Meta Model - Neuro Linguistic Programming


I’ve written this article to make the benefits of NLP clear and accessible for everyone. I’ve avoided complex NLP jargon to keep it easy to understand and practical to apply in your life.

What is the NLP Meta Model?

The NLP Meta Model is a linguistic tool that practitioners can use to identify the thoughts and feelings that lie beneath a person’s conversations. The Meta Model improves communication clarity and reduces ambiguity.

The Meta Model was created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder based on the techniques used by the therapists they were modeling, the most well-known of whom was Virginia Satir. They imitated her method of questioning her clients during her sessions. In 1975, they published their work in the first volume, “The Structure of Magic.”

What do different ‘Models of the World’ mean? 

We all have different worldviews, which means we all perceive events differently.

For example, if a score of people witness a car accident and are then interviewed individually about it, there will be at least a dozen different versions of what happened at the time.

Some of these witnesses would have been preoccupied with what they saw, while others would have been preoccupied with what they heard. The incident may have moved some people. In some cases, the accident would have resulted in a cold, factual account of what happened.

Each person’s senses develop in a unique way as a result of their surroundings and the values instilled in them by their family, religion, culture, region, work, school, university, and neighborhood. When a person thinks, he or she filters information from the outside world, resulting in a selective internal version of reality.

The concept, the ‘Map is not the Territory’ is very well coined by Alfred Korybsky. It is one of the central tenets of Neuro Linguistic Programming that the territory exists outside of us and we have maps in our heads – our internal subjective experience. The maps are all subtly (or not so subtly) different, and each of us believes our map is correct in some way.

NLP seeks ways to bridge this gap, to enter – or at least get closer to – other people’s maps. Understanding people’s representational systems through their preferences thus becomes a necessary skill.

We all know that we have five senses to perceive the world: auditory (for what we hear), visual (for what we see), kinesthetic (for what we feel or sense), gustatory (for what we taste), and olfactory (for what we smell) (things you smell). It is true that each person will have a preferred sense that they will use more frequently than others. People map the world based on their preferences.

I’ll give you my own example. For over a decade, I worked in the creative field, where my job was to design creatives for clients. I would almost never interact with a client, whether on the phone or in person. Certainly, my visual sense improved to the point where I could choose good color combinations, fonts, and even images. On the other hand, I was beginning to suspect that my auditory (hearing) sense was weak because I couldn’t focus as well when people talked to me. It would be even worse over the phone.

The best part is that as my career has shifted to coaching and training, my auditory sense has improved. I’m able to focus and understand people on the phone, which I wasn’t able to do previously.

This experience has taught me that all senses that you may have been living with can be altered subconsciously (as in my case) or consciously with practice.

How much information do our senses process?

The conscious mind’s processing capacity has been estimated to be up to 50 bits per second. Let us look at how this works. According to Britannica.com, a typical reading rate of 300 words per minute equates to approximately 5 words per second. Assuming an average of 5 characters per word and roughly 2 bits per character, the rate of 50 bits per second is obtained. Clearly, the exact number may differ depending on the individual and the task at hand. However, it is known that all of our senses together gather approximately 11 million bits per second from the environment.

Due to the vast amount of incoming data through our senses, we may have difficulty distinguishing the trivial from the important, and certainly all of this information processing exhausts us. It’s no surprise that there’s so much misunderstanding and confusion in the world today.

Assume you’ve been driving on the freeway for several hours and don’t remember much of the scenery that has passed you by. Why?

Because these filters are activated when something outside of us is relevant or irrelevant to our personality and needs. You would have gone insane if you had to process every detail of that driving scene.

Filtering occurs even when we are speaking. As a result of filtering out much information from our experiences in the world, we tend to mix things up and create something new that may or may not be beneficial to us. This information filtering is referred to as NLP’s Representational System. This is based on the following:

Deletion – We delete information that we deem unnecessary.

Distortion – We distort information based on assumptions.

Generalization – We generalize, that is we assume because something has happened once or twice it will always happen.

Why use the Meta Model?

Use the Meta Model to reduce ambiguity and vagueness in your conversations, in my opinion. Typically, the NLP Meta Model is used to question people’s words in order to improve the quality of the conversation. It is typically used by NLP practitioners to elicit clear thinking and speaking in their clients, but understanding this allows one to understand their own conversations.

Meta Model employs a simple questioning technique that prompts clients to explore and clarify their mental maps by recovering and confronting information they may be avoiding or forgetting, as well as re-checking their assumptions and generalizations.

Let’s put this to practice right away.

An example of Distortion: 

When a husband fails to wish his wife a happy birthday, the wife assumes that her husband no longer loves her.

Wife: You don’t love me anymore. (Meta Model Violation)

Husband: How can you say that? (Meta Model Question) 

Wife: Because you forgot my birthday. (Meta Model Violation)

Husband: How does forgetting your birthday equal to me not loving you? (Meta Model Question) 

Wife: You would forget only if you didn’t love me. (Meta Model Violation)

Husband: According to who?  (Meta Model Question) 

Wife: People say it and that’s how it is. (Meta Model Violation)

Husband: What makes you so sure about it? (Meta Model Question) 

Ahh! Let’s stop here before it gets too messy. 🙂

For married couples, engaging in lengthy question-and-answer sessions may not always be feasible. If you find yourself in a situation where facts are muddled, consider how the Meta Model can challenge and reshape your understanding of reality, sparking deeper reflection and insight.

An example of Generalization: 

People commonly use absolute words or phrases such as, “everyone tells me”, or “I’ve always seen”, or “I’ve never felt so bad in my life”

Woman: Since I was a child, everyone has told me how to dress-up. (Meta Model Violation)

Friend: Who specifically has told you that? (Meta Model Question)

Woman: Everyone in my family and even friends. (Meta Model Violation)

Friend: Does that make each and everyone you have in your family and friends have told you that?

Woman: Hmm. Almost all of them.

Presuming the friend is familiar with Meta Model questioning, he or she may be prompted to ask, “well, that doesn’t make it everyone, right?”

Wait a minute, don’t go overboard. While the Meta Model is all about questioning, becoming overly enthusiastic about hurling a volley of questions at someone, in a normal setting, can sound interrogating and rude. Beware, you may be confronted by something like, “are you trying to prove me wrong?” or “You think I’m faking all this?” or something else on a similar scale.

There is always more than one aspect to any concept, one good, one bad, and possibly one more somewhere in the middle. A specific area deemed unsafe at night and never taking that route can be a wise Generalization. However, a person coming from the same area for a job interview and being turned down solely because she or he lives in the same area is not a positive Generalization. People who generalize without rationalizing, limit their experiences rather than enrich them.

An example of Deletion: 

You’re trying to concentrate on a conversation in a noisy, music-filled environment. You’d try to mentally block out the music and other noises in the room so you could focus on the speaker.

It is obviously impossible to pay conscious attention to all of the information that influences your senses. At some point, you must decide what to pay attention to and what to let fade into the background. Deletion is undoubtedly a useful filter, but in other contexts it may result in a worthless experience.

It also applies when people fail to provide enough information to others in order to let them know what is going on or what they expect from them. People usually fill in the blanks with their own knowledge and experience.

I’ve met a lot of people who simply say, “I’ll let you know soon.” A Meta Model question would be, “How close is soon?” Careful, a practitioner may get away sounding like a patron but a normal person may not. Tone it down a bit, “Could you specify so I can start preparations”.

People have learnt to replace direct answer “no” with “I’ll let you know”, to not sound rude. A more clearer statement would be “I’ll get back if I’m interested”.

One more, “This presentation does not look good, do something about it”. A pro Meta Model question would be, “What specifically is not good with this presentation?”

However, I understand that this could be your boss saying it, and you may not be able to question her/him back. On second thought, a little modifier might be useful. “If you could assist me in understanding what specific corrections this presentation requires, I would turn it in faster and as per your expectations?”

Benefits of using Meta Model on self and others. 

  • It enhances our understanding of people and the underlying causes of their problematic behaviors.
  • It can help you figure out how to motivate your coworkers, children, spouses, friends, and so on.
  • Assist people in developing their own solutions to difficult problems.
  • Communicate in a straightforward and unambiguous manner.

How to use this?

Take note of the Representational Systems that people frequently use. Pay attention to how people describe a situation or an event, as well as the assumptions or presuppositions they make in their conversations. If it is directly related to you, you can begin by asking one or two questions without appearing domineering or overstepping your bounds. Take a note of whether the person responds to you without becoming irritated or suspecting that you are attempting to fix them. If they are irritated, just stop. If they are not, take it easy. If you care for them and want to enrich their way of thinking and conversation, wean them off their habit of Meta Model violations. Remember no one wants to accept they have a problem.

After considering the points mentioned earlier, try applying them to yourself first to identify any Meta Model violations you may have.

Sometimes Meta Model questions, if used by a non practitioner, may sound rude to others. Example: If someone says, “I know they will be back-biting about me”. This is Distortion. If you directly say, “How do you know that?” You may sound rude. A tactful way of saying, “Is that so? How can you say that?”, can be less dominating.

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