Advanced patterns of thinking that control what you perceive -- and how to change them
Meta Programs are mental processes which manage, guide and direct other mental processes. In other words, they are processes about or at a higher level than (meta to) the mental processes they affect. You could compare them to a switchboard that controls which two telephones will be connected to each other for the process of having a conversation, or a thermostat which controls whether your air conditioning system is turned on or off. These are both metaphors for one system that controls another system.
NLP uses a contemporary metaphor taken from computer science to describe the action of one process upon another -- programs. It is often the case in computer programming that one program controls the execution of a number of other programs, selecting which ones will run at which times, and sending them information they'll need in order to function properly.
In the early days of NLP's development, it was discovered that people use strategies for such things as making decisions or becoming convinced of something. These are not conscious strategies, but sequences of internal representations made up of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory and olfactory sensory components.
For example, in making a decision, one person might picture several options and say to himself, 'I like these two', then pick the one that feels best. (This would be a visual-constructed -> auditory-internal -> kinesthetic strategy.) Another person might prefer to first get a feeling for each of the options, picture how each might work out, then say to himself, "I like this one." (A kinesthetic -> visual-constructed -> auditory-internal strategy.)
Researchers Richard Bandler and Leslie Cameron-Bandler noticed that two people using the same strategy might arrive at very different results.
"For instance, two people might share a decision strategy with the structure: Vc -> Ki (deriving feelings from constructed images as a way to make a decision). One person, however, might report, 'I picture several options, and choose the one that feels right to me.' The other person, on the other hand, might complain, 'I picture several options, and then feel overwhelmed and confused by them.' [Both use the same Vc -> Ki strategy but get very different results.]
The notion of Meta Programs arose from attempting to discover what made the difference between such diverse responses. Because the general representational structure of the strategies was essentially the same, it was postulated that the differences came from patterns outside of, or 'meta to,' the strategy (or internal program); i.e., a 'Meta Program.'"
-- Dilts & DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding, 2000.
The initial set of Meta Program patterns was then identified and described by Leslie Cameron-Bandler in collaboration with David Gordon, Robert Dilts and Maribeth Meyers-Anderson.
How Meta Programs Work
Functionally, Meta Programs operate to determine which of our perceptions are selected for attention and represented internally from among a vast array of inbound sensory data and myriad possibilities for different ways of processing and interpreting them internally. This process of selection is commonly referred to as "sorting." That is, in order to select one thing from a group of many, one must "sort" one out to be selected from all the others.
We might think of Meta Programs as "habits of thought" or "programs of attention" -- the processes we use reflexively to sort what we pay attention to from what we filter out in various contexts. The conscious mind, it is said, can attend to a maximum of 7 +/- 2 (seven plus or minus two) 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, and 7 +/- 2 simultaneous representations are fine for that purpose in most cases. But how are the objects of focus to be selected? The conscious mind would be overwhelmed if it had to select from the near infinitude of sensory choices on a moment by moment basis. By contrast, our unconscious mind routinely handles millions of sensory representations simultaneously, all the time. The question is, how is it doing that, and is it serving us in the best way at any particular moment?
What if the unconscious is habitually selecting things (to present to our conscious awareness) which our conscious mind would prefer not to be aware of at that time or place? And what if the unconscious is programmatically filtering out information we could use beneficially in a specific context? Is it possible to change the selection criteria or update it to adapt to new circumstances?
Can Meta Programs Be Changed?
Initially it was thought that Meta Programs could not be changed, that they were "hard-wired" features which varied from one person's brain to another. This conceptual limitation was probably as close as NLP would ever come to something akin to personality typing. As recently as the mid-1990s, many NLP training institutions were still teaching that Meta Programs were unchangeable. But further research by Robert Dilts led to the discovery that Meta Programs could, indeed, be modified, nuanced, and even replaced by relatively simple NLP procedures.
Dilts discovered that Meta Programs could be "mapped across" from one context of experience to another, and that once mapped across, they could operate stabily in the new context. Subsequent development by L. Michael Hall revealed that, through a process of specific description, contrastive analysis and careful attention to personal ecology, a person could "meta state," or cognitively reframe, a change in Meta Programs even to the point where the person could "try it on" before deciding to keep the change.
These two processes will be combined and explained below. But before we get to that, let's take a look at some specific Meta Programs and their potentials for positive and negative functioning.
How Many Meta Programs Are There?
Different NLP developers and authors describe different sets of Meta Programs, sometimes with considerable overlap, sometimes with specific contextual purposes, and sometimes with great originality. It has been said that Leslie Cameron-Bandler identified as many as 60. L. Michael Hall describes 51 in his book, "Figuring Out People." And others describe other sets.
It seems reasonable to expect that more Meta Programs will be identified and described in the future. At some point, it is hoped, a refinement, reorganization and/or consolidation of some of those already identified will be undertaken. But as yet, to my knowledge, much of this work remains to be done in the overall field of NLP.
"Key" Meta Programs
The several Meta Programs I'll discuss here are those which I've seen multiple clients use reflexively and without awareness in ways and contexts which limited them or caused them significant personal or relational discomfort.
It should be highlighted and underlined that any given Meta Program is neither good nor bad outside some specific context and desired outcome. They are not a form of personality typing. That is, a person might have one Meta Program operating in one context, and its opposite operating in another.
A person may have different Meta Programs operating simultaneously on different neurological levels. In general, a person benefits from having increased access to, and choice about which Meta Programs they wish to use in a particular context of their lives.
In this Meta Program, a person's attention is directed either toward what they want or away from what they don't want. It also applies to a person's ability to know what they want in the first place. It is related to the "Attribution Style: Best-Case vs. Worst-Case Scenario Thinking" Meta Program (below) in the sense that logical pairs between the two Meta Programs are often simultaneously present. That is, someone using toward thinking will likely also be using best-case scenario thinking. However, it is possible for a person to have an away from best-case combination if one begins with a worst-case Meta Program, since the person might consider best-case scenarios to be unrealistic.
When a person is in a state of having a problem, it is common that they will think and express themselves in terms of what they don't want. They don't want the problem. But that's not all they don't want. When asked, "What do you want instead?" a frequent answer is, "Well, I don't want this, and I definitely don't want that, and I know I don't want that other thing," etc.
When it is pointed out to the person that these are all examples of what is not wanted, rather than what is wanted, and the question is then repeated, "What is it that you do want?" the most common answer is a pause, followed by, "I don't know."
The problem here is not that the person hasn't thought about what they want. Rather, it's that when they think about what they want they use an "Away-From" Meta Program -- habitually, reflexively and unconsciously -- which automatically presents to their awareness something negative so they can move away from it, and it filters from their perception and thinking the positive which they would want -- if they perceived it.
Over time, a predominant transcontextual use of away from thinking may lead a person to conclude that the positive is impossible (or highly unlikely) -- since the person consistently deletes it from perception. They may lose hope and stop trying for a life they would really want and enjoy.
Other problems related to the overuse, or context inappropriate use, of an "Away-From" Meta Program include:
- If a person has an away-from goal, once the things they want to avoid have been avoided, there's no more goal. An example would be a person whose goal is to "not be poor." As soon as the person evaluates that they are not poor, they lose a significant portion of their motivation to make money -- until they no longer have enough, at which time they'll be motivated again. So away-from goals tend to produce inconsistent, on-off, see-sawing motivation.
- The "Away From" Meta Program, were it conscious, might be stated as a loose theory of "process of elimination" wherein a person posits that if they keep eliminating what they don't want, eventually they'll find something they do want. The problem here is that they may not recognize what they do want when they finally encounter it because their mental processes are preoccupied with identifying what they don't want.
Additionally, if a person assumes that there is more of what they don't want out there in the world, and less of what they do want, then away-from thinking is the least efficient mode of attentional selection since they would have to sort through the larger number of negatives in the hope of finding a positive. It would be more efficient to perceive and identify the positives -- selecting them directly.
If the "process of elimination" presupposes there is a positive to be found, then sorting experience to notice the positive (a "Toward" Meta Program) would be far more efficient. On the other hand, if the "process of elimination" presumes that there is no positive ultimately to be found, then there is no need to go to the trouble of eliminating everything else. In that case, everything would be presupposed to be negative and it might be more useful to correct the Meta Model Universal Quantifier ("everything") and re-calibrate one's criteria to a finer grain so that the relative best of everything can be sorted for. (By the way, the statement "everything is negative" is a tautology and has no literal meaning -- like saying "everything is up.")
- In order for a person to keep moving away from what they don't want, they have to continuously notice the negatives they wish to move away from -- because if they didn't notice them, they couldn't avoid them. The downside of this process is that it directs a person's attention consistently to the negatives in their experience, filtering out the positives in the process. The effect is that a person sees a lot of negatives in their world and they may draw appropriately (given their perceptions) pessimistic conclusions. Yet, those conclusions may not be justified by a fuller representation of events and choices.
So, by looking for what they don't want, a person will keep finding what they don't want. If a person's goal were to make themselves unhappy, this would be a good way to do it.
- The "Away From" Meta Program not only affects perception and thinking, it also affects memory and imagination. A person who is using this Meta Program may have difficulty remembering positive experiences and select, from all their past experiences, only those which are negative, thus constructing a life history which presents a very sad or unsatisfactory story, despite the fact that many good things did occur. Likewise, they may come to expect negative events to occur in the future (e.g., they may adopt the "Worst-Case Scenario Thinking" Meta Program [below] ).
- The Law of Attraction: "Energy flows where attention goes." According to this "law," if your attention is overly focused on negative things (as away-from thinking requires), you will actually attract more negative events and experiences to yourself.
At present, there is little scientific evidence to support such a broad concept. However, some of the most successful people cite it as a factor in their success (via focusing their attention on the positive) and many cite anecdotal evidence in their own lives in support of its veracity. There may yet be something to it, or it may simply be the effect of positive self-fulfilling prophesy: see the positive, expect the positive, and you are more likely to produce the positive through your positive attitude and actions. Or it could be a little of both.
- American society, with its traditional "can do" attitude, generally rewards those whose thinking is 'toward' more than those whose thinking is 'away-from'.
"Longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, 'You can never get enough of what you really don't want.' If your goal is to 'not be poor,' you can have millions and still not have what you don't want." -- Brian Van der Horst
The Brighter Side of "Away From"
Now, with all of those problems specific to the "Away-From" Meta Program, a person might be tempted to think away-from thinking is "bad", or at least that they should avoid it. (Avoiding away-from thinking is another instance of away-from thinking.) But away-from thinking has a great deal of value in certain contexts and for certain purposes.
Consider a professional whose job is "quality assurance." ("QA"). Most products benefit from a thorough and critical review which seeks to find, identify and fix problems before the product goes to market. People with strong skills in the use of the "Away From" Meta Program, as Shelle Rose Charvet points out in her book, "Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence," are ideally suited to such work, and often excel at it.
Another example would be military combat planning which necessarily includes considerable away-from thinking. In "Operation Iraqi Freedom", a combat pilot interviewed on television reported that his first priority during a combat mission was always, "Don't shoot our own guys," so as to avoid any "friendly fire" incidents.
Any task that requires keen critical thinking can also benefit from the appropriate use of away-from thinking. The NLP "Disney Planning Strategy" is the result of Robert Dilts' modeling how Walt Disney designed and conducted creative teams to rigorously separate the functions of dreaming/envisioning, planning/realism, and critic/approval. This powerful "envisioneering" process explicitly recognizes the positive and essential use of the "Away-From" Meta Program in the "critic/approval" stage of the process.
As an overall approach to living a happy, productive life, the adaptation of a default "Toward" Meta Program is highly attractive. By 'default' I mean that in the absence of specifically identified contexts in which away-from thinking is consciously considered advantageous, a "Toward" Meta Program is the predominantly operating unconscious process for perceiving and sorting experience, memory and interpretation.
When clients who have been using away-from thinking as a default for many years switch to toward as their default and "try it on" for a number of weeks, they frequently describe it as if "a huge weight" has been lifted from their shoulders. The positive, life affirming effects of this level of change are profound.
For setting goals and direction, the "Toward" Meta Program is clearly the most appropriate choice. Toward thinking is, in fact, so important to setting effective goals, that one of the primary conditions for "well formed goals" in NLP is that they be stated in positive language. When a person is sorting for what they positively want, they are enabled the freedom to fully imagine it, design for it, set direction for it, follow through, achieve it, and experience its rewards.
The downside of overusing the "Toward" Meta Program, or using it in inappropriate contexts, is that it can lead a person to make decisions which are naive and potentially risky, not perceiving or recognizing pitfalls and obstacles which could prevent a goal from being reached.
An example would be the giddiness of 'blue sky' corporate board retreats where the participants get very creative about the company's future direction, products or organization without fully vetting the ideas with necessary away from critical thinking. In such cases the executives may return to the offices with directives which make little or no business sense and insist that employees execute them. If employees make rational objections to the new plans, they may be told somewhat ominously that they are not "thinking positive" enough.
The "Toward" Meta Program, as used in NLP, is distinguished from simplistic encouragement's to "think positive" by several important factors: it is understood to be desirable only in appropriate contexts, a full ecology and contextualization is elicited before it is adopted, and when it is activated it operates automatically without the need of a person to attempt conscious imposition -- that is, the pattern itself changes, rather than merely one's judgment that a "more positive" outlook should be adopted.
Whatever a person's preference in terms of "Toward or Away-From" Meta Programs for any particular context, the NLP Presupposition that "Choice is better than no choice" applies, and this is true of other Meta Programs, as well. The ability to choose and run a given Meta Program intentionally as most appropriate to the circumstances is a powerful addition to anyone's personal skill set.
In cases where the Meta Program is the only pattern at issue, it can literally make the difference between a happy or miserable experience of life.
Self Reference vs. Other Reference
In this Meta Program, a person's attention references either oneself or another. Like other Meta Programs, the operation and use of self/other referencing is generally non-conscious though its effects may be keenly felt.
Self Reference is the selection of evidence and criteria based on reference to one's own perceptions, beliefs, values, etc. It is related both to self-confidence, at the healthy end of the spectrum, and sociopathy at the other end.
As an example, if a person using Self Referencing is asked how they know when they've done a good job at work, they might say something like, "I can see when it's good." And if the question is put, "What would your reaction be if others found fault with it?" their answer might be along the lines of, "That would be their opinion."
Other Reference is the selection of evidence and criteria based on reference to the perceptions, beliefs, values, etc., of others -- whether the evidence is real or imagined. It is related both to compassion, at the healthy end of the spectrum, and co-dependence at the other end.
For example, if a person using Other Referencing is asked how they know when they've done a good job at work, they might say something like, "I can tell by people's reactions," or, "They'll tell me that it's good." If the follow-up question is asked, "What if they don't think it's good and you disagree?" they might answer, "I'd have to wonder what I did wrong."
This Meta Program should not be confused with descriptors like "introverted" or "extroverted" which L. Michael Hall considers aspects of a "Rejuvenation of Batteries" Meta Program. In some ways, Self/Other Referencing is the opposite of introverted/extroverted. Ironically, Self Referencing is more likely to go with extroversion and Other Referencing is more likely to go with introversion.
A person who has appropriate choice and flexibility with regard to whether they are self referencing or other referencing in a particular context is likely to have both self confidence and the ability to take into account the feelings and points of view of others.
Other factors are often present when a person self references or other references habitually without a sense of choice. Such factors include self-other confusion, self-concept, and depth of self understanding and awareness. Problems related to the overuse of self or other referencing sometimes self-correct when these other factors are successfully addressed. Therefore, it's generally more useful to address these issues first (i.e., if self/other confusion is present, changing self/other referencing will be ambiguous).
Attribution Style: Best-Case vs Worst-Case Scenario Thinking
This Meta Program was identified by L. Michael Hall and Bob Bodenhamer who describe it as follows: "Whether a person first looks at the problems, dangers, threats, difficulties, challenges of a situation or the opportunities, possibilities, wonders, excitements, and thrill determines whether their mind goes first to worst- or best-case scenarios. Sorting for the best-case scenario orients one in an optimistic, hopeful, goal-oriented, and empowered way. Sorting for the worst-case scenario orients one in a pessimistic, negative, and problem-focused way." -- Figuring Out People, 1997.
Similar to "Toward vs Away-From", this Meta Program is distinguished by its specific reference to the future, the formation of expectations, predictability, control, and beliefs about possibility.
While sorting for positive possibilities sounds better than sorting for negative possibilities, both have their usefulness in specific contexts. Like away from thinking, worst-case thinking can be an important capability if specific worst cases are realistically assessed and can be adequately planned for. In some cases, worst case thinking is like a sort of reverse-optimism. That is, if we know we can handle the worst case, anything better that happens will be "gravy." Murphy's Law "If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong," is an example of this Meta Program. It's often cited with a certain wry humor, the benefit of which is that a person may plan more precisely to handle contingencies which may obstruct or interrupt the achievement goals.
Frequently, people who sort for the worst case believe they are simply being more realistic than others who sort for the best case. The "Best-Case Scenario" Meta Program does have its problems. Those who overuse it, without balancing it with its opposite, could be described as looking at the world through rose colored glasses, may naively maintain a "fools rush in" attitude in the face of real danger, or may trust inappropriately those who are not trustworthy.
Having acknowledged the context appropriate value of worst case thinking and the context inappropriate dangers of best case thinking, it's important to note that a great many people suffer on a daily basis in ordinary circumstances from the consistent overuse of worst case thinking applied in their lives transcontextually, as almost a philosophy of life which they generalize to their thinking about their relationships, their jobs, their health, etc. -- even to simple, everyday tasks such as fixing breakfast, e.g., "What if I don't have enough to eat someday?" Some specific problems with the overuse of worst case thinking include:
- When negative events do occur, a person may come to view them as evidence to support further negative expectations. As they increasingly sort for worst-case futures, they may become unable to envision positive outcomes at all, so they may see no point in taking positive actions which could further their self-development, health, career, relationships, and so on. The result is a self-fulfilling negative prophesy which works to undermine a person's progress and happiness.
- When "Worst-Case Scenario" Meta Programs form the content of Meta Framing (thinking thoughts about thoughts about thoughts), the effect can be a self-reinforcing closed loop which escalates to panic.
For example, I might notice a slight pain in my finger and think (in worst case style), "What if it's cancer?" --> "What if it's incurable?" --> "Then I'd have to go through hell." --> "I'll have to spend all my money on treatments." --> "And I could die." --> "I wonder how long I might have." --> "What if it's a very short time?" --> "I better do something!" --> "I better do something NOW!" --> "But I don't know what to do!" --> "HELLLP!!!" ...etc., all the way to a full blown panic.
People who get themselves into similar patterns often realize that their thinking doesn't make much logical sense, but they don't know how to stop it. Their "Worst-Case" Meta Program and Meta Framing are running the show.
- Limiting Belief change work in NLP, particularly regarding possibility and capability may be difficult or impossible while a default, over-generalized "Worst-Case Scenario" Meta Program is in operation because a person may not consider more affirming beliefs to be realistic and thus, may not want to change the limiting beliefs. It makes perfect sense that, if all I perceive and consider is negative, I will have little evidence on which to base a more positive belief.
At the same time, limiting beliefs about capability may self-heal when a person de-generalizes worst case thinking and installs the ability to use best case thinking in a balanced and appropriate way. This effect is due to the fact that the person can now perceive differently and thus become aware of evidence in support of positive possibilities. When they realize they can do that, their beliefs about capability may change.
It bears repeating that choice is better than no choice in regard to Meta Programs. A person's health, happiness and effectiveness are greatly enhanced by the ability to have full access to either Meta Program according to what a person considers appropriate and useful in a given context.
Many successful and generally happy people find that a good model for balance between these two Meta Programs is something along the lines of, "Dream and plan for the best, be prepared for the worst." Given the ability to access and use both Meta Programs with a default of "Best-Case Scenario" and attendant healthy beliefs about possibility and capability, the NLP Disney planning process is an excellent way to balance and contextualize both types of thinking for many desired outcomes.
Big Chunk vs. Little Chunk
In this Meta Program, attention is directed either to the big picture or to details.
Big chunk thinking is useful for envisioning, perspective and setting direction. It can "take in" broad patterns and trends and make associations between them for the benefit of the whole.
Small chunk thinking is useful for executing on a plan and making progress in manageable steps. It can be an important part of optimism and a person's perception of having the capability to move toward larger goals.
In NLP, the process of taking a thought or perception pattern to bigger chunks is called "chunking up." The process of moving to smaller chunks is called "chunking down."
Problems arise in big chunk thinking when small negative events are overgeneralized, or chunked up, to the point where they are perceived as pervasive or permanent. Chunking up is part of the process of "depressing" (that's "depression" denominalized) when it's combined with associated negative experience. It is also involved in "awfulizing" -- taking something relatively benign and interpreting it in more and more "awful" ways.
The reason NLP denominalizes "depression" is because NLP views "depressing" as something people do by using a number of different processes. It's fairly easy to teach someone how to create, for themselves, a really depressed state. Not that you'd want to. But it demonstrates the process theory of "depressing".
Other problems with the overuse of big chunk thinking, include ineffective dreaming -- having lots of big ideas but never doing anything about them -- grandiosity, and passivity.
Problems arise in small chunk thinking when context is lost and one can no longer "see the forest for the trees." Chunking down is part of the process of "obsessing" -- repeated choiceless attention to a specific small frame of reference or intention. This would also be the pattern for "penny wise, pound foolish."
Small chunking in combination with "Worst-Case Scenario" can easily map to "anxiety". Anxiety becomes panic or depression when it chunks up. Some individuals, in fact, run a strategy wherein they first chunk down, sort for small negatives, then chunk up and feel depressed.
Most people have a default preference for big or small chunking, and that's part of what makes the world of people an interesting and diverse place. As with the other Meta Programs, the desirability of using one or the other depends on the context.
In general, people who use one form of chunking a lot will be less skilled in the use of the other -- just as any skill increases with use. So practicing the weaker skill will be more effort at first, then less effort over time, and will create more balanced capabilities over time. An appropriate balance and the ability to choose which Meta Programs to use in different contexts represent powerful tools for health, success and happiness.
Association vs. Disassociation
Association and disassociation are fundamentally perceptual positions. (See Perceptual Positions) However, when used programmatically for perception, thinking and feeling, they may be usefully described as Meta Programs.
People generally have a default preference for associating or disassociating, as well as context dependent preferences. Like other skills, the ones we use most often are the strongest.
Association is useful for getting "into" experiences fully, feeling the feelings, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, etc. It is important both for relationships and internal congruity.
Disassociation is useful for such things as perspective, meditation, pain management, and behaving effectively in certain kinds of difficult or dangerous situations.
In a sense, it can be said that a person is always associated into one perceptual position or another. Disassociation would be, then, being associated into a 3rd or 4th perceptual position -- that of "standing off from" or "out of" an experience as an observer.
Problems arise in the overuse of association when a person gets "stuck" in a perceptual position which is unpleasant, painful, inappropriate, confused, or in some other way negative. People with strong skills in associating, but relatively weak skills in disassociating, may be more likely to use external substances, ritualized behaviors or excessive means to help them disassociate from their experience -- rather than internal skills in moving between perceptual positions.
As with any skill, learning a brand new one often involves effort and some level of discomfort or frustration before the skill gets to the point of easy competence. Whether a person is more adept at associating or disassociating, learning the other skill may feel unfamiliar or awkward at first precisely because moving between perceptual positions is not something most of us were taught at an earlier age at home or in school.
Problems which arise in the overuse of disassociation may include lack of empathy, "inability" to connect well in relationships, limited awareness of one's own emotions, or a loss of joy and passion for life. In the extreme, disassociation is a feature of sociopathy.
The ability to move with intention between association and disassociation is sometimes described as "a doorway" to a world of rich learnings and new capabilities.
Match vs. Mismatch
Attention is focused on what is the same or what is different.
Whether a person notices commonality, like-ness and similarities or differences, dislikes and contrasts depends upon this Meta Program.
Matching is important for rapport and relationship building, since connecting with someone, or meeting them in their world view in order to better communicate, involves perceiving and communicating in 'like' ways. The concept of 'like', or match, is built into our language even to the point where, if we want to express an affinity we have with another person, we say we 'like' them. If we have negative feelings about someone, we say we 'dis-like' them. Matching is also important in seeing connections or associations between sets of ideas, motifs, themes and a broad range of integrative processes both within and across different fields of study and endeavor.
Mismatching is essential to sorting, itself. If I can't tell any difference between two or more things, they are effectively the same to me and I have no basis on which to sort them from each other.
Our brains and nervous systems are designed to notice difference. Habituation, where the same stimulus happens over and over again, is the process by which our brains and nervous systems decide that something is no longer different enough to warrant notice and needn't be brought to conscious attention. 'Different' gets our attention, and our awareness of it is important to our survival. Mismatching is also important in discriminating the desirable, sensible or functional from their opposites.
As you might expect, matching becomes a problem when it is overused or used without choice. In relationships, over-matching can lead a person to forget their own boundaries and unique sense of self. They may become more compliant or accommodating than is good for either them, their partner, or the relationship as a whole. By matching too exclusively early in a relationship, a person may not discover how the other person will behave when differences emerge later in the relationship after commitments have already been made. Since adults with full access to both matching and mismatching capabilities realistically expect that no two people are exactly the same, they may view someone who matches too consistently as either lacking in character or having a hidden agenda.
In other contexts, the overuse of matching can result in the failure to recognize important new information, essential differences which might strongly indicate a different course of action, or failure to appreciate the unique gifts and qualities in any person, team or situation.
Mismatching, when overused, can obstruct productive relationships, contaminate cooperation, reduce available choices, ignore important connections, segregate whole class groups of people, and generally cause strife and conflict. At its extreme, especially when combined with disassociation, it can lead to violence on a scale from interpersonal to international or intercultural.
Both "Matching" and "Mismatching" Meta Programs are essential and valuable in balance and given appropriate choice and context.
There are many more Meta Programs than these several discussed here. If you are interested to learn more about them, I suggest the following books: Hall & Bodenhamer, Figuring Out People: Design Engineering With Meta Programs. 1997 -- Dilts & DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding, 2000 (also available online at www.nlpuniversitypress.com) -- and Shelle Rose Charvet, Words That Change Minds, 1995.
In theory, Meta Programs are easy to change. What takes some work is making sure the change is ecological -- that is, all parts of you want the change, it's contextually appropriate, and there are no higher level patterns which would either interfere with making the change or would operate to return any change to its previous state. Such patterns might include a person's hierarchy of values, limiting beliefs, self-other confusion, internal conflicts about life purpose or mission, spiritual conflicts, relational consequences, etc.
The principle here is that ecology trumps change. Given a conflict between a particular change and a person's deeper or higher ecology, ecology will automatically take precedence and prevail. This is a good thing, since it points to the power of our inherent ability as self organizing systems to protect ourselves from changes which we do not congruently want.
In the exercise below, internal congruency and ecology are thoroughly explored and checked. If you intend to do this process on your own, plan to spend at least a couple of days on it. Write out your answers to each of the questions, review them, take lots of notes, put the process down and walk away from it for a while, let it percolate, then come back to it and review and make changes again. Sometimes "sleeping on it" may bring new insights or internal communications about it. Take your time.
The final ecology check is that you will try the change on for a period of time to get a sense of what it would be like if you kept the change. If a part of you doesn't like it, you can decide not to keep it, or you can make changes to it so that it's fully acceptable to you. Even if you decide to keep it and change your mind later, you can always change it back using the same process, or make new adjustments to it.
Skill strengths which will facilitate use of this exercise include: good communication between conscious and non-conscious parts, the ability to associate into an imagined experience, the ability to "go meta" (disassociate) and think about the content and process at a higher level, the intention to be honest with yourself, and a sense of curiosity and exploration.
This process is adopted from the Hall and Bodenhamer "meta framing" approach to changing Meta Programs in combination with aspects of Dilts' spatial sorting and Grinder's 6-step reframe.
Making The Change
STEP 1: Identify the Meta Program you wish to change.
a. Specifically identify and fully describe when, where and with whom you are using it that does not serve you well.
b. Specifically identify and fully describe how it does not serve you well.
STEP 2: Describe fully the Meta Program you would prefer.
a. Specifically identify and fully describe when, where and with whom you would like this new Meta Program to govern your perceptions, awareness and consciousness.
b. Specifically identify and fully describe how it will server you better.
STEP 3: Try it on.
a. Physically change your location to another chair or standing spot.
b. Imagine adopting the new Meta Program in a fully associated way.
c. Pretend to use it, sorting, perceiving, attending, thinking, feeling, etc.
d. Notice how it feels, how things look, how it seems, what thoughts occur to you. Feel free to walk around with it a bit if you like, experiencing what it would be like to use this new Meta Program. Expect that it might seem a little strange at first because it is new and unfamiliar. Notice what other feelings besides discomfort arise with it.
e. Imagine some specific contexts where you think this Meta Program will serve you better.
STEP 4: First Ecology Check
a. Step Out of the 'try on' experience and move to a new location, leaving it behind.
b. In this new location, adopt the state of mind of an detached but interested observer who can review, from a distance, the 'try on' experience you just had.
c. Check it out. What occurs to you right away?
d. Check it out from a standpoint of the low to mid neurological levels. That is, what will this new Meta program do for you in terms of perceiving, behaving, capabilities, beliefs and values.
e. Check it out at the identity level. What "kind of person" would it begin to make you?
f. Check out its broader effects. What effects would it have on the rest of your life and other people?
g. What effects would it have on your spirituality?
STEP 5: Second Ecology Check
a. Move back to the original physical location -- where you were when you were doing steps 1 and 2.
b. Go inside yourself and respectfully submit this question to your entire inner being and all your parts: "Does any part of me have any objection to making this change, or to making this change in this way?"
c. Allow yourself to be still and quiet for a few minutes as you openly wait for any new thoughts or objections to make themselves known to you.
d. If there are any objections, acknowledge them and say an internal "Thank you" for the communication. Make a note of them and continue.
e. Specifically identify how, when, where and with whom the old Meta Program served you in some positive way(s). What secondary gains does it provide that will be important to preserve?
f. How will you preserve them?
STEP 6: Take Care of Ecology
a. Address any conflicts, objections or incongruities. Use any other NLP processes that may be useful and appropriate, such as reframing or redefining, so that all objections are taken care of and you have resolved the old emotions, thoughts, beliefs, decisions, etc.
b. If you have difficulty addressing any of these incongruities, if any are persistent or difficult to resolve, Stop Here -- for now. You can return to this process after they have been thoroughly addressed. Consider exploring other NLP processes to address them in different ways. If you can use help with this, make arrangements to consult with a professional NLP practitioner until they are resolved.
c. When you're "good to go" and all of your systems give you the green light, continue.
STEP 7: Permission
a. Give yourself permission to install the new Meta Program for a specific period of time. This can be anywhere from several hours, to several days, to a week or two.
b. Make the internal agreement that at the end of that time, you can decide to keep the new Meta Program, extend it for a longer trial period, or switch back to the old one.
c. At this point in the process, a person can install a new Meta Program simply by giving permission to use it.
d. To strengthen it, move back to the physical location you used during the "Try it on" process (Step 3), and "map it across" to your original physical location. This is done by fully associating back into the "Try it on" state, getting the full sense of it again, then making internal arrangements to create a mental symbol or a few words which will represent the experience. Then walk the symbol or words over to your original position and take a few moments to accept and integrate the symbol or words into your consciousness. Allow it to "self-organize" in its own way, and allow yourself to experience the new Meta Program again.
STEP 8: Final Ecology Check
a. Go inside and check to make sure all is well and you are excited and looking forward to using this new Meta Program for the time period you have specified.
b. If any last minute ecology issues arise, temporarily put a 'hold' on your permission, walk the symbol or words back to the "Try it on" location, leave them there, and return to your original position and state. Then go back to Step 6.
c. When all is well and you are "good to go," continue.
STEP 9: Future Pace
a. Practice, in your imagination, using the Meta Program in as many future contexts as you like, until it feels comfortable and familiar.
b. Return to the present and enjoy your new Meta Program!