The Meta Model is the most powerful, and most misunderstood aspect of NLP. What's it all about?

When many NLP students first learn Meta Model in NLP training, they become insufferable by questioning all of their friends, all the time. ALL of their friends????? They say, with a crazed expression on their faces. ALL the time????

Yes. Stop it right now.

This shows a significant and fundamental misunderstanding of Meta Model on the part of their trainers. The problem is this; most trainers don't understand Meta Model so they don't teach it properly. Some I've seen don't even teach it at all, which is very very bad. Mainly because NLP is Meta Model. I even read a review of my book The NLP Practitioner Manual, where the reviewer said it was very good, except I had spent far too long talking about Meta Model and it only needed a couple of pages.


I would therefore like to take this opportunity to show you why Meta Model is the single most important thing that you will ever learn in your whole entire wild life, whether you are NLP person, or coach, trainer, teacher, mother, lover, babysitter and so on and so forth etcetera etcetera.

With Meta Model, you will actually discover what someone is thinking, and what their true intentions are, regardless of what words they use. Now, come on, that's got to be worth studying. No?

I will illustrate with an example. During a Louis Theroux documentary, a retired porn star said:

"If you want to be happy you have to get off the drugs. Chet and I did that, many times."

I like to think of Meta Model in terms of levels of analysis.

Level 1

At this first level, you'll pick apart the different Meta Model structures. 

Want = Modal Operator of Possibility

You = Distorted Referential Index

and so on...

But did you miss the nominalisation of ‘the drugs' and the comparative deletion of ‘many'? Probably. Because at level one, you're only applying categories to words. To really understand Meta Model, you have to look beyond the categories and see the mental constructs that underpin the choice of words.

A Modal Operator of Possibility sounds like it's about the person having a choice. "If you want to be happy", meaning that you might want to be, you might not want to be, that's your choice. The problem with the first level of Meta Model is that we look at words in isolation, and fail to see how they connect together. If we step back, we can see that there are two modal operators; want and have. Imagine them as two halves of a cycle. 

Now we're at level 2 of Meta Model

The distorted referential index "you want... you have" tells us that the speaker is talking about her own experience and dissociating from it, because it is an unpleasant experience. At level 2, a coach might challenge the client with, "If I want?" and the client might correct themselves and rephrase what they have said with first person references. This is almost as bad as "ALWAYYSSSS?????"

Stop it.

At level 2, we're assuming that nominalisations are stopped mental processes, and second person references are distorted and so on. This is better than categorising words, but the problem that it creates is that the coach is now projecting a set of assumptions onto the client.

The coach assumes that when the client says, "you", they really mean, "I".

Let's look a bit deeper at nominalisations. A verb turned into a noun seems to stop a process and turn a movie into a still image, like looking at a photograph of a race. It tells you nothing about the runners or who might win.

Clearly this is a distortion, because there are no still images in the real world, because we are always moving. By freezing a moment in time, we take that moment out of time, which is the same as saying that it applies all of the time. Or now. Or forever. They are the same thing, because all that we can actually experience is now; everything and everytime else is a mental construction.

Every language in the world conforms to the same basic structure, whereby someone or something is doing something to someone or something. There are two varieties of this structure; Subject Verb Object or Subject Object Verb. The cat is stuck in the tree, or the cat, the tree is stuck in.

In both cases, the cat is the actor, the tree is the thing being acted upon and the action is ‘stuck'.

In language, we can represent events which cannot occur in real life.

"The cat is stuck".

Where? How?

The missing information isn't missing at all. In language we have deleted part of the sentence, and the listener will re-insert that missing information from their own experience in order to "make sense" - to literally convert the words into raw sensory data.

"The cat is stuck... in the tree"

"The cat is stuck... in my throat"

"The cat is stuck... with his maths homework"

All are correct completions of the sentence, only one met your expectation. Hopefully.

A nominalisation takes the verb ‘stuck' and moves it into the position of the subject or the object, so that the action can become the actor or the acted upon.

"Stuck is in the tree"

"The cat is in a stuck"

Weird? OK, let's try another. "Mondays make me sad". "Meetings are boring". "Decisions have been made".

You recognise these, I guess. They make no sense. There is no process, no action, no sense of time. They are universal statements which apply now and forever, and most importantly, they make the speaker passive and therefore someone or something else is in control of events.

Compare, "meetings are boring", with, "I get bored when I meet with people who I'm not interested in", or, "Mondays make me sad", with, "I feel sad on Mondays"

Back to our sample statement:

"If you want to be happy you have to get off the drugs. Chet and I did that, many times."

At level 2, we read this as, "For me to be happy, I have to stop taking drugs. Chet and I did that, many times."

But here's the important point. The speaker already is happy, or she knows how to be happy. We have a want/need loop (want to... have to...) and another loop, "many times". "For me" and "to stop" are expressed in the future, so what we actually have is a loop in time, an ongoing, repeating pattern of behaviour.

The speaker feels bad about what she's doing, so at level 2 she dissociates from it. But what is level 3?

Level 3 is where the speaker goes beyond what they say they want, to be happy, and achieves what they really want, what we all really want. To feel normal.

At level 3, this is a normalising statement, a hypnotic instruction for you the listener to take drugs.

If you want to be happy.... well, who wouldn't?

You have to get off the drugs... which presupposes I am "on" the drugs

Chet and I did that... notice the ‘Chet and I' unit

Many times... the loop

Right in the middle, we also have an embedded command for all you Milton geeks out there, "you have to get off the drugs. Chet"

Here's what we can deduce. The speaker is married to Chet, and Chet struggles with drug addiction. When Chet is on drugs, he is happy. When he is off the drugs, the speaker, his wife, is happy. Unfortunately, when Chet is on drugs, so is his wife, and vice versa. The first sentence is an "I" and the second sentence is a "we". This is the loop, the cycle within which the speaker's life is trapped.

And if she can draw the listener in there with her, she must be normal. If we all take drugs, it's normal, right? Tea, coffee, alcohol, nicotine, all normal. Heroin? Not normal. So drug addicts hang around with other addicts, because then they're normal. It's us outsiders who are weird. Don't we know what we're missing?

Level 1: Categorisation of individual words.

Level 2: Linking of words into larger structures and removal of distortions.

Level 3: There are no distortions. Every statement is a literal normalising statement designed not as a commentary but as an instruction.

And that's the Meta Model. Not "How, specifically", or, "EVERYTHINGGGGG????"

Neat, elegant, powerful. And most of all, the speaker has nowhere to hide. The truth is there for all to see, which is a wonderful thing, because only from a place of truth can we move forwards.