Tips from Neuro-Linguistic Programming

How to Engage and Influence People
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Imagine getting up in front of your peers to give a presentation on assessing risk. Initially, you may be uneasy because of an underlying fear of public speaking. Once you get past the initial fear and start your presentation, you get the sinking feeling that your audience is not receiving your message, or, worse, they hear it but will not implement what you are teaching them. How do you get yourself in the right mindset to give a compelling presentation that invigorates people to take action?
Neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP, may help you overcome these challenges. The 2013 book NLP: The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming defines NLP as the study of subjective experience. We base what we consider to be truths on perceptions from our individual experiences. Our recollection of those experiences affects how we interpret what has happened. We remember our experiences through pictures, sounds, feelings, smell, and taste. Using this knowledge, we can make positive changes in our lives, such as breaking bad habits or changing a fear (of public speaking, for instance) into a strength. We can also use NLP to adjust our messaging to improve audience retention and motivate people to take the desired action.
This article focuses on how you can use NLP internally for self-improvement and externally when working with others. To use NLP effectively, we need to understand how people learn.
HOW WE LEARN People typically learn through three methods: trial and error, watching someone else perform a task, and formal education. Infants and young children usually use trial and error as their primary method for leaning. When we go to school, our primary learning method becomes more formal: we learn new ideas and concepts from books and teachers. However, the best learning occurs when we implement all three methods.
This learning process can affect our perceptions. If we try something new and have an unpleasant experience, we may mistakenly perceive that what we are trying to learn has caused our discomfort. For example, consider a new employee who is learning how to operate a forklift safely.
After completing a classroom session, the employee is given an opportunity to obtain hands-on experience using the forklift. If, by chance, the forklift malfunctions and an accident occurs, the student may conclude that he or she is not capable of operating a forklift safely.
Mistaken perceptions can color our interpretations of positive experiences as well as negative ones. We tend to erroneously attribute better-than-expected results to unrelated events. Our desire to define a cause-and-effect relationship is why so many sports fans wear their lucky jersey when their team plays a difficult opponent.
It is crucial for health and safety professionals to understand how people learn, and not only to improve our teaching techniques. When we investigate incidents, we need to identify potential causes that contributed to the event and determine actions needed to prevent a similar event in the future. Sometimes we need to help staff break old habits or promote new processes to improve safety. Understanding the learning process and how to use NLP techniques can help us achieve those goals.
HOW THE BRAIN WORKS Before we discuss how NLP can help you in your career, we need to review some foundational information on how the human brain works. In simplistic terms, the brain has three general areas.
First is the cerebellum, which is located at the brain stem. This part of the brain focuses on preserving life. It manages reflex behaviors such as breathing, balance, and heartbeat, along with quick reactions such as determining if you need to fight or run in the face of danger. Other key responsibilities of this part of the brain include identifying food and potential mates for reproduction. The second area of the brain is the limbic system, which regulates emotions and motivations. Finally, the neocortex (also known as the frontal cortex) is responsible for sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and self-awareness.
The behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has designated the cerebellum and limbic system as “System 1” and the neocortex as “System 2.” System 1 thinking is fast and impulsive; System 2 thinking is slow and deliberate. These systems work together to help us make decisions. Throughout the day, the human brain jumps between System 1 and System 2 thinking.
USING NLP FOR SELF-IMPROVEMENT To use NLP for self-improvement, we must remember there are no failures or successes, only results. Our goal through NLP is to evaluate outcomes and identify ways to improve.
NLP can help you make improvements and overcome challenges. Imagine, again, that you need to get up in front of a crowd to give a presentation. How does your body react? Your pulse increases and your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. You begin to sweat. Your awareness of your surroundings is heightened, and time may seem to slow down. These are the physical reactions to what your System 1 brain interprets as a kind of danger. But if you focus on your body’s response, you can now decide—by engaging your System 2 thinking—to interpret your reaction as excitement instead of fear. You may even find that public speaking becomes exhilarating and that your enthusiasm energizes your audience.
Mistaken perceptions can color our interpretations of positive experiences as well as negative ones.
Not all situations are as easy to resolve and may require a more in-depth investigation. For example, consider a time you attempted something new that produced a less than desirable outcome. How did you react? Did you take a step back, evaluate what happened, and try to identify ways to improve? Or did a voice inside your head tell you that you failed and that you will always fail? If you experienced that voice in the back of your mind, go back through your memories and try to identify what triggered it. You may find that it came from a coach, a sibling, or a parent who criticized you when you did not perform at your best and told you that you were a failure. Their intent may have been to motivate you, but now that voice rings in your head and holds you back when you have setbacks. The good news is that if you can identify where that voice comes from, you can redirect your System 2 thinking from a mindset of failure to one focused on improvement.
USING NLP TO ENGAGE In addition to helping us interpret results in new ways, NLP can also help us engage others. The key to engaging others is to move them from System 1 thinking to System 2.
Recall that System 1 thinking is concerned with self-preservation. If you don’t feel safe, System 1 will dominate. When you give a presentation to company executives, for example, they are initially trying to decide if you are a threat to the organization. Unless you have satisfied their System 1, you may as well be talking to a wall because they won’t be evaluating the content of your presentation.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t work for an outside company trying to sell a product or service. I’ve worked for this company for the last 20 years. They know I’m not a threat, so I don’t need to make them feel safe.” If you believe this, then you have set yourself up for failure. For many organizations, insider threats such as disgruntled employees pose as much of a concern as outsider threats. Some employees resist change; others are “retired on-duty”—doing as little work as possible while still collecting their paycheck. If you give a presentation to executive management, they may not yet have determined whether you are a threat. For this reason, you need to address their System 1 thinking. Even if you have a good relationship with the executives, you should still manage their System 1 thinking to get them in the correct mindset for System 2.
Unfortunately, proving you aren’t a threat is not simple. If you want to appease someone’s System 1 thinking, you need to let them know what benefit they will receive. For example, if you are trying to convince the executives to adopt an actively caring culture, you would discuss its benefits—how such a culture will improve not only health and safety, but other areas of the organization including client management, issue resolution, invoicing, and accounts payable. You would emphasize that correct implementation of the culture change would lead to less staff turnover, which will help lower overhead costs. You might spend the first 20 minutes focusing on System 1 to capture everyone’s attention. Then you could spend the next 10 minutes giving details, thus engaging System 2, before returning to System 1 in the last 5–10 minutes. At this point, you can finish the presentation and ask if anyone has questions.
You may think that 10 minutes is not enough time to provide all your detailed information, and you are probably correct. You can remedy that by leaving everyone additional documents they can review at their leisure or pass along for someone else to evaluate. The fact is, if you do not appropriately address System 1, you will fail to engage your audience when switching to detailed facts and information that require System 2 thinking. It is better to spend more time focusing on System 1 than losing your audience by switching to System 2 too quickly. Once your audience understands how they (or their organization) will benefit from what you have to offer, they will become more engaged. If your audience asks questions that focus on implementation details, you will know that you’ve addressed their System 1 adequately. If you do an excellent job of managing their needs, they may even get excited about the benefits your proposal will provide the organization.
USING NLP TO INFLUENCE If your goal is not merely to engage but to influence, you still need to address System 1. People are more receptive to a message if they do not perceive you as a threat and understand how they can benefit from what you have to offer. Once you have their trust, you can focus on delivering your message and identifying ways to motivate your audience to act.
A helpful technique for educating people is to have them perform an exercise to implement what they have learned. Hands-on experience will help them realize that they can perform the actions requested of them. Finally, you need to “set an anchor”—that is, instill a memory—that they can use to motivate themselves to act. For example, let’s say you are trying to motivate people to act when they see a hazard. To set an anchor, have a coworker talk about an injury caused by an unmitigated hazard and its impact on his or her life. Once you have set this anchor, have a second employee explain how a health and safety initiative prevented an incident because somebody took action. Finally, as an added incentive, you can implement a recognition program to celebrate people for addressing hazards.
INSPIRING FAVORABLE DECISION-MAKING This article offers only an introduction to NLP. Many NLP books focus on the self-help aspects of the research. With a little thought and ingenuity, you can make some minor adjustments to these techniques and use them to capture people’s interest, engage them to take action, or influence them to make a favorable decision. NLP will also help you as a health and safety professional to stop focusing on negative results when projects go awry and identify ways to improve your approach, ensuring success in the future.
CARL O. SALL, CIH, CSP, is associate vice president for health and safety at WSP in Exton, Pa., and a past chair of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee.
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Harper Collins: NLP: The New Technology of Achievement (1994).
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011).
NLP Comprehensive: NLP: The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (2013).
Pietro Cappelli: NLP Essential Guide (audiobook, 2019).
The Synergist: “Battling the Reptilian Brain: Work-Management Tips for Overcoming Distractions” (November 2019).
The Synergist: “Small Decisions: Using Cognitive Science to Improve Communication with Workers” (March 2020).