“Is NLP Manipulative?”

A question that comes up from time in one form or another is “Is NLP Manipulative?” So I thought it would be worth taking a moment to gather some thoughts on this matter.

The immediate cause was being interviewed by Judy Rees for the next edition of ‘Rapport‘ magazine (the NLP one, not the Peugeot owners magazine) about these two questions: “What do you think is the relationship between NLP and influence/persuasion/manipulation/seduction?” and “Do you think any of this is a problem and if so, is there anything that anyone can/should do about it?”

So here goes…

Influence and persuasion just come down to effective communication – rhetoric (the art of using language to communicate effectively) was a central part of education in the ancient world, although interestingly there are a lot of ideas in classical rhetoric that don’t turn up much in NLP (see http://www.figarospeech.com/).

NLP adds some new techniques to the rhetorical arsenal, which in itself is morally neutral. To evaluate a piece of communication from an ethical point of view, we need to look at two things – the intent of the speaker, and the effects that the communication has.

In some contexts, manipulation is actually OK with the person on the receiving end. If I go the physio to sort my back out, I *want* them to manipulate me – literally. It’s the only way that works.

Similarly, if you go to see a hypnotherapist, you want them to be communicating with your unconscious mind in ways that you are not consciously aware of – assuming you trust the therapist and that you want the therapy to work (and if either of those conditions are absent, what are you doing with that therapist in the first place?).

Seduction is an interesting case. The original Latin meaning is ‘to lead astray’, and seduction is about leading someone to make a behavioural choice that they wouldn’t have made if they weren’t in some kind of altered state. What’s the seducer’s intention? He wants sexual gratification. What’s the effect? Well, it could lead to remorse later – in fact it almost certainly will if the seducer doesn’t care about the person he’s seducing.

If the seducer did care about the other person, seduction is not much of a basis for a meaningful relationship.

Is this a problem? It could be, for the person who is manipulated or seduced. It’s self-limiting though – most of the persuasion methods outlined in Cialdini’s classic book Influence (not that that is NLP of course, although all the NLP persuasion buffs that I know of swear by it) are short-term tricks that later leave the ‘victim’ baffled or annoyed, so won’t work to build a long-term relationship.

I believe we can often pick up at an unconscious level when someone is trying to manipulate us and doesn’t have our best interests at heart – it’s a matter of listening to that inner voice and trusting our intuitions. Anyone attempting to use manipulative tricks will tend to come across as sleazy (we may get a feeling about them even if we don’t spot the specific pattern) which kicks away one of the three components of rhetorical persuasion – ethos, or ‘appeal based on the character of the speaker’ (the others being logos, appeal based on reason, and pathos, appeal based on emotion).

More concerning to me is the effect on the ‘persuader’ (and not just manipulators and seducers, but NLP enthusiasts in general) of approaching every human interaction with a desired outcome – of getting the other person to do something or at least agree with them – as NLP books sometimes urge us to do. This outcome focus does not allow for genuine conversations in the sense that Theodore Zeldin talks about them – dialogues in which we can genuinely connect with another person learn something new, increase our self-awareness, and even change our minds.

What can be done about it? If we want to ‘clean up NLP’, I guess we could name and shame NLP trainers and speakers who use tricks that we regard as damaging. Of course this is subjective – one person’s manipulation is another’s legitimate persuasion or effective communication – and someone marketing themselves as a persuasion expert might actually welcome a reputation as an ‘NLP bad boy’.

More practically, we can educate ourselves to notice the tricks which can serve as ‘markers’ for a manipulator. For example, Daniel Goleman in The New Leaders (published as Primal Leadership in the USA)has a useful distinction for telling the difference between an inspirational leader and a manipulative demagogue – the demagogue will appeal to fear and other ‘negative’ or ‘dissonant’ emotions, whereas the true leader will appeal to the best in people.

If I had a daughter, I would definitely be teaching her to spot tricks like ‘negging’ (making a negative remark wrapped up in a backhanded compliment with the aim of shaking a person’s confidence and making them more vulnerable). Not, again, that ‘negging’ is specifically an NLP method – jerks have been using it instinctively since the dawn of time.

To sum up – NLP is a tool, like a scalpel, which can be used to harm or to heal. This is pretty much what any NLP practitioner would say. We can’t legislate against using it for sneaky tricks, since all of the devices and language patterns have been modelled either from classical rhetoric or from people who use them ‘naturally’ anyway (if this comes as a surprise, consider the idea that everything that anyone says is a hypnotic suggestion, whether the speaker realises it or not – more about this idea in a future article).

However, what we in NLP need to remember is that not every interaction with other human beings needs to be goal-directed – in fact, the best moments in our lives, and our opportunities to learn and grow, come from connecting just for the sake of it. So, do you think NLP is manipulative? Let us know by posting your comments below…

© 2010, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Marc Price

    The ‘NLP is manipulative’ argument is one that I have stumbled into quite regularly. The other one being that it is ‘unscientific’. Hypnosis seems to have even more stigma. I get the impression that some people (ie managers in high places) are afraid of these labels. I wonder what it is they are truly afraid of.

  2. Ed

    I did a Google of "Bandler manipulative", to find a quote I’d heard along the lines of "yes NLP’s manipulative. that’s the point of it – to make changes". I found a discussion at http://www.nlpconnections.com/forum/10580-nlp-manipulative-dangerous.html

    One of the posts included a different quote:
    To quote Bandler "yes NLP is manipulative, and maybe I just made you pose the question"… http://www.umamiuk.com

    There’s a suggestion on that discussion that disclosure of intention is a key to whether the NLP usage is morally good or bad. Naturally, the discussion then moves on to how this applies to other forms of communication.


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