Designing Training Programmes Using NLP

Building High Quality Training Sessions

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
Designing training programmes

A Short History of NLP

Neuro Linguistic Programming – NLP – has its origins in the early 70’s, with John Grinder, who was a professor of Linguistics, and Richard Bandler, a physicist and mathematician.

Bandler was Grinder’s student, and in addition to his studies, he had a part time job editing books and technical journals. One of the books he edited was by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy. While he was doing this Bandler realised that he could model (or analyse) Perls’ methods, and achieve similar results as Perls with patients, despite his lack of true therapeutic training. He involved Grinder in this analysis, and they eventually had a team of researchers who modelled not just Perls, but also other therapists, who were noted for bringing about a change in their patients. One of these therapists was named Virginia Satir, a highly regarded family therapist. As they modelled Satir, Grinder was able to use his linguistic background to label the various questioning skills that Satir used to get patients to reflect on their actions and attitudes and so bring about a change in outlook. These were somewhat technical labels, taken from the language of linguistics – this was called the ‘Meta Model’. The early NLP work was all based on the Meta Model questioning system. Grinder and Bandler then met Milton Erickson, a very well-known hypnotherapist and from him they identified the structure of hypnosis and the ‘language’ of trance.

The Trail of Techniques

As work on NLP continued, the ‘modelling excellence’ process moved beyond understanding counselling and therapeutic interventions to also include top sales, business, and sports professionals.

If fact, one description of NLP is “an attitude and a methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques”. Where the attitude is curiosity, the methodology is ‘modelling excellent performers’ and the ‘techniques’ are the many and varied ‘tools’ that the modelling uncovers.

For example, David Gordon developed the concept of therapeutic metaphors. Christina Hall further developed the use of language patterns for change. Lesley Cameron Bandler developed the NLP concept of meta programmes (which describe common thinking patterns).

Training Design and Modelling Excellence

Most training design is based on (i) ‘mapping’ or ‘modelling’ what good performance looks like in a given area e.g. selling, leadership, skiing, baking, accountancy etc. and then (ii) assessing people against that ‘gold standard’ before (iii) designing a programme to ‘close the gap’ between current and good performance. With NLP the system most people use to design training events was developed by Robert Dilts and it’s called ‘Neurological Levels’, or sometimes just Logical Levels.

Of course, there are people from other disciplines who have (quite independently of NLP) developed their own methods for modelling excellence. For example, Professor David McClelland (1917-1998) developed the theory of behavioural competencies. His technique involves selecting two samples: people who have been rated as outstanding in their jobs and those who are just average performers. Interviewees are quizzed in-depth about the way they do their work, focusing in particular on occasions when things have turned out well or badly. Transcripts of the interviews are made and each separate behaviour is noted. These “behavioural indicators” are then clustered together into “competencies” that differentiate the two samples. Finally, the competency model is validated using new samples. So, McClelland found out, for example, that good sales people typically exhibit 11 key competencies, which include: Resilience, Seeking Information, Showing Empathy, Driving for Results, Displaying Initiative, and having a Problem-Solving Focus. It is a lot of work (and expensive) to develop competencies in this way, but the results are robust and reliable. Also, for many training projects it’s not necessary to build a whole new model; it is sufficient just to adopt an existing competency profile.

But in NLP we tend to focus on using Dilts system…

Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model

In Dilts’ Neurological levels theory there are five interconnected topics that need to be covered in sequence if a person is to learn a new task or skill effectively.

To develop a model for a particular topic (sales, leadership, presenting etc.) top performers are identified and then interviewed to uncover their responses to the 5 topics. It is also possible to identify published research that can cast light on each of the 5 areas, and that data can also be included in the model.

These 5 topics are:

  1. Identity – who the person believes themselves to be; their self-image or role perception.
  2. Beliefs – the values and principles that the person applies when carrying out the task in question.
  3. Capability – the process that the person uses to carry out the task and the knowledge they possess.
  4. Behaviour – what you can actually see or hear the person do when they carry out the task.
  5. Environment – where the person carries out the task (e.g. an office, an
    oil rig) and the systems and ‘tools’ that are involved.

Using the Neurological Levels Model

To use the model for training purposes, we decide on a learning goal (e.g. to Develop People Management Skills, to Master Problem Solving Techniques, to Facilitate Sales Meetings etc.) and then model what is required, against each of the 5 levels, to achieve that goal.

Then it’s a question of assessing the delegates against the criteria in each of the 5 levels and deciding what interventions are necessary to raise their capability to the required standard i.e. do the proposed participants need to be trained in all 5 levels, or is it enough to just work on one or two of them?

Of course, there may be some important success factors that the Dilts’ Model (or any other model you might be using) reveals for which training can’t be used to improve people e.g. if there are certain physiological requirements needed for high performance in a given topic, for instance, some sports require people to possess exceptionally good eye sight, or an extraordinary lung capacity etc. and you are either born with that attribute or you’re not. The same is true for innate intelligence, some people are just smarter than others, and if the task requires a high level of intellectual capacity (e.g. a brain surgeon, or maths professor) then you have the necessary IQ or you don’t. However, for most tasks, most people can be helped to improve their performance with the appropriate training programme.

The 5 Levels In-depth

1 Identity

We begin by considering the Identity (or role perception) that a person needs in order to be effective at a given activity i.e. what does the person think they should be trying to do?

For example, effective managers think of themselves as “achieving results through the effective use of resources (classically those resources are; men and women, money, methods, machines and materials).”

Poor managers, in contrast, may want to get results, but they don’t identify themselves as doing this by positioning the resources they have available to do the work: they want to do the work themselves. So, for the expert manager, involving staff in decision making is important because their knowledge is a resource that can be drawn upon to get good results. To the inexpert manager, involving staff is a time-consuming nuisance that gets in the way of prompt action.

So, in this instance, training would begin with a conversation about what the manager’s role is about, and why it is important to have clarity around what the primary focus of the role should be.

2 Beliefs

Once the issue of Identity has been addressed the next step is to move onto the subject of beliefs. In the first few years of life people make decisions about the rules by which they will live their lives. As they grow older they become only dimly aware of these ‘rules’ or ‘beliefs’ but they still apply them to their home and work life. Sometimes the beliefs that people have directly contradict the requirements of being effective at some task or activity. When this happens, the person can understand what he/she should be doing but finds himself/herself unable to apply ‘good’ practice.

For example, some beliefs of expert problem solvers include:

  • Take the time to understand the root cause of the problem
  • There may be more than one right answer, so be open to exploring the options
  • Use a method or process to guide your efforts in a systematic way

In contrast some of the more common ‘in-expert beliefs’ which hamper problem solving are believing that it is important to:

  • Look for the ‘one’ right answer to each problem
  • Never make a mistake; always be seen as getting things ‘right’
  • Act quickly at all times

Thus, for example, someone may implement solutions without first obtaining a clear definition of the problem because the principle of ‘gathering the facts before you act’ conflicts with their ‘belief’ that says ‘I must act quickly’. Or, if the person has a need to ‘be right’, he/she may react badly to any suggestion that he/she hasn’t done something properly.

So, part of an effective programme is to explicitly consider what underlying assumptions, principles or beliefs the delegate currently has about the topic in question, (bearing in mind that these might be subconscious thoughts) and then examining the principles that underpin and support the tools, techniques and methodologies that will be taught on the course.

3 Capability

The third step in the Dilts’ training design model (Capability) concerns knowledge about tools, systems and techniques as they apply to the topic in hand. For example, in problem solving this would include having a problem solving process to follow (e.g. Kepner Tregoe Method, Means Ends Analysis etc.) and some analysis tools such as: Process Maps, Brainstorming, Data Checklists, The 5 Why’s, Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, and Ishikawa Diagrams. These methods can be taught through the use of lectures, case studies, demonstrations, role plays and simulations. The content can be delivered in the form of pre-work (completed via an e-learning or an on-line training package perhaps?) or delivered ‘live’ via a standard lecture format. It’s also possible to ask participants to carry out their own research on specific topics and report back their findings.

4 Behaviour

Understanding a technique or process is one thing; being able to do it is another. The fourth step in Dilts design is about physically being able to perform the task or technique, especially under pressure. For example, in boxing, you might know the mechanics of ‘slipping a punch’ but that doesn’t mean you are able to get out the way of a ‘right cross’ when someone starts an attack during a bout. Or you may have been exposed to sales methods for handling customer objections and/or hostile questions, but that doesn’t mean you can find the words you need in a ‘live’ customer meeting with a million-dollar sale on the line.

Being able to actually do something in real life means practise, and lots of it, via case studies, role-plays, exercises, worked examples, simulations, etc. It also means providing people with structured feedback and coaching as they do those exercises, so they have the chance to judge the progress they are making and to make timely corrections to any weakness that might be uncovered.

5 Environment

The fifth and final part of the model is Environment. In the training context the environment is that of the training room or lecture theatre. So, we explicitly think about how to create a safe, relaxed space for people to feel comfortable as they learn the task in hand.

However, participants want to be able to use the new skill in the work place. This means that some support and encouragement must be provided to help them to bridge the gap between the ‘safety’ of the training course and the ‘hurly burly’ of the office, shop floor or retail outlet. Typically, this will involve some kind of project-based activity to help the delegate to practise the new techniques until they become second nature.

This support activity will also mean helping them to use their tools in the context of their organisation’s culture. Also, making sure that (before any training actually runs) the culture will encourage them to use the skills they’ve been taught. There is little point (for example) in training Team Leaders in how to run Staff Appraisal Meetings but then never letting them run one because they are always conducted by the Departmental Managers.

Putting it all together

When faced with the need to develop a group of people, the first step (as it is with most things!) is to have a clear objective in mind i.e. who specifically do you want to train, and what specifically do you want them to do? E.g. to make sure our managers are managing employee performance professionally; to make sure our sales people can defend our pricing structure and aren’t conceding unnecessary discounts; to make sure that managers know how to identify and hire good quality staff etc.

The second step is to appreciate what’s involved in doing that thing well, and this is where Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model helps to map out precisely what good performance looks like.

Step three is to assess the participants against the model and work out where the gaps are.

Then step four is to build a training intervention that will close those gaps!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective your current training design is; are you identifying needs across all five of the Dilts’ Model Levels (Identify + Beliefs + Capability + Behaviour + Environment)?


Read this article on the fundamentals of training design (4 minute read) Designing a Training Program


View this 12-minute-long video of Robert Dilts Talking about the Neurological Levels Model… NLP Logical Levels of learning & change


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run a Bespoke Training Programme…

And finally, remember…

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”