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Neurolinguistic programming: the keys to success
by Walter J. and Bayat A. BMJ 2003;326:s165-s166 (17 May)

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We all like to succeed at what we do, from cooking a meal or winning a football match to climbing to the top in our chosen field. Interestingly, the magnitude of the task is rarely important: success in whatever you do will have the same structure (it rarely happens by chance) so once you understand your strategy for success, you can apply it to any context. If you can answer yes to any of the questions in the box then NLP might be able to help you.

The first key to success: Setting your goal
In order to succeed within a given area you have to know exactly what it is that you want to achieve. Be clear and detailed and be sure about why you want to do it. According to NLP, the idea of what we want needs to be framed in the correct way for our brain to properly process the information and therefore enhance our chance of a successful outcome. There are several steps \to setting the perfect goal.

The brain has difficulty processing negatives directly (3). If we were to ask you not to think of a blue elephant while reading the rest of this paragraph then it is almost certain that a blue elephant will be foremost in your thoughts. The first point to make in focusing your goal is to phrase the language positively and towards what you want as opposed to away from something you do not want. For example, if you want a better job or promotion it is better to focus on positively acquiring a better job rather than telling yourself that you want to get away from the current position.

Take the time to create as much detail as possible about what you want to achieve to ensure you get what you ask for. For example, it is no good saying vaguely "I want to be a millionaire" as there is no substance to this. It is much better to say "I want to be a millionaire, and therefore I am going to start buying lottery tickets."

Is the outcome that you want to achieve under your control and can you accomplish all the steps that will be needed to maintain it? In the example of losing weight, are patients doing this for themselves or for their partner—if it is not for themselves, will they be able to maintain motivation and so succeed?

If you answer yes to any of the following, NLP might be able to help you.

  • Do you want to be successful?
  • Do you have a goal you would really like to achieve?
  • Do you sometimes lack motivation?
  • Do you need to successfully and easily acquire new skills?
  • Do you know how to teach your skills to others?
  • Do you want to guard against failure?

Spend time imagining what it will be like to have succeeded thus allowing you to know how you will recognize the success when it happens. This will provide significant motivation and allow you to monitor your progress. Be prepared to make personal sacrifices As the old adage says no pain, no gain. It is important to consider what you will personally gain or loose by achieving this success. For example, studying for higher level qualifications may mean that you cannot socialize as much as previously, but this may be a price that you are willing to pay. In summary, if we fully outline our goal, imagine all that it entails, and what it will be like to achieve it this should enhance our motivation for the work involved in achieving it.

The second key to success: Creating the correct model
Modeling in NLP terms is the process that brings about the behavioral patterns necessary for success. Have you ever succeeded at something previously? Do you know a specific person who has already achieved what you want to do and could act as a role model? If the answer is yes to either, or both, of these questions, then there is nothing to stop you finding out "how" to achieve your goal. It is possible to model any human behavior if you can master three aspects that make up that behavior: the beliefs, the physiology and the specific thought processes (strategies).

Our beliefs influence our behavior You are much less likely to succeed if you are not really convinced that you will. For example, before Roger Bannister ran 1 mile in less than four minutes, people generally believed that it could not be done. Within the same year of Roger's landmark record, some other athletes also ran the mile in less than four minutes because they now believed it to be possible. Similarly, Paula Radcliffe recently set a new world record by running the marathon in just under two hours and 16 minutes. How many more marathon runners will be achieving this soon and perhaps try to perform better?

Beliefs are so powerful that they can affect our neuroimmunopsychology. Our neuroimmunopsychology is analogous to the hardwiring of a computer and our beliefs can be taken to be the software that runs them. This can be seen most clearly with the placebo affect (where some patients will get better when they are given what they think to be the drug designed for a particular condition but it is in fact a harmless substitute).4 Beliefs are intrinsically powerful parts of our neurological make up that we should use in achieving our goals.

Studying the expression, tone of voice (tonality), and movement of the internal and external behavior necessary to obtain a specific goal will allow you to replicate it. Differing aspects of physiology will be relevant, dependent on what you are trying to model—a new skill or remembering the last time you were successful.

The easiest way to understand modeling is in the example of learning a new skill: reading how to carry out a particular operation is no match for observing an experienced surgeon and seeing exactly how he or she places his or her hands, makes the first incision, etc. Another example from everyday life is observing the posture of people when they are unhappy or down. It is much more difficult to remain unhappy if you start to smile (and so try to change your mood positively).

The third aspect of modeling is discovering and adopting the correct strategy, order, and sequence of events, for achieving our outcome.5 We all have strategies or programmed routines for everything that we do, although we may not always be aware of them. We have strategies for getting up in the morning or revising or finding out information about our patients problems. If you have succeeded in something before, no matter what it is, it would be possible to formulate your success strategy. If you were successful in a job application there will almost certainly have been a long list of things you did: for example, deciding to look for a job (thought process), sending off the application (doing process), preparing for the interview (thought and doing process), doing well at interview, resulting in you feeling good and succeeding at getting the job. Strategies are about detail and understanding what you (or a role model) have done to succeed and then applying them in a different context. Examining past successes in different areas may highlight some extra points leading to a more assured outcome.

Applying the keys to success Success is more likely if you define clearly what you want and take the appropriate action to bring about your desired goal. The plan that you make at the beginning will need to be monitored and modified as necessary, maintaining flexibility and using all the resources that are available to you. This has obvious implications in training and career progression, but the concepts can be applied throughout the health service, particularly in helping patients take charge of their health.


1. Walter J, Bayat A. neurolinguistic programming: verbal communication. BMJ 2003;326(supply):S83. (15 March.) www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/326/7389/S83 (accessed 21 Mar 2003).
2. Walter J, Bayat A. Neurolinguistic programming: temperament and character types. BMJ 2003;326 (supply): S133
3. Jago W, McDermott I. The NLP coach. London: Piatkus, 2001.
4. O'Connor J, McDermott I. NLP and health. London: Thorsons, 1996.
5. O'Connor J, Seymour D. Introducing NLP: psychological tools for understanding and influencing people. London: Thorsons, 1995.


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