Meta Model in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming)

We create mental maps of the world around us, which we use to navigate our life. The Meta Model recovers information from the deeper map (deep structure) that we have deleted, generalised, and distorted. 

Meta Model

This is a method for updating the mental maps from which we are operating. 

The concept of the Meta Model first appeared in the book, The Structure of Magic Vol 1 (Science and Behaviour Books, 1975) by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. It was a means of identifying and responding to problematic language patterns in a therapeutic environment. 

It was designed to enrich or clarify verbal ambiguities, and challenge potential limitations. As you can imagine, this model would provide insights into many different areas of life where we may have problems or limitations. 

As Korszykski says, “The map is not the territory.” We often mistake reality for the model our brains have created to represent how we think the world is. Another way of saying this is, “The menu is not the food.” 

The Meta Model maintains that our representations have three basic problems: generalisation, deletion, and distortion 


One way in which generalization can occur is when elements or pieces of a person’s model come to represent the entire category.

Generalisation is important for coping with the world around us. For example, you know how a chair works, and you no longer have to learn how a chair works just because it is a different shape, colour, or material. The same process of generalisation may lead to such rules as, “Men don’t express emotions,” “You must work hard to succeed,” or “I can’t sing.” 


In deletion, we selectively pay attention to certain dimensions of our experience and exclude others. For example, you may have been at a party with lots of noise and had a conversation with one person, deleting all the noise around you. 

In order to make sense of the world, we must reduce it to manageable proportions. As much as this helps us cope on a daily basis, we also delete information, situations, and objects that, if we retained them, would make us successful in life. 


Distortion is a way that our brains can change the way we experience the perceived world. Our beliefs are distortions, which are designed to make the world fit our thinking. We also use distortions when imagining something going wrong or working well. This is also how artwork is created.  

Deep Structure to Surface Structure 

We distort, delete, and generalise information (mental images, sounds, feelings, and other sensory representations) from deep structure to surface structure (words, signs, and symbols that represent our experience).

The deep structure is not conscious as language and exists at a deep level in our neurology.

Surface structure is that which we communicate through spoken language. To communicate through language, the deep structure must travel through deletion, generalisation and distortion, to reduce the detail to manageable proportions, so that communication using language can take place.

Because the human attention span is limited, conversations would become long-winded and boring if detailed explanations of the full meaning of that which was being communicated were given.

To go from deep structure to surface structure, the unconscious mind selects only part of the information available, simplifies it, and generalises.

I will tell you about my day at the beach, first using mainly deep structures and then communicate the same day at the beach using mainly surface structures to demonstrate the difference. 

Day at the beach using mainly deep structure:

Woke up a 6.41 am and thought to myself, “Hey, we are going to the beach today.” I opened my eyes and noticed a beam of light coming through the curtains, as I reached over with my right hand and grabbed the corner of the sheet and pulled it away from myself. I sat up, then spun around, placing my left foot on the floor first, followed by my right foot. 

I stood up and took ten steps to the bathroom. I reached across with my left hand and picked up my toothbrush, which is unusual because I normally use my right hand, and I transferred it to my right hand. I started to clean my upper left teeth first, in a rotational manner; this took 30 seconds. Then I switched to cleaning the top right-hand side… I could go on. 

Day at the beech using  mainly surface structure:

Went to the beach, played some games, and had a sandwich. 

Do you know people who give you a lot of deep structure? Even when you say, “I know,`’ Do you know others who say hardly anything? 

Neuro-Linguistic Programming Meta Model

Why are Surface Structure and Deep Structure important? 

We distort, delete and generalise information (mental images, sounds, feelings, and other sensory representations) from deep structure to surface structure (words, signs, and symbols that represent our experience) and we create our personal mental maps to live by. 

This shapes how we respond to the world around us, i.e., the “map” we operate from. Sometimes the map we live by no longer serves us and, in fact, can hold us back in certain areas of our lives. 

Why Use Meta Model

The Meta Model enables us to challenge the map, by identifying generalisations, deletions and distortions that are problematic. The Meta Model enables us to identify information from the deep structure that may have been lost or changed in some way.

The Meta Model is a tool that identifies where someone has placed boundaries and limitations, or judges themselves or other peoples’ actions. 

The aspects which are identified by using the Meta Model can be organised into “gathering information,” “identifying limits” and “semantic ill-formedness” (how people judge and give meaning to behaviours and events).

Let’s dive deeper. 

Information gathering


Whenever we use language, a large amount of information is left out or deleted. Even in the sentence I have just used, (along with this one) when I wrote, “Whenever we…” whom specifically are we referring to? When I wrote, “language,” specifically what language or which words? When I wrote, “large amount,” what is meant by a “large amount?” And when I used the word, “information,” what information specifically is identified? 

Simple Deletion: key elements are left out: “I am confused” – “Confused about what?”

Comparative Deletion: a comparison is implied, but it is left out: “It is better not to say anything” – “Better than what?” 

Locating deletions in surface structure can often identify areas that have not been adequately defined or where assumptions have been made. 

Unspecified Referential Index:

In many statements the person, people, or objects to which the statement refers (Referential Index) is left unclear (Unspecified).

For example: “Those advertisers only want your money.” The specific advertisers have been left unspecified. “Everyone hates me!” cries the teenager. Absolutely and specifically “Everybody in the world?” Really?  This is a type of distortion, where the behaviour of a few becomes confused with the behaviour of an entire group. This will de-humanize the group being referred to in the model of the speaker or listener. 

Unspecified Verbs: 

A specific mode of action is not implied by the verb used in a statement. 

Example: “We need to get tough to keep peace on the streets.” This fails to specify just how getting tough will keep the peace. 

It is important to ensure that a specific mode of action has been defined before making a decision. This will help to avoid any potential confusion or misinterpretation of the chosen method. 

Doing so can help avoid any potential misunderstandings or complications with implementing the chosen course of action.


This is where an activity or relationship is represented as an object. A verb (action word) or an adverb (a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies) is transformed into a noun. 

Example: “We are fighting for truth, justice and freedom.” Notice that the words sound like an object. They are not objects; they are values and relationships that are experienced differently by each one of us. The way to deal with normalization is to return them to their correct use as an action or relationship. I.e., turn the word back into a verb. 

  • Who is being truthful to whom, about what?
  • Who is treating whom unjustly, under what conditions, and in what way? 
  • Who is being free to do what, specifically, with whom specifically? 

Setting and Identifying Limits 

Universal Quantifiers:

These are words such as “all,” “every,” “never,” “always,” “only,” “everyone,” and “everything.” Universal quantifiers over-generalise behaviour or relationships observed in a few circumstances and apply them to all such cases. 

Example: “All men are pigs,” or “Building a strong business plan is the only way to start a business.” 

Such statements are typically challenged by finding counter examples to the claim made by the statement. “All men? What about the man who helped you with your move?” 

Modal Operators:                                                                     

This is where a statement defines a limit by asserting a claim about what is possible, not possible, necessary, or unnecessary. Words used might be, “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” “can’t,” “necessary,” “unnecessary” and “impossible.” 

Example: “You can’t talk to teenagers.” This may or may not be accurate. The way to challenge this is to ask questions such as: “What stops you?” “What would happen if you did?” 

Modal operators are simply assumed and accepted as existing limits. 

Semantic ill-formedness (judgements)

Complex Equivalence: (or Simple Equivalence) 

This is where two experiences become equivalent in the mind of the speaker. For example: “You don’t bring me flowers, which means you don’t love me.” This implies that “giving flowers = loving someone.” Yet the two may not necessarily be equivalent. 

You can ask, “How, specifically, does not giving you flowers mean I don’t love you?” 

Cause & Effect 

These are statements where a cause-and-effect relationship is either explicitly or implicitly implied between two experiences, which may or may not be true. 

“You don’t love me, because you don’t bring me flowers,” or “I only have bad luck, because nothing works out as I expect.” 

How specifically is bad luck connected to expectations? 

You may have also noticed that this is one way we structure our beliefs. 


All communication incorporates presupposed assumptions, including this sentence! Presuppositions occur when an assumption must be helped to be true, in order to understand what is being said. 

“Since you leave us no alternative, we must dance,” presupposes that no alternative to dancing exists. We would challenge this by asking, “How, specifically do you know that?” 

 Mind Reading: 

In these statements the person speaking claims to know what another person is thinking or feeling. 

“Batman acted out of fear in order to save his identity.” The person saying this is mind-reading Batman. To challenge this you would say, “How, specifically, do you know Batman acted out of fear?”

Learn the meta model nlp
Mind Reading

Lost Performative: 

Lost = becoming disassociated.
Performative =  actions and/or reasons.

Words such as “right,” “wrong,” “good,” “bad,” and “just”  are performative. Such words can often become more ambiguous than useful. 

“Punk music is bad.” The response to a lost performative would be to ask, “According to whom, is punk music considered ‘bad?’” Or “’Bad’, according to what?” Or simply, “What is ‘bad’ about punk music?”

How to apply Meta Model to self 

Now try it for yourself. 

Write down a sentence describing a problem, outcome, or situation you would like to analyse or explore. 


  • “I get too self-critical and become blocked.”
  • “I think that my work is not good enough.” 

Look over what you have written and highlight the keywords.  

  • “I get too self-critical and become blocked.
  • “I think that my work is not good enough.” 

Now identify the Meta Model to the keywords in the sentence. 

  • “I get too (Comparative Deletion) self-critical (Unspecified Verb) and become blocked (Unspecified Verb).”
  • “I think (Unspecified Verb) that my work (Nominalization) is not good (Lost Performative) enough(Comparative Deletion).” 

Intuitively write down Meta Model questions to recover the distortion, delete and generalisations. 

“I get too self-critical and become blocked.
Questions: “Too critical compared to whom?” “Blocked? How, specifically?” 

“I think that my work is not good enough.” 
Questions: “What thoughts specifically?” “What work am I referring too?” “Good enough for whom?” “Good enough compared to what?” 

Meta Model II

Meta Model II is known as the second generation application of the Meta Model. 

It combines the Meta Model and the feedback loop of the T.O.T.E. 

T.O.T.E. stands for “Test, Operate, Test and Exit” based on Miller, Galanter & Pribram’s research into behaviour. 

  • TEST, TRIGGER OR CUE begins the sequence of representations towards a specific outcome.
  • OPERATION: internal or external action.
  • TEST: comparison of the first test i.e., did we achieve what we set out to achieve?
  • EXIT: finish, either having succeeded, not succeeded, or changed OPERATION.
T.O.T.E. stands for “Test, Operate, Test and Exit”

An example of a Meta Model II exercise:

  1. Choose something to work on.
  2. Decide what you would like to know more about to ensure a well-thought-out outcome. 
  3. TEST: the specific information you want to know about. 
  4. OPERATION: Apply the Meta Model pattern. 
  5. TEST: what new information was gained. Do you need more information? Repeat.
  6. EXIT: apply learnings.

Meta Model III

Instead of connecting Meta Model with T.O.T.E as we did in Meta Model II, we now involve the relationship between three fundamental elements of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Language, Cognitive Patterns, and Physiology. 

This presupposes that language is not a set of arbitrary symbols that we use to communicate, but a key part of our experience. The structure and principles of language would in some way mirror and be mirrored by our bodies. 

Any part of the Meta Model can be represented through language; cognitive patterns (thinking patterns) show up in physiology. This means, that in the same way you can recover information from deep structure through the language, you can also do the same through imagination or movement. 

For example, a Nominalization (a verb being used as a noun) would manifest as a Submodality (how we think about something), such as a still image, disassociated, with no sound, and physiologically accompanied by stiffness in the body.  

This means if we change how we think about the Nominalization, instead of being still and disassociated, we can turn the image into a moving associated image. Or we could approach the change through moving and stretching. 

Possible connections between Language, Cognitive Patterns and Physiology include:

  • Deletions tend to have large or small images, with eyes defocused and general language patterns. 
  • Universal Quantifiers tend to have no clear image, symmetrical gestures, and use words such as “every” and “always”. 
  • Mind Reading tends to have an external image of inner dialogue and is imbalanced. 
  • Lost Performatives tend to have a large associated images and a drop in the tone of voice. 

These examples are not the only possibilities, but a starting point. I would encourage you to explore the interrelationship between Language, Cognitive Patterns and Physiology for yourself. 

You could start with yourself. Notice your own internal experience and physiology to Meta Model patterns, and indeed to language. What happens if you change how you think about it, change the language, or change your physiology, or all of these?

NLP Meta Model Word of Warning 

The Meta Model is a powerful tool, and with any tool, it is worth knowing when not to use it. 

As you are challenging someone’s map of the world, they can feel that you are attacking their reality, values, and beliefs. 

If you don’t have an agreement, or someone is not in a good place, then this may not be the go-to tool. 

Meta Model in Coaching

The Meta Model, in coaching, is an excellent tool for problem-solving and uncovering thinking that may be holding someone back from achieving goals. 

What is wonderful about the Meta Model, is that it can be used with any of the coaching models including GROW or CLEAR. 

Wow, are you aware of how much we have covered in this article? 

We have explored:

  • Mental maps of the world
  • NLP Meta Model 
  • Deep Structure and Surface Structure
  • Deletions, Generalization and Distortions 
  • Gathering information, identifying limits and semantic ill-formedness (judgements) 
  • How to apply Meta Model to self 
  • Meta Model II
  • Meta Model III
  • Language, Cognitive Patterns, and Physiology
  • Meta Model warnings

I could Mind Read your questions, or you could send any questions or examples you wish to share via email to 

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