From: L. Michael Hall
Meta Reflections – 2010 – #8
Feb. 22, 2010



I recently found a great description of meta-states.  I was reading Emotions Revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life (2003/ 2007) by Paul Ekman.  In the following quotation, Dr. Ekman describes a meta-state, he describes the structure of the observing meta-state that facilitates what Daniel Goleman and many others have popularize as emotional intelligence.

“I have not been able to find a single term to describe this type of consciousness: the best I have been able to come up with is attentively considering our emotional feelings.  (To avoid repeating the entire phrase I will sometimes abbreviate it by just using the term attentive or attentiveness, in italics.)  When we are being attentive, as I mean it, we are able to observe ourselves during an emotional episode, ideally before more than a few seconds have passed.  We recognize that we are being emotional and can consider whether or not our response is justified.  We can reevaluate, reappraise, and if that is not successful, then direct what we say and do.  This occurs while we are experiencing the emotion, as soon as we become conscious of our emotional feelings and actions.

Here he describes a “type of consciousness” that we know as a meta-cognition or meta-state.  The specific meta-state is that of attentively considering one’s feelings.  And this meta-state enables you to move to choice point where you can evaluate your experience.

“Most people are rarely so attentive to their emotional feelings, but such attentiveness is possible to achieve.  I believe that we can develop the ability to be attentive so it will become a habit, a standard part of our lives.  When that happens, we will feel more in touch, and better able to regulate our emotional life.  There are many ways to develop this type of attentiveness.” (p. 75)

Dr. Ekman here describes a habitual meta-state that enriches one’s emotional life.

And why, you ask, was I reading Ekman’s work on face recognition?  For several reasons, I had it on my reading list for some years and because in December, while in Italy, Susana Eduini (a Meta-Coach from Sweden, 2009) brought the book to the training, turned to pages 69-70 and read the following:

“Reevaluations are not the only way in which we may for a time bounce back and forth between different emotional responses.  Tomkins [Ekman’s mentor] pointed out that we often have affect-about-affect, emotional reactions to the emotion we initially feel.  We may become angry that we were made afraid, or we may become afraid about having become so angry.  We could feel afraid of what we might do because we are feeling so sad.  This linking of a second emotion with a first emotion can happen with any pair of emotions.  Silvan Thomkins also suggested that one way of understanding the uniqueness of personality was to identify whether a person typically had a particular affect about another affect.  He also suggested that sometimes we are not aware of our initial emotional reaction, we are aware only of our second emotion about the first emotion.  We may not realize that we were afraid at first and be aware only of the anger that was aroused in response to the fear.  Unfortunately, no one has done any research to determine the merit of these very interesting ideas.”

Amazing, is that not?  Dr. Ekman here speaks about meta-states and how they affect the uniqueness of personality.  When I read that, Susana asked me if I knew about this.  I did not.  Later I asked Nicola to help me locate an email address for Paul Ekman, which he did!  And with that I wrote and asked him if he was aware of my work in Meta-States and offered to send a copy of the book if he was interested.  He wrote back and said that yes, he was interested.  As of this date, the book has been sent.

The other word that he found for a meta-state was mindfulness.  He defines such using a quotation from philosopher B. Alan Wallace, “the sense of being aware of what our mind is doing.”  Then he speaks about the ability to just observe an emotion like anger.  He also quotes Georgia Nigro and Ulric Neisser [a key pioneer in the Cognitive movement] about remembering some memories — “one seems to have the position of an onlooker or observer, looking at the situation from an external vantage point and seeing oneself ‘from the outside.’”   He also mentions Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness (page 73).  On the next page he quoted philosopher Peter Goldie on the term, reflective consciousness— being aware that one feels afraid (p. 74).

Ekman’s work on emotions, on the subtle micro-expressions of emotions, and how they show up in the face, voice, physiology is now pretty much known worldwide.  He has pioneered what we call in NLP “calibration to physiology” to a whole new level.  And while he was influenced by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and has lived in San Francisco for years— he shows no acquaintance with NLP; he certainly does not reference it at all (which actually is not all that surprising!).

In a chapter on anger,

“When anger is intense, we may not initially know, or even want to know, that we have become angry.  I am not referring to the failure to be attentive to our emotional feelings.  It is not that we are unable to take a step back and consider whether we want to go along and act on our anger.  Rather, we are not even aware of being angry, even though we are speaking angry words and engaging in angry actions.” (p. 120)

Here Ekman describes meta-states as we do—stepping back so that we can choose our response.  And that is one of the greatest benefits of knowing the Meta-States Model.