Meta-model Finds Itself: Noticing the Bullshit Alarm

I was speaking with a colleague in the IT industry the other day. One of the things that jarred me was his sense of frustration. He said, “I got up in the middle of the night, went into the living room and poured myself a Scotch. I then drank it until it was gone. And repeated the process.”

My question was the obvious one: “So…what was going through your mind? What made you want to do that?” He’s no alcoholic, and this isn’t some behavior he exhibits often. He was asking for help and I like to think of myself as helpful.

“I’m just so lost,” he said. There is a tool in NLP called the Meta-model. The gist, as you likely know if you’ve been reading this for awhile, is that we move generalizations, distortions, and deletions in the other person’s thinking toward specificity. So if someone begins with “Nobody likes me,” we might ask, “Nobody at all? Not one person! I’ll bet you could come up with just one person who in fact does like you. And while we’re on the subject, are you sure they don’t like you? Any chance they just wondering whether they owe you any money?”

And from that, we can begin to take a very non-specific statement that is limiting the person and in making it specific, build a new, more supportive, statement. Or, if you prefer, something that just makes more sense. Maybe something like, “Some people don’t like me. But hell, nobody is universally liked! So I’m no different here!”

The next thing I wanted to know was what went through his mind, driving him to escape, or cope, or whatever it was that the Scotch represented. And no, I’m not overlooking the fact that if it’s really good Scotch, he might simply be among the cognoscenti!

This same line of inquiry is available to each of us every moment. If when you ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” you come up with some nonsense answer, something that sets off your well-developed Bullshit Detector, go with that alarm! If it trips the Bullshit Alarm, it’s likely bullshit! We should never permit bullshit to govern our lives. And that’s exactly what we do when we allow bullshit to frame our reality for us.

It’s important that we be as honest with ourselves as possible, even when it hurts. It’s the honest answers that provide us critical information. The sort of things we need to determine whether was are on the right path, doing the right thing, or not. Consider a statement like, “It’s no use–I’m just not good at learning!” The statement itself betrays that the speaker has at some point in life learned something. Namely, language. They also were able to learn to formulate assessments about themselves. So with those very simple, admittedly broad, distinctions, we have already demonstrated that the initial statement is incorrect. Though not a classic example of the Meta Model at work, we still took an unhelpful generalization and by coercing specificity from it, discerned something far more useful. After all, if the person has learned the things he just proved he learned (language, self-evaluation), you could build upon that to encourage him to add new learnings on top of that foundation.

As you might imagine, this sort of dissection can make problems worse if approached with the wrong attitude. We are of course not trying to be smart-asses with this, just being contrarian for its own sake. No, our intention is to help people trapped by a distortion or generalization that does not serve them. Further, if you study NLP, you likely realize that this Meta Model is not typically the entirety of an intervention. Rather, it’s a starting point, a tool to uncover the distorted thinking that is trapping our client. Once we begin to shake such thinking loose, we have a foundation from which we can build any number of more useful beliefs and strategies.

In essence, the Meta Model can function as your own personal bullshit alarm–enabling you to spot and call out any bullshit statements the other person manages via deletion, distortion or generalization (yes, there is a reason we’re not naming Milton right now…). But where it is useful is in calling our own bullshit, as well as supportively helping others by calling “bullshit” when they limit themselves in this way.

People are doing the best they can in that moment, as the presupposition goes, and my experience bears that out. Therefore, no one intentionally traps themselves with a flawed belief. When you assist them in finding the flaw, it’s like opening a door that had been locked, with them trapped inside. Now they’re free to wander out and enjoy a world of opportunity and fresh choices.

Just remember that as a human, you also are prone to the same deletion, distortion and generalization processes. Meaning you are every bit as capable of bullshitting yourself. So the challenge would be to notice whether you’re getting the results you want. If not, to look for any such “bullshit” that may have convinced you that was the best you can do.

Spoiler alert: It’s not even close to the best you can do. Stick around. And see for yourself!

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