The Three Meta Domains of NLP

Three Avenues To Human Experience

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

With three Meta-Domains, NLP offers three avenues to its target. This means that we have three redundant systems that to describe subjectivity. It also gives us backup systems for working with subjectivity whenever we find a roadblock along one pathway.

The First Meta-Domain

NLP began with the discovery of a very powerful meta model— one which Bandler and Grinder (1975, 1976), in fact, named just that— The Meta-Model of Language in Therapy. Of course, it didn’t take them long to realize that the Meta-Model which they created from the therapeutic wizards not only applied to therapy, but also to all communications—business, family, relationships, genius, etc.

With the linguistic distinctions that Perls and Satir made as they “just talked” to people, the early co-developers of NLP discovered that they too could perform incredible word magic in the lives of people. To understand this, Grinder brought his understandings of Transformational Grammar and General Semantics to provide some of the early theoretical background for what they had stumbled upon. Shortly thereafter Gregory Bateson came into the picture bringing with him the theoretical work which he, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) created in Principles of Change. Erickson had written the introduction to that book and so Bateson introduced Bandler and Grinder to him, which then lead to the formulation of the Milton Model.

The Meta-Model and its inverse, the Milton Model, thereafter set in motion a ferocious and passionate intensity to model excellence everywhere. Having specified the structure of magic, the Neuro-Linguists began an excited exploration into all kinds of magical experiences— hypnosis, communication expertise, getting over the past, inventing compelling futures, etc. And from this arose Classical NLP.

The Second Meta-Domain

The mythology I heard about the origin of the second meta-domain, Meta-Programs, began with Leslie Cameron-Bandler. You’ll find this story related in Figuring Out People: Design Engineering With Meta-Programs. As Leslie practiced Classic NLP in the early 1980s, she began to discover some of the limits of the model and places where the processes didn’t work. As a result, this provided “a rare and unprecedented opportunity” for her and Richard to begin to identify higher level sorting mechanisms (Meta-Programs) that got in the way and prevented the NLP technologies from working. In their exploration, they began to specify a few perceptual filters that seemed to operate at a higher logical level, meta to the primary level processing of information. And, as higher levels govern and modulate lower levels, these Meta-Programs as unconscious sorting mechanisms could validate or invalidate the lower level experiences. Thus began the search for Meta-Programs.

The Third Meta-Domain

While meta-levels, meta-parts, and meta-positions were mentioned early in NLP, and while Woodsmall even mentioned Meta-States in a list of other possible Meta-Programs workbook in 1988, it wasn’t until 1994 that a full articulation of the Meta-States Model developed. This arose as a development from both Korzybski (1933, 1994) regarding his Levels of Abstraction Model in General Semantics and Bateson (1972, 1979) regarding his numerous meta-level analysis of learning, schizophrenia (double-bind theory), aesthetics, etc.

Actually, the Meta-States Model arose from a modeling project. In preparing for a workshop at the NLP Comprehensive Conference in Denver on The Strategy of Resilience, I first conducted an extensively researched of the literature and then modeled a dozen highly resilient persons. This evoked the realization that people not only experience first-level, primary states, but also states-about-states, states-upon-states, what Korzybski called “second-order abstractions,” or Meta-States.

Three Avenues to the Same Thing

How do these three Meta-Domains relate to each other? In one word, they all speak about the structure of experience using three different lenses.

With the Meta-Model (and inverse Milton Model) we have the language route to experience. Using this Model, we can sort and separate the linguistic structures that create the person’s magical world. We can hear primary level, sensory-based language that we can immediately track over to a audio-video representation. And we can tell when a person jumps logical levels and begins speaking evaluatively using non-sensory based language. This then cues us into recognizing the person’s meta-maps about reality, the person’s meaning constructions in terms of beliefs, values, decisions, etc.

Using the language route to experience gives us several choices. We can deframemove down from the evaluative world of meaning, identity, rules, values, etc. and to provide behavioral equivalents in see-hear-feel language. This reductionistic nature of the Meta-Model shifts the person from a higher logical level to a lower, enables them to reality test their mapping, enrich their maps by observing when and where and in what circumstances that they did such mapping, and run an ecology check to see if such mapping still serves them very well.

The language route to experience, however, does more than deframes a person’s mental maps. We can just as easily use the Meta-Model to construct new generalizations, nominalizations, cause-effect relations, complex equivalences, etc. We can use the Meta-Model and our understanding of both the structure and the secrets of magic to powerfully enrich a person’s impoverished maps. I noted this in The Secrets of Magic (1998). Namely, many Meta-Model questions and processes hypnotize and move up logical levels. “And how to you feel about that feeling?”

The Perception Avenue

As the Meta-Model gives us “the yellow brick road” of language to travel to the Oz of human experience (both expertise and pathology), so the Meta-Programs Model gives us the avenue of Perception. Now we ask another question. With the Meta-Model we asked about indications of ill-formedness and well-formedness (to use John Grinder’s Transformational language). But now we ask about the indicators of perceptual filters or Meta-Programs. In some contexts we may keep this to a minimum of nine Meta-Programs as Shelly Rose Charvet did in her business applications, or to a more exhaustive list like the 51 that Dr. Bodenhamer and I put in our work, Figuring Out People. Either way, the Meta-Programs give us another “royal road” to subjective experience—the person’s way of sorting and paying attention to information.

Cognitive Behavioral psychology describes these perceptual filters as thinking patterns. In other words, the thinking patterns developed and used by Ellis and Beck relate to the NLP Model as additional Meta-Programs (see A Sourcebook of Magic, in press). This suggests that we can model and design engineer excellence by paying attention to the meta-level filters and sorting mechanisms that a person uses.

If both the Meta-Model and the Meta-Programs Model speak about the same thing, then how do they relate to each other? One focuses more on linguistic expressions, the other on perceptual viewpoint. One thinks more about the internal languaginglinguistic markers that indicate Meta-Programs. Woodsmall and James (1988) specified many of these in their work, Time Line Therapy. And conversely, within Meta-Programs we can hear and identify many Meta-Model distinctions.

The State Avenue

As distinctions that arise from the Meta-Model and Meta-Programs relate to the same thing, so does the distinctions and features within the Meta-States Model. Here, however, we do not so much focus on linguistic distinctions or perceptual filters (although they obviously play a significant role in Meta-States). Instead, we focus primarily on the person’s neuro-linguistic state, his or her mind-body state of consciousness and the logical level at which the person experiences that state.

A central and primary mechanism drives Meta-States, namely self-reflexivity. This refers to the systemic property of “mind” (thought, emotion, kinesthetic awareness) reflecting back onto itself. And when this happens, then the very products and experiences of our primary states begin to feedback, at a later time, into the experience itself to create a system—a system of interactive parts. Then out of that emerges new and unique configurations that do not exist at the lower levels. Korzybski described this as “second and third order abstractions.” Bateson described it using cybernetic terms and system language, hence his introduction of the word “meta” itself into NLP.

Reflexivity initiates our higher level skills of meta-communicating, meta-feeling, meta-thinking, etc. And while animals have some capacity for thinking-and-feeling at meta-levels (Bateson studied this in dogs and dolphins), they eventually stop reflecting back at some level (two or three levels up). But, as Korzybski noted, humans never stop. The process goes on continually and infinitely. We can always say or think something else about whatever we thought or said.

Korzybski also noted that we do this via our ability to use symbolics and so designated us a symbolic class of life. Animals, by contrast, live in a world of signals, but do not use symbols as such.

This provides us a third “royal road” to subjectivity. We can sort for logical level and neurological states. This gives us the ability to distinguish between Primary and Meta-States. They differ. And they differ pretty radically. The higher Meta-States actually speak about Conceptual and Semantic states and so operate in a more layered and complex way from primary states. In the primary states, we experience primary emotions that show up very strongly in kinesthetic experience. So when we ask, “Where do you feel …?” and supply a primary emotion (i.e. fear, anger, relaxed, calm, joy, displeasure, disgust, aversion, attraction, etc.), most people can immediately and quickly identify the corresponding somatic location.

But ask a person about a meta-feeling. “Where do you feel … dumb, like a jerk, out-of-sorts, weird, low self-esteem, resilience, forgiveness, etc.?” Typically, the person will not be able to point to a specific location kinesthetically. Such pseudo-emotions share more in the nature of a judgment of the mind, rather than a pure and direct kinesthetic state.

Thus, “I feel like a failure” bespeaks an evaluative level about some experience and the feelings of that experience (sadness, upset, tension, fear, anger, etc.). So we meta-model that language. “What did you fail at specifically?” “When?” “Where?” “Under what circumstances?” “Based upon what set of values, criteria, and standards?” “In whose eyes?”

This gets us back down to the primary sensory-based level. It enables us to deframe the old mapping of the nominalization (“failure”). The Meta-State of “Failure” arise from the person’s mapping processes and when habituated can become the person’s Meta-Program (Pessimism, Negative Self-Referencing) for looking out onto the world.

Three Meta-Domains

The three meta-domains of NLP reference the same thing through three different lenses:

Language— linguistics and the VAK sensory-based languages

Perception— thinking and sorting patterns for viewing the world

States & Levels— holistic mind-body systemic states in which we live and from which we operate

So, for example, a global or gestalt thinking style (as a Meta-Program) will show up in the over-use of generalization patterns (in the Meta-Model, nominalizations, universal quantifiers, lost performative) and in inducing one into a global frame of mind (as a Meta-State).

A Developmental Model of the 3 Meta-Domains

As we have inquired about the relationship between the Meta-Model and Meta-Programs, or between the Meta-Model and Meta-States, etc., now we can ask about the inter-relationships between all three of these Meta-Domains. If they all describe experience or subjectivity, how can we use them together?

As a theoretical model of mind, emotion, and personality, the three meta-domains of NLP provide us a way of thinking about the multi-layered and multi-leveled nature of “personality” as it emerges from simply primary states to ever more complex structures. The following developmental stages offers just a sketch of this from some forthcoming works (Personality Ordering and Disordering Using NLP and from our NLP Systemic Model III).

Stage 1. VAK representations of the world. Consciousness begins as we use our sense receptors to encounter the energy manifestations “out there.” First a child has to learn to “see” (perceive), to form and construct a perceptual map. After that comes the representational map, a construct based on our perceptions. Thus as we construct our perceptual maps of what occurs out there, we eventually use such to construct our representational maps, namely our sensory representations (the VAK). A little child around (six to twelve months) will begin the process of developing “constancy of representation.” In doing this, the child can then “hold in mind” images, sounds, and sensations not present. Prior to this development, peek-a-boo operates as a really thrilling game. Remember? After such re-presentational skill, peek-a-boo loses its excitement.

Stage 2. Meta-representation of the representational Map. The period of purelanguage to our primary state and experience. But we don’t stop there. We develop words about those words. Fruit becomes a meta-word, a word about other words. And so we go meta very early, jump logical levels, and classify our classifications.

Stage 3. Habituating thinking styles create Meta-Programs. By the habituation of our thinking-and-feeling, our sensory and linguistic maps collapse into the primary level so that our way of thinking (matching or mismatching, toward or away from, global or specific, etc.) becomes a “program” itself, a Meta-Program for paying attention to the world and people. In this way, our predispositions and training in running our attention solidifies into higher level perceptual filters, which in turn, affect our perceptions.

Stage 4. First level Meta-Stating and Meta-States. With more growth, we begin to reflect back on our thoughts-and-emotions with other thoughts-and-emotions. We go meta. And as we do, we create a state-upon-a-state structure. This initiates a new gestalt—a systemic configuration of layered consciousness, a “second-order abstraction.” In a recent training, a young father described his eighteen month infant. The child had recently suffered constipation for a few days (primary state of physical discomfort) and who then became afraid of “going potty” (a meta-state). In fact, the child had decided to refuse to go potty! Such meta-levels and meta-states then set a frame-of-reference that can become a belief.

Stage 5. Then the Meta-Levels collapse. Via continual habituation of the Meta-States, our higher frames-of-references of our thinking and feeling collapses back into our primary state. This means that the layering and embeddedness of state-upon-state merges to become indistinguishable. And the result? The qualification of the primary state. Thus we may have “joyful learning,” “compassionate anger,” “guilting fear,” “fear of fear,” etc. As we do this, it frees consciousness to create even more Meta-State structures.

Stage 6. And so the process continues. The ever-reflecting back onto itself nature of “mind” means that with every thought or feeling we then have thoughts and feelings about those. In this dynamic, systemic flow of consciousness, we develop various domains of knowledge or frames-of-reference which we use to navigate life. When we “go upward” (TDS), we go up into this meta-levels.

In the end we have a layered and complex “personality” structure that operates with various attractors to continually fulfill themselves in the world. Like the theory of Memes, these neuro-linguistic attractors set the frame for everything that occurs within this system of thoughts-emotions-and somatic states. And what makes up these “energy systems” within “personality?” Simply our higher level thoughts as beliefs, values, identifications, visions, paradigms, understandings, etc.

Of course, none of this is real. But rather, all of this, like every other model of human personality, whether Freud’s Id, ego, and superego, or Memes, or whatever, simply provides us a way of talking about things.

The 3 Meta-Domains Model Applied To “Personality”

The Meta-Model enables us to begin from the realization that “personality” (as a nominalization) is not a thing and therefore not a fixed or stable thing. We rather refer to an ever moving, changing, and reorganizing thinking-and-feeling human being. What we call “personality” therefore emerges systemically from the ongoing interplay of a great many factors in the human neuro-linguistic system. While this enables us to appreciate avoid setting a frame of determinism about persons, it also introduces a lot of complexity. How can we avoid feeling overwhelmed?

The Three Meta-Domains Model specified numerous leverage points in the system for intervening and creating generative transformations. And where do these leverage point lie? In the three meta-domains: language, perception, and state.

And because higher levels drive and modulate lower levels, the meta-domains point us in the direction of reframing and outframing. It points us to setting new frames of references at higher levels. Further, since we know that habituating thoughts-and-emotions send such constructs upward where they become Meta-Programs and Meta-States, we refuse to buy the delusion that “these things are real entities.” Rather, we recognize them as mental constructs— maps.

NLP has long recognized that people typically get caught up in content and lose awareness of meta-levels. This means that meta-level phenomena operate outside of consciousness (our higher “unconscious mind”) and as our meta frames-of-reference. And this means that we inevitably live our lives embedded in those frames and governed by those frames, without awareness.

As the three meta-domains gives us three lenses (language, perception, and state) to provide us a three-fold overlapping analysis. With such we have a way to check our work, reinforce new designs, and solidify installation.

Every state (primary or meta) involves something dynamic, moving, alive—a fully energized somatic and neurological state. The Molecules of Emotion (1996) as described by Pert and others sets up actual forces and energies in the body (the soma). This speaks about the mind-body connection, the neuro-linguistic interface that we feel when we recognize how our beliefs, values, decisions, etc. have physiological effect upon us. Cognitive linguistics speak of embodiment in the meaning-making process— as beings in the kind of bodies we have, our neurological “abstracting” from the energy manifestations “out there” become transduced into the nervous system as another kind of energy. Embodied states have real correlates in the body.

A Case Study

Not long ago Dr. Bodenhamer worked with a professional school counselor, a highly intelligent woman with two masters degrees and excellent work history who had a “personality’ problem. Having once been labeled “Dissociative Personality Disorder” she carried that label and thought that there was something “bad” about dissociation. In learning to use NLP to run her own brain and to chose when, where, and how to associate or dissociate, she found new resources for living more vibrantly.

What brought on the labeling? When a young woman, Betty (anonymous) had married an extremely abusive man, had two daughters, and then divorced him. He went on in his second marriage to murdered that wife. That lead him to federal in prison, where he has been for years. During his Meta-Model training, Bob asked Betty about her social life. She explained that she didn’t go out, but had to stay home to watch her girls.

“You have to stay home and watch your girls?”

“Yes, I do.”

“What is your purpose in staying home and watching your girls?”

“I have to protect them.”

Of course, Bob knew that she was talking about grown girls (the oldest 21 and the youngest 16) and so inquired about Betty’s beliefs about protecting the girls.

“So, you have to stay home and protect the girls?”

“Yes, I do.” she said emphatically.

“OK, I want you to get a picture of having to stay home to watch the girls.”


“Tell me about the girls. How old do you see them in your picture?”

At that point, she switched to the singular pronoun, “She is in my arms.”

“You have a picture of one of your girls as an infant in your arms? And you have to stay home and protect that infant?”

“Yes, that is right.”

“And how old is that child now?”

“Well she is my youngest, she is now 16.”

“Your girl is now 16 and you have to take care of her as if an infant.”

“Bob, you don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand, Betty?”

“That George [the child’s father] said that he was going to kill her. I have to protect her.”

“And when did that happen? How long ago?”

“Almost 16 years ago.”

“And where is George now?”

“He is in prison.”

Flushing out these meta-level understandings in her languaged reality (using the Meta-Model) allowed Betty to reframe her limiting beliefs, to check the ecology of her Meta-States, to update her life purposes, and to question her Meta-Program (modal operator of necessity). Having long ago decided to protect her child at all costs, that Meta-Program had become solidified as a generalized frame of reference.

In terms of the Meta-Model, we have “I always have to take care of my child.” (Universal Quantifier and Modal Operator of Necessity). This showed up also as the Meta-Program of Modal Operators and describes the language of her perceptions. She moved throught he world “seeing” that obligation. The negative Meta-State that solidified the problem state involved fear of a long past threat, a Meta-State of living in the past and forgetting to update the fear.


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Hall, Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob. (1997). Figuring out people: Design engineering using meta-programs. Wales, UK: Anglo-American Books.

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