Developing Choices about the Emotions we Experience with NLP

What is an emotion?

Most people, if asked, would identify a noticeable set of sensations (feeling) that they experience in response to a sight, sound and or touch from the world, or in response to something they were thinking about (internal representations). They would not necessarily take ownership of their response, nor would they necessarily recognize it as part of their own thinking process, which in fact, it is.

In NLP, we propose that thinking and emoting are accomplished using sequences of sensory representations to carry and frame the content of our thoughts and emotions. These representations include images, sounds and sensations carrying content gleaned from memory as well as our new creations. This assumes that all our life experience is stored in long term memory, otherwise known as the cognitive unconscious, and that links and relationships between units of knowledge or other material already exist along with the represented knowledge itself.

As we progress through the world, we respond to information, other people, our environment, our work and anything else we find. We also have the choice of attending to our internal world to think about whatever we choose, including but not limited to developing ideas, reviewing past events, creating new work and planning future moves. We attend to our internal world to experience emotions, too. These normally constitute thoughts in response to other thoughts or external experiences, but they still require us to access internal representations of units of content and the relationships between these units.

The difference, subjectively, is that emotions include a kinaesthetic component that is strong enough to be detected by us unequivocally. It is clearly present and far more conscious than the pictures, sounds and sensations that gave rise to it, whether they came from the world or from our own internal representations. Hence the common name of ‘feelings’ for emotions. Feelings are the obvious parts of emotional responses.

If we disregard the pictures, sounds and other sensations that contribute to an emotion, and attend exclusively to the strong feeling, it makes perfect sense to identify the strong feeling, name it and attribute its presence to anything that attracts our attention.

So if we have been generating our own emotional responses unconsciously and then noticing just the feeling component, now we can learn to generate emotions to order, changing the representations we find limiting and creating more of the states that serve and please us. This might raise a few eyebrows in mainstream culture, where the belief is that emotions happen to people and anyone who claims to have choice about their states is viewed with suspicion. However, there is no need to make a public spectacle of our choices. Simply enjoy the liberation of discovering that emotional choice is much more comfortable than living on an arbitrary emotional big dipper.

The Meta Model

The Meta Model of language is a set of questions used in NLP to clarify and specify distorted and over generalised thinking and restore missing information. Part of it provides a linguistic frame for identifying our beliefs about who is responsible for our emotions. Remember a common cultural belief that we can be held responsible for other people’s states; ‘Don’t say that, you will upset your aunt’, or ‘You are making your father angry’, ‘You frightened me’.

This presupposes that it is possible for one person to force an emotional state on another and that we live emotionally at the mercy of other people’s conduct. What is really going on is one person says or does something. Another person responds from their own internal resources and model of the world. The response may be habitual or novel, but it is generated by the respondent, not the other person.

To cloud the issue, there is cultural habituation and a level of influence from the previous conversation or relationship. We may believe there will be adverse consequences to ourselves resulting from someone else’s behaviour. The interaction could be construed as a larger system that includes both people. However, these are possible sources of influence only, not requirements or forcing. They are simply circumstances that could mitigate our developing emotional independence if we allow them to stop us. The bottom line remains, we can each learn to have choice in our own emotions if we want to and we can free ourselves from taking responsibility for other people’s emotional responses.

Describing our emotional responses 

Describing our emotional responses in sensory-based terms gives us ready access to changing them. When we become conscious of the images, sounds and sensations we are using, we can identify specific subcomponents. Useful subcomponents include size, brightness, shape, location, clarity of focus, rate and direction of movement, volume, bandwidth, amplitude, texture, temperature, rhythm and intensity. If we use these instead of attributing a name like ‘happiness’, ‘anger’, ‘mortification’, ‘pleasure’, we have something we can change. If we change one of the sensory aspects, we will find which ones lead any others to change simultaneously. When we identify our own specific sensory aspects that change more than just themselves, we have a way into shifting our emotional states quickly and effectively.

The Chain of Excellence

John Grinder proposes a four-step process for changing state, called the ‘Chain of Excellence’. Briefly, if we alter the way we are breathing, our physiology (posture and movement) changes, if we alter our physiology, our state, including emotions, changes and if we alter our state, our performance changes. This does not require any verbal description of a state and can be used in the moment. Most people have experiences of stopping a difficult activity and going for a walk. When they come back, in a different state, the difficulty has resolved itself. This is using physiology to change state.

While physiology can be used to change state, state also influences physiology, but not necessarily in the same way in all of us. Subject to the activity at hand, a resourceful physiology usually shows symmetry between left and right sides, even distribution of weight, an even rhythm in the body, an upright, balanced and symmetrical carriage and the minimal muscle tension required for the task. Alterations in attention, emotion and thought show to an observer as minimal changes in the physiology, but we do not know what the person is thinking, only how they are thinking and that changes are occurring.

Non-verbal communication and ‘body language’

This is non-verbal communication and is differentiated from the so-called study of ‘body language’. The exponents of body language try to put meaning to certain gestures and movements, regardless of differences between every person’s models of the world. One of the most crass is the notion that someone whose foot is pointing at another person is sexually attracted to that person. Another, equally inaccurate, is that sitting or standing with crossed arms means that person is ‘closed’. What happened to ‘cold’, ‘comfortable’, ‘habituated’, ‘resting’, ‘waiting’, and any other purpose that may be served by such a gesture?

Non-verbal communication provides us with ‘news of difference’ or information. Our attention is drawn to changes in posture, movement, rhythm, breathing, skin tone, and other minimal cues during interactions, and if we need to know what the other person is experiencing, we can ask them. It is a great way of discovering that other people really do have different models of the world from us and from each other.

Learn more

Check our 10970NAT Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming program.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful, please share it!


NLP Research Literature Overview

A Summary of Research Reviews

A large amount of research on NLP was done in the early 1980s on a construct called the “Preferred Representational System” (PRS).

It has been surmised that proponents of NLP have, in the past (Sharpley, 1987) had “little to support them and much to answer to in the research literature.” Commenting on the research which had already been done by that time, Sharpley (1987) commented to researchers that “there [was] little use to the field of counseling research in further replications of previous studies,” until researchers had taken the time to perform a “careful meta-analysis of the large amount of data already gathered.”

Here it is hoped that such an undertaking will be able to promote, as Sharpley suggested, “future research that can contribute new data … via methodological advances [and a] consideration of different aspects of NLP.”

The majority of research into NLP concepts was primarily concerned with the concept of a “Preferred Representational System,” or PRS. It is important to understand the issues surrounding this concept before examining the research.

A large number of these studies only have limited value as evidence, however, due to significant confounding methodological and theoretical issues.

One common misunderstanding of the field of NLP in the psychological research is the important idea that NLP is an epistemology and a methodology, not a single theory or model.

“NLP is an epistemology and a methodology, not a single theory or model.”

Once these issues are understood, it will be possible to engage in useful and interesting research into the field of NLP, through adhering to a number of factors which are important in designing good research into NLP.

Sharpley’s (1984) Review: “NLP Is Unsupported in The Literature”

The first review of the experimental literature in NLP by Sharpley (1984) suggested little supportive evidence and a large amount of data opposing the validity of the concept of a PRS.

The review cited 15 studies which were concerned with determining:
  • The presence of a PRS,
  • Adequate methods to discover a PRS,
  • The effects of matching PRS with verbal predicates

However, the review did not consider numerous methodological dimensions which are important in examining and evaluating NLP research.

Einspruch & Forman’s (1985) Critique of Methodological Problems

Einspruch & Forman (1985), in a later review of 39 empirical studies (including all of the 15 initial studies) promoted the idea that NLP research is, in theory, testable and verifiable, but that past research was fraught with methodological confounds such as:

  • A lack of understanding important psychological patterns such as the effect of context;
  • An unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy;
  • Lack of familiarity with the “meta-model”;
  • Failure to consider the role of stimulus-response associations;
  • Inadequate interviewer training in rapport-building;
  • Logical mistakes

As a result of these criticisms, Einspruch & Forman (1985) classified all 39 studies as unreliable and concluded that it was “not possible at this time to determine the validity of either NLP concepts or whether NLP-based therapeutic procedures are effective for achieving therapeutic outcomes,” and that “only when well-designed empirical investigations are carried out may we be assured of NLP’s validity as a model of therapy.”

Bearing in mind New Code principles, specifically the significance of framing and context, at least two of these can be considered useful guiding principles in evaluating past research and planning future research.

1. Lack of understanding patterns of behaviour and control for confounding contextual factors surrounding the application of NLP models

Einspruch & Forman (1985) recognised that people behave in a way that is dependent upon the environment – the context – within which they find themselves. 15 studies were criticised for not taking this into account. An additional pattern not incorporated into studies was that of individual calibration; people are systematic with their own behaviour but it is potentially erroneous to assume that behaviour is systematic across any given population of people, and thus, procedures and interventions should be applied at the individual level and calibrated to each person’s characteristics.

2. Failure to consider the role of stimulus-response associations

Einspruch & Forman (1985) also understood that the basic concept of association was a powerful influencer of behaviour, and that people were likely to respond based on the associations they had learned, if the experimental settings did not control for this possibility.

These, and other examples of methodological errors in past research, can be summed up by using the following dimensions, which are core concepts to NLP as a discipline, and well recognised in psychological literature:

  • Associations influence processing
  • Features of a context (contextual markers) function as influential associations
  • Language creates task demands , serving as a contextual marker which provides a frame, thereby influencing responses

It is important to understand these concepts in order to conduct useful research.

Einspruch & Forman (1985) made other important and often misunderstood observations:

  • Representational systems are an important part of NLP, but are only one model within NLP
  • Researchers should be adequately trained in NLP so that the procedures and interventions generated can be used within the presuppositions contained in the model

Sharpley’s (1987) Reply

Although Einspruch & Forman did develop some useful methodological distinctions, Sharpley (1987) objected to the resultant dismissal of valuable research and produced a doubly-binding suggestion that either:

  • The past experimental results a lack of conclusive effects, or that
  • The procedures examined were not able to be adequately assessed.

Sharpley (1987) considered that not all of the criticisms Einspruch & Forman (1985) raised were reasonable, and resulted in a somewhat unnecessary dismissal of research.

For example, the criticism that experimenters had a “lack of familiarity with the meta-model” because they measure nominalisations such as anxiety, ease, empathy and hostility (used to discount the validity of 3 studies), can be upheld only insofar as the particular psychometric inventories used can be questioned as reliable.

Einspruch & Forman rejected the validity of 7 studies for an “unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy,” based on the criticism that asking questions about a client’s past displayed a misunderstanding of the nature of NLP as a generative as opposed to an archaeological approach. This appears to be a rather extreme view and is not necessarily true, in that theoretically, basing experiments around questions in a client’s past is not enough in itself to invalidate the testing of NLP.

Sharpley (1987) critisizes their exclusion of 12 studies because “researchers were not adequately trained in NLP” by commenting that “it is difficult to accept that none of the studies were performed by persons with enough of an understanding to perform the various procedures that were evaluated.” Unfortunately this is difficult to confirm or deny, given that up until now, there has been no officially recognised standard for NLP practitioners.

Sharpley (1987) cited a further 7 studies which showed no evidence in support of the concept of a PRS. However, these studies also contained various methodological issues. Elich, Thompson, & Miller (1985) and Graunke & Roberts (1985), for example, are among those studies discussed as examples of flawed methodological design.

Sharpley’s Conclusions

Some of Sharpley’s (1987) conclusions (which mirror Elich, Thompson, & Miller’s, 1985), provide similar conclusions to the current model of representational systems:

(a) PRS may change over time,

(b) It is not certain that PRS exists,

(c) PRS may merely reflect current language style,

(d) PRS may be heavily influenced by language.

While these conclusions are similar to our current position on representational systems – which mirror John Grinder’s – the methodology used to arrive at them leaves a great deal to be desired and points directly to factors to consider in any analysis of current research, and during the design phase of future research projects.

NLP as a Field and a Discipline

Unfortunately Sharpley and others have made a common mistake, revealing a failure to recognise that NLP is a methodology for creating outcome-oriented models, in considering that the PRS constitutes one of the basic tenets of NLP.

PRS is one aspect of a single model of NLP, and as such it is a mistake to assume that lack of evidence for one model within the field of NLP in any way compromises the validity or utility of subsequent NLP research, or on the field of NLP as practised currently.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the NLP as a field you can, claim your free copy of , our e-book ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming; An Overview of the Field’, by Chris Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For a limited time only, here).

Sharpley concludes by putting NLP “in the same category as psychoanalysis, that is, with principles not easily demonstrated in laboratory settings but, nevertheless, strongly supported by clinicians in the field.”

Our proposal is that NLP can and should be researched, quantitatively and qualitatively.

Requirements For Future Research

If adequate research is to take place, concise, highly specified and empirically verifiable descriptions of the models of NLP need to be in place.

In order for this to happen there must be an agreement upon the definitions within the NLP community.

The Graduate Certificate NLP is the first step towards establishing an accepted standard, and along with Grinder & Bostic-St.Clair, Inspiritive and its collaborators are moving towards developing agreed-upon vocabulary and explicit definitions of the patterns and models of NLP.

If you would like to take part in this project, please contact Inspiritive. This is a vital endeavour if the field of NLP is to reclaim its roots within the Cognitive Sciences and consolidate its establishment as a valid field of endeavour, study and research.


Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596.

Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625.

Graunke, B., & Roberts, T. (1985). Neurolinguistic programming: The impact of imagery tasks on sensory predicate usage. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 525-530.

Sharpley, C. F. (1984). Predicate matching in NLP: A review of research on the preferred representational system. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31(2), 238-248.

Sharpley, C. F. (1987). Research findings on neurolinguistic programming: non-supportive data or an untestable theory? Journal of Counselling Psychology, 34, 103-107.

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd. All rights reserved

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!