Welcome to The NLP Connection, Christina M. Hall, Ph.D.

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Language and Time - the Meta Model

Christina Hall presented a two-day workshop in New York City in November 1999, called Language and Time, sponsored by the Dynamic Wellness Center of New York. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Chris and Anastasi Siotas, one of the participants and language enthusiast.

Anastasi: Chris, I’m curious—what was your first exposure to the world of NLP?

Christina:  I was in a Master’s Degree program and starting to do counseling.  I really had no idea why some things worked successfully and others didn’t.   I remember observing my supervisor do a counseling session and got fascinated by the questions he asked.  I asked him how he knew to ask those questions.  He pulled the book "The Structure of Magic" from his briefcase and told me about some of his experiences at a recent workshop conducted by these two "wild and crazy" guys, named Bandler and Grinder, doing something called Neuro-Linguistic Programming.  Well, I knew that I had to find out more.  I went to my first seminar a few months later and well, the rest is history.   From that time on, I pursued NLP with an ever-increasing curiosity and fervor.

NLP challenged some perspectives presented as basic operating procedures during graduate school.  For example, the therapist is responsible for the change process.  That is,  the therapist is supposed to change the client, because he/she know what’s right and best for his/her clients.

Anastasi: That’s a lot of responsibility!

Christina:  Yes, and I took it seriously.  I experienced it as a burden.  I think, at some level, I realized this was an impossibility.  Yet, on the other hand, this also sent me on a search, which led me to NLP. 

Even though I had learned lots of techniques in graduate school, I really didn’t have the slightest idea what change was all about. It really was a total mystery to me. Several questions were predominant in my mind.  For example:  “What is change?”   “What does it mean changing?”  And probably, most important, “For what purpose… change?”  I figured since I’m responsible for the change process, or so I though, then I’d better find out more about what makes change possible… what change is all about.

During my first day of NLP training, either John or Richard said, I don’t remember which one, that people have all the resources they need to make any change.  "Wow!"  I thought, "What a concept!"  I was astounded, because the underlying message in graduate school was clients somehow needed to be “fixed.”  People actually have all the resources... that concept transformed my thinking on the spot, to say the least.

They (Bandler and Grinder) also said "resistance means there is no rapport."  We did exercises that day that demonstrated to me that rapport wasn’t just some random thing.  I could actually systematically do something to build rapport and create a readiness for change.  That, too, was transformational in my thinking.

That first day of NLP was a powerful experience that changed my direction in life..  All in all, what stands out in my mind is their (Bandler & Grinder) use of language.  Not only did they ask questions that, at first, sounded rather strange and unusual to my ears.  Their questions got me to think in ways that felt new and different.  And I found this intriguing.  As I look back, it was truly the "structure of magic" and the “magic of structure” in action.

And because of this, I found myself intensely drawn to the Meta Model (of Language). And as fate would have it, a major focus in my explorations and teaching has been and continues to be the role of language in training, learning, accomplishing outcomes and change.

Anastasi:  What makes the Meta Model intriguing to you?

Christina: After so many years of exploring, working with and teaching the Meta Model, I have come to realize that the Meta Model is about patterns of thinking.  It’s still curious to me to hear people continue to call the Meta Model patterns "violations."  In some places, it’s actually being presented in that way.  When I become a Trainer, I presented the Meta Model from that perspective, too, because that’s the way it had been presented to me.  Of course, this is one perspective.  However,  I think this is a perspective that limits the range of one’s thinking.  The Meta Model patterns are not about "violations".  They represent the patterns of thinking or "logic," if you will, that people use to make sense of their experience, organize and describe their experience.  And, paradoxically, these are also the very same patterns that people use to strengthen or weaken the credibility of a generalization (i.e., belief, opinion, judgment, etc.).

The Meta Model is so much more than just an information-gathering tool, as traditionally presented.  Questions can either reinforce something as a problem or questions can be used adeptly to "invite" someone to consider something from many different perspectives, opening up possibilities where someone thought there were none. 

The Meta Model was designed as a tool to find out how and what someone deletes and distorts in order to preserve a generalization, and how they do this.  Every verbalization represents a generalization that has gone through a transformational process from the deeper linguistic level. We simply can’t be aware of everything that’s happening at any given moment in time.  In fact, we cannot not delete.  Deletion and distortion drive the process of generalization.

Therefore, in a nutshell, language shapes perception.  Words actually direct a person how to think.  With this in mind, is there really a difference between elicitation and installation?  There’s a great little exercise that gives participants an experience of this.  It’s simple and fun — it’s called "20 questions."  Perhaps you played this that as a kid?  I remember in my Practitioner Training, David Gordon gave us this exercise to do. 

One person (the Modeler) asks questions that presuppose only a yes or no answer.  The objective for the Modeler is to guess what his/her partner is thinking of.   I give secret instructions to the Explorer to start with nothing at all in mind yet after his/her first response, whether it is “yes” or “no,” to keep their answers congruent.  Of course, this exercise isn’t about playing tricks or fooling anyone.  It’s about having the experience of how questions “chunk” information, create a focus and thereby, set a direction for thinking.  This exercise also gives participants the opportunity to practice asking questions by presupposition.

Why don’t we just do it? You be the Explorer and start with nothing in mind.

Anastasi: Okay.

Christina:  Okay. Is what you’re thinking about, could it fit on the surface of this table?

Anastasi: (pause) Yes.

Christina:  So now, whatever questions I ask you have to be consistent with your first response.  Would what you’re thinking about also fit the area immediately between the table and the ceiling?

Anastasi: Yes.

Christina:  Is what you’re thinking about something that I could concretely touch with my fingers?

Anastasi: No.

Christina:  Okay. So… Is it something I could see?

Anastasi: No.

Christina:  Is this something that could be described as a Nominalization?

Anastasi: Yes.

Christina:  Is this something that you would describe as some kind of energy?

Anastasi: Yes.

Christina:  Is this an aura?

Anastasi: Yes… But it’s not just that.

Christina:  Ah. Is it our auras?

Anastasi: Yes! (Both laugh).  In the beginning, I had nothing in mind, but right away something began to formulate.

Christina:  Yes, because the shaping of information starts from the first question.  In order to answer “yes” or “no” …

Anastasi: I have to make a decision.

Christina:  Yes.

Anastasi: I start to delete. So, when you give this exercise to a group, at the end of the exercise, are the Explorers usually thinking of something?

Christina:  Oh, yes. They’re already thinking of something in response to the first question.  They have to think of something in order to answer “yes” or “no.”  Fascinating, isn’t it?! 
Some of the Modelers have guessed what the Explorer was thinking of.  After the exercise, one of the questions I ask is "who’s shaping whose thinking?" 

This exercise demonstrates so simply yet elegantly that questions shape thinking and set a direction, and answers shape questions and set a direction.  In order to answer yes or no, you have to delete huge categories of information.  It's a great example of "either-or" thinking… the kind of thinking that can often result in a problematic loop or double-bind.

When you think about it, it’s phenomenal, isn’t it.   You can shape somebody’s thinking so dramatically with trivial content.  Imagine the impact if you asked somebody, for example,
"How limiting is your problem?"  Or, a particular favorite of mine... “ What was it that you had perceived as limiting?” And, "How curious are you to notice all the resources you haven’t recognized yet are there?" 

Anastasi:  So, there is really is a lot more to the Meta Model?

Christina:  Bandler said to me many years ago that the Meta Model is the foundation of everything you do in NLP.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time.  After so many years of exploring, I wholeheartedly agree.  Actually, it seems to me that it’s that and more.  See, any verbalization, whether question or statement always demonstrates the Meta Model patterns in action.  In fact, you cannot not use the Meta Model.  It’s not something we turn on and off.
These patterns shape our thinking on an ongoing basis. 

For example, remember the demonstration I did in class… the process I call "backtracking to data?"  There was something that the participant had perceived as a problem.  He chose anxiety.  I asked him a series of questions (e.g., "How do you know when to… ") that backed up the process to the "data" – a picture in his mind in which the speed of the movement was a controlling variable.  Then, I asked him to experiment with varying the speed in a variety of different ways.  This process of varying the speed changed his responses.  And, probably most importantly, undeniably showed him that he could do it... systematically.  He was learning how to influence his brain in a more useful and productive direction.  And I think this is one of the things that NLP is all about.

Then, remember at the end of the demonstration, he said "now I can see this is a resource."  "Yes," I replied "an opportunity to bring forth greater potential into action."   This is directing the process of generalization.  The very "data" that was perceived and labeled by him as problematical becomes a choice point that set a different direction.

Anastasi: So you’ve anchored him to go to that different place?

Christina:  Yes,  you got it!  This process is also an example of anchoring.  That’s one of the things that all of the techniques have in common… to take people back to "data base" ... for a purpose.  This helps to perform the change.  Bandler used to say  “the process of getting back to the database performs the change.”   This was another one of those statements that, at the time, I didn’t understand.  It took some time to get that one. 

Anastasi: So, you can look at a number of states and ask yourself, "Can that be a communication as well?"

Christina:  Yes and more.  Any state, or any situation, for that matter, represents a transition, an opportunity, a choice point, a learning, a skill and more.  It’s not just about having another way of describing something.  It’s about building a network of relationships based on function or purpose.

One of the things that I’m passionate about in my teaching is that whatever description someone uses to name a state or external behavior or oneself, for that matter, it’s just a label.  In other words, "the map is not the territory."  It represents a “nominalized-coded” version of an ongoing process.  The label is not the same as the process that the label describes. This may seem obvious, but it’s an example of how someone can make something into a problem instead of an opportunity… by confusing or mixing semantic levels.  That’s the kind of thinking that I “invite” people to explore in my trainings, because it has the effect of opening up possibilities and choices that they may not have been aware of or even imagined yet.

Anastasi: So you want people to understand that in your language certification training?
Is that unique to you?

Christina:  Yes to the first question and more.  I want people to integrate that understanding into their thinking and behavior.  Regarding the second question, so I’ve been told.  That might well be.  Well, certainly the ways in which I have people explore the labeling process at a deeper level.  It’s also fascinating to explore the Meta Model at a deeper level, as a “nested” structure that represents a set of relations. 

After all, language patterns are model-able and teachable.  From time to time I’ve heard people say (me, too), doing this identity thing, "Well, that’s Richard (Bandler) or that’s John (Grinder) or Erickson, for example, as if it they were born using language like that. 

Anastasi: But that seems to contradict one of the main precepts of NLP, that if one person can do it, anybody is capable of it.

Christina:  Exactly.  And Bandler and Grinder have demonstrated that quite elegantly.  If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here, chatting about NLP and language, enjoying our time together.   Whether it’s true or not, I think that this presupposition sets a very powerful direction.  If one person can do something, then it has a structure that can be modeled and transmitted to others.  It doesn’t mean that I will do something just like they do it.  I’ve modeled things that I have used for other purposes that the person from whom I modeled a particular strategy.

I’ve heard lots of people repeat the NLP presuppositions, but demonstrating them… ah, I mean, really demonstrating them … well, that’s a different story.  For me, the NLP presuppositions are more than just words.

Anastasi: They’re a way of life?

Christina:  For me, they are for me.  And, embracing them in my thinking and behavior has transformed my life, my relationships and my work with others.

Anastasi: You were so relaxed at the training this weekend, and so conversational, you allowed room for "not knowing." You said, "I’m here to learn from you, too."  Are you still discovering things?

Christina:  Firstly, "not-knowing" is a powerful attitude and learning state.  I take this to mean that I approach learning with a “fresh attitude and sense of curiosity and fascination to explore, discover and experiment to find out the possibilities. 

Secondly, I’m part of the learning process.  We trainers are part of the system, too.  Bateson emphasized this his “notion of ecological self-correction.”  Remember we cannot not influence and be influenced, so we’re teaching each other and learning from each other.   There’s a very thin line between teacher and student.  

Thirdly, There’s always more to explore and discover about language and the underlying structure.  I like to ask myself provocative and challenging questions that propel me to find out what else is possible.

I realized many years ago learning more and more techniques was not the answer to deeper, broader understanding and developing an-increasing competency.  In my opinion, this serves to reinforce the notion that NLP is only a collection of techniques.  I believe that it is functionally more resourceful to “incorporate” NLP as a set of attitudes, operational presuppositions and a methodology based on modeling, because this is the foundation from which the techniques have been derived.

Bandler has said that “NLP is not the techniques that people use, it’s what people do.”  Grinder has that “a technique, an outcome, in and of itself, has no particular value.  It must always serve a greater purpose.”  I believe that learning the techniques within the larger context of purpose is crucial to their effectiveness through time, as well exploring the underlying principles, processes and patterns that make the techniques work. 

To loop back to where we started... at that first exposure to NLP almost 25 years ago, I started off knowing nothing about patterning  and underlying structure.  I knew zero about language at a deeper level, or at the surface level, for that matter.  Since that time, my passion to explore, discover and learn has taken me on a grand adventure journey… a journey I couldn’t have ever begun to imagine way back in 1977.  What a difference it has made in my life.  Wow!  Here’s to the continuing journey and more…!