The Meta Model

The underlying principle here is that through three processes we will explain shortly, Deletion, Distortion and Generalization, people can create global attitudes and experiences that ignore or modify their perception of the otherwise rich experience surrounding them. By instead focusing on an impoverished experience with limited possibilities and pain, they can become very successful at being miserable.

We’ll look at where those three dynamics can actually be used to HELP people later, but for now, we’ll note where they can be misused to create suffering and frustration. Why dwell on such “cheerful” thoughts? Because we have a very powerful countermeasure, The Meta Model!

First, let’s examine those three often misused processes. Deletion enables us to notice only certain parts of the information available to us. We filter out data which may seem TO US, extraneous. A number of factors influence that distinction. For now, we’ll focus on how deletion offers us a limited amount of information. Though in some cases this can be useful, as in perceptual focus. But in others, it can rob us of the rich, full experience that otherwise would be available to us.

As an example, I may not believe that people from certain parts of the US are decent and intelligent. This is at this moment a very real problem in the US, so prescient. Let’s say that with that belief, I encounter someone from the Deep South, such as Alabama. That person is polite and courteous, which violates my belief. Rather than adjust my belief, I DELETE the decent behavior of this Southerner from my perception. Ahhh, now that behavior no longer challenges my belief! I feel better.

But what really just happened? I was robbed of the opportunity to learn that my belief was impoverished, and that some Southerners—at least this one before me—is in fact decent. Moreover, my Deletion robbed that person of the opportunity to participate in my reality as an actual person. He’s stuck being a caricature, a prejudice that I held. In other words, no one wins, indeed all of us lose.

Distortion is the second of these processes. It differs from Deletion in that it doesn’t OMIT information, it simply alters it. Like Deletion, it has a positive potential use. Anything which can be influenced or furthered by fantasy is an example of this, including music, art, and discovery of every type—as it didn’t “exist” within reality to that point. Someone had to step outside the “known” in order to make that discovery. However, also like Deletion, when misused, it can rob us of a rich, full experience.

For instance, let’s return to the example we used for Deletion. Let’s say that instead of ignoring or Deleting the Southerner’s behavior that didn’t jibe with my beliefs, my bias, I Distort it. So I see the kindness and decency of this person, which would appear to be at least a little better than Deletion, no? Not really. Because via our Distortion process, I twist every kind or decent gesture as, for instance, an attempt to manipulate me into THINKING that Southerner is kind or decent! And I certainly know better, don’t I!

You see, now: Receiving all the information, but altering it to match your expectations, your own Map of the World, does no one any favors. It’s still inaccurate and again, no one wins.

The third process, Generalization, will seem a little more familiar. Also as with the other two processes, when used well, Generalization can help us deal with a complex world where massive amounts of information routinely threaten to inundate us. Generalization helps us to organize data into general categories where it may be more easily managed. However, as with the others, it can and often is misused. The basis is this: a person has learned something to the extent that he trusts it is “true”—some individual aspect of the world. So far, so good, right? Then the person then applies that same belief about that ASPECT to the larger whole. For instance, the person is robbed at gunpoint by a man with a US-Southern accent. From this understanding, which seems unassailable in its truth, the person concludes any of a number of Generalizations. Such as “All men are criminals” or “All Southerners are cruel.” Note that while the individual example upon which this was based may seem indisputably true. Though where the person takes it next in our examples is almost certainly not. One example does not prove a universal truth for a larger group.

Again, as with the other two processes, this CAN be used to help the person if used in certain ways. Let’s say that the person is successful at an activity and from that one example, Generalizes “I become good at things when I practice them.” Of course, that may not ALWAYS prove true. But I’d wager that overall, that generalization may serve that person very well. After all, it doesn’t cut him off from options, it actually encourages him to practice an activity at which he’d like to excel. And that is a well-respected process in the pursuit of developing skill.

The key with all three processes is permitting them where they serve the person but challenging them where they do not.

The Meta Model enables us to challenge them effectively when appropriate. Overall, there are nine “distinctions” within this model: Deletion, Unspecified Referential Index, Unspecified Verb, Nominalization, Mind Reading, Modal Operators, and Cause and Effect, Universal Quantifiers, and Lost Performative.

First, let’s look at Deletion. An example might be “You don’t care.” To challenge that Deletion, we could respond with, “You think I don’t care ABOUT WHAT?” The speaker has made a statement about me, the receiver, though omitted relevant information. Our use of the Meta Model attempts to invite the speaker to fill in those missing pieces.

Next, let’s examine Unspecified Referential Index. Here, the speaker deletes the subject, the person performing the action he’s describing, and that information may be relevant, even necessary. Pronouns are often used here as they facilitate that. An example would be, “They don’t appreciate you,” which fails to specify who “they” are. We could counter this with responses like, “Who are ‘they’?” or “What don’t they appreciate about me?”

Next, “Unspecified Verb”, is where we don’t specify a verb, and the process can seem incomplete or unclear. It can also be done by removing the verb, its object, or both. For instance, if someone says, “You never make me feel loved,” the verb would appear to be “make”. Though the lack of specificity can pose issues. We could challenge this by responding, “Make you? How?” In this, we are requesting more detail about the verb and what the speaker is trying to express.

The next one is Nominalization. This is where a process has been converted into an event. Simpler put, it turns a verb into a noun. Which removes the action and process from the statement altogether. An example would be “My employees need more training,” which we can challenge this by responding, “In what areas do you need to train them, and how much?” Here, we’ve taken the nominalization and returned it to a process which lends itself well to taking action.

We follow this one with three forms of Modal Operators. First we’ll look at Modal Operators of Necessity, which refers to words like, “must, got to, have to, must not, which assert absolutes without mention of the implied consequence. A good example of this is “I must earn a million dollars.” Very simply, a challenge to such statement could be “What would happen if you didn’t.” Or even more simply, “Or else WHAT?”

The second form of this is Modal Operators of Possibility, which refers to words such as can, cannot, could, could not. The difference between the other form of Modal Operators is that where the other pertains to terms that denote need, this one pertains instead to words that denote possibility. An example of this would be “I can’t hack this challenging job.” Someone could challenge that with a question like, “Can’t? What would happen in you could?” Again, we are challenging the modal operator because it isn’t serving the person, so it’s a limiting generalization.

The third form of this is Modal Operators of Judgment, which refers to words and phrases such as should, should not, or ought to. Like the other forms of Modal Operators, this one may be focused on ethical or moral questions—but is often used to denote mere preference. For instance, if someone said, “Americans should be more vigilant when confronted with conspiracy theories,” we could challenge this with something as simple as, “According to whom?” or the more open “What would happen if they were?”

The next thing is Universal Quantifiers, which not only are issues to challenge, they also often lead to conflict. Words to look for here include: always, never, every, all, none, every, and so forth. The problem with these is that (using a Universal Quantifier to make this statement) they are never true. For example, someone may say to you, “You always say that!” or “Nothing works!” You could easily challenge these with the questions, “I ALWAYS say that, in every situation?” and “Nothing? So you’ve tried literally EVERYTHING and you’re certain?” respectively.

The next is Cause and Effect. This states or suggests that between two things, there is a cause and effect relationship, when there isn’t any proof or even logical argument to support it. For instance, someone may say, “If not for the pandemic, my life would be awesome,” to which you could challenge it with, “How, exactly, does the pandemic make your life less than awesome?” Now, I would expect answers that include the challenges or difficulties the pandemic (or whatever the subject is) has imposed on the person. But it’s still within their (or our) power to make our lives awesome.

Mind Reading, the next one, like Modal Operators, has multiple forms. Four, in fact. Let’s explore each. The first, “Believing we know a person’s internal processes, including their thoughts, feelings, intentions, meanings, motivations,” et al., can be problematic because without logical or reasonable bases for interpreting the person’s processes, we are at best, guessing. An example would be someone saying, “I’ll get to the point because you’re falling asleep on me,” without any directly observable behavior to support it, such as yawning or checking one’s phone as we speak. We could challenge this with “What makes you think I’m tired?”

Another form of Mind Reading is “Believing that another person either knows or doesn’t know, or should know our internal processes in the absence of communication or other evidence, including our thoughts, feelings, intentions, motivations, et al. An example of this might be, “You always knew I couldn’t be faithful,” to which you could counter, “What would have told me that you couldn’t be faithful? When should I have known?”  

The third form of Mind Reading is “Believing one knows that another person does not know or understand what their senses might have been able to perceive, what’s been expressed, shared, or what we believe they should somehow understand.” An example of this is “You should know by now how much I love you,” to which you the receiver might say, “What is it that you think should have told me how much you love me?” I see this a lot where one person communicates in his preferred style, conveys a meaning in his own fashion, with no regard for how this will be received—or IF it that intended meaning will be received at all.

Another form of Mind Reading is “Believing we know an unknowable future.” This is very common, and most of us have heard this from others, and even may have said something like this, ourselves. For instance, “I’ll never finish this project,” or “She’ll always be unfaithful,” or “I’ll never find THE ONE.” We could challenge the first with, “Never? How could you know that? Unless you’re planning to stop working on it, of course!” The second lends itself well to a response like, “How can you be sure? Is it possible she’s learned past mistakes?”

The final example of Mind Reading is Lost Performative. This involves making a values judgment without specifying the judge—the performer of the judgment. An example of this is “Your plan is foolish,” as the speaker is stating a judgment—that your plan is foolish—without saying specifically who’s judged it to be so. A simple way to respond to this with the Meta Model is to shine a light on the missing judge, such as, “My plan is foolish, according to whom?”

Awesome, that’s a lot, which is why the Meta Model has been called the biggest or most comprehensive model in NLP. Notice what I did there?

Okay, I see that Tom in the front row has been twitching in his seat, and you can jump on up here so we can demonstrate the Meta Model with you! Great!

Tom, I’d like you to come up with a few examples, generalizations, distortions or deletions that you have either heard others say or you yourself have. Let us know if you in fact have a few in mind. If not, I have a list of common ones from which you can choose.From there, we’re going to identify as a group which of the nine distinctions is in play with each one. And from there, we’ll come up with a list of challenges we could respond with and we’ll discuss why we believe that will work.

(After the demonstration, I answered questions that could otherwise impede attendees from successfully repeating this as an exercise.)

Okay, if there are no more questions, let’s split up into small groups and we’ll do this with one another. And again, if you don’t have enough scenarios, we have lists from which you can choose. The only thing is partners can’t choose the same scenario. We want each person to experience as many viable Meta Model challenges as possible.

(Lastly, we perform the exercise, giving everyone a chance to experience both sides of the Meta Model communication, then we do an overall Q&A, where we ensure that the attendees understand fully what we’ve first seen then done. I want also to ensure that they are comfortable identifying Meta Model violations and responding effectively to them in a variety of situations.)

Copyright © 2013 Chris Gingolph

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