NLP Meta-Programs: What They Are And How to Utilize Them

Author Unknown

The purpose of our lives is finding ways to program our minds with the kind of information that will set us free.


What in the World are Meta-Programs?

Meta-programs are mental shortcuts that direct your decisions, behaviors, actions and interactions with others. They are internal representations of your external experience of reality. They determine how your brain pays attention to things and what it pays attention to. It’s a form of pattern recognition, where your brain attempts to sort through what the body is sensing and experiencing.

Meta-programs are like software applications for the brain where one software program controls the execution of a number of other programs. The software runs in the background and directs your thoughts, beliefs, values, memories and responses. Meta-programs are therefore mental programs that run our lives at an unconscious level of awareness. These mental programs determine how information is processed by deciding what to delete, distort, and/or to generalize from your experience.

How the brain processes information on a daily basis is based on the meta-programs that are currently running in the background. You use these meta-programs to sort and make sense of the world around you. Without them the world wouldn’t make much sense, however with them you are able to form your own beliefs, opinions and perspectives about your world, your life and your circumstances.

Meta-programs work on the basis of sorting. They operate by determining which of our perceptions are selected for attention and represented internally from among a vast array of inbound sensory data and a myriad of possibilities. In other words, meta-programs are processes used to sort what you pay attention to based on the information you filter-out from your environment. This filtering process helps guide and direct our thought processes, resulting in significant differences in behavior from person-to-person.

It’s important to note that exhibiting particular meta-programs in one specific context does not automatically imply that you will exhibit the same meta-programs within another context or situation. In fact, your meta-programs are never stable, and can change over time as you come across new information and expand your knowledge and understanding of your life and circumstances. Meta-programs can for instance change when you’re under heavy stress or experiencing other emotional difficulties. They are therefore never stable, but rather adaptive.

Meta-programs are neither negative nor positive. The meta-programs you use to perceive and interact with your world either work for you or they work against you. And whether or not they work for you depends on how you live your life based on your personal goals and objectives.

What are NLP Meta-Programs?


How Useful are Meta-Programs?

Learning about meta-programs is valuable in three significant ways.

First of all, learning about meta-programs helps you to better understand yourself and your own psychological tendencies. How you make sense of the world, how you make decisions, how you interpret your life and circumstances, and how you interact with others will all begin to make sense once you understand the meta-programs that are running your brain. Meta-programs will also provide you with a great deal of insight into your values, beliefs, convictions, habits, behaviors, and self-sabotage patterns.

Secondly, for the same reasons mentioned above, meta-programs help you to better understand other people and their psychological tendencies. This is advantageous, because it will help you to adapt your behavior and approach while communicating with other people. These changes can improve your relationships with others by helping you to develop deeper levels or rapport and potentially influence people to your way of thinking. This becomes possible because meta-programs will provide you with insight into a person’s motivations. And once you understand their motivations, you will then have the key that will help you to influence their choices, decisions and actions.

Thirdly, understanding more about how you filter and sort information gives you a unique opportunity that other people who don’t know about meta-programs will never get. It gives you an opportunity to change, shift and transform your behavior in positive ways to help improve your beliefs, values, decisions, behaviors, habits, actions, and levels of motivation.


How to Identify Your Meta-Programs

Identifying meta-programs within yourself or within other people does take practice and some effort. You must look for clues within a person’s speech/language, within their behavior, belief systems, and physiology. The clues will always be there, however they may be very subtle at times, and its very possible that a person may exhibit characteristics from two extremes. This means that within a specific meta-program where there are two possibilities, the person will exhibit both. In such instances they will be somewhere in the middle of the two polar-opposites.

When it comes to identifying your own meta-programs, it’s important to keep in mind how useful they are and how they are shaping your life and circumstances. It’s possible that once you work through the five meta-programs listed here that you will determine that they do not serve your greater good. If that’s the case, then it’s up to you to make the necessary changes that will help you improve your life and circumstances. To assist you with this process, ask yourself:

How useful and effective is this meta-program?

How is this meta-program shaping my life and circumstances?

Given my desired outcomes, is this helpful or hurtful?

Do I need to make any changes? Why? Why not?

Keep these questions in mind as you work through each of the five meta-programs outlined here.


Five Common Meta-Programs

There are many different types of meta-programs that could be discussed. In fact, there are over 50 different types of meta-programs that have been identified. However, this figure changes all the time as some meta-programs are merged with other similar meta-programs and new meta-programs are added to the list.

Learning about the different kinds of meta-programs is interesting, however there is a lot to learn, and it can take a bit of time to understand and process this information. Therefore instead of going through each of the 50+ meta-programs, let’s instead focus on five of the more common meta-programs that will help you to get a better understanding of yourself and others. These meta-programs are:

  • Frame of Reference sort
  • Self or Other sort
  • Match or Mismatch sort
  • Action sort
  • Necessity or Possibility sort

Let’s break down each of these five meta-programs, along with ideas that will help you to recognize them in others. Furthermore, we will also explore how you can potentially use this knowledge to build rapport, to motivate and to influence others to your way of thinking.

Frame of Reference Sort

The Frame of Reference sort can be either internal or external. Therefore a person can either have an internal frame-of-reference or an external frame-of-reference.

A person with an internal frame-of-reference is very intuitive and self-oriented. This means that they often make decisions based on personal feelings and opinions. They must feel within themselves that they’ve done a good job or made a good decision. Therefore, in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to talk about their experiences and allow them to make up their own mind about the issue at hand.

A person with an external frame-of-reference is very much focused on others. They are consistently seeking external answers and approval from others. As a result, they make decisions based on people’s opinions, perspectives and actions. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to provide them with your own suggestions, or talk about other people’s ideas and suggestions and how they can be of value in this situation.

Frame of Reference Sort Meta-Program

Self or Other Sort

The Self or Other sort is based on how a person thinks about themselves in relation to others.

A person with more of a self-sort can be very self-centered and disassociated. They primarily make their decisions based on their own personal interests — based on what’s “in it for them” in any particular situation. Therefore, in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to look at ways you can meet their needs. You must help them make a decision based on satisfying their own needs, wants and desires.

A person with more of an other-sort is often very curious and focused on the needs of other people. Therefore before they make any kind of decision, they will often think of what’s in it for others and how others will benefit from this decision. They will in essence put other people’s needs ahead of their own. Therefore, in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to focus your conversation on the needs of others. Outline the benefits that other people will gain from this situation and how this could potentially improve their lives.

Matcher or Mismatcher Sort

A Matcher or Mismatcher sort is based on how much sameness or difference a person finds in any situation. This sort also effectively determines how much a person will agree or disagree with you throughout a conversation.

A person with more of a matcher sort is often optimistic, very approving, and tends to look for similarities and common ground while conversing with others. They therefore base their decisions on the similarities they see in others, in circumstances, and in life. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to listen intently and find common ground. Mirroring their experiences, beliefs, values and perceptions will help you to develop a strong emotional bond and greater levels of rapport.

A person with more of a mismatcher sort often tends to go against the grain. They tend to find faults in things, in circumstances, and in others. They always look for differences and will tend to disagree with you no matter what you do or say. Therefore, in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to become proficient at using reverse psychology.

Match Mismatch Sort Meta-Program

Action Sort

An Action sort can either be reflective or active. A person will prefer to reflect before taking action or they will rather take action before thinking about things.

A person with more of a reflective sort is often introverted. They will rarely take immediate decisive action to get something done. Instead, they must think and reflect upon what they are about to do before taking action. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to allow them time and space to reflect upon the decision they are about to make. Without this time and space they will feel threatened and might resist taking action.

A person with more of an active sort is often extroverted. They don’t like to think about what they are going to do before doing it. Instead, they will just jump into things head-first without much thought — working things out as they go along. Therefore, in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to get them to take decisive action. Encouraging constant involvement will keep them motivated and enthusiastic about the task at hand.

Necessity or Possibility Sort

The Necessity or Possibility sort is based on whether a person makes decisions based on necessity or primarily based on possibility.

A person with more of a necessity sort often settles for what life gives them. They primarily make decisions that are based on avoiding pain. They will settle for what’s available and don’t care much about options or varied experiences. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to focus on making them feel secure and comfortable with their decisions. Provide them with something that’s familiar, easy and safe.

A person with more of a possibility sort often seeks variety and opportunity. They primarily make decisions that are based on gaining pleasure. They therefore don’t like to settle, but rather go for what they really want in life. They are motivated to look for possibilities that will help them expand their opportunities. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to focus on presenting them with challenges; informing them about the risks that they will need to take to get what they want, and the inevitable opportunities that will be available once they take positive action.

Necessity Possibility Sort Meta-Program

Bonus: Toward or Away-From Sort

This is a bonus meta-program that isn’t included on the accompanying IQ Matrix. However, it can be of great value as it is based on the pain and pleasure principle.

The Towards or Away-from sort is based on whether a person’s energy is centered on goals/achievement or on problems that must be dealt with.

A person with a toward sort is primarily focused on the attainment of their goals. They tend to be good at managing priorities and are always clear about what it is they want out of life. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to focus their mind on the process of goal achievement. Inform them about the importance of achieving specific goals and outcomes and how this will benefit them long-term.

A person with an away-from sort is primarily focused on problems and/or the things that must be avoided before moving forward. They are good at troubleshooting, solving problems and pinpointing possible obstacles. They may set goals, however they have difficulty prioritizing their actions and are often distracted trying to fix crisis situations. Therefore in order to influence, motivate and build rapport with this person you will need to present them with a problem that needs to get fixed and then hold them accountable for solving this problem.


How to Change Your Meta-Programs

Changing meta-programs seems simple on the surface. It basically requires that you shift how you process the world around you. All this requires is a conscious shift in perspective. However, this process may not be as easy as it sounds, due to internal resistance.

You might for instance want to change a meta-program, however this meta-program may very well have been ingrained into your psyche from a young age. It has become a habit-of-mind that is being supported by a set of beliefs and convictions. Furthermore, this meta-program might be supporting your core values and needs. If that’s the case then you will certainly need to take into account all the consequences that could result from making this change.

Reasons to Change a Meta-Program

The reason why you might want to change a meta-program could be because your current meta-programs don’t serve you or simply don’t support the goals that you are trying to achieve. For instance, you could be working at a job where an Away-sort is required. However, you have a Toward-sort. You are therefore very goal oriented but find it very difficult to spot problems and errors. And if you’re a proofreader or part of the crisis department team, then this can obviously become a little problematic.

Another example could be that you are in a relationship with a person who is a Matcher-sort, however you’re a Mismatcher-sort. They will therefore look for similarities and common ground within the relationship, while you will tend to find faults, to disagree and go against the grain. This might cause a lot of unnecessary stress and tension within your relationship. Both of you obviously love and care deeply for one another, however it’s difficult to reach any sort of agreement if you have conflicting meta-programs getting in the way.

These are just two of many reasons why changing your meta-programs can be helpful. You will of course need to have a very good understanding of yourself, your situation, and of other people involved within the situation in order to determine the best path moving forward. And this is something that must be left in your hands. You need to have the self-awareness and understanding that will help you to first pinpoint the conflicts, and then to make the necessary adjustments to change yourself and improve your circumstances.

As you work your way through this process, be sure to take your time, and to delve into the consequences of this change and how it could potentially impact your life, the lives of others, and your circumstances. This is certainly not something that should be rushed. It’s rather something that requires a lot of careful thought and attention.

Step 1: Identify the Meta-Program

Your very first step is to identify the meta-program that you would like to change. Ask yourself:

What meta-program would I like to change? Describe it.

How do I use this meta-program?

In what specific situations do I use this meta-program?

With whom do I use this meta-program?

Why do I use this meta-program?

How does this meta-program not serve me in these situations?

Could it potentially serve me in certain situations and not in others?

Does it provide me with any benefits that I would like to preserve?

Your current meta-program may very well serve you in some way. There might actually be benefits that you will lose if you make these changes. As such, it’s important to consider ways you could potentially preserve these benefits moving forward through this process.

Step 2: Choose Substitute Meta-Program

Your next step is to pinpoint the meta-program that you would prefer to use instead. Ask yourself:

What meta-program would I like to use instead? Describe it.

How and in what situations would I like to use this meta-program?

How will this meta-program potentially serve me?

What will it allow me to do? How is this of value?

Step 3: Imagine Using New Meta-Program

Test the new meta-program by simulating in your minds-eye how you will use it in a variety of ways to help you attain your desired outcomes. Fully associate yourself within this experience using all your sensory organs. While there, ask yourself:

How does this meta-program feel?

What does it look like?

What does it seem like?

What specific thoughts do I have about it?

What does it feel like to use it daily?

Do I feel excitement, satisfaction, discomfort, pain?

As you work through these questions, imagine yourself in different situations using this meta-program. It’s important that this new meta-program serves you within these specific situations or else there might be conflicts, and as a result you will fail to make the necessary long-term changes.

Step 4: Observe Your Meta-Program

Now it’s time to step-away from yourself and view this meta-program (this change you would like to make) from an outsider’s perspective. No longer are you viewing this change from within yourself, but rather outside yourself. From this perspective ask yourself:

What do I notice about myself?

What do I notice about the changes that I am making?

How are these changes affecting me?

What will these changes allow me to do, to be, to experience, and to have?

How do these changes affect or influence my current beliefs, values and convictions?

What am I able to do as a result of these changes? Why is this important?

What might I be no longer able to do as a result of these changes?

How does this change affect me, my life, and others in the short and long-term?

What are the positive and negative consequences of this change?

Step 5: Search for Objections

Having spent time outside yourself, it’s now time to step back inside yourself and ask yourself one more very important question:

Does any part of me object to this change that I am about to make?

It’s very possible that you might have conflicting beliefs, values and/or convictions. It might also be possible that the current meta-program actually serves you in some way. Your mind is now resisting this change because you are about to lose something that has been serving you all this time. In such instances it’s important that you think about ways you can preserve the benefits of the current meta-program while making the change to the new meta-program. You must therefore address these conflicts and incongruities before continuing with this process.

One way you can address these conflicts and incongruities is to reframe your circumstances. Reframing involves shifting how you think about things in order to change how you feel about them. This will depend on your particular circumstances and does require some resourcefulness and insight.

You can for instance reframe your circumstances by offering counter examples, by using metaphors, by redefining your experience, by changing time frames, or by playing around with your perspectives. As an example you might for instance question the validity of your old meta-program. Yes your old meta-program might provide you with some benefits that you think you need, however that might not be entirely true. What you need might actually be what you want. And what you want isn’t necessarily what’s required in this situation. Therefore by offering yourself some counter examples, you are effectively subduing the resistance you are experiencing.

Step 6: Agree to Install New Meta-Program

Finally, make a conscious agreement with yourself that you will install this new meta-program. However, for this to work, you must have the necessary commitment, motivation and the desire to follow through with this new meta-program until it becomes a new habit-of-mind that no longer requires any thought and attention. Without this commitment, motivation and desire you will fail to follow through on your word and will fall back into old patterns. It’s therefore paramount that you practice this meta-program in real life as well as in your imagination until it becomes comfortable and familiar. Only then will you develop the necessary momentum you need to make lasting change work for you in the long-run.


Time to Assimilate these Concepts

What is a Meta-Program

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Adam is a life coach, mind mapper, doodler and visual thinker. He founded IQ Matrix in 2009 and has created over 350 self-growth mind maps. He also has a Free 40 Day How to Doodle Course where he teaches how to doodle using simple daily lessons. Read more about Adam's story, and how he created the concept for IQ Matrix. Feel free to also get in touch and send Adam a message here.