What is Meta Program in NLP?



Meta-programs are mental programs that direct your decisions, behaviors, actions and interactions with others. The Meta Programs determine how to process information by choosing what to Delete, Distort or Generalize (about Meta Model read here) from your experience. Meta Programs is one of the 5 filters in the NLP Communication model which directs your behavior towards a specific world experience. The other 4 filters are; beliefs, values, decisions and memories.


The Meta Program was first developed by Cameron-Bandler in 1985. Tad James, creator of the Time Line Therapy has outlined the Meta Programs in his books “Time Line Therapy – basis of personality” (Kindle Link).



It is filtering software you have programmed through your life’s experiences. These are often expressed in a person’s choice of language. The Meta Programs you use to make sense of the world either work for you or they work against you depending on how you live your life based on your personal goals and objectives.


NLP Meta Programs portray pairs of behavioural traits at opposite ends of a continuum.


For example:


Are you any one of these?


  • You are a spontaneous and do things at the spur of the moment – rather than analyze the situation.
  • You are not satisfied with one outcome and keep your options open – rather than getting fixed on a result.
  • You hate routine and keep changing the way things are done – rather than being fixed on a lifestyle steadfastly.


You might be very familiar with such behaviour between spouses, colleagues and even siblings. When there is difference in opinion, it may result in a conflict or a relationship downslide. I think knowing how people work, helps bridge gaps.


Look at it this way, this NLP Meta Program also gives an insight into a person’s preferences. When you understand they are operating from the opposite side of the continuum – you can understand them better and relate with them.


Some experts claim 30 Meta Programs while some claim upto 60. The final number of Meta Programs can be debatable as some are merged with other similar Meta Programs and new Meta Programs are added to the list.


Truly, after having read so much about it, I feel the depth it goes into can swirl your mind out of context. As I was reading, I have realized whether so much is needed at all to complicate our lives when NLP itself is a fast-track therapy. There is lot to learn and of course, it can take a bit of time to understand and process this information.


I have listed few out of the many Meta Programs which I have personally made sense of it: So, lets dive in:


Proactive versus Reactive
Proactive = inclined towards acting quickly and taking the initiative.
Reactive = inclined towards waiting, considering and reflecting.


Towards versus Away from
Towards = inclined towards achieving goals.
Away From = inclined towards avoiding problems.


Internal Reference versus External Reference
Internal Reference = inclined towards internal voice in evaluations.
External Reference = inclined towards other people’s voice in evaluations.


Options versus Procedure
Options = inclined towards many different possibilities.
Procedure = inclined towards step-wise planning.


General versus Specific
General = inclined towards the broader spectrum.
Specific = inclined towards bite-sized detail.


Matching versus Mismatching
Matching = inclined towards similarities.
Mismatching = inclined towards differences.


Cooperative versus Proximity versus Solo
Cooperative = inclined towards teamwork with shared responsibility.
Proximity = inclined towards having the rein yet seeking mutual support.
Solo = inclined towards working alone.


Past versus Present versus Future
Past = inclined towards past events.
Present = inclined towards here and now.
Future = inclined towards future events.


Visual versus Auditory versus Kinesthetic
Visual = inclined towards images and movies.
Auditory = inclined towards sounds and words.
Kinesthetic = inclined towards feelings and movement.


Possibility vs. Necessity
Possibility = inclined towards choices and desire.
Necessity = inclined towards what is available or the need of the hour.


An example:


Let assume you are at an extreme in this set. And going on a holiday 🙂


Options versus Procedure
Options = inclined towards many different possibilities.
Procedure = inclined towards step-wise planning.


Options specialist:


“Let not pack anything for the journey. We will leave today and take the countryside route which will be a wee bit long, but nevermind. I like that route. I am sure you too. The flight is tomorrow early morning, so we have lot of time. Then overnight at that new Shanghai inn and then early morning head to the airport. Oh yes, I wanted to pick up that jacket, so we will do that on the way. I will book the cab after an hour.


Procedures specialist:


“Its about 120kms to the airport. Its tomorrow early morning 5.20am. According to the web the journey will take approximately 3 hours and 35 minutes. Although the roads will be clear, lets not take chance. We better we leave an hour early. We will see if there are any eateries open for a quick snack. Then at the airport minimum 1 hour for the walk and security check. And we’d better add an extra hour just in case. Let me check my passport, tickets and put it in my hand baggage. Don’t put more than 10kgs in the hand luggage. Have you packed anything to eat on the way, since it is a long journey and what if we don’t find an eating joint? I will book the cab now. I will schedule it for 12am. By the time we settle it may take another 15-20 minutes.


People who operate at one extreme of the Meta Program continuum will often find those who operate at the other extreme complicated, strange, or even exasperating! And those on the Options-Procedures continuum do tend to find each other difficult to understand.


Point to be noted – Your Meta Programs are never constant and can change as you expand your knowledge and gain experiences in your life. Very few people operate entirely at one end of a continuum that is – perhaps, when under stress – they will likely be towards one end or the other.




How useful are Meta-Programs?


Firstly, Meta Programs helps you understand your own behaviour; how you make decisions, how you interpret your life, and your interactions with others will all begin to make sense once you understand the Meta Programs that are running your brain.


Secondly, the Meta Programs is also advantageous to understand other people’s behaviour, because it will help you align your behavior in compliance to other people. It will facilitate deeper levels of rapport with others, understand their motivations in order to influence their choices, decisions, and actions.


Remarkably, it also gives you an opportunity to change, shift and transform your behaviour, in positive ways, to help improve your beliefs, values, decisions, habits, actions, and your self-sabotaging patterns.


How to identify yours and others Meta-Programs?


Identifying Meta Programs within yourself or within other people does take practice and some effort. You will need to study the person’s speech/language patterns, their behaviour, belief systems, and physiology. The clues can be very evident, especially in a person who is absolutely at one end of the continuum. Sometimes, the clues can be subtle in people who may exhibit characteristics from two extremes. This means that within a specific Meta Program that person is somewhere in the middle of the two polarities.


To identify your own Meta Programs, it’s important to consider how useful they are and how they are shaping your life and circumstances. You can start by taking the sets of the Meta Program written above. See whether you are at an extreme of a Meta Program set or somewhere in-between.


How to change my Meta-Programs?


Firstly, you will have to determine which Meta Program you want to change. Then make a train of self assessing questions like:


  • Given my present situation, which Meta Program needs attention?
  • In which situations do I use this Meta Program?
  • This Meta Program serves me in certain situations only. Which ones?
  • Does this Meta Program need to change totally or needs to be toned down?


Your current Meta Program may have some benefits that you may lose if you make these changes. It’s essential to consider preserving the benefits of the current Meta Program, before moving forward through this process.


Secondly, after you recognize the Meta Program that you would prefer to alter- make another train of self assessing questions like:


  • What will it allow me to do? How is this of value to me?
  • Do I feel excitement, satisfaction, discomfort, pain?
  • How does it feel like to use it daily?
  • Will this Meta Program serve me to achieve my desired goals?
  • What are the positive and negative consequences of this change?
  • How do these changes affect or influence my current beliefs, values and convictions?


As you work through these questions, imagine yourself in the situations, which you have identified to apply the new Meta Program. It is important that this new Meta Program serves you within these specific situations where you potentially want a change or else there might be conflicts, and as a result, you will fail to make the necessary long-term changes.


Installing a new Meta Program is not a child’s game.


It is very possible that your beliefs, values and/or convictions may come in your way. Your mind will resist this change because you are about to alter something that has served you all this while. There will also be fear and a feeling of uneasiness on the thought of coming out of your comfort zone. So all is not lost! In such instances, you can still preserve the benefits of the current Meta Program to a certain degree. You will certainly be at one point in any Meta Program. So when you say you want to change a Meta Program that means you want to reduce the intensity of your polarities to come to a more strategic point, which will allow you to enhance your life goals.


One way you can address these conflicts and incongruities is through Reframing (read about Reframing here). Reframing involves shifting how you have been thinking about things in order to bring change in your perspective. After which practice will get you there.


However, for this to work, you must have the necessary commitment and the desire to follow through this new Meta Program until it becomes a habit and no longer requires a thoughtful intervention. Else you will fall back into old patterns.


Let’s hear from a Pro. Robbins provides the following suggestions:


  1. All NLP Meta Programs are context-and stress-related.
  2. There are two ways to change NLP meta-programs. One is from a significant emotional event. The other way you can change is by consciously deciding to do so.
  3. Use NLP Meta Programs on two levels. The first as a tool to calibrate and guide your communication with others. The second as a tool for personal change.
  4. Constantly gauge and calibrate the people around you. Take note of specific patterns they have for perceiving their world and begin to analyze if others have similar patterns.
  5. Through this approach you can develop a whole set of distinctions about people that can empower you in knowing how to communicate effectively with all types of people.
  6. Become a student of possibility. NLP Meta Programs give you the tools to make crucial distinctions in deciding how to deal with people. You are not limited to the Meta Programs discussed here.


You don’t have to turn your life upside down to balance the extremities of your Meta Program. In fact, suddenly introducing lots of changes can be counter-productive and will retreat your goals of life forever. Working on small changes consistently, can be effective and are easier to begin with.