How to use the NLP Meta Model

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This is one of the most valuable NLP techniques for understanding people and how they think.

Why? Because skill with the Meta Model is like having a stethoscope for the mind – it enables us to recognise the thoughts and feelings which lie beneath what a person is saying.

For example, if a friend or colleague asks for your NLP assistance in sorting out a problem you can get a pretty clear idea of how the problem is working by listening to their description. And by then asking some of the NLP clarifying questions.

Example: The Rules category

Let’s say John says to Mary: We must tidy the kitchen right away

His statement provides clues that John is likely to be

1. Thinking in Rules (which is one of the Meta Model categories)

2. Driven by his belief that tidying the kitchen is a Rule which most be followed

3. Believing that Mary must also obey this Rule

4. Unquestioningly following this Rule i.e. has never questioned it’s importance nor its relevance to the current situation

The Rules category in the Meta Model indicates that what a person is saying is probably based on a belief which they may have had for a long time. Many of our actions are based on beliefs which we picked up long ago and still questioning follow:

I must always be on time

It’s important to get it right first time

You must never upset people

I must be better than everyone else

Being able to guide a person in gently examining such beliefs can have a quite significant impact on their lives.

(Incidentally, in traditional NLP the Rules category labours under the amazing title of Model Operators of Necessity.)

Example: The Cause & Effect category

This category indicates that we believe our feelings are factors by events outside us i.e. by the behaviour of other people or by events in our lives.

Let’s say that Harry says to Kate ‘You really upset me when you said that!’

His statement provides clues that Harry believes

1. That other people can cause his feelings to change

2. People in his life should manage their behaviour so that he can feel good

3. He needs to behave in ways that cause them to make him feel good – rather than bad

4. He should be grateful to people who ‘make’ him have good feelings – and risk becoming dependent on them for good feelings

People with a strong Cause & Effect belief tend to believe in, and sometimes blame, fate. Or check their astrological prediction in the daily paper. or believe that aspects of their emotional life are outside their realm of influence?

Important: the insights into a person’s thinking which the Meta Model provides are not ‘true’. As with many of the other insights provided by NLP processes we treat them as working hypotheses or possibilities-to-be-checked.

Why develop Meta Model skill?

It improves our ability to

Better understand people and what’s behind their problem behaviours

Identify how best to motivate colleagues and customers

Communicate clearly and unambiguously

Coach people in finding their own solutions to difficult situations.

“Meta Monsters”

The Meta Model started with Richard Bandler, one of the originators of NLP, studying or ‘modelling’ the communication skills of three therapists: Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson.

So it started as a therapeutic technique for recognising how a person’s thinking was causing difficulties in their lives.

Bandler and his colleagues Frank Pucelik and John Grinder also came up with a series of turnkey questions to ask the person in order to loosen some of their more troublesome thinking patterns.

Somewhere along the way, and despite lots of warnings by Bandler himself, the Meta Model became a sort of interrogation technique.

(In fact, that is how I learned it back in the 1980s  i.e. as a set of patterns to recognise and instantly ‘challenge’ with a turnkey question.)

Unfortunately that’s also how it is still taught in many NLP training programmes.  One result of this is that enthusiastic NLP practitioners leave the training courses and rush out to find people who are ‘thinking wrongly”, because they are using the Meta Model patterns, and then attempt to bludgeon them into submission with the challenging questions!

This results in some quite bizarre interactions which appear to lack certain NLP basics such as rapport, respect for the other person’s Model of the World, first understand the person before you try to change them, and so on:

Casual friend: I must go home now and do this

NLP person: What would happen if you didn’t?

Casual friend: Well it’s getting late – I’d better get it done…

NLP person: “What happen if you didn’t??”

Casual friend: Look, it’s been nice talking to you but I really have to dash off…

NLP person: How do you know you have to dash off?

Yes, I know, I’m probably exaggerating… slightly.

But it’s not very different to the dozens of conversations I’ve heard in NLP gatherings and groups. 

This NLP person has become what Richard Bandler warned against i.e. a Meta Monster.  Because of her training she is using what she thinks is the Meta Model – which, in a way, it is – but quite inappropriately.  It’s embarrassing to observe.

How to use the Meta Model

On our NLP training courses we explore the Meta Model in small doses, to allow it to be fully absorbed and integrates,  and over a number of days. And, yes, you can develop skills with it through self learning:

  1. Treat it as a tool for listening.  Or even a stethoscope for hearing what’s going on on the inside. When someone makes a comment act as if what they are saying out loud is the tip of an iceberg – and what lies under water is a huge amount of thinking, believing, feeling, evaluating, and so on.
  2. Determine if the situation and your relationship with the person is right for using the Meta Model – and get their permission to use it
  3. Establish you have rapport – end of the other person perceives value for themselves in exploring the issue
  4. Listen for which category they use most.
  5. Now ask some loosening questions to encourage the person to explore the thinking behind what they are saying.  (And if you have trained through Pegasus NLP make sure that you are using the 4R’s and Softeners to make this process go smoothly.)
  6. Be very clear that you aim is not to get them to admit to being “wrong” in their thinking.  Your aim is to get them thinking about their thinking.

As a general rule, it’s best to avoid any questions at first. Instead listen quietly while you mentally note the different Meta Model patterns which they are using.  Aim to identify the pattern which they use most frequently because that’s the one to begin dealing with.

The Meta Model and your own thinking

As a general rule do not use it on your own thinking.

It’s best to not use it in a conscious manner to model your on-going self talk.  This tends to take you into a loop where you’re meta modelling your internal dialogue – and then meta modelling your own meta modelling and so on – into a very complex process!

However if you find yourself in a bit of a mental log-jam you could explore doing a few pages of stream-of-consciousness writing about whatever is bothering you. Then use the Meta Model on this to recognise your own patterns after you have used them.

See also this article on the NLP Meta Model in coaching



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