NLP and the power of placebo

As described in BBC’s Horizon program, ‘placebos’ can be very effective and can be mimicked through hypnosis. Are you wondering how much of NLP is Placebo, and how to maximise your effect?

BBC2 showed an hour long program in the popular science Horizon series on ‘The power of placebo‘.  Placebos, or medicine without the medicine in them, often dummy sugar or flour pills, were shown through controlled medical studies to have as much impact as surgery on ruptured vertebrae and as dopamine on sufferers with Parkinson’s disease.  And recent studies from Harvard Medical School have shown that, even when you are told that you are being given a placebo, they can still eliminate symptoms of illnesses like IBS.  Studies using MRI imaging show that the impact is real, with measurable effects on brain chemistry.

Red pill blue pill?

Is it triggered by the ritual?  Is this why otherwise intelligent people cling to ‘faith healing’, ‘psycho surgery’, acupuncture and homeopathy?

It is all about belief, expectation and suggestion. Hence hypnosis can be used to directly produce placebo effects, and resulting changes to brain chemistry, as demonstrated in removal of wisdom teeth without anaesthetic for those shy of the needle.

Like hypnosis and NLP, the impact of ‘medically induced’ placebo is dependent on the extent of rapport developed with the client. (Incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted that the best indicator of whether a medical professional would be sued for malpractice was not a function of their competence but on their (lack of) rapport with patients).

Can you help me Dr Parkes?
So, how will you improve your efficacy using NLP?

There is no such thing as bad meditation

There is no such thing as bad meditation.  Meditation is the practice of achieving a state of relaxed focus and we should not expect to achieve that state every time without effort, any more than we would expect to go into the gym and lift a hundred kilos without practice.

If we relax and focus on our breathing, until we are very practised, we should expect our attention to wander.  The fact that we have already caught our attention wandering means that we have achieved meta-attention – noticing where our attention is, and meditation is meta-attention.  So we are meditating.

Only with regular practice can we expect to achieve relaxed concentration, but we cannot do that without first regularly flexing the muscle of meta-attention.

Slowly but surely, our adjustments to balance will become more subtle, as when we become proficient at riding a bicycle.  And as we become proficient we can relax more, creating a virtuous circle.  The only thing we have to do to become good at meditation is commit to regular practice.

But why meditate in the first place?  Well, if the fact that it is the easiest way of achieving happiness does not appeal to you, then maybe because it will give you the ultimate ability to achieve calmness, clarity and focus at will.

The easy way to do it?  Just find a relaxing place and a comfortable position and focus your attention on your breathing.  You will catch you attention wandering from your breathing.  Well done, you are meta-aware of your awareness, hence meditating.  Bring your awareness back to your breathing.   You will catch you attention wandering from your breathing.  etc

Now, just set a regular time aside for meditation and be aware of how skilful you are becoming, and how it is helping you to achieve a state of calmness, clarity and happiness.

That was easy wasn’t it.

True grit – learn to fail or fail to learn

I’ve failed over and over again in my life – that’s why I succeed, said Basketball legend Michael Jordan.

It is not failure that is important but our response to it.  What you do next.  Government Minister Nick Hurd went on record in August to say that one of the most important qualities in life is ‘grit’, that is resilience.  And he thinks that our education system has designed it out.


According to Emotional Intelligence theory, true grit and resilience is the best indicator for future success.  Yes, far more likely to result in material successes than IQ and more likely to result in sporting successes than ‘raw talent’.  This goes for everything in education from maths to music.  It is amazing how much ‘natural ability’ you can develop by putting in ten thousand hours of practice.  Or as snooker legend Ray Reardon responded when his opponent met his wonderful shot with ‘that was lucky’, ‘Yes, I find the more I practice the luckier I get’.

Not convinced yet?  The Ford Motor Company that revolutionised automobile production was Henry Ford’s third attempt.  But that slips into the realm of lucky breaks for people like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  And Thomas Eddison’s response when asked why he did not give up when he had a thousand failures in trying to invent the light bulb?  ‘I have not failed, I have succeeded a thousand times in determining what does not work’.  (There is a beautiful ‘re-frame’ for you, as well as resilience).  And back to Michael Jordan?  He missed more than 9000 shots in his career and lost 300 games.  But we forget those when someone succeeds in becoming a legend.  What is your potential?

Dr Peter Parkes will be keynote speaker at the annual conference of Potential Plus UK on the 26th October.

Our next training on Building Resilience & Managing Stress runs 15/16th October.

Read reviews of our speaking engagements on Building Resilience and Managing Stress on the APM website.

New Year Resolutions – an opportunity for better goal setting

Success with any goal is strongly influenced by the way we think about it, phrase it, and what strategy we use to achieve it. Have a think about adopt some of these models when you really want to achieve your goals.

Focussing on a positive outcome – giving something up or choosing something better?
Given the success rate of new year resolutions, it is a wonder that only half of projects fail. ‘I am trying to give up smoking’, or ‘I am trying to lose weight’, convinces no-one, let alone ourselves.  Try something like, ‘I have decided to be healthy and cease being addicted to things that pollute my body’, or ‘I have decided to be a healthy weight and to see the person I want to be in the mirror’. What is a positive outcome for you?

The language of success
Some of you may be old enough to remember the Monty Python sketch about ‘woody’ and ‘tinny’ words. Similarly we can think of words with positive associations and negative associations. I categorise ‘Giving up’ and ‘losing’ as negative words – words of loss or failure, and choose, now there is a good word, to use something positive, like health or self image. What words motivate you?

I am making good progress in adopting language that pre-supposes success, not only in what I write, but I am increasingly catching my little verbal slips. ‘I can’t give up smoking’ or ‘I can’t lose weight’, presuppose failure. How does, ‘I have not yet found the right way for me to be smoke free, but I will do’, or ‘I am looking for the motivation to finally free me from this bad eating habit’. Both infer that you will, and cast the thing that you want to stop as bad things. Every tool and technique helps us to break that old habit you no longer want. How should you frame your goal?

Have to or want to?
I had a friend of a friend say to me at a party, ‘I hear that you can make me give up smoking’. To which I replied, ‘I can’t make you do anything until you want to change’. To which he replied, ‘But you made X & Y give up’. ‘No, she decided that she wanted to be healthy, and I just helped her on her journey. When you decide that you want to be healthy too, come and see me and you will be free from your shackles by the time you leave my house’. Do you hear what is going on here at different levels?

When people visit me to make a change I get them to fill two sides of paper with reasons why they want to make the change before I agree to help you. What does this do? As homework I tell them to fill two sides of paper with a different one of these reasons each morning over breakfast and each night before they go to sleep. What do you think this does? What are your reasons to change?

Visualising success
I used to compete competitively in sport and read about the need to visualise success. I used to imagine myself holding a cup / getting a medal with a big smile on my face. And without doubt, there was not one person on the podium at the Olympics that has not done the same thing many, many times. What does success look like to you for your new year resolution? Can you hear it? Can you taste it? Can you smell it? Can you feel it? Is it real enough yet?

But the best measure of success, and a key stage in the coaching process, is to visualise yourself  ‘doing the work’ to get to the goal. For a swimmer that might be getting out of bed on the alarm at stupid o’clock in the morning to go to the pool to do a hundred lengths before work. Unless we see a physiological change when we ‘future pace’ you to the challenge situation then our work is not yet complete. What is your challenge situation? Refusing a cigarette with your drink in the pub, or not picking up that cake in the supermarket?

Drop the negative focus
Incidentally, NLPers often say that the brain does not hear negatives. I have not yet seen evidence for this but am prepared to accept it as a pre-supposition. Don’t think of a pink elephant does sound like an instruction to visualise a pink elephant. ‘Be careful with the plate’ sounds like a better instruction to a child than ‘don’t drop the hot plate’, or ‘Don’t lose your key / phone / wallet’. And how many times has that become a self fulfilling prophesy? ‘Don’t smoke’ – what are the alternatives?  How should your re-phrase your new year resolution?

Your subconscious mind is driving the bus
Some of you will be aware that what we say is not as important as what we tell our subconscious mind, which is actually ‘driving the bus’. I will not expand this blog to cover Beliefs, Limited Beliefs and Belief Change, though you can read more about that topic in my book ‘NLP for Project Managers: Make things happen with neuro-linguistic programming’. However, some of you will have noticed the embedded presupposition statements in this writing which the subconscious mind takes as instructions. (I must re-do it as a Podcast so that I can add command tonality into those phrases as hypnotic suggestion).

Keeping track and celebrating success
Finally, as coaches, a lot of what we do in taking you from where you are to where you decide to be, is keeping you on course. Personally, with my own coach I use a tool called Coaching Cloud. For those of you that might have read / seen ‘The Secret’, you can think of this as announcing your shopping list to the universe. To those followers of Anthony Robbins, like myself, I see it as a way of breaking down my goals into small achievable steps so that I can track my progress and see how successful you really can be. And celebrate every one of those milestones with a little gift and party for yourself. It does not have to cost money. How can you reward yourself on your journey to achieving your goals?

I wish you luck. But remember, like the championship snooker player said, the more you practice, the luckier you get.

Dr Peter Parkes FAPM is a PM expert, coach, trainer, NLP Master Practitioner and hypnotherapist

Modelling success

I give many talks around the world on application of NLP to project management for development of behavioural competences and still get asked occasionally, ‘does NLP really work?‘, and ‘Can you really model success?’

What I teach is firmly ‘anchored’ upon foundations laid by Nobel prize winners including Ivan Pavlov (Anchoring, Conditioning, de-programming) and Daniel Khaneman (Priming, Framing, role of the sub-conscious in decision making). In fact the whole of NLP is a synthesis of earlier work by the most eminent psychologists including Gregory Bateson (Cybernetics and Linguistics), Alfred Korzybski (‘The map is not the territory’, semantics, neuro-linguistics), Eric Berne (Transactional Analysis, negotiation styles) to mention only a few.


I also ‘frame’ it in terms of the modelling of excellence. George Miller, author of the original paper ‘The magic number 7 plus or minus 2’ (Filters) was the originator of the T.O.T.E. process for modelling, extended by Robert Dilts in his exposition of modelling of leadership characteristics.

Indeed, the under-pinning persuasive language patterns of NLP, be they for hypnosis (Milton Erickson), group therapy (Virginia Satir) or Gestalt therapy (Fritz Perls), were modelled on the most successful therapists at the time by UCLA Professors Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

Hence, even the distinctive ‘Phobia Cures’, that you might see Paul McKenna perform on TV, were not invented by NLP but were modelled on ordinary people who had discovered a way to overcome their particular phobia (usually using dissociation techniques, which are also very useful in managing stress). NLP merely provides the insight and questioning techniques to reverse engineer the thought processes from the individual’s language patterns to produce a ‘model’ that can be taught to others. (Hence the ‘Neuro-linguistics’).


Of course, modelling is the way we are engineered to learn. Babies do not learn to walk or talk by reading a manual but by modelling those around them that have a successful strategy for doing so.

Currently I am reading ‘Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything’ by Joshua Foer. In it, while giving a history of the origins and art of mnemonics from the original ‘memory palace’ of Simonides of Ceos over 2500 years ago, also reportedly used by Leonardo da Vinci, he recounts his story, from reporting on the world memory championships, to go on to win the competition himself after being taught to model those successful strategies used by others. Benchmarking studies by UCLA before he started showed him to have an average memory, but after a year of practice he could memorise four decks of cards in fifteen minutes.

In my courses I teach models for many useful strategies, from remembering names, through models for (none aggressive) assertiveness, to negotiation. Today I dialled in to one of my communities of practice in a large IT organisation who had invited in a business relationship manager that several of them had cited as a someone who was very good at relating to the customers’ ‘world view’ so that they could model his strategies. This now brings me full circle, as my own introduction to NLP twenty years ago was as a model for an NLP practitioner group. (If I remember correctly, for ‘getting my point across’, so hopefully I have maintained that skill and am getting this point across to you).

So, back to the original question, how can modelling of things that work, not work?

Or, anyone for cards?

The Art of Negotiation Part 1: Focussing on the needs of the second party

In standard training on negotiation we are taught to separate our needs from wants and hence determine our minimum acceptable closing position or walk away decision.  We can come away with more, quicker, and with more good will if we focus our attention on meeting the second party’s needs.

Getting to yes – Tony Blair and the Good Friday Agreement

The fundamental principle underpinning business negotiation is ‘willing seller, willing buyer’, yet a review of some trainings shows an approach close to coercion or bullying.  This is not too damaging if we are in a ‘zero sum’ or win / lose situation and are never likely to have to deal with the second party or any of their allies ever again, but in a joined up world where we bandy around the word ‘partnering‘, is it really worth the risk of winning the battle to lose the war?  And in most situations, we are actually in a ‘positive sum’ game, where correct actions can make the cake bigger, rather than squabbling over who gets the bigger piece of a shrinking and spoilt dessert.

Having been in the role of major bid manger responsible for bridging the gulf between my Hedge fund paymasters and public sector clients, stakeholder management has been one skill set that I have really had to hone.  Never more so than in negotiations where the public sector ‘partner’ was demanding ever increasing scope that the private sector provider was on the hook for paying for, while needing to keep down costs in order to make a margin to stay in business and keep its own employees in jobs.  The proverbial, ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’.  I use the term ‘partner’ lightly, as no partnership would have ever have made it to the alter had they treated each other with such contempt for each others needs and values.

With these experiences, I recently delivered training based on what is called ‘perceptual positions’, or first, second and third person perspectives.  To my surprise, most people have never even come across this concept, and many of those that have fail to master it or apply it.

This is not a theoretical approach, but rather modelled on those that have changed the world through negotiating seemingly intractable situations.  Before important meetings, Ghandi is said to have spent days sitting in turn in the chairs of respective national delegates and imagined what was going on in their situations and what would have value and meaning to them.  As he went round and the room he could fine tune is message until it had some resonance with the key players, knowing that most people are concerned with their own world and have little real interest in yours.  (What sales people refer to as the ‘what’s in it for me’ principle).

‘Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in their moccasins’

Similarly, Tony Blair, think of him what you might, managed to get factions shaking hands to secure peace inNorthern Ireland that for generations had been blowing up each other’s children.  Little wonder then that he was recently paid a reported £5M for a days work to close failed negotiations between mining conglomerates Glencore and Xstrata – perhaps cheap when considering they were looking to create a £100B+ merger.

When most people try this technique, at first they imagine what they would want.  Not a bad start, but we all have different world-views, needs and wants, values and behaviours.  We need to imagine that we are them, with their values and behaviours, world-view, aspirations and day to day pressures.  How does what we are saying feel to be them?

A second common pitfall is to try to imagine what the second party might say, a bit like playing out a courtroom dialogue or a soap opera sketch.  The permutations are infinite, so it is better to focus on how the other person will feel.  What would we, imagining ourselves as they, like to hear that accords with our (their) wants and needs and makes us feel a little better?  How could what we are hearing be phrased a little better to have more impact?

And the third person perspective?  How would the two sides appear to a fly on the wall?  Like two schoolchildren fighting over a bag of sweets until they all fall in the dirt and the situation ends in tears, or two adults trying to create value together?  How could this perspective help us to moderate what we have to say to be more reasonable and reach an accommodation sooner?

‘Never argue with an idiot, as bystanders have trouble working out who is who’

And so we come back around to the first person again.  With these new insights, how can we give them more value and meet their needs with what might cost us little to provide?  How does this make the second person feel, and how does it appear to the third person?

‘People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel’ Maya Angelou (poet)

Often, the sticking point of negotiations is not tangible assets but rather softer personal needs related to ‘the human condition’, such as the need to feel listened to, valued, contribution, significance, being liked and respected.  These can all be easily won with the right approach and equally easily lost by to indifference to create unnecessary barriers.

In the real world example that I started out with, length of contract provided security of revenue and lower borrowing costs for the private sector partner while a break clause meant it caused no additional cost or risk to the public sector partner.  Rather than provide many man years of support from Business Analysts to configure an ERP (SAP) solution, the same support could be provided post implementation to reconfigure the public sector client’s business processes to the system, instead of visa-versa, enabling the system to go in much quicker and at much lower life-time cost while the operating business realised process efficiencies much quicker, bringing benefits forward for both parties simultaneously.  All in all making a good start to what was named ‘Major PPP of the year’.

Not involved in negotiation?  Life is a negotiation, my friend.  Although I have been talking here about negotiating in business, all the same principles, approach, tools and techniques apply to our daily lives.  In both cases we should maintain our integrity and both parties should walk away content if not happy.

Look out for follow up parts on negotiation covering:

  • Negotiation with the help of the Nobel prize winners for behavioural psychology utilizing framing and priming
  • The role of trust, openness and goodwill.  Congruence in word and deed.
  • Chunking up to agreement
  • Find the accommodation, as compromise is lose-lose
  • Reaching agreement through specificity using the NLP meta-model
  • Matching language and behaviours to achieve rapport
  • Cultural dimensions and saving face
  • Assertiveness versus bullying or submissive behaviour
  • Modelling good negotiators – Total model for effective negotiation

Peak Performance will be running our next public 1 day negotiation training and development event on negotiation covering the above blog topics on Tuesday 11th December – contact us for more information.  Alternatively, speak to us about in-house trainings.

Keywords and tags: negotiation, perceptual positions, peak performance, Peter Parkes, NLP training, World view, PPP

The days of the gifted amateur are over – training and coaching lead to gold medal performances in Project Management as well as the Olympics

Athletes, and Project Managers, only put in gold medal performances as a result of dedicated training and coaching.

I just finished reading ‘Outliers‘ by Malcolm Gladwell, #1 best selling author of ‘Tipping point’ and ‘Blink: thinking fast and slow’.  The book famously espouses the ‘ten thousand hour rule‘, that is, to excel is not dependant on raw talent or aptitude but rather on putting in 10,000 hours of structured training and coaching.  At first I was dubious, thinking that talent and genius must play a greater part, but the book, and recent events, now show it to be clearly true in all arenas of life.

The golden girl of the games, Jessica Ennis, started aged 10 and trains under her coach 6 hours a day, 6 days a week.  GB’s first ever 10,000 meter gold medal winner Mo Farah runs three hours a day, that’s about a marathon, 6 days every week.  And the most successful Olympian of all time?  Michael Phelps’ coach has him practice what he calls FILO – be the first in the practice pool and the last out.  GB’s double figure medal haul in London, compared to Olympian Steve Redgrave‘s solitary gold at Atlanta, is down to the UK’s Lottery funded training and coaching programme.  Talent?  Its in the training.

Michael Phelps trains the hardest

What does this mean for Project Managers?  It means that we have to think beyond being naturally talented as a PM, with maybe a basic 5 day training course and multiple choice exam under our belt, to maintaining continuous professional development and adopting structured mentoring and coaching.Currently, less than 10% of people calling themselves project managers are members of their professional body, and less than 10% of those turn up to a single talk or event, so the PM standard is shockingly poor.  When I speak at events and workshops and mention what I consider to be standard management texts and theories such as those on Emotional Intelligence, a lot less than 10% of even this 1% are even familiar.  And how many have a coach?  Probably even less.  We have a long way to go, but at least you are probably in the 1%.  But where next?

‘The days of the gifted amateur are over’
Andrew Bragg, CEO of the Association for Project Management

Incidentally, Gladwell also illustrates that a key contributor to outstanding achievement is going to a good school (not necessary the best).  The Sunday Times, making reference to Gladwell’s book, reports that 40% of medals for Team GB were won by people who were privately educated.  Millfield school alone has 9 current and former pupils competing in this Olympics.  But that aspect isn’t about being smart, or even having good facilities, but an indicator of having smart parenting to instil effective behaviours.  (In fact, Gladwell also shows that IQs over 120, ie about the level necessary for a good University degree, are less indicative of success than what your parents did for a living, ie who your role models were.  We will talk about modelling on another occasion).

Enough of ‘Diamond geezers’, how about some ethical leadership?

Caught between a rock and a hard place, is it least worst to plead ignorance of mis-behaviours that are happening in the organisation or team you lead?

Manipulated markets          ‘Muppets’              Rogue Trader               Systemic failure               Un-ethical        Greed                                 Mis-selling                Lack of judgement                Lack of moral compass           System failures                     Lack of customer service

For ‘strong’ leaders, by which I am referring to those in the limelight who have plenty to say, the organisation quickly shapes itself to align to the values and behaviours that appear to fit and be rewarded. We are social animals, and quite capable of picking up on pecking orders and subtle queues, especially when little more than lip service is paid to what is written in ethics statements, codes of conduct and control documents. People know who gets the bonus, who is favoured and gets promoted. We quickly learn the real values of our colleagues from their behaviours, rather than the lip service that they might pay to written codes to play the game and be politically correct. In effect, the ‘leader’ shapes the organisation in the shadow of their ‘Worldview‘, or Weltanschauung to give it its German roots and name. Hence, can leaders be innocent of the actions of the organism that they have created, albeit subconsciously?

Bob Diamond questioned by MPs about his role in fixing rates

Many of you will be familiar with Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EI) and why it is important. His less well known follow up book on Primal Leadership describes the classic leadership styles in terms of being either ‘resonant‘, and building capability and energy within the team, or being ‘dissonant‘, and creating dependency and reducing capability over time. No prizes for guessing that the old ‘Directive‘ style of command and control dis-empowers a team over time. The other one is ‘Pace-setting‘, which interestingly is described as the default model in use in traditional Partnerships such as large accountancies and law firms. It has also been explicitly adopted by large government departments seeking to emulate private sector efficiency, such as HM Revenues and Customs.

I fear that many people in leadership mistake the Pace-setting style for the resonant ‘Coaching‘ style. As any coach will tell you, showing someone how to copy what you do is a long stretch from getting people to expand their comfort zone by helping them to do it for themselves, or even changing fundamental behaviours rather than simply activities. Let’s hope that our next set of leaders benefit from some robust coaches who can help to restore Values, or moral compass, and ethical behaviours. If not, then the leadership model is not sustainable and will collapse like a house of cards when the next crisis hits.

Ethical Leadership

Teachers do not know the meaning of the word stress

So said the head of schools inspectorate Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, on Thursday 10th May 2012 according to the Sunday Times.  This is at variance with some of my teacher friends, who claim it to be a very stressful profession.

Stressed Teacher

What could be the course of this stress?  One of the factors determining the level of stress that we feel is how much control we have over our own time and work.  Aside from working to a timetable just like the kids, their influence over pupils, and their parents, is only really be influence rather than authority.  Moreover, as Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers & Lecturers says, ‘Ofsted is part of the problem with its continual changing of the inspection goal posts and ridiculous demands for lessons to be exciting at all times’.  As a trainer myself, I can imagine being under pressure trying to make calculus or double French exciting while at the same time being inspected on how effectively students are performing against externally set exams.

If we want to lower our stress levels at work we need to be assertive in being measured either on the what or the how, on the results or the process, but never both.  Accountability without responsibility is the flimsiest of illusions, especially in the management of projects.

For more articles on why teachers are getting stressed, start here

Sex and the city – 6 out of 10 women report that stress at work is ruining their sex lives

According to a poll picked up by The Daily Express and Metro today (10/04/2012), 6 out of 10 women report that stress at work is ruining their sex lives.The same poll extrapolates that a million women are taking medication as a result of stress at work and half are considering having a baby to get a break from work.  (Rather an accomplishment when it has already ruined your sex life, or maybe that is the other half).  Despite these strongly negative findings, two thirds of women believe that success comes from a job they love rather than the money they earn.  So why are they let down so badly, and more usefully, what can you do about it?

Sex and the city?

In March I gave a talk entitled ‘Building resilience and managing stress: how to achieve more and strain less’ at Santander’s HQ for the APM.  No wonder it booked solid without even being advertised.  I will be delivering the same talk later this month in Leeds then across the country – look out for dates on the ‘Talks‘ tab of

I have also launched a related website: where you can find the slides and also a pdf of the feature article on managing stress from ITNow magazine which was extracted verbatim from my book ‘NLP for Project Managers’.  I will be  delivering a one day workshop demonstrating techniques to build resilience on the 12th September.

Maybe I should bill myself as ‘The love Doctor’?

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