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The Meta-Cognition of the Four Meta-Models of NLP

The Meta-Cognition of the Four Meta-Models of NLP

Source: taken from L. Michael Hall, Meta-Relfections #29, June 27, 2011,

Given the expansive effectiveness of meta-cognition (Meta Reflection #28), does it surprise you that there are four meta-cognition models that comprise the core of NLP?  What this means practically is that one way to describe NLP is to describe the four meta-models that make up the heart and soul of NLP.

So what are the four meta-models of NLP?  What may make this a bit confusion is that yes, one of these meta-models is called “The Meta-Model.”  That is actually the first one and why it got the name that it did.  The full name is “the Meta-Model of Language in therapy.”  And that’s because it arose from the linguistic distinctions that John Grinder identified in the patterning replication that Richard Bandler made from Fritz Perl’s use of language and Virginia Satir’s use of language.

But, as noted, that’s just the first of four meta-models.  It is strange that many NLP Trainers do not know the four meta-models.  Not too long ago I spoke to a NLP Trainers group and mentioned “the four meta-models.”  “Four?”  It was as if I had revealed some secret knowledge hidden in the mountains of Santa Cruz and only accessible to a few special people!

Now as a meta-discipline itself, NLP is a field about how all things human work, especially any aspect of the human experience that has a cognitive-behavioral structure to it.  This structure doesn’t have to be in a person’s conscious awareness, it can and in fact usually is in a person’s cognitive-behavioral unconscious awareness.   This is because Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Neuro-Semantics are most fundamentally about how we humans structure things.  And because we structure things with language, representations, perceptions, and self-reflexive states, NLP has four meta-models by which we can model things.

These four meta-models provide a redundant system of descriptions.  This explains why the models seem different, they approach the mind-body-system of experiences in different ways.  So even though they refer to the same thing, each one gives us another avenue of approach.  Each provides another systematic structure and description of the processes of an experience.  The four NLP meta-models are:

1) The Meta-Model of Language: The NLP Communication Model.

2) The Sub-Modality or Cinematic Features Model.

3) The Meta-States Model of self-reflexive consciousness.

4) The Meta-Programs of perceptual lens and points of view.


1) The Meta-Model of Language

The first, the Meta-Model of Language, is a model that identifies the form of how we mentally map our experiences in language.  Via this model you can unpack the linguistics governing a person’s mental mapping and as you do, it provides a way for you to create linguistic precision.  How does language work?  By enabling us to use sensory-based words to create an inner picture for our mind, and then to make higher level evaluations.

This first meta-model of NLP is a model about the linguistics which serve as a code for your thinking.  And where did it come from?  From Transformational Grammar (TG) which Bandler and Grinder used it to sort out and create a model of the communication patterns of Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson.

To use this model, listen to words and language expressions, ask questions that invite the speaker to provide more specific answers, and thereby evoke a more thorough and precise mapping about the original experience.  The questions that challenge the linguistic expressions transform the evaluative language back to sensory-based words so that we can make a mental movie in our mind and understand what the speaker is referring to and hence meaning.  See The Structure of Magic, Volumes I and II; also, Communication Magic.

2) The “Sub-Modalities” or Cinematic Features Model

Classic NLP did not, and still does not, realize that this is a meta-model.  Why not?  Because someone labeled the distinctions as “sub” and that got connected to the name.  If we were to accurately label the model, it would be Meta-Modalities.  This meta-model refers to the cinematic features that provide a code for the mental movies that you create in your mind.  It refers to how you frame the cinema in your mind in terms of the qualities of your sights, sounds, and sensations.  So whether you make a movie close or far, bright or dim, loud or quiet, whether you step into it or just observe it, whether you add circus music to it, or the music from Jaws, these features or distinctions enable you to edit your movies.

The symbols in this model stand for semantic evaluations.  Perhaps “close, three-dimensional, and in color” stand for something being “real” or “compelling.”  That’s why the cinematic features (sub-modalities) are governed semantically.  In and of themselves, they mean nothing.  Yet inside of every person, they stand for some significance or meaning.

As you frame the cinema in your mind, you code the sights, sounds, and sensations with various features, cinematic features.  These features or distinctions enable you to take an editor’s position or perspective to your own mental movies.  You can then use “close” or “far” to stand for and mean some semantic frame (real, unreal; compelling, less compelling).

To recognize your sub-modalities and work with these cinematic features in how you code your representations, you have to step back or “go meta.”  You have to gain a broader perspective and ask questions that are meta to or higher than the representations.  Is that picture close or far?  Is that image bright or dim?  Is that sound quiet or loud?  To answer such meta-questions, you have to stop being a subject of the movie, step out of it, and as you transcend that experience, notice the code as it currently is.  That’s why these are not really “sub” but operate as a meta-level to your representations.  See Insiders Guide to Sub-Modalities; also Sub-Modalities Going Meta.

3) Meta-States Mode of Self-Reflexive Consciousness

The Meta-States Model looks at the same structures, not primarily in terms of linguistics or cinematic features, but in terms of thinking-and-feeling states.  A possibility state or a necessity state, for example, will typically show up linguistically as a modal operator of possibility (can, get to, want to) and/or a modal operator of necessity (have to, must).  The Meta-Model describes it linguistically, the Meta-States model describes it in terms of state.

Because we never just think, we reflectively think about our thinking, we feel about our feeling.  This self-reflexivity creates our meta-states as our states-about-states and all of the layering we do.  Reflecting back onto our own states and experiences, layers levels of experiences (what we call “logical levels”) to create each person’s unique psycho-logics.  This means that we are not logical creatures, we are psycho-logical beings.  Our meanings make sense to us—on the inside.

Nor does our reflexivity ever end.  Whatever you think or feel, you can step back and have another thought or feeling about that.  This creates the layers of meanings as beliefs, understandings, decisions, memories, imaginations, permissions, anticipations, identities, and so on.  It is what makes our minds complex and not simple.  And as we continue to reflexively apply a next thought or feeling to ourselves, we keep building more frames within our frame structure or matrix.  This makes up the rich layeredness of our mind or our neuro-semantic system.  See Meta-States (2008), Secrets of Personal Mastery (1997), and Winning the Inner Game (2007).

4) The Meta-Programs of Perceptual Lens

The Meta-Programs model is one of thinking patterns, thinking styles, or perceptual lens.   This model refers to how you see or perceive things.  Is the cup half empty or half full?  Do you see it pessimistically or optimistically?  Whichever style of thinking / perceiving characterizes you, then your language will differ, as will your states, as will the ways you encode your inner mental movies.

A global thinker will sort for the big picture and meta-state or frame most things from the global thinking-and-feeling state.  Someone who sorts for “necessity” will regularly apply a state of compulsion to other thought-and-feeling states.  Habituation of your internal processing gives rise to your meta-programs and then governs your everyday states, language, and perceptual filters.  As your meta-programs show up in language, the Meta-Model offers a description.    And as you access a particular state and use it repeatedly, your meta-state becomes your meta-program.  That’s why a meta-program is a coalesced meta-state.

From your meta-states, you create the meta-programs that govern your perceptions. You generalize from the states that you most regularly and commonly access and as you do you habituate that way of thinking and feeling until it becomes your basic style of perceiving.  You meta-state global thinking or detail thinking until it coalesces into your neurology and becomes your perceptual lens or meta-program.  You meta-state sameness thinking or difference thinking until it becomes your meta-program style.

A driving perceptual style is a meta-program that you have layered with even more meta-states—states of value, belief in, identification with, etc.  So if a person who thinks globally and sorts for the big picture begins to frame most things from that global state and then begins to highly value it, identify with it, believe in it, they person may create a driving meta-program of global thinking.  Similarly the person thinks in terms of “necessity” and brings that state of mind and emotion to more and more of his or her experiences and then believes in it, values it, identifies with it, will more than likely apply that state of compulsion to every other state.  This will eventuate in the driving meta-program of necessity.

Habituation of internal processing gives rise to meta-programs—to a person’s structured ways of perceiving. They then govern that person’s everyday thinking-and-feeling as his or her perceptual filters.  To the extent they show up in language, you can detect them using the Meta-Model.  For example, people have favored modals that describe their basic modus operandi (modal operators) for operating: necessity, impossibility, possibility, desire, etc.  They originated as meta-level thoughts or feelings, they were first meta-states.  As they coalesced, they got into one’s neurology, one’s eyes, one’s muscles and become the person’s meta-programs.  See Figuring Out People (2007), also Words that Change Minds.

All together these four models provide four different lenses for observing your meaning-making processes.

• Language: Linguistics and the VAK sensory systems.

• Cinematic Features: The qualities and distinctions with which we code our mental movies.

• States: Mind-body states from which you operate.

• Perception: Filters for your lens for seeing and perceiving, for sorting, paying attention, and thinking.

Now you know what for some is a big secret—the four meta-models of NLP which provide an extensive meta-cognitive perspective on experience.  Now you have four possible ways to describe experience.