Above image: The co-creator of NLP, Richard Bandler, with his wife Glenda
Richard Bandler is an international figure in the Personal Development world. Bernardo Moya finds out how he came to challenge so many of the beliefs of psychotherapy and help so many to be great at what they do.
Considering Richard Bandler as he sits down for interview, I think of the many different images I have seen of him. From the cool young man in the mid 1970s who was developing an entirely new way of dealing with psychiatric problems, to the humorous and confident thirty-something who mystified counsellors by curing their long-term clients in a matter of minutes, to the silver-haired besuited man now before me who spearheads the worldwide phenomenon that is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP.
There’s no doubt that NLP, described by its proponents as a powerful mind-tool for personal change, has lodged itself in the minds of the general population. And Richard’s former student, Paul McKenna, has consistently demonstrated on TV how to make changes in others using the techniques Richard developed.
These days, Richard is the epitome of confidence. He is a man who has been involved in coaching top athletes, businessmen and even worked with the military. He has numerous bestselling books under his belt, CDs, DVDs and much more. One could call him a picture of success, but things were not always so for Richard.
Born in Teaneck, New Jersey, Richard recalls that he lived on the Hackensack River for the first five years of his life.
“In that time in the United States they didn’t believe you could pollute things and where I lived was a demonstration of the fact that wasn’t true,” he says of the world he grew up in. When he was young, his parents moved to California where life was characterised by moving from school to school because his parents couldn’t decide where they wanted to live.
The tensions that grew between his parents led their eventual separation. “They didn’t do it in an instant, they did it slowly. It was a little tumultuous. My mother is a very good-humoured person and my father was pretty cranky. Finally they got sick of each other and rightfully so I would imagine. My mother’s now 84 and still complains about it from time to time.”
Perhaps understandably, with all the uprooting, his school years were not the most inspiring for him, though there were deeply inspirational teachers.
“In those days education wasn’t quite as uniform as it is now but I think like most people, I had a few teachers that were just outstanding and motivated me to learn. Typically they were the ones that were fun.
“We had a new Japanese teacher at the school and it turned out he was an airplane engineer who had retired and decided to become a teacher. When he taught us math, he taught us the equations to design airplanes and we designed little jets. He taught us how to compute distance and time. Everything he did, he turned into something dramatic and fun. Instead of just reading some boring book, he would have us act it out. He always stuck in my mind as being a great teacher. I could barely tell you the names of most of my teachers in school but his name was Mr Lang, I’ve never forgotten it. He really taught me a lesson that when people are enjoying themselves, they’ll really put out and learn.”
Richard began to find his strengths at school. “Somewhere in junior high school I discovered I had a real knack for math.The more they threw at me, the more I could take. Once I understood that I was good at it, I always applied myself.”
Richard also discovered his love of music. Mopping floors in a burger bar as a 10-year-old, he was inspired by the music coming from the jukebox as worked. “I didn’t have a keyboard, so I actually painted one on a two by four and went down to the music store and listened to the notes and went home and imagined them.”
Richard learned to play a few instruments, although his schoolteachers insisted he had no musical ability. His later work in creating music, especially his neurosonics CDs, which combines sound waves to affect the brain in specific ways while also producing great music put the lie to that.
When Richard went to college to study computer programming, his imagination and curiosity were given free reign. Staying in the house of a psychiatrist, he read books by psychotherapists such as Fritz Perls and began to realise that counsellors and psychotherapists actually had very little idea of how to make a change. In fact, their approach seemed bizarre to him.
“When I read the book by Fritz Perls, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever read. He had people identifying with dreams and going, ‘I dreamed I went into a diner with my mother and she drank a strawberry milkshake and I drank a chocolate milkshake’ and he’d go, ‘Ok, you are the chocolate milkshake.’ People would act these things out and I’m not sure what this was actually supposed to do but I just found it hysterical.”
By now, Richard’s curiosity was fired up and he began to study more about what the few successful therapists did. These included Virginia Satir, whom he got to know well, and the hypnotist and doctor Milton Erickson. As a student with an interest in symbolic logic, linguistics and calculus, Richard began to realise that there was something in what successful therapists were doing that was in some way the same. With the help of his Transformational Grammar Professor, John Grinder, he began to replicate the successes which they were arriving at intuitively.
This was the foundation of NLP, which was not only a means of helping people to change in a psychiatric context, but a way of understanding how people are good at what they do and helping others optimise their behaviour. Of his study of Milton Erickson’s hypnotherapy, Bandler says:
“By representing the way he used syntax, the way in which he used intonation and tempo that was different from other people and how he manipulated altered states with those things. I could predict what he was going to do. Just like you can predict that a bridge will last as opposed to fall down.”
As for the name NLP, itself, Richard is charmingly funny about how he arrived at it.
“That was just because I got pulled over by a highway patrolman and I had a whole lot of books on the floor of my car. He looked at me and said ‘What do you do for a living?’ I took the beginning of three different books. One was a neurology book, one was John Grinder’s linguistic book and the other was a programming manual for a PDP1134A and I went, ‘I’m a Neuro-Linguistic Programmer.’ When I looked back at him he was totally impressed. He went, ‘God, that sounds really sophisticated.’ I got out of a ticket.”
Richard found the title useful because it differentiated him from therapists, whose methods Richard found wanting. He is critical of “therapies” that simply require people to sit and listen and make no contribution, or indeed of the “archaeological dig” through a client’s past to try to gain insight into their current behaviour, which is the Freudian approach. Insight, after all, is not change.
The years that followed saw Richard’s curiosity in so many different areas lead him to be involved in working with sports people, artists, business leaders, US military and in countless other areas. Starting out as a young man with a very different view of the way the brain works to the therapists around him, he worked from an office, all the while improving his techniques and learning from his clients.
There came a point when therapists would bring him their clients because they didn’t know how to change, and he continued to improve his techniques and discover new things.
It was when he began to train others that NLP began to spread like wildfire, with superstars in the Personal Development world such as Anthony Robbins spreading the word of Self-Help using a distinctively NLP-like approach across the world.
Then in the 1990s, Richard met with a bespectacled young Englishman who made a living from stage hypnosis. Paul McKenna and Richard Bandler formed a firm friendship and Richard mentored Paul. Paul took the message of NLP to new markets by popularising Richard’s ideas in TV shows, books, DVDs and CDs.
NLP is now a global phenomenon that is far beyond the control of the man who invented the name. Richard is philosophical about its spread – and how he started out intending to be a computer programmer and becoming a leading figure in the personal development world.
“Sometimes things are kismet… You’re in the right place at the right time. John Grinder didn’t set out to be a linguist. It was just the only place left in the college that they had an opening and it turned out he was a great linguist. He’s a great syntactician. Gregory Bateson didn’t set out to found the field of heuristics or to study schizophrenics. He got into it because during World War II they asked him to study the communication on Nazi propaganda films. When he started listening to what they were doing that mesmerised people and got them to engage in behaviours, he started thinking ‘I wonder if people make their kids crazy doing the same thing?’ Had I not met the psychiatrist, had I not met Virginia, had I not had the interest in math, had I not had a logic professor in college… it all has to fall in the right order and you have to be open to it.”
As for the future and what his legacy will be, Richard answers with humour and modesty.
“I want to make sure that a lot of good training goes down so that what I’ve done doesn’t get lost. I’ve written many books over the years and made loads of tapes. I’m sure people will look back at this 100 years from now see it the same way I look at what Freud did. They’ll go, ‘God, he didn’t know anything’ – and that will be a good thing! But in the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of businesses, schools and people that do better than they would’ve and I think that’s what my legacy is. And I don’t think I could stop it if I wanted to.”
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