In this very interesting 18-minute video, filmed at one of his very large “Mastery University” seminars in Australia, Tony Robbins asks if anyone present is suicidal. A woman raises her hand, and Tony proceeds to interact with her. I don’t know how long the video will be available online, so if you want to watch it, you may want to do it soon. I strongly suggest that you watch the video below before reading my review below for two related reasons:

1) So that you can pay close attention to what you see and hear — particularly nonverbal behavior, both in Tony and the client — and notice your own responses, thoughts, and evaluations, unbiased by mine.

2) So that you can later compare what you observed with what I saw and heard. You may also find it useful to watch the video a second time after reading my comments. (I have watched it a number of times and learned a lot from this.) Watch the video now.

After watching the video, scroll down for my review. . . .
(If you haven’t yet watched the video, please do so before reading on.)

Tony first interrupts Olivia’s sad story by asking her, (2:36) “Why are you unworthy to be alive? Do you fart in public?” etc., and this gets a very definite state change into humor. This is a particularly effective interrupt and redirect because English is Olivia’s second language, and she is at first quite confused by his words, adding to the interrupt. He continues to solidify this state by asking her more questions about farting, “Did you ever fart and blame it on your dog? Did you ever fart and blame it on a friend?”

At 4:00, after Olivia has said “No” to all these questions about farting, Tony says, “No. OK, good, then you are worthy of living, . . . unlike many other people in this room.” In the first part of this sentence he links her not farting to being worthy of living, which links back to her statement about unworthiness, and makes it seem ludicrous. The second part of the sentence makes the same linkage in reverse seem equally ludicrous.

Olivia then continues with her extensive tale of woe — her betrayal by her husband, who took everything from her, etc.

Then Tony nicely reorients her to her pre-marriage identity by asking about her last name, and then her maiden name which is a powerful positive resource for her identity. Although the video is titled, “Creating a Compelling Future,” what he is actually doing is accessing a compelling past, bringing it into the present, and then taking this into the future.

At 10:24, Tony says, “You need to stop this story; it’s very painful. I have total compassion for you. But because I care about you, I can’t let you indulge in this story any more. Because the story is making you stand not like a Garzon, behave not like a Garzon. It’s created the illusion that you are not who you really are.” This pulls her out of her sadness, and back into her family identity again.

While acknowledging these useful changes, I think it is useful to keep in mind that someone who is willing to volunteer in this kind of context — being videotaped in front of a huge audience — is likely to be very motivated. While Tony makes some good moves, I don’t think we could expect to see the same kind of intense responses to these moves very often in a one-on-one session without the thousand-plus backup “therapists,” and with someone who doesn’t have Tony’s reputation. The fact that this is a very high-priced seminar further selects for people who are highly motivated.

Now let’s take a look at some very interesting nonverbal behaviors. Notice how often Tony sneers, for instance at 13:00 when he says, “Miss Garzon,” and again at 13:03 and 13:12 when he again says, “Miss Garzon.” (See the still below.) I will return to this topic later.

Tony Robbins' sneer (if viewing this in your email, please load images)

At 13:06, in between the last two of these “Miss Garzons” Tony smiles and then wipes his hand across his face. What is the quality of this smile? It is certainly not a smile of pleasure, or of embarrassment. I would call it a self-satisfied smile. Tony appears to be pleased at his own cleverness, and I think this view is supported by his “wiping the smile off his face,” (see below) as well as his shaking his head from side to side immediately after that. I will also return to this topic later.

Tony Robbins' unusual smile

Near the end of Tony’s interaction with Olivia is the following exchange:

13:46 Tony: Dear Garzon, with the heritage of a Garzon, what is possible? What is possible for a woman who has the heritage, the lineage of a Garzon within her? What is possible?

14:03 Olivia: To see that life is just a great opportunity, to be — um — to conquer the universe, to conquer the love and the loss—

Although Olivia has made some useful shifts, her nonverbal behavior — voice tone, furrowed brow, upside down smile, and facial expression — indicates that much of her identity as a “victim” is intact.

When she says, “I can conquer the universe,” that indicates that she has undergone what is called a “polarity flip.” She began by being suicidal and a complete victim of events; now she is saying that she can “conquer the universe,” which is just as unrealistic and unbalanced, and very likely to flip back again into its opposite. Bipolar disorder is another example of this kind of alternation. Flipping between polar opposites is very different from the integration of opposites. Tony validates what she says, ignoring her nonverbal messages of incongruence.

Tony: That’s right.

14:22 Olivia: —to remind myself that always I was respected, that only one man was — used me and hurt me, and took away everything from me—

Here Olivia clearly slides back into her unhappiness as a “wronged woman,” and Tony challenges this again.

14:36 Tony: Did he take away everything?

Olivia: Yes.

14:39 Tony: No. I’m asking you, did he take away everything?

Tony’s “No” directly contradicts Olivia’s “Yes,” followed by a repetition of his question challenging what she said.

14:41 Olivia: No, no, my faith, my self, my dignity, my personality, is with me now.

Tony: Right, he could not take that. You had the illusion that he took it—

Olivia: Yes, yes.

14:49 Tony: —that’s why you were so sad. You forgot who you are. Will you ever forget this again?

Olivia: No, again, no.

Tony: Never again.

Olivia: No, Never again.

14:56 Tony: Never again. (applause)

Is it realistic to think that Olivia will actually “never again” fall into being unhappy about being treated so badly by her husband of 19 years, leaving her destitute? I don’t think so, especially with all the nonverbal signals that clearly indicate her incongruence, even when she says positive things. If she does slip into her sadness again later, Tony will not be available to pull her out of it.

I think it would be much better to assume that at least occasionally she may slide back into being a helpless victim — as she just did — and provide a way for her to quickly move back into a more positive outlook by linking this to remembering her positive identity.

For instance, saying something like, “If you ever again become sad about how badly you were treated, you can remember this moment of knowing who you are as a Garzon, something no one can ever take away from you” could create a link between being sad, and remembering that she is a Garzon. A detailed future-pace would be even better.

A lasting solution would involve taking the time to integrate these two polarities, and create the congruence that would eliminate any chance that she could slip back into her sadness. But that would take more time than Tony’s razzle-dazzle workshop context would permit.

To summarize, Tony succeeds in changing her state, and accessing a positive polarity, but he does not go on to integrate the two polarities. It’s good theater, but only a start on lasting change.

Back to the sneer
In Tony’s follow-up comments on the session he repeatedly sneers, a clear signal of contempt. I would call the still below the “mother of all sneers.”

As a little experiment, think now of something that you could feel contemptuous about, or disgusted with, and then sneer. . . .

Did you sneer on the left side of your face or the right? . . .

Now try sneering on the other side of your face. . . .

Probably you had difficulty doing this last step, or you may have found it impossible. A sneer is usually on the left side of the face in a right-handed person, because it expresses non-dominant (usually right-brain) emotion, which is usually less conscious. Given that Tony released this video clip, I assume that he was not aware of his sneer, and probably many people watching it aren’t either, despite its magnitude. This video is not unique; if you watch any of his many videos closely, you will see him sneer over and over again.

A sneer is a facial expression of scorn or disgust characterized by a slight raising of one corner of the upper lip, known also as curling the lip or turning up the nose.
Wikipedia: Sneer

In the sneer, buccinator muscles (innervated by lower buccal branches of the facial nerve) contract to draw the lip corners sideward to produce a sneering “dimple” in the cheeks (the sneer may also be accompanied by a scornful, upward eye-roll). From videotape studies of nearly 700 married couples in sessions discussing their emotional relationships with each other, University of Washington psychologist, John Gottman has found the sneer expression (even fleeting episodes of the cue) to be a “potent signal” for predicting the likelihood of future marital disintegration (Bates and Cleese 2001). In this regard, the sneer may be decoded as an unconscious sign of contempt.
The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, & Body Language Cues by David B. Givens, 2002, Spokane, Washington: Center for Nonverbal Studies Press, pp.24-25

(For more on sneering, see the note at the end of this post.)

Tony’s repeated sneers during his work, and as he talks about his work with Olivia later, is incongruent with his statement about being compassionate and caring at 10:24, when he says, “You need to stop this story; it’s very painful. I have total compassion for you. But because I care about you, I can’t let you indulge in this story any more.”

Being compassionate and caring for someone is the opposite of sneering. Generally speaking, nonverbal behavior is more likely to be valid than the words someone uses, which are more likely to be a “front” created by the conscious mind. We all have personal limitations that will interfere with helping others, so Tony is not unique, but pervasive contempt for a client is a pretty serious one.

Back to the self-satisfied smile
We see this smile again (though less intensely) in his follow-up comments when Tony says, “I watched her and listened to her, and I saw that she came from a traditional background, and I gambled, . . . correctly.”

Given all the foregoing observations, it appears to me that even when Tony helps someone, his ultimate goal is not their well-being, but Tony’s power, fame, and self-importance and this is bound to distort the result. His first book is titled Unlimited Power, and among his seminar titles are “Unleash the Power Within,” and “Wealth Mastery,” so it is reasonable to assume that power is a prime motivator for Tony.

In the case of Olivia, it is impressive to leave her with “I can conquer the world,” and “I will never forget this,” but it is not the kind of integrated resolution that will result in lasting benefit.

In the five-year follow-up, Olivia says, “She was doing well, and always remembered what Tony said to her,” so apparently she did benefit from the session. However, the fact that she remembered her session with Tony is not surprising, given the context of being the focus of Tony and a thousand other participants. To what extent this memory contributed significantly to her “doing well” is at least questionable; a lot can happen in five years that might have contributed to this result, and the passage of time alone is bound to be a factor. A one- or two-month follow-up would have provided better evidence of changes that resulted from the session alone.

Despite my criticism, it can be useful to watch and listen to Tony’s videos. Having watched a lot of live client demonstrations at national psychotherapy conferences, I have to say that Tony gets far more changes much faster than most well-known therapists — many of whom don’t get any changes at all. And he is also willing to show what he does publicly, so that we can see exactly what he does. This is something that is all too rare in the field; most therapists practice privately, hiding behind “confidentiality,” not willing to make what they do public — often for good reason.

And now I suggest that you watch the video again.

Note: more on sneering

In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin defined a “sneer” as “the upper lip being retracted in such a manner that the canine tooth on one side of the face alone is shown” Darwin related the sneer to the snarl observed in non-human animals, particularly carnivores, observing that:

“The uncovering of the canine tooth is the result of a double movement. The angle or corner of the mouth is drawn a little backwards, and at the same time a muscle which runs parallel to and near the nose draws up the outer part of the upper lip, and exposes the canine on this side of the face. The contraction of this muscle makes a distinct furrow on the cheek, and produces strong wrinkles under the eye, especially at its inner corner. The action is the same as that of a snarling dog; and a dog when pretending to fight often draws up the lip on one side alone, namely that facing his antagonist.”
— Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872, pp 249-250, as quoted in Wikipedia: Sneer

“Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.”
— William Shakespeare, Richard III: Act 1, Scene 2