Is NLP Manipulative?

Of course NLP is manipulative. That is one way to put NLP processes and understandings to work. Human behavior is by nature manipulative. From our first breath we manipulate our environment and caretakers to ensure our needs are met. We manipulate ourselves by the minute with our thoughts, positive and negative. We manipulate others with our love, our politeness, our anger, and our tears.

If I engage a golf coach to improve my swing, I fully expect them to manipulate me, both physically by guiding my arms and body position and mentally by suggesting what I should be paying attention to as I approach and make my swing.

Just the same, if I engage a personal coach to improve some aspect of my behavior, I want him or her to manipulate me towards that end. If I engage a therapist to help me alter the results of unwanted behaviors, I expect him or her to use every skill at hand to manipulate me, to help me effectively manipulate myself and support me towards my goal. Failing to do so would be a failure to fulfill our contract. And in fact if I go into a restaurant and engage a waiter in recommending an entrée, I expect that person to manipulate my senses to better appreciate what the restaurant has to offer that night.

In short, the question “Is NLP manipulative?” is neither elegant nor useful. First, it presupposes that we both share the exact same understanding of what manipulative means, and this is highly unlikely. Second, the underlying question is usually “Is NLP ethical?”

One of the most useful things offered in the very fundamentals of NLP is the difference between a useful question and one that is spurious or non-useful. In the English language in particular, it is possible to frame almost anything as a question, thus the mere fact that a question can be asked does not mean it is worth answering. NLP teaches the difference between a question that is worth asking, and answering, and one that is not. And that is one of the most empowering, freeing, and most time-saving concepts you can learn.

So I’ll answer this question as if it was asked in a useful way. I’ll presume that what is meant is “Can NLP be used to get someone to do something against their will?” The answer is yes, most assuredly. If someone is skilled with NLP, it is possible he or she can manipulate another person into doing something that person may not really have wanted to do.

This has several implications, one of which is that it would be wise to learn enough NLP to avoid being so easily used. A limitation of this kind of manipulation is that it tends to be transitory, and frequently results in resentment towards the person using such techniques.

The other unspoken question in this question is whether and when is manipulation ethical?
As I implied above, to me it’s a matter of whether or not there is a willingly entered into contract between the people involved. A contract could be either explicit, such as in a therapeutic relationship or coaching relationship, or some other professional relationship; or it could also be an implicit part of a relationship such as social or familial relationship, or an employer employee relationship. And yes, employers do and are expected to manipulate employees, and employees in turn expect this manipulation or guidance. For example, managers are tasked to motivate and manage employees and that task constitutes manipulation by mutual agreement. It can take many forms from scheduling, performance evaluations, employee incentives, and even designing an employee’s environment. And of course, employees manipulate their employers, all the time, without thinking twice, or blinking an eye. Stated: “If you allow me to work form home one day a week I can get more done.” Unstated “And I can play 9 holes at lunch.”

So what constitutes unethical manipulation?
Un-ethical manipulation occurs when there is no agreement, explicit or implicit, between the parties involved. Can NLP be used in such a way? Yes it can, and it has been. NLP can be used with or without your agreement, in ways you may or may not like, to achieve ends you may or may not agree with, with or without your awareness. Not to knock the proverbial car salesman, however most of us know it is a common strategy for the salesperson to talk the “target” into a more expensive version of what the person came to buy by “helping” that person to imagine himself in the new red Jeep Liberty with the GPS system and upgraded sound system versus the used rental fleet Subaru Forester. Then of course there’s the fear tactics used to encourage the buyer to purchase the gold package warranty that takes an additional 2 years to pay off.

So what can you do about this? For starters, learn enough NLP so that you have an adequate level of cognitive and verbal self-defense. The information that allows you to effectively defend yourself against such manipulation is easily and freely available. Good heavens, we here at NLP Comprehensive work very hard to make it so. The extent to which you want to be safe and free from unwanted manipulation is mostly up to you.

What are the chances NLP will be used to manipulate you?
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 30 years, it already has been. NLP is widely used in advertising, in the mass media, in political speech writing, in the preparation of candidates for public speaking, and as a major part of sales training in every industry. It is also used by law enforcement to extract information and interpret non-verbal language. Gaining rapport, a fundamental and critical first step to any conversation, is one of the fundamental concepts taught in NLP.

If NLP can be used to manipulate, does that make it unethical?
No, no more than a hammer is unethical or a computer is unethical. Ethics does not exist in things or words or technologies. Ethics exist in the motivations and actions of people.

0 thoughts on “Is NLP Manipulative?”

  1. Hi,
    The information in this writing is right on target! It all comes down to manipulation vs. teaching, mentoring, role model, etc…
    What the meaning of the word manipulation is to the individual is the key. Manipulation to control or exploit for ones own benefit Is very different from manipulation meaning to manage with skill for the betterment of someone or something. This was well and insightful. Can’t wait to go through the whole series!

  2. Two other points about the illogic of the original argument. First, the term “manipulation” is what Korzybski would call “semantically loaded”, that is, it has an emotional charge unconnected with it’s actual meaning. A graphic way to phrase the arument would be manipulation=bad, NLP=manipulation, therfore NLP=bad. Second, the way the argument is phrased presupposes that only NLP is manipulative. It falsly divides the world into NLP based communications (bad) and non-NLP communications (good). We all know that any communication can be manipulative, whether NLP based or not.

    As Tom stated, these techniques (semantic loading and presuppositional language) are hard to spot without NLP training, and are being used by the media daily.

  3. Thanks Tom!

    It has been said that we are all being “manipulative” all of the time…in fact there is no other state to be in. As we go through life shaping our outside world we are “manipulating” it. So it appears it all comes done to intent…doesn’t it?

    Ed Redard, M.D.
    Manipulating with gusto

  4. Hm.

    No, NLP is not necessarily manipulative. Leading people to actions is manipulative. Leading people into states that allow uncertain actions is not manipulative, or at least less so. The expectations behind an NLP’ers intervention holds clues as well, when the distinction between actions and states becomes troublesome.

  5. Hi Ed,

    Yes, the integrity or lack thereof comes down to intent, IMHO. It does take some effort to overcome the semantic loading in the word manipulation itself, as Al pointed out.


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