About Transformational NLP

By Carl Buchheit, Ph.D. and Ellie Schamber, Ph.D.

The Influence of Jonathan Rice

Jonathan Rice applied many of the innovative discoveries of NLP in his clinical psychotherapy practice. It was the original Santa Cruz group around Bandler and Grinder that first correlated externally visible changes in physiology with reliable understanding, in real time, about how a person was operating internally to generate his or her experience.  It was also the original group that discovered “strategies” (working with representational sequences that lead to particular outcomes of experience) and thereby revealed the representational operations within the mind, which the behaviorists had considered to be an unknowable “black box.” Yet, after just a few years, much NLP training and practice was minimizing attention to these astounding discoveries and the remarkable behavioral and perceptual tools that were developed because of them.  As John Grinder later complained, some of the schools that called themselves NLP ignored the spirit of what the founders had tried to do.  The ones that came along later substituted easily-learned formulas in place of creative intervention.1  Much important material was downplayed or just left behind.

Working on his own after the break-up of the Santa Cruz group, Jonathan Rice continued to use the full scope of original techniques within his psychotherapeutic process. Instead of viewing NLP as a set of stand-alone formulas for treating symptoms, Rice taught his students that mastery of the physiology-based perceptual/behavioral skill set was key to artful and rapid therapeutic success. He said, “When in doubt, follow the physiology!” He emphasized using multiple cues occurring outside of the client’s conscious awareness and control, such as eye movements and other physiological indicators, to reveal and connect information about subtle components of the all-important intended positive outcomes that are always aspects of adaptation to early childhood trauma. Rice leaned on research from the field of childhood development to ground and organize the conceptual and emotional spaces within which he worked with ecology concerns and limiting beliefs. Through demonstration and example, Rice taught his students to eschew formulaic procedures in favor of working within the psychological context of each person’s life.2

In 1984 Rice was asked to be a trainer at Lynne Conwell’s NLP Center for Advanced Studies in Tiburon, California, a training center that Conwell had acquired from its founder, Leslie Cameron Bandler.  This is where Rice developed and refined the teaching that had evolved from his decade of experience with integrating NLP with his own worldview and practice of psychotherapy.3

I became a student at the NLP Center for Advanced Studies in 1984, and took a Master Practitioner class taught by Dr. Rice.  In contrast with the mainstream NLP world at the time, Rice’s students learned how to do NLP-based change work in a psychological context. They learned about child development theory and the primary markers for and consequences of childhood trauma. It was at this time, from Rice, that I learned the sitting-and-talking style that is so different from mainstream NLP. It appeared to me that Jonathan Rice’s integrative and holistic approach was much more powerful than either mainstream NLP or conventional psychotherapy, and that it created deeper, more stable and permanent transformation in the client.

Transformational NLP now includes a number of elaborations on and extensions of Rice’s model, and although it borrows from and elaborates on both mainstream NLP and conventional psychotherapy, it has evolved to become a unique paradigm. It incorporates material drawn from, or inspired by, the metaphysics of the perennial philosophy such as described by Aldous Huxley,4  the holographic model of the universe as explained by David Bohm,5 the basic premises of twentieth-century quantum mechanics, my own evolution of Bert Hellinger’s trans-generational, systemic constellation work, and many frames and methods—neuro-linguistic and otherwise—that are unique and are the product of my constant curiosity and creativity in the course of working with thousands of clients during my years in private practice.

Transformational NLP compared with Conventional Psychotherapy

There are some apparent similarities between Transformational NLP sessions and psychotherapy.  In Transformational NLP, the practitioner and client are seated facing one another, in private, and conversing.  Viewed from the perspective of conventional psychotherapy, this looks like the recognizable event called the therapeutic interaction.

Yet, there are significant differences between the two approaches. In conventional psychotherapy, the therapeutic interaction mainly involves talking about the content of the client’s experiences and the emotions that accompany them.  This discussion of content, possibly in combination with the therapist’s observations, suggestions, or assistance with problem solving, generally constitutes the scope of the therapeutic interaction. Transformational NLP may include much of this also, with the exception of problem-solving suggestions.  However, as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk points out, “the act of telling the story doesn’t necessarily alter the autonomic physical and hormonal responses of bodies” or change a person’s behavior patterns.6  Self-defeating behavior patterns are “not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character—they are caused by actual changes in the brain” as the result of imprints of trauma. Transformational NLP addresses these physiological as well as psychological issues.

Transformational NLP pays attention to the representational structure of the client’s experience as well as the content, with the objective of making the internal, out-of-consciousness events that generate unwanted experiences available for changing. The practitioner can then cause changes within the patterning, which are the instructions that create the experience, so that it becomes possible for the client to have more and more of the experience that s/he desires.  There is an intentional, precise, and ongoing revision of map and meaning, of identity, and of relationship with self and others.

Another key difference between Transformational NLP and conventional psychotherapy concerns the psychoanalytic process called transference. The Transformational NLP practitioner/client interaction may at times include some elements related to transference, but generally the practice of NLP-based change work is not based on the dynamics of conventional psychotherapeutic transference and counter-transference, does not involve explicit advice giving or problem solving, and is not critical of other persons in the client’s present or past.  Rather, while in the process of revising out-of-date personal programming, the skillful Transformational NLP practitioner models for the client a way of holding and thinking about himself or herself that may be beyond the client’s present capacity.

As in conventional psychotherapy, in my sessions with clients I am very attentive to the ups and downs of the client’s personal history and the family dynamic.  (This is unusual, if not unique, in the context of mainstream NLP-based change work.)  It is my observation that most unwanted experience is stabilized by ecology concerns that involve both the need for personal survival and an equal, apparently competing need to ensure one’s continued belonging within one’s family of origin, no matter how painful such belonging may be.

There is a crucial difference between my methodology and that of most psychotherapists, however.  Right from the start of any interaction with the client, I begin a continuing process of calibrating (observing and correlating) the person’s physiology as it relates to the context of his or her factual family history.  Through this calibration process, as well as through words, I seek information about the client’s relationship to the family narrative, that is, the story a family tells about itself and about each of its relevant members, both living and dead.  My goal is not only to identify and revise the client’s out-of-date safety patterning (automatic, ongoing internal representations that were originally created to keep the child safe but are no longer beneficial for the adult), but also to use the tools of NLP to clarify and resolve any obstacles to the client’s awareness of irrevocable belonging in the family system, however painful that belonging is or has been.

In the course of doing this, I am also working to assist the client to gradually develop a different narrative, a revised interpretation, of his or her personal past—to show how that complex of past experiences, events, imprints, and decisions was a necessary path to recovering freedom and choice in the present, on the way to a greater fulfillment in the future.  The goal is not to overcome or negate the past, but rather to incorporate it as part of the path to the future desired state.

In sum, Transformational NLP sessions are conducted in a context resembling psychotherapy, in that the practitioner and client sit together privately and talk about the client’s issues.  However, this is a superficial resemblance.  During the Transformational NLP sessions, unlike in mainstream psychotherapy, there is a continuous revision of behavior, capability, belief, and identity programming, and this is accomplished through representational repatterning as well as through conventional-appearing conversation.

Transformational NLP compared with Mainstream NLP

Transformational NLP incorporates all of the presuppositions and many of the techniques of mainstream NLP.  Yet, there are substantial differences between Transformational NLP and the mainstream NLP approach. For most conventional NLP practitioners, NLP is a collection of recipes for change. The practitioner inquires about the desired state, identifies the problem state, and then “runs a technique” that will change the client.  In conventional NLP, in general, talking with the client is what one does to find out what technique to use to “fix” something.

Viewed through the lens of conventional NLP, a Transformational NLP session would often appear to involve little explicit “NLP.”  This is mainly because the skilled Transformational NLP practitioner does not rely on overt, standard procedures to revise the client’s map of reality and change his or her relationship with self and life. I believe that it is critical for the wellbeing of the client that the practitioner take into account the broad scope of the psychological and emotional context of the client’s experience rather than just jump in with powerful change techniques that may produce potential unwanted side effects. When they are used in Transformational NLP, standardized procedures serve mainly to stabilize and secure revisions that have already been introduced into the client’s cognitive and emotional processing through a continual flow and inter-mixing of more subtle methods.

In the course of the session’s conversation, the Transformational NLP practitioner pays close attention to the structure as well as the content of the client’s experience. Throughout the session, the practitioner is continually reorganizing the client’s internal representational processes.  There is a continual, in-the-moment revision of habitual or imprinted representational processing that has locked the client in past pain and complicated, or prevented, movement toward his or her desired future experience.  The client’s patterns of perception, thinking, emotion, and behavior are thus modified even without recourse to overt techniques. When techniques do come into play, they are as much as possible seamlessly embedded in the context of the conversational interaction.

Like both Jonathan Rice and Robert Dilts, Transformational NLP teaches that an important part of the practitioner’s work is to ensure that the truly positive, protective intentions beneath past limitations are respected and incorporated into new perceptions and decisions. In conventional NLP, the process of working with original positive intention often includes a bias toward eliminating old meanings and limits, as if these were in some way faulty. In contrast, I prefer to point to the validity and purposefulness of all experience, however negative, painful, or limiting it was or is experienced to be. This concept of intended positive outcome (IPO) takes the notion of original positive intention somewhat further than the teachings of either Dilts or Rice.

Also, NLP practitioners commonly view ecology objections as conscious and unconscious systemic concerns about the possible negative future consequences of present positive change. This perspective is important in my practice also, but I routinely add another  element. Although I am asking the client about the future, I am also seeking to provide the client with yet another motivation to more positively reassess his or her past. By promoting a respectful and appreciative understanding of the intended positive outcomes of problem states and experiences, the Transformational NLP practitioner supports clients to be more in rapport with themselves regarding their previously automatic reactions to fear and pain, over which they had no choice at the time of the original imprinting. When people are no longer impelled to disrespect or attack their past and present experience they feel less and less at odds with themselves, and this in turn greatly eases the healing movement toward the desired state.  My experience is that it is much easier to imagine and stabilize future success and well-being if one is relieved of perceptions of past failure. Also, by encouraging the client to hold his or her previous choices and experience with proper respect, the practitioner opens the way for the client’s unconscious to release lingering objections to the changes that come with the fulfillment of the desired state.  The goal is to show how the past—whatever it contains—leads directly to the desired future when it is properly viewed through a filter that successfully reveals the loving intention behind every choice. This approach does not replace more conventional, future-oriented ecology checking, but works in parallel with it.

Finally, unlike most practitioners of mainstream NLP, I rarely re-imprint other persons, such as parents, who are involved in the client’s past. I agree with Jonathan Rice that although re-imprinting the parent or significant other person can sometimes be a useful intervention, it is not always the best way to resolve the present experience of past pain. I do not like to resort to methodology that would appear to revise the facts of the experience of the client’s younger self, so I generally avoid asking the client to imagine others behaving differently in the past. I prefer to let the original version of events stand, and to assist the client to make new and more useful meaning in the present despite and even because of how others acted in the past.

Taken from Carl Buchheit, Ph.D. and Ellie Schamber, Ph.D.,  Transformational NLP: A New Psychology.


1 The Origins of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, ed. John Grinder and Frank Pucelik (Bethel, CT: Crown House Publishing, 2013).
2 Jonathan Rice, phone call with authors, April 1985.
3 Jonathan Rice, phone call with authors, June 2011.
4 Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classic, 2009).
5 Norman Friedman, The Hidden Domain (Eugene, OR: The Woodbridge Group 1997); F. David Peat, Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997).
6 Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking, 2014), 21.
7 Ibid, 3.