Can You Learn NLP From A Book (Or Online Course)?

A question that often comes up on NLP forums, especially those open to people who are just curious about NLP as well as NLP Practitioners, is:
“Can you learn NLP from a book?”

Often this gets a snarky reply, along the lines of “How dare you ask such a question, you ignorant newbie? Of course you can’t learn NLP from a book!”

(feel free to speculate on the motivations of people who post replies like that)

Another type of frequently-seen reply, kinder but sharing the same assumption that trying to learn anything about NLP from books is pointless, goes along the lines of “What you need is a live training – I can recommend one (even though it may be on a different continent to where you are) – or at the very least, you should have some Skype sessions with a NLP Master Practitioner. There are plenty available on LinkedIn.”

These replies are well-meant but don’t really meet the needs of the questioner. For one thing, a live NLP Practitioner course is a substantial commitment of time and money that will cost around 200 times the price of a book, before we factor in the flights and accommodation that may be needed to get there.

If you’re just dipping a toe into the waters of NLP (asking that type of question suggests that’s the stage the questioner is at), then a willingness to commit a couple of grand to a course in something you know literally nothing about suggests your decision strategy might need some tuning up.

Of course, training providers will be happy to take your money, but you may want to find out a bit more before you make such a commitment.

So, what can you learn from an NLP book?

You can learn about NLP from a book, but you can’t learn NLP itself

Yes, you can learn the conceptual framework of NLP from a book. You can also learn about the principles,or ‘presuppositions’ as NLP jargon has it, and get some great results from seeing what happens when you apply them in the real world (this is what my introductory book Practical NLP: How to use NLP principles to improve your life and work, even if you’re not NLP trained is designed to help you with).

Also, you can learn some of the simpler NLP self-help techniques from a book. You may well get great results with them, if you’re lucky, and particularly if a visual mode of thinking comes naturally to you.

Even with books, though, you might try a technique on yourself and find it doesn’t work because of some little thing that you’ve misunderstood, something that could be corrected quite easily if you had a qualified trainer available to put you straight.

Where books really fall down for the beginning NLP learner is in guiding other people through techniques and processes. When you guide someone through  a process, there is a huge amount information coming back from them that gives you moment-to-moment feedback about what’s going on with that person, and what impact each step of the process is having on them.

You can’t learn how to notice that, let alone make sense of it, from a book alone.

This is what usually happens when people try to help others by reading out an NLP technique from a book without knowing what to look for.

Let me illustrate this with a clip from Ken Loach’s film “Looking For Eric” (I’ve posted about this before but it’s such a good illustration that it bears repeating).

The movies is about a depressed Manchester United fan called Eric whose hero, former United footballer Eric Cantona, mysteriously appears to him when his life is at a low point and helps him get his life back together.

At the beginning of this clip, Eric’s mate Meatballs is trying to help him out with a do-it-yourself anchoring exercise from a Paul McKenna book – I think it’s Instant Confidence, or it might be Change Your Life In Seven Days.

The clip neatly illustrates how easy it is to miss the essentials of an NLP technique when you’re trying it out from a book – see how they are trying to set up the stimulus (the thumb and finger pressed together) before they have managed to elicit the state!

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NLP is a “full-body sport”

To quote NLP trainer Jonathan Altfeld, “NLP is a full-body sport”. And like other full-body sports such as dancing or sex, you can’t learn it from a book.

As soon as you get beyond simple self-help thought experiments, NLP happens between people. To get good, you need people to practice with, because then you get constant real-time feedback from noticing the changes in body language, voice tone, breathing, and facial expression that are the external markers of processing and change happening within that person.

You also need multiple people to practice with, because everyone’s processing and responses are different. Only by practising with many different people will you build up an understanding of what works, and what to do if something doesn’t go as expected.

There’s another type of feedback that’s essential to learning. This is feedback from a qualified, experienced trainer, who can suggest things to try out or do differently next time.

There’s also something else that you need a trainer for.

You will have questions

If you have the powerful curiosity that is essential to make NLP work, you will inevitably have questions. How could you ask a question of a book?

On a decent NLP course, by contrast, the trainer will be there to answer any questions you will have. There will be time built into the course (usually labelled as ‘open frame’) to ask questions.

This is also why it’s much better to attend a small-group NLP course (up to 16 or so participants) rather than a large-scale course with hundreds of participants. Inevitably, a big course becomes more of a presentation than a training course, and as one among many you won’t get much individual attention from the trainer.

To sum up, you can get a lot of benefits from NLP self-help books, particularly if you actually help yourself by doing the exercises. NLP books can also be a great reference to look things up and get a broader understanding of what you’ve learned on a live course, or to find out more about NLP before you commit to doing a course.

What books can’t do is teach you how to use NLP elegantly to get results – only intentional and supervised practice such as you get on a good face-to-face NLP course can do that.

What about online courses?

Some of the drawbacks of trying to learn NLP from a book may be remedied by online courses. For example, there should in theory be the opportunity to get as many questions as you like answered by the trainer, either by during a live lesson segment or in a support group for students.

It’s even possible that technology becomes available to allow students to go off into virtual ‘breakout rooms’ in twos or threes to practice a pattern, with the ability to be observed and get feedback from the trainer.

In order for this to be any substitute for practicing with real human beings in the same room, virtual reality would have to advance a long way. And even then, good luck with practicing kinaesthetic anchors.

Some online courses may have excellent content and production values, but they are never going to be a substitute for a decent live course.

If they present themselves as a ‘certification’ course, this is usually going to be a certificate of completion. Don’t fool yourself that it’s any substitute for a proper face to face NLP Practitioner certification.

Want to read some NLP books anyway? Check out my author page on Amazon or get the Practical NLP Box Set in the most cost-effective way from my online store.

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