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What are Meta-Programs?

Meta-programs are patterns of thinking and behavior that have been identified in the field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). These patterns are believed to be helpful in understanding and predicting human behavior, providing insight into the underlying mental processes and decision-making strategies that people use. In the capable hands of a trained professional they can be very useful for personal development. In my case they allow me to better understand, communicate as well as, identify and change patterns of thought and behavior that may be holding my clients back.

Here I will list out and explain 10 of the more common known meta-programs. Unless otherwise stated, these meta-programs can be further broken into 3 categories; Decision-making, Problem-Solving and Communication.

Matching and mirroring:

This refers to the unconscious tendency humans have to mimic the behavior, language, body language, style, etc. of others in order to build rapport and establish a sense of connection. The saying, "people like people like themselves" is a true statement. We naturally tend to gravitate, open up more and accept people who are like ourselves.

Generalization and discrimination:

This meta-program refers to the way people categorize their experiences. People who lean more towards generalization tend to use broad, general terms and focus on more overall patterns and trends. Where as a person who is more discriminatory tends to focus on specific details to distinguish between different experiences, identifying the differences between them.

An possible example of a person with a generalization meta-program would be, if they had 3 meals at a restaurant and they didn't find them to be good, they might now consider that restaurant to be a "bad" restaurant.

A person with a discrimination meta-program might look at those 3 meals and accept that while those 3 menu items may not have been good, the restaurant might possibly have other, better offerings.


Chunking refers to the way people process information and organize it into either smaller, more manageable pieces, or larger more un-manageable pieces. This is known more commonly as "chunking-up" and "chunking-down". I explain chunking-up as similar to the process of adding layer after layer of foil to a foil-ball. When starting out, the starting foil-ball is small. Start adding enough layers, the ball becomes big, heavy and more likely to hurt someone if hit with it. People often do this with their problems; taking the initial problem and then adding subsequent issues until the problem becomes so large that it is no longer manageable.

Chunking-down is therefore the removal of layers until you have smaller more manageable pieces to work with.

Internal and external reference:

People often orient themselves in the world by either focusing more on their own thoughts and feelings, or on the external environment. Thus having either a more internal frame of reference, or a more external frame of reference.

For example someone with an internal frame of reference may buy a specific model, or brand of car based more on their own feelings, opinions and needs of and for the car. While a person with an external frame of reference may buy a car more based on reviews, others ideas/opinions, expectations, social status, etc.

Proactive and reactive:

Humans respond to stimuli in either a take action, or wait and see approach. Proactive people tend to actively seek out solutions and possibilities where reactive people are more likely to observe and assess.

An example of this would be in say a networking function, a proactive person would be the one initiating conversations, while the reactive person would wait until someone approached them.

Sameness and difference:

Meta-programs are all about the way people process information. This one refers to whether a person focuses on more on similarities or differences. For an example if someone if shown different books and asked how they all relate to one another a sameness person would respond by saying, they relate to one another because they are all books, or they are all printed on paper, or they all contain information. A difference person would respond with something like, they don't relate to one another because they are all different sizes, or about different topics, etc.

Options and procedures:

This meta program is more about how people approach problem-solving. Options people prefer to consider and have multiple options, whereas a procedure person prefer to follow and have established procedures in place.

Toward and away:

The towards and away meta-program describes how people approach goals. A towards person tends to focus on what they would gain, how good it'll be, etc. by doing and achieving their goals. An away from person tends to focus on what they would be losing out on, or sacrificing, etc. if they aren't working on, or achieving their goals.

For example; A towards person may tell themselves, "if I'm working, I'm making money". While an away person might tell themselves, "If I'm not working, I'm losing money".

Specific and general:

Not to be confused with the generalization and discrimination meta-pattern, this one refers to whether a person focuses more on specific details, or general concepts. For example; If you planned a week long trip to Mexico with some excursions; A specific person would want details about where, when , how long, what do they need to pack, will there be food/water, how are we getting there, what time do I need to be ready by, etc. These people tend to not deal well with wishy-washy plans and/or lots of changes. A general person would just want to know the basics like who, what, where when, why, how. These people are pretty good about changes to the plan and schedule. You can also see this pattern emerge in how a person re-tells an story, or an experience.

Completion and improvement:

The final meta-program on this list refers to the way people approach tasks. Completion people tend to focus on finishing tasks and achieving closure over other things. These people tend to be detail-oriented, organized, disciplined and may refer to themselves as having an "A-type" personality.

Improvement people tend to focus more on growth, learning and improving their skills and abilities. They tend to be more open to new concepts and ideas and more motivated to learn and grow and willing to take risks.

This is a great meta-program to be able to identify within people if you are say, a project manager, or in a similar position. Completion people are fantastic at finishing what they start however they are not very good at accepting change to their processes (especially last minute ones). Improvement people are not the greatest at finishing what they start however they are fantastic at finding new and possibly better , more streamlined ways to do things.

There you have it! 10 of the most common meta-programs! These are just a few examples of NLP meta-programs, there are many more that have been identified and studied. I will be discussing the more obscure, as well as some of the super-obscure meta-programs in future blogs! Stay tuned!


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