3 minute read

Throughout our lives, from childhood and education to work and relationships, we develop our mental models — our unique perceptions of the world. However, due to the limitations of language, we struggle to effectively communicate and interpret these varied, and sometimes even conflicting, mental models. This is fundamentally why we encounter so much noise in communication, as captured by the following quote:

Between what I say and what you understand, there’s what I meant to say and what you think I said.

This underscores why communication is paramount in leadership and management, which is the reason I maintain a dedicated page on the subject of communication.

An essential tool for enhancing interpersonal communication, and even the internal dialogue we have with ourselves, is the meta-model patterns of communication. Originating from Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), these patterns allow us to reverse engineer communication, uncovering information that might be deleted, distorted, or generalized, in the language of NLP.

The Meta-Model

The NLP meta-model is a set of questions designed to specify information and to challenge and expand the limits of someone’s mental model. It responds to the deletions, distortions, and generalizations in our mental models and our communication.

Every time we capture events and perceptions from our surroundings, we are partially consciously, but mostly unconsciously, processing a lot of information. According to NLP, to handle and make sense our experience, our brains use some filters and, just after that, our thoughts are formed. Those filters are:

  • Deletion: When we selectively focus our attention on certain aspects of our experience and exclude others.
  • Distortion: The ability to add or remove parts of what is perceived to give it logical, aesthetic, or ethical meaning.
  • Generalization: The ability to learn quickly from a few experiences.

The following table summarizes the NLP Meta-Model:

Deletions Distortions Generalizations
Simple Deletion Nominalization Universals
Unspecified Referential Index Mind Reading Modal operators of necessity
Unspecified Verb Complex Equivalents Modal operators of possibility
Comparative Deletion Cause and Effect  
Lost Performative Presuppositions  

A few examples of how to challenge language patterns, expand someone’s mental model, and recover lost information:

1. Mind Reading: Claiming to know someone else’s inner mental state

  • Example: “He doesn’t care to this project”
  • Challenge: How do you know he doesn’t care?
  • Goal: Identify the criteria used to suppose what someone else thinks.

2. Comparative Deletion: A comparison in which the starting point for comparison is not stated

  • Example: “It is better to say nothing”
  • Challenge: Better than what specifically?
  • Goal: Identify the comparison criteria used

Meta-Model Questions

A list of questions useful to specify and clarify information and to open up someone’s model of the world:

  • How? What? When? Where? Who specifically?
  • Who says? According to Whom?
  • Everybody? Always? Never? Nobody? Nothing? All? No one?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Compared to whom? Compared to what?
  • How do you know?
  • What stops you? What would happen if you could?
  • What would happen if you did? What would happen if you didn’t?

Further reading

If you want to learn more about the meta-model, consider the following as a starting point.

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