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Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a combination of techniques used to reprogram our brains and behavior through understanding the language we use in our own minds. It was developed by Americans Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s as a way to envisage success and then make it happen. Its approach involves modifying our thoughts and thus the actions or reactions they produce.
The theory behind NLP is that the decisions we make are connected to evolution and centered on finding pleasure and avoiding pain. These predetermined decision-making systems rule our present and future. Thankfully, NLP postulates that by modifying these innate behaviors, we can take control of our lives. We can feel good, improve our relationships with others, and get to where we want. In summary, NLP is a formula for optimism.
Here, we take a look at the essentials involved in NLP, which will show how our brains are preprogrammed, because understanding how we’re wired is the best place to start if we want to change. You can then follow a few exercises that demonstrate how to change the way you think so that you have a more positive outlook at work, improve your personal relationships at the office, and achieve your professional goals.
Why can’t our brains adapt automatically?
“When it comes to our environment, we are on an airplane about to crash. But since that will happen in two minutes, let’s take a coffee break first”—Sébastien Bohler
In Le bug humain, French author Sébastien Bohler explains that the striatum—the part of our brain linked to survival—compels us to destroy the planet. As this part is unable to anticipate the future, it encourages our immediate satisfaction over the efforts needed to preserve our ecosystems.
Still, a lot of time has passed since we wore mammoth-fur loincloths while scavenging for berries and running from nasty predators. The striatum was our ally. It pushed us to gather useful information (seeing the enemy behind us), to eat, reserve our strength, and reproduce.
But it’s 2019, and the game has changed. The striatum now provokes us to look at our cell phone every two minutes, indulge in that tiramisu even though we are full, stay in bed instead of going to that great art exhibit, and have another scroll through Tinder. This part of our brain can betray us without us being aware it’s happening.
If we look at everything closely, we can see that, over time, automatic, preprogrammed thoughts have been set up. According to author and life coach Tony Robbins, one of the early proponents of NLP, our brain has built its own decision-making system from:
- Our fundamental beliefs and unconscious rules.
- Our values.
- Our frame of references.
- The questions we ask ourselves.
- Our emotional states at precise times.
These “automatic pilot” programs often stop us from taking action.
Explore more in our section: Workers
How can we regain control with NLP?
The sum of these five elements (beliefs, values, frame of references, questions, and emotional states) can cause us to act or to remain paralyzed. Have you ever wondered why you never dared to ask for that promotion, apply for a job in a better company, request a meeting with Ms. or Mr. Important, or launch that start-up (which you know is a great idea)?
“NLP gives us the power to disregard the programmed thoughts that can dominate our present and future. By modifying these internal settings, we have the power to change our lives”—Tony Robbins
This entire approach is useful at work and in our personal lives, and helps us confront the obstacles in our brains to reach our goals. *“It’s a science that explains how the brain functions and drives our beliefs, speech, and actions. Then, we can adjust this to reach our goals. We can also change a habit, control our emotions, or even rid ourselves of a fear,”* explains Thomas Jeanneau, entrepreneur and founder of Essentiel, a process- and digital-training automation agency.
1. Change your thoughts to feel better at work
Evolution has led us to concentrate on our negative thoughts. NLP challenges us to readjust this stance to produce more enthusiastic thoughts. It also encourages us to keep in mind that everything that happens is neutral and that we can choose what we think. For example, although you love drawing up your weekly report because it helps you think straight and shows how much you have done, a colleague may struggle to do it because it is boring. The same task—writing up the report—provokes two radically different reactions.
And that is why by modifying what we think about the things that are difficult for us to do, we can also modify the emotions that we attach to these things and, consequently, considerably reduce the frustrations we have at the workplace. Here are a few exercises to get you started.
a) Positive words vs. negative words.
If you remember only one thing about NLP, let it be that we create our reality. And since our words are formed by our thoughts, they also shape the way we see the world. This is why Robbins proposes using Transformational Vocabulary.
“Words shape our beliefs and therefore have an impact on our actions”—Tony Robbins
Exercise: Make a list of the negative words you use and replace them with positive ones. This helps incite change in your everyday thoughts.
- “It’s impossible,” becomes “It’s a challenge.”
- “I know nothing,” becomes “I learn every day.”
b) Flip-flopping thoughts
Once you have the positive words in place, the next key step is to clear up your thoughts. Sometimes—at work, for example—it is just a question of readjusting your perception of a negative situation.
In his seminars, Robbins demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome any limited thinking. At the end of his events, participants even run over hot coals in a mind-over-matter exercise. Without going to that extreme, we can try to get rid of the thoughts that hinder our potential and make us feel bad.
Exercise: Make a list of words that cross your mind about unpleasant situations and then transform each one of these into a positive thought that you use each time the disagreeable situation happens. Yes, it is a conscious effort.
- Negative thought: “My coworker dropped the ball on our mutual project again. I can’t stand it!”
- Positive thought: “I am highlighting my abilities by managing the project from start to finish. I helped out my colleague, who now owes me one and will lend a hand if I’m overworked.”
Testimonial“As a self-taught entrepreneur, I had a hang-up because I was never trained in sales or business,” says Jeanneau. “My negative thought was, ‘I’ve never done sales, so I’m bad at it.’ To break down this belief, I told myself that I have already been able to sell myself as a freelancer and land contracts, even if they were small. So I focused on these facts—the successes that contradicted my negative thought. I was able to build up a new, positive thought—‘I can do sales, because I’ve already done it.’ Currently, I have to force myself to sell, but I know that, soon, that preconception my brain set up will no longer exist.”
c) Brooke Castillo’s method
Another effective way to reverse a thought is to understand how letting it settle in creates a vicious circle. Let’s use an exercise by Brooke Castillo, an American life coach.
Take a piece of paper and use this breakdown to help analyze a thought:
- C - Circumstances: The plain facts, as if you were presenting them in court. “We changed offices.”
- T - Thoughts: The words you have in your head about these circumstances. “The new offices are gloomy, I hate working here.”
- F - Feelings: One or more adjectives that describe how you are feeling. “Depressed, unmotivated, frustrated.”
- A - Actions: The action(s) (or inaction(s)) produced by this feeling. “I’m cranky. I’m taking it out on my coworkers.”
- R - Results: The results your thinking leads to under these circumstances. “Morale has plummeted in my team, I’m depressed at work.”
Often, the results confirm the thoughts. In this example, since morale has plummeted and that is depressing you, your outlook about the new offices will probably not change…
…unless you change what you think about the circumstances. The thought “The new offices are calm and in a great location,” allows you to be relaxed, even happy, about going to work and will equally improve morale in your team and your mood.
2. Improve relations with coworkers
The following exercises will help you make a few adjustments that will allow you to improve the relationships you have with people you get along with “fairly well” and to reinforce the ties with others.
a) Mirroring emotions
“It’s human nature to blame someone else for your shortcomings or upsets.” Does that remind you of something? In NLP, the idea of “mirroring emotions” lets us nip critical thoughts we have about our coworkers in the bud and therefore improves our relationships with them.
Wanting to control those around us is futile. A powerful tactic for separating ourselves from the critiques we have about our coworkers is to look for their flaws in ourselves and to correct them there. More often than not, this stops us from criticizing and makes us more tolerant and empathetic.
Example: Did you complain about your intern being disorganized? Take a look at your schedule and files to see if they are as well kept as you think.
Exercise: Write down on a piece of paper all of the complaints you have about a coworker who annoys you. Highlight the flaws they have that you recognize in yourself and then correct them.
As strange as it may seem, we are often irritated by things in others that we are ashamed about in ourselves. Once we change these flaws in ourselves, our frustration with others will vanish and the relationship can only improve.
b) Letting go of judgment
NLP encourages us to totally let go of judging others, which is more efficient than mirroring emotions. The nasty compulsion to judge brings us nothing and can even work against us.
Exercise: Pinpoint what causes you to make judgments and take a closer look at them. Ask yourself how they make you feel. And challenge yourself about them: Do you really have enough understanding to be able to make these judgments? To thwart these thoughts, imagine what has pushed this person to behave as they have and try to put yourself in their shoes.
And above all, each time we begin to get critical, we can stave it off by saying, “Oh look, here comes a judgment! We agreed to stop that.”
Example: “Marie is still sucking up to the boss. It’s pathetic!” Just stop. Nothing good comes out of making this kind of judgment. Not only can it make you feel bad, insecure, and even angry, it does nothing to change your coworker’s behavior and won’t, because you are not going to tell her. Instead, see it as Marie having a talent for being able to interact with people at a high level, and you can learn from that.
In concrete terms, you can block judgments and conscientiously modify the thought that is behind it, and the more you do that, the more natural it will become.
Testimonial:Judging doesn’t make sense, because we do it according to our personal experiences,” says Jeanneau. “Each of us interprets the world differently. If we begin there, it doesn’t make sense anymore to say that someone else is wrong or right, as the bases of certain arguments are no longer valid. The only way to move forward is by having an understanding, otherwise we are just futilely feeding our egos. Today, I judge much less, and I look to understand which elements in the life of this person have made them behave that way. I practice understanding. This helps me feel better, and often it aids me in creating strong bonds with others.”
c) Heading off jealousy with a bucket list
Jealousy can damage our relationships with coworkers. Higher salary, higher-level responsibilities, longer vacations—how can we react more productively so that we keep jealousy at bay and maintain smooth relationships? As soon as we find ourselves looking at our coworkers with envy, we can use it as a way to explore ourselves.
Exercise: Each time you feel jealousy arise, write down what that person has done that you would like to achieve yourself one day. And then begin to reflect on when and how you can make it happen. And, of course, don’t forget to be happy for your coworker, as they would be happy for you. Congratulate them for their upcoming business trip abroad, their 20% raise, or that speaking engagement at a renowned conference.
3. Reach your goals
a) Be able to count on yourself
Clotilde Dusoulier, host of the French podcast Change ma vie, highlights an important aspect of maintaining relationships with our colleagues or associates if we are entrepreneurs: We must decide to trust each other. Yet, to be successful on a professional front, you must also commit to being your own best ally and keeping the promises you made to yourself.
Testimonial: “It’s a question of psychological commitment. For me, integrity and coherence are the guiding values,” says Jeanneau. “This means if I commit to someone, or myself, these values will be affected if I do not stick to the commitment I made. A good technique is committing to others, because if we don’t hold ourselves to it, we lose face. Ego, in this case, is a really good motivator. But the best way is to have enough self-respect so that it also is in place in relation to the promises we make to ourselves.”
Exercise: For one week, pay attention to the time needed for your commitment to work: Go to bed early for a better day on the job, set aside X number of hours for something you are trying to accomplish on a personal level, and so forth. When you’re finding it tricky to honour that commitment to yourself as you would to a friend, try to understand why—without judging yourself. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself.
b) Stay focused on the goal you want to reach
Thoughts like, “She is blessed” or “He has a golden touch” suggest that certain people have more “luck” than others and that success is easier for them. In NLP, luck does not exist. Robbins writes in Unlimited Power that it is “your decisions, and not your conditions, that determine your destiny.” He shows over and over again how successful people set goals and did everything to attain them. It is from that goal, and only from that goal, we have the impression it was luck.
“An extraordinary life is not something selected for the lucky few. It’s our birthright as human beings. It’s yours for the asking. It’s yours for the taking”—Tony Robbins
To reach a goal, you need to concentrate on it and, on a daily basis, take all of the opportunities that arise to achieve it.
Exercise: Make a list of all of the simple things that can get you closer to your goal and draw up the steps that will get you there. At each step, congratulate yourself for reaching it, and then concentrate on the next one.
Learn more about: Mindfulness & wellbeing
To sum up
NLP is a very effective skill to help us get ahead in our careers, because it keeps us motivated. “It’s a powerful toolbox for managers, as it helps them to understand their coworkers, to be considerate, and to be better supervisors. For employees, it helps them develop new skills, leave their comfort zones to climb the ladder at work, increase abilities, or even get a better job,” says Jeanneau.
He even believes NLP should be taught at schools: “It would help each of us develop effortless, deeper, more harmonious relationships with others and ourselves.”
But, in order for it to work, we need to practice it every day, since exercising our brains in a positive way is a workout! And the other challenge you have probably understood already is that this a personal path that no one can take for you. So, are you ready to do these exercises to improve your professional and personal lives?
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Photograph by WTTJ
- NLP: The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming by Tom Hoobyar (2013)
- Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! by Tony Robbins (1992)
- Neuro-Linguistic Programming for Dummies by Romilla Ready and Kate Burton (2004)
- The Empowerment Partnership (training and information)
- Practical NLP by Andy Smith
- The Coach Life School by Brooke Castillo
- Essential NLP by Phil Parker
- Goodvibe by Jeannette Maw
Translated by Mary Wagonner-Moritz
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