The Meta model
The Meta model
Language, either written or verbal, provides a medium to allow our complex thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences to be broken down into a tangible structure for others to interpret. Unfortunately, although our language is powerful it is also flawed, forever unable to capture the entire structure of our thoughts, and it will often fall short of being able to convey the true meaning behind all of our intent.
Language will often fall short of being able to convey the true meaning behind all of our intent.
Imagine trying to describe the oceans: a vast amount of water, filled with fish and other sea creatures, and sometimes cold, deep, shallow, warm, depending upon which part of the world you happen to be in. We could write an entire book attempting to explain the oceans and still fail to capture more than a minute percentage of all the tiny details, experiences, knowledge and beauty actually contained within them.
It is common procedure for most organizations to have a written company identity, the business literature stating “who are we” on the company website. The principal reason for this summary is to provide potential clients and employees with a deeper insight into the company as a whole – its culture, people, management, products, objectives and successes.
Unfortunately, no matter how many paragraphs the organization devotes to this, it is still nothing more than a mere summary, a selective, generalized and distorted view of all the information that is actually available, made up of the tiny events that actually occur within the corporate walls on a daily basis.
This doesn’t make what has been written about the company any the less true, but it just means that the information is incomplete, only a small fragment of all the vast amount of information available.
One of the most powerful influencing tools we have is our language, but it is important to recognize that it has massive limitations, and although it provides us with an outlet for our thoughts, it can never fully deconstruct, capture or portray the entire span of our meanings, feelings, ideas, experience and understanding.
One of the most powerful influencing tools we have is our language.
The Meta model provides us with a methodology that gives us access to the deep structure operating behind our language, creating the opportunity to gain insight and clarity into the specific meaning behind our words.
We have already mentioned that when our minds take on any information, it all has to be filtered through our belief and value structures, resulting in only a small percentage of that information actually getting through.
A similar thing happens when we begin communicating and interacting with one another. We have so many structures within our minds, creating our internal reality, that for even basic communication to occur with one another, we must summarize and filter information down, turning it into more tangible structures.
Understanding an individual’s Meta models brings us closer to understanding their true experience of reality. If we understand what is actually going on within someone else’s head, the thoughts that are driving them, the motivation and the actual meaning behind the words they say, it becomes easier for us to answer their genuine questions and respond with the appropriate behaviour or the relevant information, rather than guessing at what they are saying and often getting it wrong.
If we understand what is actually going on within someone else’s head, it becomes easier for us to answer their genuine questions and respond with the appropriate behaviour.
Through their studies, Bandler and Grinder noticed that people process language in three distinct ways: deletion, distortion and generalization.
By applying these filtering processes to our language, we allow our thoughts and our communication of these thoughts to become more manageable, enabling our mind to convey our meaning without the intent getting lost within rambling and irrelevant detail.
The language we use every day is known as our surface structure. This means that the actual words being used are only a surface representation of the actual, deeper meaning contained within our thoughts. This deeper meaning (the intent) behind our language is known as the deeper structure or higher order structure of language. Uncovering this deeper meaning (the true intent) behind the words people are using can provide us with the key that unlocks the specific information we need in order to tune into another person’s honest perspective and allow us to communicate with them at a higher level than we would normally.
The Meta model teaches us how to gather more effective information from the language that we and others use. By asking the right questions we can uncover the hidden meaning behind deletion, distortion and generalization and clarify the truth behind what we are actually meaning, not just what we are saying.
Deletion occurs when you are not giving the whole story and you are editing out specifics from the sentence. When deletion occurs in our language it leaves the recipient in a position where they have to fill in the gaps themselves, and almost make it up. Have you ever noticed yourself finishing someone else’s sentence before they have had a chance to do it themselves? And when you did that, were you actually able to read the mind of the other person or did you simply fill in the blanks with your own opinion of the perceived conversation?
Because there is so much information bombarding our senses both internally and externally, in order to save us time and to prevent our minds from becoming overwhelmed with any unnecessary data, our subconscious has a tendency to delete anything it deems to be irrelevant. This often results in our conscious mind being aware only of the specific details that relate to our belief structures and values, often overlooking more productive data that is also available.
Deletion is a valuable screening tool, but because it can perceive only the information it expects to see, sometimes the negative effect can be that it also leads us into unrealistic and sometimes unhelpful and restrictive perceptions.
For example, when you gain feedback from your quarterly appraisal, you may subconsciously delete any negative feedback that you believed didn’t accurately reflect how you personally viewed your own performance.
Or when listening to a presentation, you may find yourself deleting any information that doesn’t resonate with your current interest, choosing instead to daydream about other matters of more personal importance. Have you ever walked out after a lecture and wondered what exactly had been said?
Or have you ever found yourself rejecting a compliment because it didn’t mirror with what you believed to be true?
Deletion doesn’t occur only in our input of information. We delete our language all the time, subconsciously choosing not to use words in order to save time and energy for the person speaking. It’s a little similar to the texting culture we have developed, deleting characters to save space and time. You becomes “u” and later becomes “l8r”. And “lol” stands for laugh out loud, which is fine if you understand the language of text, but if not, you could be left struggling to interpret it.
Deletion is time saving, but it also has a tendency to limit our thinking and restrict the way in which we perceive the world. Compliments often go unheard, feedback remains unacknowledged and opportunities are unrecognized.
Deletion is time saving, but it also has a tendency to limit our thinking and restrict the way in which we perceive the world.
Examples of deletion in language
Simple deletions about things
“It’s harder than I thought,” or “That was nice!” (What?)
Specific objects or things are often replaced by “this”, “that” or “it”.
Deletions about people
“He made it happen,” or “They thought it was a good idea.” (Who?)
Deletions about how events happened
“I sold it to him.” (What to who? And how?)
Deletions such as these often remove necessary information behind what is actually being said.
How the Meta model clarifies
The Meta model provides questions to gather more specific information and clarify the deeper structure of the language being used:
• Who, what, when, how?
• What specifically?
• What exactly?
With simple deletions (What?), say “What was harder than you thought?” or “What was nice?”
With deletions about people (Who?), say “Who specifically?” (“Who specifically made it happen?” or “Who thought it was a good idea?”)
With deletions about how events happened (How?), you can ask questions beginning with “How?” or “How exactly?” (“How exactly did you sell it to him?”)
Generalization occurs when one experience is linked to another for understanding. Our mind takes the meaning from one experience, object or idea and then links this understanding and coded pattern to another separate experience, object or idea, basically transferring one conclusion on to another reference point.
Generalizations provide our subconscious mind with a quick method of structuring the world and our experiences into an easily accessible cognitive map, for example if the rules of playing baseball are transferred into understanding how to learn tennis. Both sports involve a sort of bat and ball, use similar coordination and motor skills and apply similar basic principles.
Saying that “Everyone in HR is rubbish” demonstrates how the mind has generalized the title and understanding of HR to anybody unfortunate enough to have a job within HR. In that statement all the people in Human Resources have just been tarred with the same brush, probably merely because at some point someone has maybe had a bad experience with one or two relatively incompetent HR people.
Through generalization you can apply existing understanding on to another subject, making slight alterations to the basic program if necessary, often using your past to understand your future, thereby saving your subconscious valuable processing time.
Through generalization you can apply existing understanding on to another subject.
The downside to relying upon our past to understand our present and our future, the new and the unexperienced, is that sometimes new, potentially interesting or relevant details are overlooked and missed. If your mind happens to perceive X to be like Y, it then can go on to assume that X therefore must also have the same or a similar meaning to Y. This assumption then leads the subconscious to automatically respond to X as if it was in fact Y, even though X is a whole new subject and letter.
These assumptions can lead to devaluing ideas, experiences, perceived gestures and wonderful opportunities. Because generalization often oversimplifies things, it can sometimes leave very little room for any new arguments or new thinking to be considered.
Examples of generalization in language
All, always, never, everyone, everything:
• “All recruitment staff are vultures.”
• “I never do well in interviews.”
• “Everything I do turns out badly.”
Overcoming generalization can be achieved by questioning the specifics behind our words:
• “Do all people act this way?”
• “What happens if you do?”
• “What happens if you don’t?”
• “Just imagine you could, what then?”
• “What is possible?”
• “What is impossible?”
Distortion is a misinterpretation of information and it occurs when we change and alter the actual meaning behind communication and distort it into something else. The new structure is usually something more reflective of our own personal belief system.
We are continuously manipulating the information available in reality and distorting it into reflecting what we believe to be true, rather than considering the potential options of its actual meaning. When we allow our-selves to become completely focused upon something that we truly believe is right, we can often blind ourselves into ignoring and changing any evidence that may possibly state otherwise. Distortion is a result of our perceptions and beliefs coming together.
Distortion is a result of our perceptions and beliefs coming together.
We focus our attention upon the information that backs up our reality and our own personal points of interest on our cognitive map, because our conscious can only comprehend a limited amount of information. Any new information available to our subconscious mind that our beliefs deem irrelevant will simply be ignored. Distortion is very rarely a conscious act, and often people tend not to realize that what they perceive isn’t always actually the truth.
Distortion can also be a brilliant creative tool and can allow our mind to change things so as to perceive them in new lights and from different angles. By distorting our perceptions on things we can create new realities, dreams and brilliant inventions. However when we consciously allow ourselves to distort reality, we have to be very careful that we are choosing to create something made of dreams rather than of nightmares.
Distortion is often applied with mind reading, and is something we do when we are trying to interpret another person’s intention. But it is important to recognize that because everyone’s perceptions and understanding of reality is so different, we can never know what someone else is thinking exactly or truly understand the intention behind their words, unless we choose to ask them.
Trying to view someone else’s map through our own perception will distort the reality immensely, and will taint the meaning behind their words and actions. Negative distortions blended with mind reading can have very debilitating effects. To make any judgement on or draw any conclusion from someone else’s actions or deeds involves a process of evaluation based upon the available evidence.
To make any judgement on or draw any conclusion from someone else’s actions or deeds involves a process of evaluation based upon the available evidence.
It is important that we are careful that we gather enough evidence to view the case properly and even then, make sure we are viewing that information from every possible light.
Examples of distortion in language
• “I don’t know.”
• “You never say that.”
• “I know they think I’m no good.”
• “It must be my fault.”
• “I know that they will think this is great.”
Overcoming distortion can be achieved by questioning the specifics behind our words:
• “Who (or what) says?”
• “How do you know?”
• “What makes that mean this?”
Practising the Meta model
1. Next time you are speaking with a client or a colleague, begin actively listening to their language and attempt to spot their distortions, generalizations and deletions. Listen to the actual words they are using. Try and identify what it is they are not actually saying.
2. Once you have identified their distortions, generalizations and deletions, begin to challenge and question them. What is it they specifically want, what are their actual motivating factors and what are they expecting you to deliver them and how?
3. Start learning how to ask the right questions. How do they know, and what evidence are they backing this conclusion up with?
But before any communication can begin, always remember to establish rapport first!
Go for it! The Meta model is a valuable tool to apply in business, as it allows you to understand and use language in a way that clarifies people’s actual meaning. What do they want, what are their motivating factors, and what are they expecting from you? Through the Meta model we can understand other people’s true objectives, clarify meaning and gain understanding into our own limiting thought processes. By clarifying all the details within a situation we get to perceive and open ourselves up to all the available choices.