Time and again you’ll hear that the heart of NLP is modelling, and in pursuit of the vital skills come across a bunch of ways one is supposed to model. Do you like your modelling implicit, or served up via an experiential array? Kick off by entering a know-nothing state or examine what’s happening with neurological levels? Just how has a field dedicated to replicating excellence staggered on all this time with so few of those exposed to the training process actually being able to convicingly demonstrate the skills at its core? And is there much of a difference between that absence and the similar non-appearance of people who’ve attained ‘clear’ status by going through Scientology?
OK, I exaggerate to make a point. But frankly I’m not stretching things very far. It’s an utter embarrassment that the only approach to creativity that the field can offer is the good old Disney model. Well, it’s the only one as far as books are concerned, churned out again and again and somewhat past its sell-by date now. Thankfully, there are exceptions. I make a point of training with people who are adding to the field and not just going through someone else’s motions. And in the process have come across different models of creativity from Michael Breen and Eric Robbie, and later one derived by Michael from the work of his friend performance poet Murray Lachlan Young.
Inspired by those examples, I’ve modelled a science fiction novelist and successfully tested what I found with a few people, and captured quite a bit of what Dr Who writer Russell T Davies does to develop scripts when I saw him answer questions at an event in Manchester. And I was lucky enough to see David Grove in action in Wakefield, where it seemed apparent to me that the Clean Language model derived from his work was not one that David himself followed scrupulously, and that he seemed to have a habit of turning his head to the side before asking a question that made a difference to what came out of my mouth when I emulated him.
Hang on though, if I was inspired by seeing the creativity models that Michael and Eric developed, there’s a level at which I’m influenced by the knowledge that modelling is possible. Never mind for now that we can and do learn from what’s happening around us anyway, the specific claim that it is possible to model prompted me to do so with intent. And that claim can be seen as a meme — a fundamentally healthy one, for all the nonsense it’s led to.
Things get alarmingly recursive at this point. My ability to learn is guided by the claim that a particular form of learning is possible. And that comes from a social context, there being books on and trainings in NLP — artefacts that Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen use the term extelligence for in their book Figments of Reality, extelligence being those demonstrations of mind at work around us in the culture we inhabit. Which leads us into interesting territory.
The notion of NLP modelling excludes those aspects of a skill that relate to extelligence, and in the process can detach what’s happening from its cultural context. Sometimes this is fine: patterning to emphasise what an individual can replicate without access to some of the same external resources could be said to be empowering. To what extent though does it result in models that are partial through omitting the social realm?
For instance, look at the comedy of Bob Newhart. There’d been plenty of comedians before him, but a recent Radio 4 documentary made it clear how much a product of his time 60s comic Newhart was. He was a New York copywriter turned comedy man, whose routines were distinct because they often presented one side of a phone conversation. This utilisation of the technology of the day, and the phenomenon of deducing what the other person is saying, was what made Newhart’s comedy unique. He was also influenced by books which explored American consumer culture — Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which examined how advertising worked, and The Peter Principle, which satirised organisational politics. Take that attitude into the digital media world, and today’s Bob Newhart is someone like Reggie Watts.
The Beatles embraced studio technology like no musicians before them, turning the recording studio itself into a musical instrument rather than a means of documenting their repertoire. Their melodies could have been written at any time, arguably, but their realisation is what makes Beatles music so distinctive, their experiments straddling pop and avant garde and resulting in songs such as Tomorrow Never Knows.
It’s impossible for bands following The Beatles not to be touched by their influence, and Brian Eno more than many has taken the spirit of playfulness in the studio into his own work. For Eno, it wasn’t just a question of tape machine experiments, but the influence of Stafford Beer, a pioneer in cybernetics, that made his approach distinctive: his methods are rooted in process. In the same way that the early Santa Cruz NLP experimenters were learning to explore pattern in its own right rather than its manifestation as content, Eno’s experiments in sound led to the development of ambient music and his production of some of David Bowie’s best work.
All — Eno, Bandler, Grinder, and co — were experimenting at the meta level and producing innovative work as a result of the ability to evolve their processes intentionally rather than relying on chance. A shame that so few in the NLP world seem to be operating at that level now, but remain content to churn out what they were told in the first trainings they attended. But look on the bright side. After all, the Beatles started out as a covers band in Hamburg and grew to become successful worldwide through abandoning what was familiar. Maybe, just maybe, there are people in the NLP world who’ll do something comparable.