I have been watching Tony Robbins this week in the documentary called "I Am Not Your Guru." You can read a nicely ambivalent review in the Financial Times here. I think the ambivalence is built into the process, which might be surprising given the loud celebration that characterizes the Date with Destiny in the film.
For those of us whose work has evolved from NLP, there are lessons to be learned from modelling the most famous and successful practitioner of NLP (Robbins has far surpassed all the founders by all measures of success). Because he does so much so well, Robbins lets us see how fine the line is between observing and suggesting.
Let me explain. Robbins frames his "interventions" both with the exercises and performances we do not see in the film and with his invitations. The film opens with an intervention with a young man who says he is suicidal; it is only later that we see Robbins say he is looking for someone who is suicidal to work with. Since many people go to the event with the hope that they will be directly influenced by Robbins, it is easy for them to decide that they are suffering from whatever he suggests. That's the first round of problem.
The second round happens when Robbins reframes what they say and then solves the problem as he has framed it. This is true in all the interventions. It makes for great, dramatic theatre. The participants agree eagerly that he knows them better than they know themselves, and accept all the suggestions he makes as if they were hypnotic commands. Which is what they are, because they are sensory tangible, directive statements issued from a person with power and permission.
You don't have to be Tony Robbins to be viewed as a person with power and receive permission to reframe someone else's experience so that they find new meaning in it. It's the core of influence, good and bad. Watching Tony Robbins manipulate an intervention requires all change workers to take a good look at how much of what they do is more a powerful illusion and less a response to the careful observation of another person.
The postscript to the movie tells us that the two people who were 'suicidal' have decided to dedicate themselves to helping others - essentially, to reshape their lives as Tony Robbins. A woman who was told to break up with her boyfriend as a part of an intervention is back with that boyfriend. A couple has had a baby (and the 'greatest sex of their lives') since Tony helped the husband find his roar. (Literally and metaphorically). The husband, too, has become more like Tony.
As much as Date with Destiny is framed as helping people find their personal vision and motivation, it seems to help lots of people find Tony's vision and motivation. It's full of life and power and passion. It's just not what is advertised.
That's why I said the review was nicely ambivalent. Ambivalence is a natural response to someone who creates useful ends with means that, if he understands the mechanics of what he is doing, are less than ethical. (If he doesn't understand the mechanics, then Robbins is completely in the grip of confirmation bias. He has swallowed his own koolaid).
I am willing to believe that Tony Robbins believes that making people more like him is a great thing to do. I am not convinced the change sticks (since most people aren't actually Tony Robbins) and I am not convinced the change justifies the lie at the heart of the process: the lie that tells them they are becoming themselves when they feel more like Tony Robbins.
And it makes me wonder: what exactly am I doing when I think I am opening up choice and healing for people? Where is that fine line between opening up possibility and shaping the choices that other people make?