NLP Meta Model


The NLP meta model was originally described in the book 'The Structure of Magic'.

The meta model is the result of one of the earliest piece of modelling work done by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

The purpose of the NLP Meta Model is to allow the practitioner to recover the deep structure of a client's internal representation.

In many cases the reason the client is stuck is simply due to there appearing to be a lack of choice either of action or interpretation, and the NLP Meta Model allows the client to transform their understanding and gain new insight.

The goal is to move the client towards an understanding that is well-formed in english - that is a description that is:

  • Well formed
  • Contains no transformational deletions
  • contains no nominalisations
  • contains no words or phrases that lack referential index
  • contains no incompletely specified verbs
  • contains no relevent presuppositions
  • doesn't voilate the semantic conditions of wellformedness

Ok, now that sounds like a bit of a mouthfull, but it's quite straightforward really. So here is a list of the NLP meta model patterns:

Semantic Ill-formedness (Distortions)


Mind reading is an exceptionally common pattern. In Mind reading, the client assumes that they know what someone else thinks:

  • Everyone thinks I'm ugly
  • She doesn't know what's good for her

A common response to this kind of statement would be "How do you know?"


In this pattern, a particular event causes a particular experience to the client:

  • People wind me up
  • She makes me mad

The usual response would be "how do they wind you up?" or "how does she make you mad?"

Complex Equivalence

The client links two events. This pattern sounds similar to cause-effect but is based upon the belief that the outcome will always be the same:

  • She doesn't phone anymore
  • She makes me mad

In the case of a complex equivalence, the statement is a conclusion based on a belief. So in the first of these examples, the previous question may have been something like "How do you know she doesn't love you?" - which in itself is the question after the mind-read "She doesn't love me". The way these patterns often lead on one after the other will be covered later.

The usual response to the complex-equvalence would be to ask something like "How does her not phoning show she doesn't love you?"

Lost Peformative

A lost perfomative occurs when the client asserts an opinion or judgement without stating who asserts it:

  • It's wrong to teach this way
  • We should do it like this

The response to a lost performative is usually "for whom?"


In therapy nominalisations come up time and time again. A nominalisation is simply a verb that has been turned into a noun:

  • I haven't got any motivation
  • I can't get any respect
  • How can we do this when there is no trust?

The key with nominalisations is to turn them back into a verb "What do you need motivating for?", "How would you know you were respected?"

Generalizations (Limit's of the Speakers Model)

Universal Quantifiers

A universal quantifier is a statement that has no exceptions:

  • I never get anything right
  • I always screw up
  • Nobody likes me

The response to a universal quantifier is to question the lack of exceptions - "no one likes you? no one at all?"

Modal Operators of Necessity/Possibility

These are words that imply the client has no choice:

  • I have to say yes
  • I always give in
  • I can't do it

A good approach here is to ask "what would happen if you said no?", or "What stops you from doing it?"


A presupposition is something that must be true for a statement to make sense. For instance in the sentence "the cat sat on the mat" we must presuppose that there is a cat and a mat, that the cat can sit, and that the cat and mat are of sizes that make the whole thing physically possible.

Deletions and Information Gathering


A deletion is where the client misses out a specific detail:

  • I am excited
  • He is better at on interviews
  • I'm the best

These kind of statements turn up all the time in everyday conversation. The responses are fairly obvious - "Excited about what?", "Better than whom?", "Best at what?".

Comparative Deletion

This is a specific form of deletion that needs clarification:

  • My work is better

The response being "how is your work better?"

Lack of Referential Index

In this form of deletion, the main subject is missing:

  • Everyone hates me
  • This is really difficult
  • I'm the best

The deletion in this instance is more often than not a person. Responses such as "Who, specifically hates you?", "What is difficult?" are standard.

Unspecified Verb

I always consider this meta-model pattern to be badly defined. The issue is not that a verb is unspecified, but that it is unspecific:

  • I am confused
  • I hurt them

In this instance the therapist attempts to get a more specific description - "confused about what?", "Hurt them, how?".

General Referential Indexes

This pattern is similar to the standard generalization but in this instance the pronoun is missing:

  • Women are mad

Obviously the response is "All women?"

NLP Meta Model Usage

Using the NLP meta model is usually quite straightforward, and as your experience grows you may notice that the patterns seem to turn up in the same order time and time again. Eventually you will probably have a good idea of which violation is going to come up next.

Sometimes you may find you have a choice of which pattern to use, and which pattern you pick will have an effect on how the process develops. For instance, take the statement:

"All women hate me"

Now you could either consider this mind-reading, or a general referential index. So which should you approach?

"How do you know?" or "All women?"

You will usually find that it's quite obvious which route to take and whichever line of enquiry you ignore is likely to turn up again if it's important. In this instance if you say "All women?", then the response will probably be like "well, sally in accounts does", and then you get to ask the "How do you know?" question. If you ask the other question, then the answer will probably be specific enough that the "All women?" question will become unneccessary.

The NLP meta model can be useful outside of a therapy context, but do be careful. Using the language patterns without care is one of the quickest way to lose your friends!