Last year an East Coast computer firm sent its sales managers to a weekend seminar on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). At some point, one manager concluded that he and his fellow executives were being taught how to use hypnotic methods to influence clients.
As the manager described it, the NLP trainer began with techniques such as how to tell what a person is thinking: by breathing changes, skin color, muscle tone, and the size of the lower lip. Then the trainer asked, ''Now that you know what a person is thinking, how do you change that?''
The trainer explained how a salesman can, through some simple mental techniques, persuade a store owner to display the salesman's goods on the store counter instead of his competitors'.
This is one way that mind manipulation techniques are being used in business. But it doesn't stop there.
Louise Hall, a Spanish teacher in suburban Chicago, signed up last spring for a course to improve her Spanish fluency. On the first day of class the teacher asked the students if they objected to being hypnotized so that they could learn faster. Ms. Hall was the only student who objected, but she decided to stay and just ignore the ''relaxation exercises.''
The teacher then started his Spanish instructions, weaving the class in and out of hypnotic trances three times before the lunch break. When he resumed the hypnosis after lunch, she decided to leave.
Such use of hypnotism is increasingly open. It can be found in the everyday world of classrooms and sales meetings, where it goes almost unnoticed - and uncriticized. Mental manipulation techniques, often referred to by such terms as ''relaxation exercises,'' are being used in education, sales, business management, and law.
A variety of programs, seminars, workshops and cassette tapes claim to be able to instruct people on how to influence others below the threshold of their conscious thought.
A brochure for Effective Learning Systems Inc. (ELS) promises to teach the buyer how to go ''beyond positive thinking and hypnosis.'' The company offers to teach the customer how to take charge of his life, how to be happy, and how to make money. Among its customers: 3M Company, Control Data, and US Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, Minn.
ELS president Bob Griswold says the tapes work by stimulating what is considered the largely unused right half of the brain with music and relaxation techniques.
''Then in these more relaxed states of mind, we work with deeper levels of consciousness, at slower brain frequencies,'' says Mr. Griswold. ''You can get to a deep level in hypnosis . . . but many people are afraid of it because they're afraid someone else is in control.'' Griswold says his ''productive meditation'' emphasizes love and emotion.
He says the concept is based on ''suggestology,'' which he describes as a method designed to help people learn languages and other subjects more quickly.
''Although our (system) could be labeled hypnosis, I'd prefer not to call it that because it's different from what other people are doing using hypnosis,'' says Griswold.
One of the highest-profile organizations in the field is Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It has a network of NLP trainers across the country.
''NLP helps you accomplish whatever your purpose is - whether it's to change a patient's behavior in a clinical setting; or to sell something in the world of business; or if it's just to make . . .your life pleasant,'' says New England NLP trainer Gurushabad Khalsa.
NLP is essentially a communication system based on linguistics and hypnosis. This reporter sat in on a weekly NLP training session in a basement in the Soho neighborhood of New York. Learners tried to grasp the basics of NLP, which seems to be a sophisticated version of ''How to Win Friends and Influence People.'' The gist of the session was: Listen to what people are saying. Let them know you're listening. Communicate back in a way they can relate to.
NLP's claims to teach how to be persuasive by ''reading'' another person so sensitively that intimate rapport is established. Students are taught to develop such a finely tuned awareness of what a person is thinking that they can respond to those signs, and establish trust.
''Once you notice (a person's eye movements), it constitutes a really powerful source of information about the other person's unconscious processes,'' a book on NLP instructs. ''One way I can use this information is to communicate to you at the unconscious level without any awareness on your part.''
Founders John Grinder and Richard Bandler started NLP as a form of therapy in the mid-1970s, based partly on the methods of the late hypno-therapist Milton Erickson. Now NLP is expanding beyond the therapist-patient relationship into the corporate and education worlds. There, warn some observers, the trust and protection of the therapy relationship don't exist.
''What you're talking about is how to powerfully influence people,'' says Steve Gilligan, a psychology graduate student at Stanford University who worked with Grinder and Bandler in founding NLP. ''There are a lot of lawyers and business people without a lot of integrity,'' he says.
NLP has been taught to executives at Arthur D. Little Inc., International Business Machines of Canada, Atex Inc., among others. Educational computer software based on NLP concepts is being sold by Apple Computers Inc.
According to Roger Cutler of Apple, NLP has been used to teach slow and disabled learners, and is now branching out into teaching spelling and math to average students.
To Homer Hagedorn, head of the Organizational and Management Effectiveness section of Arthur D. Little, a management consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass, NLP is simply ''a way of speeding up the communication process.''
Mr. Hagedorn says he sees nothing wrong with NLP's methods.
''Touching someone's unconscious is something you do all the time anyway, and people do it to you all the time,'' he says. ''But there are some neatly built-in balancing factors in NLP. You become more sensitive to the power of these devices or skills. And while someone could use them maliciously, my impression is that people get so that they stand in awe of what they could let loose.''
The computer executive mentioned at the outset, who learned NLP in the seminar for sales executives, feels differently.
''What's important to recognize here is the dehumanizing view of human nature ,'' he says. ''It presumes people can be reconfigured into this shape or that shape. It says we have no individual shape - we either manipulate or are manipulated.''