NLP introduces many new concepts and new terminology to describe its models.

Definitions and introductions

Every field has a vocabulary unique to its purposes and NLP is no exception. NLP introduces many new concepts and new terminology to describe its models, techniques and processes. Some of these terms come directly from linguistics and the science of perception, while others were invented to describe discoveries that did not fit into any previous category.

NLP is a very large field and no brief summary page can begin to cover its breadth and depth. However, there are a few key concepts which I use so frequently in my practice, it helps both my clients and me if we can refer to them occasionally with a common vocabulary.

If you are a new client beginning work with me, it is not necessary for you to "learn" or memorize these concepts. The ones we use will become familiar, and the ones we don't use you don't need to learn unless you have an interest in studying NLP more on your own. Just read over the parts of this page that catch your interest and let whatever sinks in do so on its own.

The entries on this page are very brief, just the terms and a short definition for each. For more in-depth information, there are a number of NLP books I'll be happy to recommend if you ask me about them.

Neurological Levels

Beliefs and Values

Concept: The higher the level, the more of your neurology is involved. NLP provides explicit processes for using these levels and for integrating experiences between them to achieve full congruity for goals and resolutions to problems.

In principle, the higher levels operate on, define, or influence the lower levels. Certain internal conflicts result from lower levels being given precedence over high levels, or confusion of levels. For example: "I don't eat right..." [behavior] "...and that means there is something wrong with me." [identity].

These levels are not formulaic and may differ from culture to culture, particularly at the top levels. For instance, in Far Eastern models of spirituality, the logical levels may look more like this:

Spirituality and Identity
Mission and Purpose
Beliefs and Values

In this model, Environment wraps around to Spirituality and Identity.

John Grinder, one of the original co-developers of NLP, recently suggested that instead of proposing a fixed model of neurological levels, a formal NLP process needs to be modeled and developed to enable practitioners to determine each unique individual's hierarchy. To date (2004), such a formal process has not been developed.

Perceptual Positions

A perceptual position is a point of view which includes all of our representational systems (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory, olfactory, linguistic). Our body's somatic syntax, our beliefs, our patterns and behaviors, etc., are also parts of what we perceive, and thus can be important components of our perceptual position.

Our brains are capable of representing more than one perceptual position. When in a perceptual position, a person internally represents the world, events -- past, present or future -- and relationships in an associated way from within that position. Here is a brief synopsis of the four main perceptual positions as described and used in NLP Training, Coaching and Therapy:

1st Position: The perceptual position of oneself. What one sees, hears, feels, tastes, smells; plus what one believes, one's capabilities, behaviors, etc.

2nd Position: The perceptual position of another. Another can be a person, an animal, vegetable or mineral. Another can be real, imagined or remembered, a character from a novel or movie, a supportive mentor or a critic, a future or ideal self, or any number of archetypal roles.

3rd Position: The perceptual position of an observer. An observer can be a fair witness, a scientist from another planet, a fly on the wall, or any uninvolved entity, real or imagined, with the ability to perceive in a disinterested and well intentioned way.

4th Position: The perceptual position of the larger system or systems. The system can see all of the other positions at once, as a whole, and use all of the representation systems to perceive such things as relationships between other positions, effects on the system itself, and systems within systems to any level of magnitude, large or small.

[For a full discussion of Perceptual Positions, see my article on Perceptual Positions in NLP.]


Submodalities are the specific characteristics of each of our sensory representational systems. For example:

Visual submodalities: size, shape, color, focus, transparency, motion/still, angle, brightness/darkness, contrast, vertical position, horizontal position, distance, speed, peripherality, panoramic/bordered, visual texture, 2D/3D, point of view (associated, disassociated), etc.

Auditory submodalities: volume, pitch, timbre/tonality, duration, distance, movement, source, direction, location, harmony, dissonance, rhythm, tempo, progression, dynamics, phrasing, staccato, legato, etc.

Kinesthetic submodalities: location (inside/outside), tactile/proprioceptive, temperature, pressure, texture, solidity, weight, intensity, duration, often/frequent/constant, movement, fullness/hunger, sticky/smooth/rough, hardness/softness, sharp/dull, wet/dry, flexibility/rigidity/brittleness, etc.

Olfactory submodalities: sweet, pungent, fresh, stale, putrid, chemical, burnt, smoky, animal, faint, strong/mild, etc.

Gustatory submodalities: sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter, tart, savory, juicy, dry, etc.

Submodalities are different from interpretations. Submodalities are qualities of sensory perception. Interpretations are complex secondary evaluations of perceptions and their meanings. The following are examples of interpretations, not submodalities: good, bad, soothing, irritating, boisterous, beautiful, uninteresting, painful, relaxing, annoying, puzzling, uncomfortable, pleasant, attractive, etc.

Association and Disassociation

These terms are used differently in NLP from similar terms used in the psychology model. In NLP association and disassociation are characteristics of perceptual position.

Association is perception and experience as if one is inside the scene or experience being represented internally, whether that representation's time location is in the past, present or future, and whether that representation is in any of the four perceptual positions. An associated state is one in which the person experiences the state as if immersed in it or surrounded by it.

Disassociation is perception and experience as if one is outside the scene being represented internally. A disassociated memory, for example, is one in which one can see oneself in the memory as if viewing it from the outside. Disassociated states do not have to include an image of oneself, but can have the quality of perceiving others in a non-identified way.

In NLP, the ability to associate and disassociate are considered skills. One is not 'better' than the other. The benefits and drawbacks of each depend on the access, flexibility and appropriateness of their use in different contexts. Most people tend to favor one over the other as a default, but can learn and improve in the use of either with practice.

Meta Programs

Meta Programs are habits or "programs" of attention -- what we pay attention to and what we filter out -- the awareness of perception in various contexts.

The conscious mind, it is said, can only attend to a maximum of 7 +/- 2 representations at once. Yet our sensory receptors are actively perceiving uncounted millions of perceptions every second of our lives, and our brains are processing the vast majority of that unconsciously.

Our conscious minds are designed for focus. How, then, is that focus to be selected? The conscious mind can manage the selection within 7 +/- 2 (seven, plus or minus two) representations. It would be overwhelmed, however, at the full infinitude of sensory choices on a moment by moment basis.

It's a good thing, then, not a bad thing, that our unconscious can handle millions of sensory representations at once. The question is, how is it doing that, and is it serving us in the best way?

What if the unconscious is habitually selecting things to present to awareness that our conscious mind would prefer not to be aware of at that time or place? And what if we want to change the selection criteria or update it to adapt to new circumstances?

Meta programs can be changed with NLP. However, it is often more useful to keep them as they are but increase our choice in their use more appropriate to certain contexts.

There are many meta programs, but the following are a few of the most important. Each is a binary choice -- that is, attention is focused on one or the other. Bear in mind that Meta Programs are neither good nor bad outside some specific context. They are not a form of personality typing. In general, a person benefits from having increased access to, and choice about both sides of the following pairs.

Toward vs. Away-From:  Attention is directed either toward what is wanted or away from what is not wanted.

Internal Reference vs. External Reference:  Attention is directed to internal processes or external processes (including people, objects, etc.).

Big Chunk vs. Little Chunk:  Attention is directed to the big picture or small details.

Options vs. Procedures:  Attention is directed to selecting from options or following procedures.

Match vs. Mismatch:  Attention is focused on what is the same or what is different.

[For a full discussion of Meta Programs, see my article on Meta Programs .]

Goals, Intentions and Action

A goal, an intention to reach it, and the action necessary to get there are all needed to achieve a desired outcome.

Well-Formed Outcomes: NLP specifies the following six conditions for a goal, or other type of desired outcome, to be considered "well-formed" -- that is, complete, fully congruent, and ecologically sound for the person internally as well as for his or her external relationships and environment.

The Six Criteria for Well-Formed Outcomes are:

  1. The desired outcome is stated in positive language.

  2. The desired outcome can be defined and evaluated according to sensory based evidence -- including internal sensory representations.

  3. The desired outcome is initiated and maintained by the person who desires it.

  4. The desired outcome can be achieved in ways that preserve any important benefits or positive intentions of the present, pre-goal state.

  5. The desired outcome is appropriately sized within a specific context and is congruent with internal and external ecologies.

  6. The actions necessary to reach the goal are worth the effort.

Intentions: NLP defines 'intention' in several ways according to the context. In relation to a goal, a person's intention is the "meta outcome" of the goal -- the deeper something, the "even more important" something which having the goal will bring to the person. Often, the positive intention is several meta levels deeper or larger than the specific goal.

Sometimes a particular goal, action or behavior connected to a positive intention is no longer the best choice when new resources become available, yet it continues programmatically, as if on autopilot. When the positive intention is known and preserved, a person can have greater flexibility, choice and power to follow through on well formed goals and actions.

Another way 'intention' is used in NLP regards setting one's determination to take action. To intend to reach a goal is more powerful than merely to desire it. Intention is active. It has direction and movement. A goal, by itself, is more like the location of a point on a map. It may be worth getting to, but if a person doesn't intend to get there, it isn't likely to happen.

Often, at the beginning of an NLP session, I suggest that we 'set' our intentions for the session. For example, "I intend to be fully present and open to new learnings," or "I intend to give myself permission to consider new possibilities." Setting intention is more powerful than saying, for example, "I want to get my outcome." Intentions that are 'set' have a powerful way of pervading an entire context and multiplying its resources.

Action: In NLP, both internal and external processes are considered actions, whether undertaken consciously or unconsciously. Having an intention and a goal still requires some action to manifest them, to create movement along a direction. Action can involve great conscious effort or the relaxation of effort to allow a larger process to self-organize within us. The type of action appropriate to moving toward a specific well-formed goal with a set intention varies with ecology, timing, where along the path a person is located, what resources are needed and available, etc.

Whatever the type, action is where the "rubber meets the road." Where there is no action, nothing happens, even with well-formed goals and congruent intentions. Generally, if nothing is happening, it indicates that a person has remaining ecology issues which need to be addressed and resolved before action will be appropriate -- which is to say that the well-formedness of the goal, or the congruency of the intentions, is not yet complete.

Particularly with regard to action, the NLP presupposition, "There is no such thing as failure, only feedback," is a useful frame of attitude.

Orientation in Time

Orientation in time is a phrase originally used by Milton Erickson, M.D. to describe the ability of people to fully associate into experiences in the past, as well as the imagined future.

NLP discovered that people do not have to be in a hypnotic trance to experience orientation in time in this way. In fact, people in ordinary states of mind regularly recall memories in an associated way, replaying them representationally as if they were in them.

Associated memories in time may be pleasant or unpleasant depending on content, with predictable resulting responses. Neurological and physiological responses to associated memories are often equally as strong as the original events, suggesting that, at least in some contexts, the brain does not distinguish between present ("real"), remembered, or imagined events.

People also frequently imagine the future in an associated way, as if they are in it. As with memory, if they like what they imagine, they have one response; if they don't like it, they have another response.

NLP expanded on this initial idea of orientation in time, and now makes full use of the human mind's ability to represent time internally in a number of powerful ways.

During process work, we can subjectively move through time, forwards or backwards, change its direction, duration, speed, chunk size and submodalities. This ability allows us to work in past, present and future contexts with ease.

For More Information

For more information on NLP, please see the articles index on this site.

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A Few Basic NLP Concepts
Our brains are capable of representing more than one perceptual position.
In NLP association and disassociation are characteristics of perceptual position.
Meta Programs are habits or "programs" of attention -- what we pay attention to and what we filter out
A goal, an intention to reach it, and the action necessary to get there are all needed to achieve a desired outcome.
To intend to reach a goal is more powerful than merely to desire it.
Particularly with regard to action, the NLP presupposition, "There is no such thing as failure, only feedback," is a useful frame of attitude.