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Self-help or self-harm?

Date

Gary Nunn

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Landmark Education uses group sessions to inspire realisations about your own behaviours.

Landmark Education uses group sessions to inspire realisations about your own behaviours.

Dr Tung Vu, a Sydney-based doctor, is feeling good.

Despite training at Harvard and Sydney, the 46-year-old doctor was once racked with self-doubt. Then something magical happened: “I became more comfortable in my own skin with my decisions – both professionally and elsewhere. I gave up constantly second-guessing myself.”

There's an element of collective epiphanies to the long days: breakthroughs appear to be contagious. 

Logistics and IT manager Scott James, 42, enjoyed a similar breakthrough. “I'd always been more comfortable in the engine room than steering the ship. I now find myself setting goals I wouldn't have dreamed of previously.”

The responsibility for these "transformations" lies with two high-profile yet controversial movements whose stated aim is to revolutionise the way their participants see themselves.

Landmark Education and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) are credited by many participants with breaking habits that may have prevented a promotion, achieving elusive work-life balance or repairing broken relationships.

There may, however, be a darker side. Both movements have their detractors. They essentially capitalise on people who are mentally vulnerable. Their recruiting and upselling techniques can be quite robust. The word "cult" is even occasionally whispered.

But should we really be discouraging people from self-improvement – especially men, who are often stereotyped as emotionally illiterate? I went along to find out.

The Landmark Education Forum requires three 13-hour days and one evening and costs $650. Landmark's Dr Cathy Elliott describes it as “a leadership and development program which provides powerful tools for causing breakthroughs”. It's popular; 120 people were at the forum I attended in Sydney and it attracts this number monthly. Typically, 45 per cent are male and 57 per cent of those are university educated.

Dr Tung Vu was attracted to Landmark because his successful professional life led to a common plateau. “Once you achieve a certain level of success in your career, it's easy to become so caught up in day-to-day demands that you don't take time out to even consider ... relationships, family, or work-life balance," he says. "My advice to fellow professionals is to make that a priority.”

His participation led to what Landmark describes as a "breakthrough". “I bought my first investment property within a month. Before that, I'd already looked at well over 100 properties, felt I had not found the 'right' one and consequently taken no action. It turned out to be my best-ever investment decision.”

The course nurtures breakthroughs by teaching the difference between your interpretation of events and the reality, raising self-expectations far beyond perceived capability, enrolling others into your new world of possibilities and – controversially – instructing you to make calls to apologise to people with whom you have "incomplete" relationships and "give up being right".

Participants are invited to share their breakthroughs, leading to many tears – I witnessed grown, professional men sobbing – but also fascinating stories.

There's an element of collective epiphanies to the long days: breakthroughs appear to be contagious. Our course leader is infatuated with her own grand claims throughout, regularly comparing Landmark's methods to those of Ghandi and Luther-King. But if those are the worst evils, the cult-accusers are merely cynical passion-killers. It's apparent that Landmark's best intentions are being realised via the palpably powerful impact the course has on its enthusiastic participants.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming immediately feels more scientific and less intensely emotional at the course I attend through the Australasian Institute of NLP.

It's described as “understanding how the language of the mind creates the patterns we run in life”. Or, as participant Gerhard Diedericks puts it: “The ability to regularly self-detox the mind.”

The clearer the unconscious mind, the fewer interferences clog your conscious mind, allowing you to reprogram to your desired mental state (in Landmark language, this is called "being racket-free").

It's commonly used for smoking cessation, weight loss and professional/personal coaching. Based on the premise that we only use a fraction of our potential, it shares Landmark's inspiring "be unreasonable" aphorism that anything is possible. “Imagination is more powerful than you can imagine,” was my favourite soundbite.

It was more than a soundbite for Scott James, who says that NLP helped him step up into leadership roles in both his professional and personal life. “The last three years have seen me take on my current job as logistics and IT manager, and the presidency of my rugby union club; things I'd have never considered previously as it required me to assert myself in ways I wasn't comfortable with,” he says.

Laureli Blyth runs the course I attend and says: “Eighty per cent of the executives I coach feel like a fraud, and fear that people will discover they don't know what they're doing.”

Her business partner, Dr Heidi Heron, asserts that NLP alleviates this self-doubt: “I've seen many of my students change career, advance in their careers and create more work/life balance.”

Like Landmark, NLP sometimes speaks in inane metaphors to hammer home its points. Stale imagery aside, both movements chip away at characteristic male stubbornness to create exciting new possibilities in life. NLP is more modest in its approach - according to Dr Heron: “We're not claiming to change the world. Just give a person more choice and understanding about themselves and others.”

At worst, eccentric; at best, powerfully transformative. If either movement is a cult, then sign me up.

45 comments so far

  • Meta Study after meta-study has shown Neuro-Linguistic Programming to be a pseudo scientific approach with few real benefits.

    Commenter
    Flingebunt
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 1:54PM
    • Do your research before attending these seminars. The one I attended was nothing but a huge sales pitch and a TOTAL WASTE OF TIME!!!

      http://reviewqcseminars.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/qc-seminars-nlp-practitioners.html

      Commenter
      Buyer_Beware
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 2:24PM
      • I went to a Landmark course years ago at the behest of my girlfriend, parts of it were terrific and yes it does present as an opportunity to 'review yourself" work on what they refer to as racquets ie behavioural practices which continually derive the same results (usually negative results),I believe where it breaks down is that particularly susceptible punters see this as a cure all for their real life issues eg one girl stood up in front of 500 people and announced she was a closet prostitute !! Not sure what she hoped to achieve from this ...... for me it enabled me to break down a few barriers with my father ,now that is worth the money at any price !

        Commenter
        still normal
        Location
        Perth
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 2:28PM
        • "controversially – instructing you to make calls to apologise to people with whom you have "incomplete" relationships and "give up being right".

          I seem to remember some years back the phone call I received from a friend attending Landmark in Melb. had nothing to do with aplogising, not that I could think of any reason they needed to anyway, but in fact it was to insist, and I mean insist (and by the end it was more like begging) for me to attend the final evening I think? with them, and to sign up for the next Landmark course. They seemed to be under intense pressure when they called, or perhaps fear they may have failed the course otherwise? I don't know. I do know it was more sad than inspiring to hear them, almost frightening in fact.

          And no, I don't see a transformed life. Apparently, according to my friend, that's why the participant has to recruit more people, so the ones around them understand and help them transform and achieve their chosen path/goals....

          Yes, long hours - to exhaust people to the point that they are blubbering, broken down and vulnerable to more brainwashing, and importantly, ready to sign up for more is what it seemed to me. I would hardly call it 'eccentric'.

          Commenter
          Hmmm
          Location
          Melb
          Date and time
          February 18, 2013, 2:45PM
          • Helping people make desired changes is capitalising on people who are mentally vulnerable. Just as doctors aren't preying on the unhealthy. The issue is how the person who signs up is treated - and if they are given the ability to continue on their own or made dependent on the provider.

            Every human movement will have some dark side. Which I am in favour of being brought to light.

            Personally I think the psychology that Landmark and NLP are based on is inadequate. But they have both helped friends of mine make desired changes.

            Commenter
            Evan
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            February 18, 2013, 3:05PM
            • The only way to know about something is to try it out.

              The Landmark Forum can be very effective. It's not for everyone though. People who want to make real changes and are willing to do the work (using what Landmark gives you and putting it into practice) will make changes. People who want to sit in a room and expect to be changed when they come out the other end will be disappointed and cynical. That's their choice I guess.

              The pressure thing is (or was) a major repellant for people. Landmark up-sells to register more punters. It's their business model. I tell people who are considering doing Landmark that that's probably what will happen. Because the expectation is there that that may happen people walk in prepared and don't get upset if it happens. They just know it's how Landmark sells.

              If anyone I know was considering doing Landmark and asked me what I thought I'd tell them 100% they should do it. Ultimately it's up to them though.

              Commenter
              adamant
              Date and time
              February 18, 2013, 4:36PM
              • Doing Landmark Education was the single best choice I made in life - and everyone (bar none) that I know who has done it has experienced significant positive change in their lives. I wouldn't say everyone should do it - but I think it has something to offer anyone who wants to improve themselves and their lives.
                @Hmmm, there is some pressure to invite people to the final evening, but if someone doesn't get anyone along, it doesn't mean they've failed the course, and people who attend the final evening don't have to sign up. Yes, there's an element of selling the course - but it is not critical to a person acheiving what they want - the intention is for people to share with their loved ones what they have achieved through doing the course, whether by getting them to come along, or just by telling them that they've had some great breakthroughs in their life. It would be a little silly to do a life-changing course and then not bother telling anyone. I get the feeling from what you've said about your friend, that they were so desperate to get you along not because they feared failing the course (as that's not possible), but because they wanted to make changes in their life and needed more support to do that. Or, maybe, they wanted you to get something good for your own life.

                Commenter
                MQQ
                Date and time
                February 18, 2013, 4:41PM
                • I've discussed NLP & Landmark with several friends who are counsellors and psychologists - they were pretty dismissive. What's interesting is the claims of transformation and heightened awareness are certainly no different to any religion.

                  Went to a NLP seminar at the insistence of a colleague some years ago. Preying on the vulnerable is certainly a polite way of putting it! Like religion, it tends to appeal to people with low resilience/lower education levels/fear of change/the unknown/taking risks.

                  Commenter
                  James
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  February 18, 2013, 4:54PM
                  • You have just names 99% of the population then James!

                    Commenter
                    GaryWalkedOut
                    Location
                    Melb
                    Date and time
                    February 20, 2013, 9:18PM
                • Eight of us from work attended Landmark together in 2002. Five ranged from unimpressed to downright hostile. Three, including myself who started off extremely hostile at the imposition, went on to do Landmark 2. Now over ten years later, I can see it was a major turning point in my life.

                  Commenter
                  Wen
                  Location
                  Brisbane
                  Date and time
                  February 18, 2013, 5:26PM

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