’s unethical or manipulative to practice NLP on unsuspecting people. I’d suggest that there is an ethical boundary here, rather than a clear yes or no. What it all comes down to is the purpose behind the use of NLP and the desired outcome.

Working towards mutually agreed outcomes is obviously ethical. And it’s not always necessary to explicitly agree the outcomes. Somebody might state their wants and you might see a win/win. The intervention itself need not be explicit in a “now I’m going to do some NLP” way. The outcome could be easier to achieve if done subtly.

If the NLP is used only to the benefit of the NLPer and against the interests of the other party, then it’s really not ethical.

Fortunately, this deliberate self-centred influence isn’t as effective as many people think. So many NLPers are caught up in the intricacy of the technology that they do not stop and realise that most people can spot a hidden agenda without taking any NLP training. Most people will know when there is something wrong, or they will intuit that the person is untrustworthy.

With that said, the full range of NLP skills are at work in many areas of daily life – and that means in the area of influence too.

For example, if you’re seeking a promotion, is it ethical to try and influence the interviewer? Before you decide, think about this: When you go for an interview, you tidy your hair and dress to impress. Isn’t that an attempt to influence the interviewer? Add in NLP skills too. Suppose you’re really good at getting rapport. Is that a fair advantage or an unfair one?

Overall, it’s a question of where you draw the line, so I’d suggest you don’t rule out using your NLP skills to mutual advantage, or in areas where you use such skills already.


Let me know what you think in the comments below. The final part comes tomorrow.

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