Suppose you’ve got a problem and you’re at your wits end on how to go about solving it. Perhaps it’s a conflict with a close person or maybe you’re feeling stuck in a certain area of your life like your love life or your career. You feel helpless, without a clue on how to proceed and every thought you have seems like gibberish, only adding fuel to the fire…
Now let’s say that you schedule a consultation with a NLP therapist. You go in, you greet him/her, maybe you make some small talk. Once you have established rapport and you feel safe and confident enough to talk about your personal life, you start describing the problem. What happens next is that he will ask you a number of questions, from general to very specific ones. You will answer as truthfully as you can. At the end of the Q & A session, if it all went smoothly, you should have a solid plan of action. Maybe he will also give you a technique or two which you can use afterwards, but in a nutshell, the essence of therapy is asking questions and identifying the areas where you feel stuck.
In NLP, there is a specific model which guides the practitioner on to what questions he should ask. This is called the Meta-Model. It all depends of course on how accurately the client describes the situation. What the Meta-Model does is that it allows us to identify the edges of someone’s thinking. By doing this we can help ourselves to see our own thought processes so that we can change them or help others do the same in order to achieve certain results. A person becomes stuck because he doesn’t see an alternative to his situation – as far as he’s concerned, there is no way out.
The Meta-Model gives us clues on what questions to ask in order to cause a shift in perception: to make the client see that there is a solution and compel him to act so that he can cause positive change in his life. This also explains the title of this article. Asking the right questions will cause a change in perception, which in turn will change your life. It sounds simple, but like the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Now in the usual setting, NLP therapy involves two parties: the client and the practitioner. It’s best to have someone else run these questions on you, only for the simple fact that we are seldom objective with ourselves. You can also probably see the difficulty in doing your own troubleshooting: unless you have special training, it’s hard to maintain two separate identities at the same time – one which is stuck and one which has the answers. If you could do it, you wouldn’t be looking for help in the first place. With that said however, you can still use the meta-model on your own thought processes if you can maintain a degree of awareness. Let’s look at how to do this.
How our brains translate thoughts into language
Our thoughts are infinitely more faster, diverse and descriptive than our language is. Language is only an approximation of thought. In NLP terms, there is the Deep Structure, or our unconscious storage place, where ideas roam, devoid of any censoring or structure, having an enormous amount of data associated with them at the neurological level. And then on the opposite side there is the Surface Structure, thoughts that have been more or less prepared for communication, chopped up, ready for serving or in short: what we actually say.
When we speak, we do an automatic translation of ideas from the deep structure into the words we choose to say at the surface structure. This translation is achieved through three processes our brains use: distortion, deletion and generalization.
For example, let’s take this sentence:
“While riding his bike, Jim got distracted by a good-looking woman which was crossing the road, causing him to not see the road sign up ahead and collide with it at great speed, leaving serious injuries on his knees and elbows.”
And compare it with this one.
“A man had an accident.”
I hope I don’t have to point out the huge amount of information that was left out and generalized in the second sentence. But distortion, deletion and generalization aren’t bad in and of themselves. Without these processes, all our communication would be long-winded and pedantic and we would probably opt to not talk at all if we couldn’t express ourselves in shorter terms.
However, when a person is stuck with a certain problem, it is due to the under or over-utilization of these processes. For example, a person who is “stuck in the past” and is constantly remembering negative experiences, that is a clear sign that something has gone wrong with the deletion process.
When we’re using the Meta-Model, we are investigating the client’s translation from the deep to the surface structure, looking for things that his brain are omitting, exaggerating or generalizing.
If somebody says
All women hate me.
We can inquire
to try and see if it’s a problem of generalization or deletion where the client is focusing on one negative experience, unconsciously deleting those episodes where women did not display hate towards him. If we ask instead
How do you know?
We will be able to see if it’s a matter of perception (distortion), where the client has certain external cues associated as being equal to “hate”.
Specifics of the Meta-Model
Universal quantifiers or generalizations are when one example is perceived as being representative of a number of other different possibilities. A generalization has no exceptions:
- “All women hate me.”
- “Everybody knows this story.”
- “I always screw up.”
- “All black people are violent.”
The question to ask here is one that challenges the lack of exceptions:
Really? There is not one time that you got it right?
Modal Operators of Necessity/Possibility
“Can’t / have to / ought to / shouldn’t” and others are words that indicate a situation where the client has no choice.
- I can’t go dressed like this.
- I have to do this.
- I ought to give her a call after the meeting is over.
- You shouldn’t go there.
A good way to challenge these beliefs is by asking
What would happen if you did/didn’t?
What stops you from doing so?
The first question is preferred to the second one because thinking about the obstacles can bring up unresourceful states (anger, fear, pain) in the client. Also having the client describe his obstacles more than often has the client justifying the problem situation instead of giving him an option to act otherwise.
John Grinder in a talk about the Meta-Model says that it’s best to explore consequences of taking a certain action instead of investigating the obstacles that stop you.
As we grow up, our experiences instill certain beliefs and expectations about how the world must be. We have to make some assumptions in order to function and thrive so we might as well make assumptions that give us more choice and make the world a fun place to be in rather than ones that are hindering us. We presuppose that something is a certain way for a statement to be true. Presuppositions imply. For example saying “why can’t you ever get my name right?” presupposes that you always get the person’s name wrong. Other examples would be:
- Why don’t you smile more? (You don’t smile enough.)
- You should be productive at work. (You’re slacking off.)
- When you’ll get smart, you’ll understand this. (You’re not smart.)
- Are you going to wear the blue tie or the checkered tie to the meeting? (You’re going to the meeting.)
A presupposition can be identified and worked with by asking
What leads you to believe that…
and filling in the presupposition.
A deletion is when a certain detail is left out.
- I am angry
- He is better at cooking
- I’m the best
Deletions like these happen everyday in conversation. A good way to shed light on them is to ask question such as
Whom are you angry with?
Better than whom?
The best at what?
This type of deletion omits the comparative object.
- My painting is better
How is your work better?
Lack of Referential Index
This type of deletion removes the main subject. This gives us examples such as:
- They hate me
- This is impossible
- I don’t know how they do it.
Who hates you?
What is impossible?
What do they do?
Sometimes, a verb will be present but not specific enough.
- She hurt him (How did she hurt him?)
- They don’t understand what I’m doing (How do they not understand?)
- I am trying to find it. (How are you trying to find it? And what is it that you’re trying to find?)
To solve this, it’s important to know how a thing is done.
How specifically… ?
General Referential Indexes
Similar to standard generalizations, in this instance the pronoun is removed from the sentence.
- Men are pigs
The question would be
Mind-reading is a pattern where the client assumes that he knows what the other party is thinking about him.
- She doesn’t think I’m worth it anyway
- Everybody thinks I’m rich
The question here would be
How do you know?
In this pattern, a certain trigger causes a certain state in the client.
- He gets on my nerves.
- They frighten me.
How does he get on your nerves?
How do they frighten you?
You should exercise caution with this question because it can trigger unresourceful states in the client and it does not usually lead to a solution, instead only justifying the present problem.
Similar to the “cause-effect” pattern above, this one has at its core the belief that the outcome will always be the same. In complex equivalence, the statement is a conclusion based on a belief.
Let’s take a more detailed example:
He doesn’t love me.
How do you know?
He doesn’t reply to my texts immediately anymore.
How does him not replying to your texts immediately show that he doesn’t love you?
When an opinion or judgement is voiced without stating who asserts it, we have the lost performative pattern.
- It’s common knowledge that you never call before 4:00 PM.
- It’s wrong to think this way.
Common knowledge for whom?
Wrong for whom?
This is a pattern where a verb describing an ongoing process is turned into a noun.
- I don’t have that much success.
- Discipline must be present in education.
If you can’t see, touch, smell or taste a noun, in short, if it something abstract, then it is a nominalization. This hides the biggest difference between one person and another’s map of the world. To clarify this pattern, we would ask questions such as:
Success in what? How do you define success? How do you measure it?
Discipline of whom? Discipline of what?
Using the Meta-Model
It’s quite straightforward to start using the Meta-Model in therapy. As the client describes his problem, you should be able to see which patterns are present in his/her language, giving you ample data on his beliefs. With time and practice you may notice that certain patterns turn up regularly and in a certain order. Knowing this, you will be able to predict responses, allowing you to direct the process in a direction that you deem favorable.
You can also use the Meta-Model in casual conversation. However, make sure that you have created rapport before you start asking questions. Using the Meta-Model without rapport is one quick way to piss off people as your questions can be perceived negatively. Tone of voice, choice of words and context will dictate the best way to use it.