The History of Early NLP

The Founders: John Grinder and Richard Bandler

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

The founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming were John Grinder and Richard Bandler. In 1971 John Grinder, at 31 years old, received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, and was hired as an assistant professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of California in Santa Cruz.  He worked with the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, and his research focused on Chomsky’s theories of transformational grammar. 1  Richard Bandler was a brilliant 21-year-old senior in 1971, majoring in psychology at UCSC.  At that time, students were allowed to direct seminars that were supervised by a professor, and in 1972 Bandler asked Grinder to oversee the gestalt therapy groups that he was leading. 2  Grinder’s consent to supervise the seminars was one of those decisive moments that change history.

Bandler was especially interested in the gestalt therapy of Frederick (Fritz) Perls (1893‒1970).  He began studying the work of Perls in 1972 when he was hired by a publishing company, Science and Behavior Books, to produce transcripts of videos of Perls’ lectures and workshops for the books The Gestalt Approach and Eyewitness to Therapy. 3  Perls’ gestalt therapy focuses on experience, specifically the present moment, and the precision of language.  It emphasizes the role of language in creating a person’s experience and expression of reality. 4

Bandler had excellent behavioral modeling skills: he had a remarkable capability to mimic other people’s behavior and the way they spoke.  He also had an extensive knowledge of the new contemporary systems of psychotherapy.  As he worked with Perls’ papers and numerous video and audio tapes, Bandler found that he was able to imitate Perls’ therapeutic language patterns.  In 1973 Dr. Robert Sptizer, the owner of Science and Behavior Books, asked Bandler to audio tape and transcribe a month-long workshop done by the famous family therapist Virginia Satir.  Bandler was able to effectively reproduce her voice and behavioral mannerisms as well.  Soon Bandler was able to run gestalt groups and effect change like Perls and Satir. 5

However, Bandler felt frustrated that he was not very successful in teaching others to do what he did.  He asked Grinder to help him figure out what he was doing (the meta-patterns) so he could teach his skills to others.  Grinder had acquired brilliant modeling skills from his study of linguistics.  He told Bandler that if he would teach Grinder the behavioral skills, Grinder would help him to reproduce them.  He said, “If you teach me to do what you’re doing, I’ll tell you what you’re doing.” 6  This collaboration was the beginning of the new field of NLP. 7

Both Grinder and Bandler were unhappy with the theories and talk therapy of psychotherapists and psychoanalysts.  Bandler’s initial creative impetus came from his dissatisfaction with the models of psychology he was studying at UCSC and his fascination with the practical results he saw from the gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls and the family therapy of Virginia Satir. 8  Grinder was influenced by the left-wing political views of his mentor, Noam

Chomsky, and had himself become involved in leftist politics.  He considered psychotherapy the self-indulgence of the bourgeoisie who were wallowing in their problems.  He wanted a more practical way of effecting change.  Hence, like Chomsky, he was interested in the more practical cognitive psychology, which explored how information is processed. 9

The early 1970s was also the time when computer programming, and the concepts behind it, began to be available for the non-specialist.  Increasingly, people made parallels between the mind and computers. 10  The NLP founders were not interested in psychological theories—they wanted to know how, not why. 11

As Grinder phrased it, “the core question . . . in NLP modeling is: Given some genius, what are the differences that make the difference between his or her behavior and the behavior of [merely] competent performers in the same field?” 12  Grinder and Bandler chose as models some contemporary geniuses in behavioral communications and therapy.  Because of Grinder’s background in linguistics, they started with verbal communication.  Together they listened to audio tapes and watched video tapes of Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir. 13

During this period, Bandler and Grinder were neighbors and friends of the renowned anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson and his famous wife, Margaret Mead. Bateson viewed the mind as similar to a biological ecosystem, in which all living organisms as well as all components of the physical environment interact with one another and function together as a unit.  In his concept of the “ecology of mind” he emphasized the importance of understanding how ideas interact with one another in society.  Bateson’s systems theory greatly influenced the NLP founders in the development of their concept of the “ecology” of change, an inquiry that involved assessing how a change in a person’s model of the world may affect other aspects of his or her life.  Bateson wrote the Foreword to the first volume of Grinder and Bandler’s landmark first book, The Structure of Magic. 14

In late 1974, Gregory Bateson told Grinder about the hypnotic techniques of his long-time friend, psychiatrist Milton Erickson.  On Bateson’s recommendation, in 1975 Grinder and Bandler traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to participate in Erickson’s seminars and observe his work with patients.  Their experience of Erickson profoundly affected all of their subsequent work. 15

Thus, the development of early NLP was strongly influenced by the cognitive psychology of Noam Chomsky, the gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, and the family systems therapy of Virginia Satir.  To these influences were added the systems theory of Gregory Bateson and the hypnotherapy of Milton Erickson.

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


1 Early Days of NLP, Robert Dilts and Tim Hallbom (San Francisco, CA: NLPCA, 2009), DVD.
2 In The Origins of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, ed. John Grinder and Frank Pucelik (Bethel, CT: Crown House Publishing, 2013); Terrence Lee McClendon, The Wild Days: NLP 1972-1981 (Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1989).
3 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
4 Charles Bowman and Phillip Brownell, “Prelude to Contemporary Gestalt Therapy,” Gestalt! 4, no. 3; Robert Dilts, Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change (Capitola, CA: Meta Publications, 1999); Grinder and Pucelik; Joe Wysong, “Alfred Korybski and Gestalt Therapy,” Gestalt,
5 Dilts and Hallbom; Grinder and Pucelik; Michael Hall, “The Invigorating 1970s,” 2010,; McClendon.
6 Dilts and Hallbom.
7 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
8 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
9 Dilts and Hallbom; Grinder and Pucelik; George A. Miller, “The Cognitive Revolution: A Historical Perspective.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7, no. 3 (2003):141,
10 Miller, 141.
11  Dilts and Hallbom.
12  Carmen B. Bostic St. Clair and John Grinder, Whispering in the Wind (Scotts Valley, Ca: J&C Enterprises, 2001), 83.
13 McClendon.
14 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic: A Book About Language and Therapy, Vol 1 (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1975).
15  Bostic St. Clair and Grinder, 83; Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.