The Origins of the Meta Model

In the next few articles we’ll explore the set of magic questions called the ‘Meta Model’, which help you to uncover missing information, challenge generalisations, and straighten out distortions. The Meta Model will be ultra-useful to you in all kinds of contexts: therapy, coaching, business, and not least in your own personal development and aspects of everyday life, like parenting and spotting the tricks that politicians and sales people employ to get their own way.

So bearing in mind the Hierarchy of Ideas, you’ll remember that ‘chunking up’ takes us to a more abstract level and into the realm of concepts and ideas that could mean different things to different people, while ‘chunking down’ takes us to a more specific level, to concrete things and actions that we can compare with our sensory experience of things and actions in the world around us. This article series is all about how we chunk down to get more specific, using a set of questions called the Meta Model.

Where the Meta Model Came From

The Meta Model was the first model created by the originators of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder (modelling in NLP deserves a whole book to itself. It is essentially the process of taking on the skills of another person through replicating everything they do – behaviour, thought processes, beliefs and body language – and then stripping out everything that’s not needed to get the results, the end product being a model of how to reproduce that skill that can be transferred to other people). The Meta Model patterns were originally modelled from the questions that two great therapists, the family therapist Virginia Satir, and Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, would ask their clients when they heard signs in their language that they were operating from some distorted beliefs, or making sweeping generalisations, or leaving out some important information.

What Bandler and Grinder found was that by using these Meta Model questions, Satir and Perls could – in the nicest possible way in Satir’s case and somewhat more directly in Perl’s case – cut through the distortions, deletions and generalisations in what their clients said, and get to the real issues at the heart of their problems. Getting more specific enabled the clients to compare the problematic areas of their maps of the world (the parts that said ‘here be dragons’ or were just white spaces) with their own sensory experience.

Often the clients realised that the beliefs they had been operating from for years, unexamined, actually were no longer true; that there had been examples of them being able to do things that they thought they couldn’t, or that there were exceptions to sweeping generalisations like ‘I don’t deserve success’ or that ‘I am just an unlucky person’.

Bandler and Grinder realised that, although Perls and Satir were very different people, and the content and tone of their interactions with their clients were very different, the underlying structures of the questions they asked were very similar. When they took what the two therapists’ patterns of questioning had in common, and left out what was individual to one or the other, what they had left was essentially a field guide to how to spot language patterns that indicate distortions, generalisations and deletions, plus questions to reconnect each of those patterns with the facts of the client’s sensory experience, that could be used by all therapists to get better results more quickly, whatever school of therapy they’d been trained in. So they called it the ‘Meta’ Model – ‘meta’ meaning ‘over and above’ or ‘about’. Their original guidebook to using the Meta Model is The Structure of Magic, Volume I, which I highly recommend you read if you are at all interested in the nuts and bolts of effective questioning.

So you might be thinking, “I’m not a therapist, how is this going to be useful to me?”

Knowing the Meta Model patterns and being able to ask precision questions in the right places can help you to:

  • be alert to missing or unclear information
  • get clarification on requirements, instructions, and what people expect of you.
  • iron out misunderstandings
  • get more and better quality information – really sharpen your coaching skills
  • and not least, be able to challenge limitations when they show up in your internal dialogue to expand and enrich your own map of the world, so that you have more choices.

Next time, we’ll examine the ‘Distortion’ patterns, starting with ‘Mind Reads’!

This is an extract from the book Practical NLP 2: Language: How to use presuppositions, chunking, the Meta Model and the Milton Model in practice. Check out all the 5 star reviews on Amazon!

image by Vika_Glitter at

© 2024, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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