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Meta Model: Is Your Client Using Vague Nouns?

As a coach, you definitely want to pay attention to everything your client says and does, particularly for Meta Model distinctions. Have you ever heard statements like the following?

  • “All the problems we are experiencing right now are caused by the rich. The rich always act in selfish ways.”
  • “Employees suck. Everything would just be fine without employees.”

When a client describes a problem situation or an obstacle to you, her language may often contain vague nouns such as “men, women, people, americans, foreigners, employees, customers” and ambiguous pronouns, such as “they, them” and so on.

Of course, she loosely utilizes these terms to refer to specific elements of their model of the world. She placed these elements in their MOW as a result of their experience in life. Unfortunately, they have packed a single experience into generalized ones or abstracted them into a vague pronoun. This can lead to some limitations. If she has had a single bad experience with men and she generalizes that experience to include all men, her relationships with men will suffer.

This language pattern is known in the NLP Meta Model as “unspecified referential index,” since it also includes pronouns that have no contextual reference in the model.

You need specifics to reproduce the model

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Example 1: “Dating experts say I should go approach her, but I don’t know if I have the confidence.”
  • Example 2: “Salespeople are manipulative.”
  • Example 3: “I hate watching the national team play. We always lose and it gets me down…”

When listening to your client describe a situation or condition, your goal is to recreate his model. As he describes it to you, you are reproducing it in your own mind or writing it down.

Art student copies painting at the Louvre.

Have you ever seen art students copying masterpieces in museums? Your work as a coach involves a similar craft. As the client reveals his model, you “copy” it.

The statements above, due to their general nature, do not enable you to copy the model accurately. They include generic words that cannot be depicted figuratively on a “painting.”

The two sentences at the beginning of this post include the words “the rich” and “employees.” The three examples include the words “dating experts,” “salespeople” and “we.”

The reason you cannot effectively reproduce the model is that you don’t know who specifically is being talking about. Which rich person? Which employee? Which dating expert? Which salesperson? And is he part of the national team? The statement is vague.

In each case, that person probably has had one or many experiences with a rich person, employees, dating experts and so on, but has generalized that experience to include all members of the category.

Use Meta Model questions to increase the resolution

Your role is to tease out the specifics of the situation so you can accurately reproduce the model. To do that, ask Meta Model questions that elicit specificity while at the same time maintaining rapport.

  • “Which rich people are you referring to?”
  • “What employees are you thinking of when you say that?”
  • “What dating experts are you getting counsel from?”
  • “Which salespeople are manipulative?”
  • “Are you part of the national team?”

Your questions can serve one of two purposes. They can:

  1. draw out more precise and accurate information so you can better reproduce the model, or
  2. challenge your client on his model and force him to expand it.

The difference between the two is subtle and can often be communicated purely using your intonation. You’ll become more adept at using one or the other with practice.

In summary: tease out vague nouns

As a coach, always remember the #1 NLP Skill and be attentive to the nouns and pronouns your client uses. Do you really understand what she’s referring to? Or are the nouns vague and generalized?

The NLP Meta Model refers to this language pattern as “unspecified referential index.”

If the statements are too vague, be sure to elicit more specificity to make sure you are recreating her model of the world accurately. Do this by asking the right questions.

Kai Mott - September 24, 2012

Hello Martin! I really like your article! Great job!
I totally acquiesce with this statement: “If the statements are too vague, be sure to elicit more specificity to make sure you are recreating her model of the world accurately. Do this by asking the right questions.”

NLP is helpful in building rapport with our family, friends, and clients, isn’t it?

Looking forward to your blog!

    Martin Messier - September 24, 2012

    Hey Kai!

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about NLP being helpful in building rapport with our family, friends and clients.

    Let’s stay in touch.

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