NLP for Social Change

October 7, 2009

The real world applications of NLP in a social context

One of the greatest and perhaps less discovered applications of NLP is in a social improvement setting. This can include social work, charity/NGO/NFP projects and government initiatives. Such organizations seek to identify particular groups that might be socially disadvantaged and seek improvements for them. Not only does the group in question benefit, society as a whole benefits when the group contributes more to it. As those who work in such sectors know, it can be some of the most challenging and rewarding work.


People with, for example, Drug and Alcohol addictions, Child Protection cases, Orphans, Criminal Offenders, Teenage single mothers etc. often enter the ‘system’ of care and are referred to as ‘service users’. For many of these individuals criminal penalties are pending that force them to engage with the care programs.

Take a moment to think, what would your attitude to therapy be if you were classified as having an issue you didn’t believe you had and, you were told to engage in therapy for this ‘imaginary’ issue? Now compare this attitude with knowing there is a challenge in your life, wanting to overcome it and seeking out a practitioner to guide you to a better life. I observe this difference in ‘attitude’ towards change work as one of the fundamental challenges in a social improvement setting.  I fully acknowledge that the observation is a generalization and not every ‘service user’ will exhibit a non-engaging attitude. However, is it worth practicing therapy if your client is totally resistant and not involved in the process? Perhaps a conversation with a brick wall would be more fruitful.


The NLP Academy is currently partnered with a project working across several south London boroughs targeting the government classified group ”“ NEETs. The group covers young people aged between 16-24 who are Not in Education Enterprise or Training (NEETs). The aim is to help them to work or gain further qualifications. In the recession the NEET group has seen unprecedented numbers. Although participants can volunteer for the program most are referred by other professionals including social workers, careers advisors, youth offending teams and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs). Sessions range from one-to-one coaching to groups of 20+. The actual content delivered to the group is based around NLP tools for self-awareness, communication, motivation and goal setting. Yet this is only one aspect. NLP is used in the delivery of the content.  I consider this to be just as, if not more, important than the content itself.

(ITA)NLP training/coaching methods directly address the issue of ‘resistant’ or ‘non-engaging’ participants. Some of these methods are easy to adopt and can immediately support an agreeable atmosphere in which interaction is heightened.

Firstly, – Choose Your Assumptions.

A very useful operating assumption from NLP is “there are no resistant clients, only inflexible communicators”. It just so happens that I have never had any ‘resistant’ clients in a social setting ”“ only ‘responsive’ ones.  Imagine your body language, voice tonality and speech as you enter an interaction that you believe is going to be ‘extremely difficult’. Now compared it to a conversation you believe is going to be ‘friendly’. Your verbal and non-verbal communication reflects your perception turning a potentially ‘friendly’ meeting into ‘difficult’. Whenever I am told “this child is difficult’ or ‘off-the-rails’, ‘unreachable’, ‘aggressive’ and especially ‘resistant’ I clear my mind of all labels that can adversely presuppose the experience I am about to have. By adopting this simple attitude you can take responsibility for your communication, check what your participants have understood and exercise the flexibility needed to speak in the way that your clients understand.

Secondly,-  Whats This All About Then?

When people are interested in each other, on conscious and unconscious levels (see article on rapport) there is often a productive dynamic to the conversation. The frequency and timing of well placed questions can emphasize an appropriate level of interest, gain vital information on how to communicate to the group and check the meaning of what is being communicated.

Particularly when working with groups in a social setting, the first thing I do after introductions is ask a series of questions.  The aim is what NLP terms as Framing.

Framing is essentially a linguistic technique. Just like a picture frame draws attention to a painting and a structural frame provides support to a building, linguistic framing keeps attention on achieving a purposeful conversation. A very useful frame to use at the beginning of a session is a Pre-frame. This is where you get to set up the parameters of the coming conversation and manage expectations. You can ask for a series of agreements ranging from how long you want the session to last, topics to be covered, acceptable behaviour, goals, when to take breaks etc. Using questions to build the pre-frame encourages interaction from the very beginning. Start by asking basic questions with genuine interest. Questions with easy answers and little scope for serious disagreement are good openers, for example ‘so your name is…?’, ‘are you from around here?’, ‘how long have you been on the program?’. Before you get to asking more searching questions make sure you establish a purpose or intention. This can be done around the question ‘so what do you think this is all about then?’ The answer could reveal the central expectations about the session. Utilize this to make sure your intentions match or you agree on what the intention will be. I go so far as to suggest that it’s not worth carrying on unless you can get an agreement on this vital factor. Afterwards you can comfortably build the Pre-frame e.g. ‘What do you think is acceptable behaviour?’, ‘when shall we take a break?’, ‘I want to cover XYZ today, can we all agree to this aim?’. Summarize the main points agreed upon to strengthen the frame (I call this ‘Sealing Our Deal’). At anytime during the conversation feel free to refer back to the Pre-frame in order to keep the session on track. In my personal experience I have found that the session is only as good as the frame.

Thirdly, – Pick the Right Tool for the Job.

NLP is packed full of great tools for improving lives and achieving potential.  Practitioner courses are the best place to get to know all these tools. What I can suggest here is one basic process used when dealing with social improvement.

After establishing the intentions of the work, remain as flexible as possible in achieving that intention. Be guided by what is working for your clients and pick the NLP tool that they are most likely to use. You may need to adjust your plan by the second to achieve this.

Spend time defining the current situation in your clients’ terms. Whatever your client group is, be it drug and alcohol addiction or domestic violence, make sure they describe it as they experience it, not as the text books say it is!

Work to identify their true pay-off or intention of staying as they are. Seek different ways of achieving the pay-off that gives them more choice. Do this by ‘pulling’ the alternatives from them using questions and the spirit of exploration; avoid ‘imposing’ your view of whats’ right and aim for your client to own the solution. Identify and better resource what prevents them from acting with more choice.

Deeply attach your clients to the life they can enjoy in the future once they have shed the label of the group to which they now belong.

I am fully aware that the above may be easier said than done, and the good news is NLP is filled with practical tools that help you to achieve my suggestions. I found that using the process I have outlined fosters independence amongst the group and helps individuals to help others within the group.

This is a really brief insight into how NLP can be applied for social improvement. The potential is great and the hope is that new and existing practitioners will help realize that potential.

About The Author

Hiran Ilangantileke is an NLP trainer certified by John Grinder, Carmen Bostic-St clair and Michael Carroll. Hiran often works closely with the NLP Academy. He is also a Psychology graduate who has applied his skills in Information/Knowledge management, corporate change initiatives, Training and Coaching. At heart a truly creative individual, Hiran is also a professional musician and songwriter who blends the best of his artistic and psychological influences to nurture excellence in the people he meets and the challenges he undertakes

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