Using the Metamodel to enhance your listening skills

12 Dec 2015 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

The Metamodel can be a useful tool for those training in listening skills

In essence, the Metamodel is a simple way of identifying what it might be useful to explore in relation to what the other person has said. It was formalised in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founders of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming).

Bandler and Grinder studied the techniques of famous therapists, such as Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, and came up with a formula for deciding what to explore next with the client, simply based on linguistics - generalised aspects of meaning and grammar. Novices sometimes find it useful to fall back on (or at least to know that they can fall back on it, if they get stuck).

Bandler and Grinder's insight is based on the fact that our issues tend to distort our perceptions and judgements in various ways, and that this can be spotted in the way we use language.

Missing possibilities

At the time this model was developed, Chomsky's Transformational Grammar was in vogue, and a great deal was made of linking it to that theory, but in practice the idea is really quite simple.

When we look at the grammar of a sentence, we can see that there is a certain structure (for example, Subject-Verb-Object as in "My boss bullies me"). If you know that certain sentence parts (such as the object of the verb) are possible, but missing, then it may be that the reason is that the person speaking is being vague, or omitting bits and pieces, either consciously or unconsciously, and this might be a sign that something is being overlooked.

    Client: my boss bullies a lot.

    Counsellor: Who does he bully?

As well as simple omissions such as missing a subject or object, the therapist can look for things like passive sentence structure ("I was shouted at"); missing out details like when, what, and where; and using high level concept-words like "communication", that abstract events from time and omit the participants:

    Client: I feel uncomfortable at work.

    Counsellor: So when, at work, do you feel uncomfortable?

    Client: I get criticised a lot

    Counsellor: Uh huh, and who is it that criticises you?

    Client: The problem with this family is that there's no communication.

    Counsellor: Right ... so who's failing to communicate with who?

Distortions and generalisations

The therapist can also look for certain general language patterns that suggest a distortion or a generalisation:

  • All or nothing thinking - where the client uses words like "always", "never".

      Client: Nobody ever helps me at work

      Counsellor: Nobody? Was there ever a time at work when someone did help?

  • Mind reading - where the client talks about what others think or feel.

      Client: They think I'm stupid.

      Counsellor: Do you have any evidence that they think that about you?

  • Possibility and obligation - using words like must, should, can't, can, will and won't.

      Client: I couldn't do that.

      Counsellor: What would happen if you did?

  • Cause and effect - assuming one thing must follow from another.

      Client: I couldn't see anything wrong with the way I did it. But there must have been, for him to reject it.

      Counsellor: Must there?

      Client: I know he doesn't like me because he frowns when he speaks to me.

      Counsellor: And can you think of any other reason why he might frown?

  • Presuppositions - building assumptions into what you say.

      Client: If my friends realised what a kind, caring guy he is, they wouldn't be so down on him.

      Counsellor: So what is it that you know about him that leads you to see him as kind and caring?

Of course this model in itself is not enough to enable you to work powerfully as a therapist, but as a novice it's a useful tool if you are unsure what to explore or where to focus next.

If in doubt, think about what the client has just said, not about what to say next.

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