Meta-model (NLP)

Meta-model (NLP)

The meta-model (initially named meta-model of therapy[1] and also known as meta-model of language[2]) is a pragmatic communications model used to specify information in a speaker's language. It is often contrasted with the intentionally ambiguous Milton Erickson inspired-Milton model. The meta model was originally presented in The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy in 1975[1] by Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder, the co-founders of neuro-linguistic programming, who collaborated between 1973 and 1975.

The authors were particularly interested in the patterns of language and behavior that effective psychotherapists used with their clients to effect change.[1] They observed and imitated gestalt therapist Fritz Perls and family systems therapist Virginia Satir in person and via recordings. The authors cited Noam Chomsky's transformational syntax, which was John Grinder's linguistics specialization, and ideas about human modeling from the work of Alfred Korzybski as being influential in their thinking. Of particular interest was Korzybski's critique of cause-effect rationale and his notion that "the map is not the territory" which also featured in Gregory Bateson's writing.[3]

The meta model consists of categories of questions or heuristics which seek to challenge linguistic distortion, clarify generalization and recover deleted information which occurs in a speaker's language. Typically, questions may be in the form of "What X, specifically?", "How specifically?", "According to whom?" and "How do you know that?". A follow-up to the meta model was the authors' Milton H. Erickson-inspired model called the Milton model which is used to soften the meta model, maintain rapport, make indirect suggestion and to allow the client to generate their own meaning for what was said.[4]



Definition of the meta-model:

People respond to events based on their internal pictures, sounds and feelings. They also collect these experiences into groups or categories that are labeled with words. The meta-model is a method for helping someone go from the information-poor word maps back to the specific sensory-based experiences they are based on. It is here in the information-rich specific experiences that useful changes can be made that will result in changes in behavior."[5]

Uses of meta model in psychotherapy:

"The question the PTSD victim often asks is, why did this happen to me? The astute clinician needs to probe for the deep meaning (Bandler & Grinder, 1975) of the term "this." What specific aspect(s) of the event have toxic meanings to the individual? In addition, the clinician needs to assess the specific attributions that patients give to their responses. For instance, if they believe that because they have intrusive memories of the experience, they are crazy, this will lead to increased suffering."[6]

The meta model

Deep structure/surface structure

At a deep level of thought, a speaker has a more complete representation of the intended communication. Bandler and Grinder equated this level of thought to what Noam Chomsky described as the deep structure. In 1957, Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, in which he developed the idea that each sentence in a language has two levels of representation — a deep structure and a surface structure.[7] The deep structure represented the core semantic relations of a sentence, and was mapped on to the surface structure (which followed the phonological form of the sentence very closely) via transformations. Bandler and Grinder believed that for efficiency in communication, information is transformed, that is, thought is subject to an unconscious process of deletion, generalization and distortion which is influenced by pre-existing beliefs, strategies, memories, and decisions. What is represented (at the surface structure) as spoken word or written down is a mere subset of the original thought revealing distorted assumptions, mystical thinking, over-simplification, impoverished experience and, thus, limited maps of the world. These limitations are challenged in the meta model to clarify, and elaborate a client's communication and maps of the world which Bandler and Grinder believed had therapeutic benefit.[1]

The map is not the territory

Bandler and Grinder also acknowledged the influence of Korzybski's dictum, "The map is not the territory". They try to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people's beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the "map") are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of ("the territory"). Bandler and Grinder, like Korzybski, held that many people do confuse maps with territories which may limit an individual's understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished.


The third aspect of the meta model involve the use of intuition. Bandler and Grinder held that the exceptional communicators that they modeled used the meta model intuitively. They believed that a therapist who has more experiences with dealing with clients will tend to have a better instinct or intuition about what they should do in certain situations.[3] The reliability of one’s intuition depends greatly on past knowledge and occurrences in a specific area. This is not to say that one with a great amount of experience is always going to have an accurate intuition (because some can be biased); however, the chances of it being more reliable are definitely amplified.[8]


Bandler and Grinder's (1975) model focuses on semantic ill-formedness and distortions, which they argued was a linguistic cue to a speaker's impoverished or limited experience of the world.


In this model, a "presupposition" is a statement in which one or more unstated assumption(s) must be taken for granted (presupposed) for the statement to make sense.

Example 1:

  • "John began learning the meta model yesterday, too."
  • Presuppositions: (1) the word "too" implies that there was another person who began learning the meta model yesterday.
  • Response: "Who else learned the meta model yesterday?"

Example 2:

  • "Do you want to learn the meta model again today?"
  • Presupposition: I have done it already, at least once.
  • Challenge: "Have I done it before?"

Example 3:

  • "My husband is as lazy as my son."
  • Presuppositions: You have a husband; you have a son; your son is lazy.
  • Challenge: "Am I to assume that your son is lazy?"


Cause-effect, this shows how to identify the inappropriate use of causal thinking (x means y, x makes me y, or x makes y happen), which is considered semantically ill-formed and unacceptable (irrational).[9]

Causality always implies at least some relationship of dependency between the cause and the effect. For example, deeming something a cause may imply that, all other things being equal, if the cause occurs the effect does as well, or at least that the probability of the effect occurring increases.

Example 1:

  • "My wife makes me angry."
  • Challenge: How specifically can your wife make you angry?
  • There is a presupposition here that someone can physically cause an emotional response in another person. NLP emphasizes the importance of state management and that individuals have choice about which state they occupy independent of others. People can choose how they respond to stimulus. Along these lines, it is impossible for someone to make or cause someone else to feel, be, do something with words alone.

Example 2:

  • I'm nervous because something happened to me last time in this situation.
  • Challenge: How specifically can a past effect cause your current state to change?
  • There is a presupposition in NLP that memory of the past is no more unchangeable than a goal in the future. If a past memory is impacting on current performance then you can make changes to the past memory.

Mind-reading violation

Mind-reading violation occurs when someone claims to think they know what another is thinking without verification. Assuming the intentions of others or how someone will act without evidence or confirmation.

Example 1:

  • "If he doesn't start paying his share of the bills, she is going to leave him."
  • Challenge: "How do you know this? Has she told you that she intends to leave him if he doesn't?"

Example 2:

  • Client: "She is annoyed with me."
  • Change agent: "I'm curious to know, how do you know that she was annoyed?"
  • Client: "Her arms were crossed."
  • Change agent: "Did you ask her? Perhaps she crossed her arms because she is cold or she finds it more comfortable in that position."
  • In NLP there is an emphasis on calibration and sensory acuity. Intuitions about what people are thinking based on gestures, body language or other cues without adequate calibration distorts the intended communication and considered to be a mind reading violation.

Example 3:

  • "You did not think about me when you did that"
  • "How do you know what thoughts I had?"


A nominalization is a verb (process word) which has been transformed into an abstract noun. It is like taking a snapshot of a moving object; subjectively the representation has less "movement", and seems like a "static" representation. That is, a dynamic process (or verb) is transformed into a static thing (or noun).

Examples of nominalization

Example 1:

  • "The communication [from 'communicate'] in this company is poor."
  • Challenge: "How could we communicate more effectively?"

Example 2:

  • Client: "My decision will be made by tomorrow."
  • Challenge: "How specifically will you decide?"
  • When a verb is transformed into an abstract noun (decision is the nominalized form of decide), it is considered by the author of the model to become stagnant. The intention of responding with the verb form is to facilitate movement and have the respondent become aware of the process form of deciding.
Additional examples

applicability (from applicable)

  • The applicability of the meta model was noticeable.
  • How specifically was it applicable?

carelessness (from careless)

  • Her carelessness was apparent in the way she looked away.
  • How specifically was she careless?

difficulty (from difficult)

  • The difficulty of the test was a hurdle.
  • How specifically was it difficult?

failure (from fail)

  • It was a big failure.
  • How specifically did it fail?

intensity (from intense)

  • The intensity was overwhelming.
  • How intense was it?

investigation (from investigate)

  • The investigation was carried out thoroughly.
  • How specifically was it investigated?

reaction (from react)

  • My reaction was immediate.
  • How specifically did you react?

The wheelbarrow test

there are two simple tests that can be used to determine if a word or expression is a nominalization:
  • the wheelbarrow test: if you can put it into a wheelbarrow, it is NOT a nominalization. E.g. a drink is a noun, but it is not a nominalization; as it is tangible, it can be put into a wheelbarrow and carried around. Quality control fails the wheelbarrow test and is a nominalization.
  • If the word continuous can be put in front of the noun and still make sense. E.g. improvement becomes continuous improvement, hence improvement is a nominalization. (The fact that continuous can be added indicates that there is a dynamic aspect to this static element).

These examples are used to show how to identify limiting use of language. When a verb is used instead, the mind of the user becomes more flexible in terms of seeing different points of view and looking for solutions to problems.[10]

Complex equivalence

Complex equivalence (X↔Y, or X is equivalent to Y) draws an unsubstantiated link between an event and its consequence. The logic just does not follow.

Example 1
  • Client: "And now my secretary quit. I'll be bankrupt by the end of the year!"
  • Challenge: "Are you telling me your fortune depended on your secretary's employment?"
Example 2
  • Client: "She is always late, she must not love me."
  • Challenge: "How, specifically, does her lateness mean she does not love you?"


Universal quantification

A universal quantifier is a word which binds a quality to everything, or every relevant thing it refers to (a lot, all, every, everyone, most, no, none, never, nobody, no-one, some, somebody). It occurs when someone attempts to characterize something as true for everything, everyone or all those in a set. The words in italics are called quantifiers.

Example 1:

  • "My co-workers are all lazy."
  • Challenge: "All of them?" or "Which co-workers, specifically?"

Example 2:

  • "Everyone hates me."
  • Challenge: "Every one of them? Which people, specifically?"

Example 3:

  • "This makes no sense whatsoever."
  • Challenge: "What specifically, does not make sense?"

Example 4:

  • Client: "Nobody likes me."
  • Challenge: "Nobody?", "Who specifically does not like you?"
  • Client: "My co-workers..."
  • Challenge: "Which co-workers specifically?"

Modal operators

Modal operator verbs give more information about the function of the main verb that follows it. Although having a great variety of communicative functions, these functions can all be related to a scale ranging from possibility (can) to necessity (must). Modal operators are formally characterised by expressing a modal attitude, such as necessity (modal verbs: have to, must, should) or possibility (can, might, may) towards the proposition to which it is applied. They can also appear in the contracted negated form (e.g. shouldn't, can't, mustn't).

Modal operator of necessity

The modal operator of necessity (e.g. must, should, ought to, have to, its necessary to, ...) expresses an absolute (often moral) obligation, order or requirement.

  • Example 1: "I must redeem myself."
  • Response: What would happen if you didn't redeem yourself?

The modal operators of necessity, shall/should, in 1st person objective though not moral obligation, no choice, as in:

  • Example 2: "I should make an effort."
  • Response: "What would happen if you didn't make an effort?"
  • Example 3 (negated): "I shouldn't do that."
  • Response: "What would happen if you did?"

Modal operator of possibility

The modal operators of possibility (e.g. can, could, might, may, its possible to, ...) expresses intention, permission, option or choice.

  • Example 1: "I can/could/might/may/will do it later."
  • Response: What would happen if you didn't do it later?
  • Example 2: "I can't/couldn't/won't put myself together."
  • Response: "What would happen if you did?", "What would happen if you didn't?"


Simple Deletions

In a simple deletion an important element in a statement is missing. For example:

Example 1:

  • Client: "Go and do it."
  • Response: "Do what, specifically?"

Example 2:

  • Client: "That is really important to me."
  • Response: "What specifically is important?" or "Important, to whom?"

Example 3:

  • Client: "I feel bad."
  • "How specifically do you experience that feeling?", "What specifically do you feel bad about?"

In these examples, the key words to look out for are it and that.

The appropriate response would be to ask what, where or when exactly? e.g. "Go and do what exactly?" This example is used for teaching how to identify this common linguistic distortion. In responding, this question is considered to help gather information about the limiting pattern of the client.

Unspecified Verbs

In an unspecified verb it is not clear how the action creates or created the result.

Example 1:

  • Client: "I created a great impression on them."
  • Response: "How exactly did you create a great impression (and note the unspecified referential index “them”) on who exactly?"
  • Note: The appropriate response is to ask how exactly does taking "x" action lead to "y" result.

Example 2:

  • Client: "My students are failing me."
  • Respondent: "Failing, how?"

Unspecified Comparatives

Unspecified Comparatives or null comparative is a comparative in which the starting point for comparison is not stated.

Example comparisons in English:

good better best
well better best
bad worse worst
far farther farthest
far further furthest
little littler, less(er) littlest, least
many more most

Example 1:

  • Client: "I put my best effort forward."
  • Challenge: "Best, compared to what?"
  • Essentially the response is attempting to recover information about the comparison criteria the client is using.

Example 2:

  • Client: "I'm playing much better now"
  • Challenge: "Better, compared to what?"

Example 3:

  • Client: "I felt worse than ever."
  • Challenge: "Worse, compared to what?"
  • Client: "Than before..."
  • Challenge: "Before, what specifically?"
  • Client: "I feel worse than I was before the accident."

Unspecified referential index

Unspecified referential index, refers to the use of personal pronoun (they, them, you, he, she, men, women, ...) when the context is unknown, or can not easily be understood based on the preceding sentences. For example uncontextualised use of they, them, you, ...


  • Example 1: "They say I should go into business, but I don't know if I have the confidence."
  • Challenge: "Who is it that says you should go into business?"
  • Example 2: "Yeah, I have tried alcohol before. It makes you say stupid things."
  • Challenge: "Wait, it makes me say stupid things?"
  • Example 3: "I hate watching the Packers in the playoffs. We always lose and it makes me depressed."
  • Challenge: "By 'we', do you mean that you are part of the Packers?"[1]
  • Example 4: "He shook her hand."
  • Challenge: Who shook who's hand exactly?
  • Example 5: Why do they always rely on Mary to do their homework for them?
  • Challenge: Who specifically is 'they'?
  • Example 6: They tried to run away from the hunter, but he set his dogs after them.
  • Challenge: When you said, 'they', who were you referring to? Also, who exactly is, 'them'? Also, can I assume that by "he" you were referring to the hunter?

Lost Performative

Lost Performative makes reference to a performative speech act, but the person who is the source of it, and sometimes the speech act itself, is unspecified. This often takes the form of a value judgment without acknowledgment of the fact that a person is the source of that value judgment.

Example 1:

  • Client: "Her book was highly acclaimed."
  • Challenge: "Acclaimed, by whom?" or "How do you know that?"

Example 2:

  • Client: "Disobeying the government is wrong."
  • Challenge: "Wrong, according to whom?"

Example 3:

  • Client: "An apology was given"
  • Challenge: "Who gave the apology and to whom was it given?"


Bandler and Grinder originally developed NLP for gathering quality information. However, prior to that development, John Grinder did his doctoral thesis on Noam Chomsky's Transformational Grammar.[3]

It can also be traced to the nominalistic tradition of William of Ockham.[citation needed]

An effort unrelated by origin but going in the same direction of improving clarity of communication is the constructed language Loglan (and its close cousin, Lojban).[citation needed]

Influenced by Korzybski's critique of cause effect (x makes me feel y).[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Bandler, Richard; Grinder, John (1975a). [- The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy]. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books.. p. ch.3. -. -. 
  2. ^ Stanojevic, GD., 1990, 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Meta Model of Language.' Linguistic and Speech Recognition, Belgrade School. pages.1-43.
  3. ^ a b c Grinder, John & Carmen Bostic St Clair (2001.). Whispering in the Wind. CA: J & C Enterprises. pp. 127, 171, 222, ch.3, Appendix. -. 
  4. ^ Bandler, Richard, John Grinder, Judith Delozier (1977). Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume II. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications.. 
  5. ^ (Steve Andreas, 2003 Book review: Whispering in the Wind)
  6. ^ Schwarz, R.; Proute, M. Integrative approaches in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 28(2) pp.364-373.
  7. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press. 
  8. ^ Eugene Sadler-Smith. Inside Intuition. 2008.
  9. ^ a b Chong, DK., and Chong, JKS. (2001) "Cause and Effect" Rapport magazine of ANLP. available online
  10. ^ Bob G. Bodenhamer, L. Michael Hall. (2001) The User's Manual for the Brain ."Neuro-Linguistic Programming" Crown House Publishing 1899836322

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