Modeling Excellence Series #5
The Meta-Model of Language
In the last post on Neurons I concluded the article on modeling by talking about the NLP Communication Model and noting that it is a tool for modeling. Now the interesting about it is that it arose from modeling. It arose from modeling the language patterns of Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir and while it used Transformational Grammar (TG) to do so, the new model, “The Meta-Model of Language” soon jettisoned Transformational Grammar. That’s why, while you will find a summary of TG at the end of the book The Structure of Magic, Volume I, you will not find it in any of the other books by the NLP originators or any of those who came later.
Why? Why did that happen? How is it that the model or tool that created the Meta-Model was made redundant immediately thereafter so that it was no longer used? The reason is that NLP did not need Transformational Grammar. The Meta-Model didn’t need it. In the book about the 25th year anniversary of the Meta-Model, Communication Magic (2001), I described this as resulting from two sources:
First, Noam Chomsky who created Transformation Grammar himself gave it up and tossed it out in 1976. He gave up on that model because too many holes and inconsistencies had been discovered about it.
Second, what NLP took from TG was the idea of the levels of information processing and while TG has that (surface and deep structure) so does Koryzbski (levels of abstraction) and Bateson (levels of learning).
Question: How is the Meta-Model a modeling tool? We know that it is a communication tool and that by using the linguistic distinguishing of the Meta-Model and the questions or challenges, a person can effectively invite a speaker to create a well-formed and precise description of an experience. But how does one use it to model the structure of experience?
Answer: The answer goes to the fact that experience is coded and driven by language. When it comes to experiences, especially the key experiences that we humans value or disvalue, want to want to avoid—they are labeled, named, and given meaning by the words that we use to describe and evaluate them. And if this is so, then no wonder the Meta-Model becomes a powerful tool to unpack an experience and given that the Meta-Model enables a person to take vague and indefinite descriptions and make them empirical and sensory-based, it becomes a wonderful tool for precision.
So, no wonder from the beginning of NLP, the Meta-Model has been used as a tool for modeling the linguistic facets of an experience. Now I did not know this when I first learned NLP. In fact, I read, studied, and trained in NLP all the way through Practitioner training before I discovered this. I had even read those two original NLP books that are so unreadable, The Structure of Magic, and while I liked them, I still did not get it. Then one day during the beginning of my Master Practitioner Training, Richard Bandler said, almost in an off-handed way, that “everything we’ve created in NLP was based on the Meta-Model.”
I was stunned. “What? Everything in NLP is based on the Meta-Model? How could that be?” I could not figure it out. So I went back and re-read the original books very slowly and very deliberately and that was actually the beginning of my own experience in modeling.
“What did I find?” you ask? I found that when it comes to human experiences, almost all of our most valuable experiences involve language, and that by meta-modeling the language, a modeler can identify a great deal of the structure of the experience. He or she can put together how the person got him or herself into that state and experience. And so if it is an experience to take onto oneself, then the linguistic model gives a person a step-by-step process for replicating it. And if the experience represents a painful, dysfunctional, and toxic experience, then modeling it gives one numerous ways to undo it, pull it apart, and prevent it from being operational.
I thought that was great! So when I began to play around with my first attempts at modeling, I was absolutely fascinated by how much one can discover in a person’s language. I was astonished with how much I could learn by listening to the words of people, especially experts, and how much of how they have constructed their sense of reality and how much it suggests the steps for stepping into that same experience.
Now at the time I was doing psycho-therapeutic work as a therapist and so I began creating a model for each client. How did this person create this or that experience? What do this person’s words indicate or imply in terms of the processes involved— the generalizations, the deletions, and the distortions? It was in this way that my own phenomenological studies began, first of single experiences and later of combining different models that people used to experience a similar category of experience and after that when I left the domain of therapy, to apply the same thing for such experiences as wealth creation, selling, negotiating, being an entrepreneur, leadership, etc.
As linguistic beings, we live in the house of language. This explains why and also how we can use language for modeling experience:
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein, 1922).
“Language is what bewitches, but language is what we must remain within in order to cure the bewitchment.” (Henry Staten)