Dr L.Michael Hall on Tony Robbin’s Film : A Critical Review of the Movie
January 30, 2017
I’M NOT YOUR GURU, I JUST BEHAVE AS IF I AM
Here’s my bias as I begin this review: I like Anthony Robbins; I always have. From the first time I read Unlimited Power, I knew that he had a real gift of explaining difficult things. Then over the years, it became evident that he was a genius in marketing, branding, and entertaining. Even to this day, I would guess that Tony brings more people into the field of NLP than all of the rest of us combined. Years ago I had a front row seat as I saw how Richard Bandler treated Tony that caused Tony to stop saying the three letters, «NLP» in public. That’s should not have happened; Richard should have put an mantle of honor on Tony.
So what follows here is not a criticism of Tony personally. Instead it is a critique of his new movie and its unfortunate message. The title of the movie is, I’m Not Your Guru, and it is about Robbins and his work, especially the «Date with Destiny» program. Now to his credit, Tony begins the movie by saying that he is not a guru and doesn’t want to be. He also explains to the unknown interviewer that he does not have «the answer» to people’s dilemmas and that there are many paths. All of that is good and I congratulate him on saying: «Who am I? I’m not your guru. Not here to fix you. You are not broken.»
But … and this is a big but, in spite of those disclaimers, there are many things in the movie that say otherwise. In fact, there are several things that Robbins does that will, in effect, actually encourage people to think of him as a guru. That’s unfortunate. So unless Tony changes these things, people will continue thinking of him as a guru and he will have to continue dis-avowing that he is not a guru. To behave in these aspects -aspects that a guru would act- actually argues against all of one’s disclaimers to the contrary. In writing the following critical review of the movie, my objective is to use some critical thinking to offer some balance to Tony.
Now the movie is very well edited and produced. It is engaging and it is emotional. The voice over sections powerfully tie together some of the interview questions while showing Tony back stage or the thousands of people in the audience or the beautiful scenes in Florida. Overall, it is very well done. And much that Tony presents is good. But in terms of the title about not being a guru, the movie does not demonstrate that at all. In fact, I think the movie actually encourages people to think of him as a guru. I’m here using «guru» not in the Eastern sense of «teacher» or «master,» but in the sense of being a cult leader, someone so superior that people treat him as an enlightened being.
If you want to be a Guru – there are certain things that you would do that would elevate you in people’s thinking. Here are some of them:
1) Give No Credit
If you want to be a guru and give people the impression that you are the source of all of your wisdom, insights, and «magic,» then give no one an credit to anyone for your message. Quote no one. Mention none of your studies. And this is exactly what Tony Robbins does in the movie for nearly two full hours. In fact, when he encourage people to go out and «teach one,» he refers to his tools and the tools that he has given them.
From the movie, no observer would have any idea that Tony learned what he learned from Richard Bandler, John Grinder, and Wyatt Woodsmall. No would know that his first book, Unlimited Power (1985) is essentially the NLP Practitioner course. For two hours, there is in fact not a single reference to NLP. It is as if he invented every process that he has learned and he is the source of all of that wisdom. Doing that is not the way to demonstrate that «I am not your guru.» It is the opposite. Do that and people will quote you and you only. What else are they to think?
Yet within the movie itself are many things that come from NLP. In the opening scene, for example, Tony does a pattern interrupt when he interrupts a young man’s pattern of hating himself and wanting to hit himself. Tony asked, «Why you hate yourself so much?» There’s a moment of hesitation, then he does a humor interrupt, «Is it because of the red shoes?» He looks down at his shoes. «Those are fucking red shoes.» The young man smiles. Tony warns, «Now be careful, you’ll start to enjoy yourself.» Other patterns within the movie that come from NLP are Change Personal History and Collapsing of Anchors. But in all of that, not a single word is uttered to give credit to NLP as the source.
2) Speak in Absolute and Global Terms
As a great entertainer with tremendous showmanship, Tony is bigger than life, his «show» is bigger than life, and he speaks about things in that kind of grandiose way. This both makes him effective and equally makes him ineffective. He speaks using extreme language statements. Who else would title a book, Unlimited Power? But power is limited. And no one but God has unlimited power! He calls upon people to be is totally passionate. He speaks about his program, «The Ultimate Business Mastery» about adding massive pleasure, adding massive pain, engaging in massive action plan.
All this encourages people to think about him as bigger than life and about being cut from a different clothe than the rest of us. If you don’t want to be viewed as a guru, sprinkle in some down-to-earth language. Quote your sources, temper your speech with tentative words, avoid absolute terms that polarize life into two categories.
By speaking in these over-simplistic ways, using over-exaggerated terms, and failing to speak with precision- he leaves the impression that he has absolute truth. On day five from the stage he poses the question, «Who has not had a breakthrough at this point?» Then he asks a rhetorical question, «How could you not have a breakthrough?» After letting the question sit in the air for a moment, he gives the answer. It was the theme of the day, «If you’re in your head, your dead.» So he announced, «You are in your head.» Apparently there’s no other possibility or alternative answer.
Speaking about the lack of precision, he also uses the F-word frequently and commented later that it is his way of breaking patterns and shaking people up by using outrageous words. He shouts from the stage, «I’m fucking unstoppable.»
The advice he gives sounds right, but the problem is that it is so general that it doesn’t take any context or constraints into account. When Sienna, a 19-year old girl, stands and says she has a problem with her diet, he asks a series of questions and eventually she says that she’s looking for love. Tony asks whether it was dad or mom that she didn’t get the love that she wanted. It was dad. He announces, «She loves him, she just hates it that she loves him so much.» A little later he announces, «As much as you hate what he does, he hates himself more.» Is he psychic? She nods, so he must be! Or maybe it is just over-generalized statements that could be true of anyone, of everyone. «What if you called him and blame him for all these things. … You also need to blame him for all the good too. Give credit for what’s great about you.»
From the stage he talks about problems and announces, «Your biggest problem is that you think you shouldn’t have them!» He talks about the problems he had with his mother and that it made him «the man that I am proud to be today.» So that seals the deal: problems are good. Of course, what’s lacking is any precision about what kind of problems are we talking about.
3) Be a Fantastic Faith Healer
Watching this movie reminded me of many of the old televangelists of the 1970s and 1980s, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Crowds in the thousands, loud gospel music, charismatic faith leader encountering a person who suffers desperately, commanding devils to flee, the person falling back, swooning, God be praised! Even the music in the movie reminded me of the music in those big events. And the movie ends with dimmed lights and Tony doing a hypnotic induction to the music of Amazing Grace. Is this «The Church of Tony?»
Tony did that at the beginning with Matyas, a suicidal young man from Berlin, and then later with Dawn, a young woman from Brazil who sold all of her furniture to come to the training as her last hope. On Day three he said, «Raise your hand if you’re really fucked up! Someone who is suicidal.» It was Dawn, the young 26-year old woman, who was still suffering from sexual traumas from having grown up in a cult.
But the problem with the movie is that the suicide issue is treated as if it is solved once and for all by an experience with Tony, and that’s it. Actually, I was surprised at these parts of the movie because for years problems with suicides have plagued Tony. Once in Germany three people who had attended his program committed suicide afterwards, it also happened in Australia and other places. The over-emotional and over-intense program (which used to go to two and three in the morning) put a real strain on people already wounded by life and frail in terms of their ego-strength.
Like faith healers, the movie presents dramatic and intense «confrontations» that Tony has with the people in the audience. He calls his «interventions» or «demonstrations.» He style is to go out and find someone in the audience and interact with them in a way that seems incredibly «personal» and yet it is only superficially so. No one could «coach» or do a therapy intervention in the way he talks and interacts with people. Well, unless you have 3,000 people watching you! Yet people respond quickly and dramatically! Why? Probably because they are on stage with three thousand people watching! No wonder they are so responsive.
When he dealt with Dawn who raised her hand about thinking about suicide, afterwards he explained that the solution «just came through me.» He explained that his own difficult childhood set him up so his mission now is to save others from a horrible childhood.
4) Set Up Subtle Audience Response Rituals
To «work the crowd» Tony has several processes that are both exciting and at the same time subtly persuasive and maybe even manipulative. He repeatedly presents something and then asks, «Who agrees with me? … Say Yes!» And with that comes a chorus of yeses. It sounds obvious and innocent. Yet it actually taps into some of the power of group dynamics. Just imagine hearing three-thousand people shouting «Yes!» Even if you didn’t say yes, you just heard a whole auditorium exploding with «Yes!» repeatedly, that ritual will put you into a yes-set. And the yes-set creates a subtle influence that predisposes a person to agree and value and to avoid thinking it through.
Similarly when he gets people saying «I.» «How many are for that? Say ‘I’!» «Who gets that? Say ‘I!’» «Who knows what I’m talking about? Say ‘I!’» The sound of «I» as a chorus in an auditorium echoing around encourages people to take ownership of it and personalize whatever was said or presented. Effective? Yes. Manipulative? I think we have to say yes to that as well.
5) Always Make Everything Positive and Upbeat
The entire «I’m not your Guru» movie is not a documentary although from the beginning of the film it seems to suggest that. «This is the first time Robbins has allowed outside cameras to fully document the six-day event.» Yet the film asks no hard questions, and it doesn’t present any skepticism about anything. While there’s no indication what the Joe Berlinger Film is, it strikes me as a video production company that Tony hired to create the «Date with Destiny» Video to sell the program. In the end, everything is positive and upbeat. There’s no failures, no downside, no «let the buyer beware.» There are no constraints or concerns presented. This is good if you want to be a guru. It is counter-productive if you do not want to be a guru.
After challenging one young woman about whether she is getting what she wants from the relationship. She shook her head no. He then ask her in front of the thousands to get her boyfriend on the phone. When she let him know her dissatisfaction; the call did not end well. He hung up on her. In a voice-over, the interviewer asked Tony, «Are you ever concerned about giving the wrong piece of advice?» He says that he watches their body and what their body «tells him is right.» «It’s true because her whole nervous system responds.» «I’m looking for what’s real.» In this, he answers the question, not directly but indirectly: «I never give wrong advice.»! At the end of the film in the credits, however, we learn Hali and her boyfriend have decided to stay together.
The movie I Am Not Your Guru is a very entertaining film, well-crafted, and highlights the «Date with Destiny» seminar. It will probably be great as a promotion for selling that seminar. It is also a self-promotional marketing film and not a documentary movie and not from an objective third-party perspective. Most importantly, in terms of the title, it does not demonstrate that Tony Robbins does not want to be your guru. In fact, due to the things mentioned, what it shows is precisely what would be recommended to a person who wants to be seen as a guru. Now if Tony Robbins is serious about not being seen as a guru, here’s what I recommend that he do.
Quote sources, give credit to NLP for the original source of his skills. Invite people to read or consult sources outside of himself.
Temper his language patterns by using more precise language.
Present cautions to the audience and to the people he works with letting them know that he is not a psychologist, does not have therapeutic training, and that if they are suicidal they should seek professional assistance.
Temper his use of the reverberating «Yeses!» and «Say ‘I’» that he uses.
Present some non-dramatic conversations and/or interventions so to convey the idea that change doesn’t require big dramatic instantaneous transformations.
Co-train with other people on his staff so that it is not all about him.