What I Learned from NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP)

Eva Donat, Barcelona, Spain

I don’t know what drew me to become a La Leche League Leader; perhaps it was destiny, or that my body was asking me to go further, to be with women, with mothers. Above all, I witnessed how mothers continually empowered themselves by trusting their bodies through breastfeeding.

As a Leader of 22 years I discovered the thousands of different ways that mothers have of living and interpreting their own lives. What seemed normal to one seemed unthinkable to another, and little by little I also changed. From seeing so many different ways of living similar realities, I began to think that I could also decide on the reality I wanted to live in. Through LLL I realized that we mothers are very sensitive and emotional during parenting, and our work as Leaders requires skilful ways of observing, talking, and interpreting (especially when trying to help mothers).

Over the past years I have been studying NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and find the concept of “calibration” helpful in the work I do as a Leader. We’ll get back to calibration in a minute, but first, I would like to give you some small “drops of NLP” that I hope you can add to those of your/our milk, that give life, communication, bonding and strength.

We need other people

Humans are gregarious animals who need other people by our side in order to survive. By acquiring skills through communication, we learn, among many other things, to breastfeed. As neuroscience has discovered quite recently (in the 1980-90s), humans have amazing cells called “mirror neurons” (women have more of them than men), which help us to empathize with others and learn from our environment. Being in contact with other human beings is fundamental to our physical, emotional and social development. Knowing how we function helps us to communicate better, to know ourselves better, to be able to “deprogram” what is not useful to us, and to program what is useful for us. NLP is one tool I have found helpful, and having more tools is freeing, because I have more options to shape my decisions.

What is NLP?

Neurolinguistic Programming is a “toolbox” of communication skills, based on usefulness. NLP does not usually talk about whether something is true or false, but whether it is useful or not. If it is not useful, one can decide to change it or eliminate it. On the other hand, if one sees that a thought or behavior is useful, change is not needed. For example, one may think that a mother’s behavior is strange to us, but if for that mother it is useful, it is right for her.

“NLP is practical; it is a set of models, skills and techniques for thinking and acting effectively in the world. The purpose of NLP is to be useful, to increase choice and improve the quality of life.” John Grinder, co-creator of NLP
“NLP is an educational method. We teach people to use their own head.” Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP

NLP is organized around basic assumptions that are adopted precisely because they are useful; they are not based on how true they are but on utility or convenience. Some of these assumptions are:

The map is not the territory

“The map is not the territory” means that each person, each family, each situation, sees reality (the territory) from a certain point of view, and every person believes that their point of view is the correct one. For example, when I did NLP training we were asked to draw “the place where we were at that moment.” Each person drew different things. I drew the map of Barcelona and put a cross on the place where the institute was. One classmate drew a tree with fruit, and pointed to a fruit that represented her position at that moment. Another classmate drew the furniture of the room (seen from above), and put circles where attendees were positioned. This showed us that each of us had a “map,” and that when we were told to “draw the place where you are right now,” each person interpreted different things, and all of them were correct.

Each mother’s map is not the territory either. This assumption can be helpful for us, as Leaders to remind us that each mother does what is useful for her at that moment. It will not be me, the Leader, who judges decisions about raising, sleeping, feeding or caring for the baby and the family. Being clear that the map is not the territory, I can use open-ended questions to try to understand the mother’s “map,” to enlarge my own “map” and thus be able to try to help her with more understanding, empathy and respect. I found the exhaustive and respectful techniques for empathy, such as “rapport” or asking questions very useful. The more I practiced them, the more the mothers’ responses enhanced their awareness about their situations, their concerns, their attitudes and behaviors, which helped them to find their answers on their own.

All behavior has a positive intention

This NLP assumption is based primarily on utility. We often think that behaviors that we interpret as “negative” are bad in themselves. On the other hand, if we believe that the behavior in question, of the mother, the parent, our co-Leader, the healthcare provider, etc., has a positive intention, we observe with eyes that do not judge, but look for the motivation of their actions. To better help the person, we will look for other possible behaviors with the same positive intention. As Leaders, we observe that a mother believes whatever she has done is best for her baby, with the knowledge and practice that she has until that moment. Additional knowledge brings new possibilities, and with them new options. Keeping in mind that “the map is not the territory,” the mother may opt for completely different choices than we would.

There is no such thing as failure, only learning

When we obtain different results than expected, we have two options: we can either remain with the feeling of failure, or we can decide what we can learn and what we want to change based on the knowledge we have incorporated. If we change our perception, we change our attitude and, therefore, our choices and our behaviors. We can observe, accept, learn, and act differently. Same behaviors, same results. Different behaviors give possibly new results, or not, but we will always learn what doesn’t work.

“I’ve tried everything. I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!” https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/07/31/edison-lot-results/

Thomas A. Edison, having done many tests before arriving at one of his greatest inventions: the light bulb.

Sometimes a mother may complain that she “doesn’t have enough milk,” but she may find it hard to accept that there are things she is doing that do not optimize milk production. Through calibration and communication techniques we can help her realize that new behaviors might help her have a more satisfying breastfeeding relationship.

What is “calibration”?

In NLP “calibrating” means looking for physical evidence of communication based on observation. In other words, to calibrate we need to realize that we use representational systems based on the senses. NLP divides them into three groups: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems (the VAK system), which are specifically, what we objectively see, hear or notice (or feel, using the other senses). For example, I can observe that a mother is telling me that everything is going very well. But I can notice that what she says doesn’t correspond to how she moves or how she acts. If, when she says that “everything is going great,” she whispers, looking down, with her shoulders drooping and hands hanging down, she is telling me one thing with her words and something very different with her body language. We, as Leaders, by means of observing through the three channels, can “calibrate” that the message is incongruent. If the Leader only accepts the mother’s words, one could get the wrong idea.

How is “calibrating” used? It provides information to be able to ask more questions and go deeper into the matter. The mother might say: “Everything is fine,” while looking us in the eyes, smiling, and standing up straight. This could more clearly indicate that the mother’s message is congruent and that everything is going well.

Calibrating helps us to understand a little better the “map” of other people and their way of interpreting what is happening. As Leaders, if we understand the situation better, we may be able to offer better help. Using this skill, Leaders have another tool to offer new options for mothers and parents.

Setting objectives effectively

Another of the many techniques of NLP is the effective formulation of objectives, using the acronym SMART. If goals are based on these parameters, one has a good chance of achieving them.

The five letters of SMART refer to the objective being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant or Realistic, and Time-bound. With this technique, objectives become more concrete and go from being “wishes” to being tangible and achievable.

  • S: Specific. How many times have we human beings set unattainable or too generic objectives, with the permanent feeling of dissatisfaction that comes with not achieving them? If we clearly specify the objective, we have a much clearer idea of where to go.
  • M: Measurable. When we can measure the goal, it is much easier to know if we are making progress and how far we want to go. If a mother aims to produce more milk, she can increase the number of feedings, and keep track of wet and dirty nappies/diapers, which are things that can be counted. She can also have the baby’s weight checked.
  • A: Achievable. If we set our goals too high, we have a good chance of abandoning our project at the first opportunity. I personally think that sometimes setting one’s goals a little lower can be a relief. It lowers one’s ego as it increases one’s self-esteem.
  • A: Relevant. Set realistic, relevant goals. When the goal is relevant and realistic (to increase the amount of milk, for example), the person will not feel overwhelmed in the process of achieving it and it is very possible that the baby will gain weight.
  • T: Time-bound. Setting a definite time frame with short-term goals makes it easier to track one’s progress, which is encouraging. It also makes it easier to make changes if something is not working well.


“Ecology” in NLP refers to the idea that if a goal interferes with the well-being of the person or their family, or if it means that the person has to make too many changes, it is better to look for other strategies, i.e., other goals to achieve.
For example, if a mother with a four-month-old baby is doing mixed breastfeeding and wants to switch from bottle to breast in a week, but has to work, cannot be with her baby, is nervous and has no help, perhaps her environmental well-being could be negatively affected. She may do better setting a goal that could be a little less ambitious but also fulfils her intention of breastfeeding her baby. Perhaps the mother could gradually set small achievable milestones, even if it takes a little longer.

And finally… the mentor figure

NLP talks about the importance of mentors, helpers, facilitators, and guides. We can think of LLL Leaders as excellent helpers for many mothers. We are also mentors for Leader Applicants and can be facilitators when working with others on projects.
There is a lot more to NLP for those who are interested in going deeper. The basic NLP ideas shared in this article complement LLL communication skills and affirm the importance of our work as Leaders.

Eva Donat lives in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. She has been a Leader since 1999 and is currently a member of the Leader Accreditation Department. She has three children. Eva is also a Didactic Partner of the Spanish Association of Neurolinguistic Programming and NLP Practitioner.