The ‘Meta-model’

A model of how people make models of the world

Language is our most fundamental model-making tool – the symbolic representation of experience. In building up their personalised models of the world, people use three basicprocesses – generalisation, deletion and distortion.

Generalisation – inferring from the particular to the general; assuming one example stands for all others of its class, Generalizations lead to false assumptions.

Deletion – oversimplifying; omitting important specific details. Deletions lead to ‘blindspots’.

Distortion – changing what is real into what we wish was real. Distortions lead to misrepresentations, misunderstandings and fantasies.

Language also uses the processes of generalisation, deletion and distortion. What we say out loud is a short `form – a ‘surface structure’ – of a much more complex set of perceptions and beliefs – the ‘deep structure’.

The ‘Meta-Model’ is a tool-kit for retrieving deep structure from surface structure. It also suggests responses for re-structuring the various types of generalizations, deletions and distortions.

Using the meta-model to bring about change

Gathering Information – uncovering and exploring specific portions of the speaker’s experience which are missing from the surface structure or distorted within it.

Expanding Limits – defining and expanding the boundaries and limitations of the speaker’s assumptive world, thereby generating more perceptive and behavioural choices.

Changing meanings – reworking the meaning and significance of the speaker’s relationship with himself, those around him, and with the world in general.

The signs of maladaptive modelling

  1. Gathering information
    • Referential index – leaving out or disguising the identity of the things or people involved.E.g. using the passive rather than active voice of verbs; using vague non-specific words or pronouns (‘it’, ‘them’, ‘one’, ‘people’, ‘everybody’).
      Response – Ask “Who / What / When / Where precisely? Spell it out in detail.”
    • Nominalisations – making an abstract noun out of what is actually an action, a ‘thing’ out of a process. E.g. ‘decision’, ‘trust’, ‘situation’, ‘relationship’.“If you couldn’t put it in a wheel-barrow, it’s a nominalisation.” Nominalisations are ways of distancing oneself from involvement or acknowledging one’s own responsibility, and avoiding saying “I choose / do / feel.”
      Response – Change the noun back into a verb, with subject and object, e.g. “Who has decided what? In this ‘situation’, who is doing what to whom?”
    • Unspecified verbs – using a verb (or verbal phrase) with low informational content where another one would have supplied specific details. E.g. “Show some affection”, “Respect me as a person”, “You just don’t understand”.
      Response – Ask “How, exactly? What, specifically, is wanted?”


  2. Expanding Limits
    • Modal operators – words that imply fixed rules and boundaries restricting the speaker’s freedom of choice, or boundaries than he dare not transgress for fear of catastrophe. E.g. ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘ought’, ‘can’t’.
      Response – Ask “What stops you? What would happen if you did? Could you stand it?”
    • Universal quantifiers – Paralysis-inducing words that imply absolute and permanent truth. E.g. ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘all’, ‘everybody’, ‘nothing’.
      Response – Ask “Never ever? Absolutely every single person? No exceptions at all?”


  3. Changing Meanings
    • Mind reading – presuming to know what someone else is thinking or feeling without checking it out with them. E.g. “I know you won’t admit it …”, “I could tell his attitude”, or “If you really cared, I wouldn’t have to ask.”
      Response – Ask “How can you tell? Have you checked? Why not check ‘now?”
    • Cause and effect – the belief that one person’s actions are the sole cause of another’s reaction, denying them any choice over their response. E.g. “You make me mad!”, or “If you don’t do this, I’ll never forgive you.”
      Response – ask “How, exactly, does the cause and effect work. What other responses or connections are possible?”
    • Lost performative – Personal judgments, values or beliefs expressed in such a way as to imply absolute correctness, as opposed to being merely those of the speaker. E.g.
      Response – Ask “According to whom? Who says so?”


  • Richard Bandler & John Grinder: Frogs Into Princes. 1979, Real People Press.
    A transcript of an NLP training workshop. Easy to read, captures something of the authors’ charismatic teaching style. A good ‘first read’.
  • Richard Bandler & John Grinder: ReFraming – NLP and the transformation of meaning. 1982, Real People Press.
    Similar to the above, but a bit more advanced, with more clinical applications included.
  • Richard Bandler & John Grinder The Structure of Magic, Vols. I (1975) & II (1976). Science and Behavior Books.
    Rather drier than the above, but a more systematic analysis of the verbal patterns studied in NLP. Acknowledges NLP’s debt to the hypnotic methods of Milton H. . Erickson.
  • Steve Lankton: Practical magic – a translation of basic NLP into clinical psychotherapy. 1980, Meta Publications.
    Written with the starry-eyed perspective of a new recruit to the ranks of NLP-ers, but very readable – and full of practical clinical tips and suggestions, many of them directly transferable to a General Practice setting.
  • Byron Lewis & R. Frank Pucelik: Magic Demystified – a pragmatic guide to communication and change. 1982, Metamorphous Press.
    An alternative ‘first book’, with a more concise account of the theory than the Bandler and Grinder books.
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