Updated: 10 February 2016
Meta-programmes, a key concept in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), are observable distinctions in mental processing, as reflected in language and behaviour. They act as filters for how and what we let into our heads – memes from the external world influencing the schemas of our internal representations – and they shape what comes out from us in terms of language and concepts – our schemas becoming memes to influence others. Meta-programmes are usually depicted as poles at the opposite ends of a scalable continuum.
The concept of meta-programmes was conceived in the late 1970s by Leslie Cameron Bandler (then wife of NLP co-developer Richard Bandler), building on Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking work around linguistic patterns reflecting mental filters. David Gordon, Robert Dilts and Maribeth Meyers-Anderson were among Cameron-Bandler’s leading collaborators in identifying the first sets of meta-programmes.
As NLP has grown in scope and complexity, so more and more meta-programmes have been charted to identify more and more distinctions. Leading ‘guru’ Wyatt Woodsmall has reputedly talked about having identified over 350 meta-programmes! In 1997 L Michael Hall & Bob Bodenhamer grouped 51 principle meta-programmes into 5 overarching categories: mental, emotional, volitional, response and meta meta-programmes.They also linked meta-programmes to the concept of Meta-States. However, Rodger Bailey (1991), one of Leslie Cameron Bandler’s students, had already taken a different tack. With business people in mind initially, he whittled down the number of identified meta-programmes to the most serviceable and practicable 14, using the LAB Profile (Language & Behaviour Profile). From his 14, some of the most useful are:-
- Reactive – people respond to situations or changes in the environment/Proactive – people initiate change and like to plan for the future
- People who Move Away From problems avoid things which threaten their success/People who Move Towards are energised by accomplishment, by achieving their goals
- Procedures – people prefer to follow instruction and the accepted way of doing things/Options – people want to have a choice and like to explore what is possible
- Externally-Referenced people rely on feedback from others to make decisions and function effectively/Internally-Referenced people carry their criteria for making judgements within themselves
- Matchers like to fit in with corporate culture and the prevailing situation or environment/Mismatchers like to take the opposite stance and dislike being told what to
- Detail Conscious thinkers have a preference for small ‘bite-sized’ pieces of information/Big Chunk thinkers prefer a general impression; they think in terms of the key points
- People who are Others-oriented put the needs of other people over their own/People who are Self-oriented have themselves and their needs as their highest priority
From Cameron-Bandler on, the assumption was always that people are ‘more or less’ towards one extreme or the other on each meta-programme (dispositional) – effectively typing them. However. Fiona Beddoes-Jones (1999) has done vital work in establishing that people are rarely fixed at a place on the scale, ‘more or less’ towards one extreme or the other; rather they travel between the extremes according to circumstances (situational). Most people, though, will have a preferred set point when not under external pressures. Some NLP ‘gurus’ now name mid-points on the scales – eg, from Bailey’s 14:-
- People who process via Sameness are motivated by stability; they often notice similarities/People who process via Difference notice what is different; they have a high capacity for change/The centre point is for people who process via Sameness-with-Exception who will accept incremental, positive change
- Thinking people approach situations logically and are cool-headed/Feelings people are driven by emotional reactions to their experiences/ The centre point is for people who exercise Choice to go beyond their emotions, whilst still acknowledging them, and think things through
- Co-operative people want to work and share with others – for them, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts/The productivity of Independent people suffers when they have to share work and space with others/ The centre point is for those to whom having clearly-defined responsibility and authority is critical – but they still need other members of the team to be in Proximity
Meta-Programmes, Motivation & Temperament
Theoretically a meta-programme can be created by identifying any 2 extremes in attitude, inclination, behaviour and observable mental processing patterns and then calibrating the shades in between the 2 extremes.
Preferred position on a meta-programme axis will usually be influenced by the individual’s vMEME stack and travel either side of the preferred position will be influenced by shifts in the stack. All 10 of the meta-programmes detailed above relate in their extremes and the shades in between to either the collectivistic or the individualistic sides of the Gravesian Spiral. Some extremes – such as Little Detail – can be linked to specific vMEMES – in this case, BLUE. Equally some meta-programmes can linked explicitly to the Locus of Control effect produced by vMEME preferences. Eg: Reactive and Externally-Referenced will be typical of someone with a notable external locus; Proactive and Internally-Referenced will be typical of someone with a notable internal locus.
While virtually no research has been done on the relationship between the 2 concepts of vMEMES and meta-programmes, it seems fairly safe to work on the presupposition that such meta-programmes are actually produced by the operation of vMEMES or harmonics of vMEMES in the first place. Thus, shifts along meta-programme axes will be caused by vMEMETIC shifts in response to changes in the life conditions in the environment (internal or external).
Since meta-programmes are often more immediately observable than vMEMES, being aware of meta-programmes in operation can help home in on just which vMEMES are driving someone’s behaviour.
The relationship is highly complex, though, as the functioning of meta-programmes and the filtering in/out operation they conduct can in themselves influence vMEMETIC shifts – a form of Reciprocal Determinism.
It is also worth noting that each vMEME has its own Move Towards and Move Away From meta-programme. For example, the emergence of GREEN Moves Away From the relentless, lonely striving of ORANGE and Towards a community of equals.
Lines of temperament can also be viewed through meta-programme axes. The Introversion-Extraversion and Stable-Unstable/Neuroticist Dimensions of Temperament mapped by Hans J Eysenck (1947) appear as meta-programmes in NLP. Hans & Sybil Eysenck’s (1976) third Dimension, Impulse Control-Psychoticism, generally doesn’t; but conceptually it meets the criteria. Travel along these meta-programme axes is more likely to be the result of operant conditioning experiences. Over time, there may be a more permanent shift along such an axis due to epigenetic modification.
Speaking to vMEMES through meta-programmes
In whittling down the enormous number of meta-programmes listed by the likes of Wyatt Woodsmall, Rodger Bailey was concerned with practicality. In making meta-programmes manageable and easy to use, Bailey built upon Chomsky’s idea of using language patterns to identify mental filters and developed a whole set of ‘linguistic guides’ for NLPers to identify meta-programmes.
Bailey also developed a second set of guides he called ‘Influencing Language’ – the kinds of concepts, phrases and linguistic patterns that appeal through each meta-programme. For example, with someone running on the Options meta-programme, you should talk in terms of opportunities, possibilities and alternatives, etc. More appropriate language for a Procedures meta-programme would include tried and tested, proven methodology, reliable, etc. Bailey’s concepts have been popularised by Shelle Rose Charvet (1995) who has become arguably the world’s leading expert on meta-programmes. NLPers who have become skilled in recognising and using the linguistic structures associated with meta-programmes are expert manipulators and can make very good counsellors.
If all but the temperament-derived meta-programmes are the distinguishable mental patterns produced by vMEMES and harmonics of vMEMES, then this raises the possibility of being able to use the language patterns associated with individual meta-programmes to speak directly to the underpinning vMEMES. The potential relationship between vMEMES and meta-programmes is also discussed in the NLP+ Communication Model.
As yet, this is a much under-researched area but it is one that offers real possibilities of improving our communication skills exponentially.