Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

NLP Articles, News, and Tidbits about Psychotherapy and Personal Development

Steve Andreas Celebrity Roast at ANLP Conference

Many thanks to Brian Van der Horst, who spent a lot of time and effort organizing a “celebrity roast” in honor of Steve Andreas held May 19 at the annual ANLP conference at London Heathrow. A film of the Steve Andreas Acknowledgement Celebration is at:

The slide presentation in the film is at:

The individual videos that people sent for this event are in this folder:

The “Livre d’Or for the event contains contributions of others who sent Steve written salutations:

And finally, the presentation and overview of the forthcoming book about the Andreas’ contributions: “Fine Distinctions—The Life and Work of Steve and Connirae Andreas” is at:


Digital vs. analog change, part 2

This is a follow-on to a conversation about resolving forgiveness being digital, rather than analog, with Rob Voyle, a colleague who has specialized in teaching our method for reaching forgiveness. That conversation was a follow-on to two previous posts about scaling: “On a Scale of 1-10, How useful is Scaling” and “More About Scaling.”

Rob sent me an extensive email, and I responded. After sending it, I thought that it might make an interesting blog post. Rob and I reviewed it to be sure it would be clear to a reader, and this dialogue is the result. The kind of detailed comments Rob offers are nice stimuli for me to respond to and learn from, because otherwise they might never come to the forefront of my attention.

Rob: I have been focusing on leading forgiveness workshops teaching clergy how to help someone forgive, and also doing forgiveness retreats where people can bring their resentment and leave without it. I have found the 0-10 scale helpful to track what is going on and what may still need to be resolved. When I ask people to think of someone they resent, they will often think of someone who evokes anger/resentment as the primary emotional response. But upon working with them I have discovered that they actually have several different emotional responses clustered together which they call resentment.

Steve: Yes, sometimes there will be a mixture of feeling responses, and then you need to sort them out, ideally ahead of time. For instance, “You still resent this person; do you have any other responses that are mixed in with that? For instance, some people are disappointed, others have regret about lost opportunities, or grief about the lost relationship, etc.” Once sorted out, each one will need a different method for resolution, and once resolved, my experience is that each one will be digital, so there is no need for the analog SUDs scale.

Rob: I think using an analog SUDs scale is misleading. The change in response is not gradual but in significant discrete blocks. For example, after completing the forgiveness process most will have a very digital response and the level will be 0. A significant number (probably about 1 in 10) will often have a 9 to 3 reduction. However the remaining 3 points of distress are not actually due to resentment, they are usually grief. They still miss the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a desired future because of what the other person had done. On one occasion the remaining distress was residual trauma that needed resolving.

Steve: Yes, exactly. Each response will resolve digitally, so an overall SUDs scale will be misleading

Rob: On the other hand, several have reported a reduction to 3 or 4, they are often unsure about the level and it appears volatile, in that it could easily go back up to a 6 as they think about the situation. In this situation there has not been a digital response. This type of response I have found to indicate that there is an objection to forgiving, or the “relocation” of the image has been unsustainable.

Steve: Definitely find all objections, ideally before mapping across.

If “the ‘relocation’ of the image has been unsustainable,” I always assume that indicates an objection, and typically there are a LOT of objections to forgiving. The other possibility is that the “target” experience of resolution isn’t quite the right one. There is a nice example of this in a previous post about resolving hate.

Rob: One of the most striking examples of an objection was with a man with whom I had done all the steps, satisfied all objections and still had a widely fluctuating level of resentment. Almost as an afterthought, when I was ready to give up an admit failure, I asked him if there was something to learn from the experience. “If he was to encounter a similar situation in the future what would he do differently?” He paused, considered the possibility and said, ‘Yes.’ He allowed the experience to teach him what to do differently and then future-paced that learning. He then turned and very dramatically said, “It is gone.” I was amazed at how his unconscious mind would not let him waste the potential for learning.

Steve: That is a lovely description of the basic task of all change work (including the forgiveness process): to learn from the past and apply it to the future, so that the new response is resourceful and automatic.

Rob: What I found was that many participants had very little clarity about what they were actually experiencing when I would ask them to think of a person that they resent. Some would be angry, others hurt, others afraid they would encounter the person again and be hurt again. Many would confuse hurt and anger and many would be angry that they would encounter the person again tomorrow at work, or in a family situation.

Steve: Yes, the positive function of anger is always to protect against a repetition of the harm that was done. Clients will only be willing to “let go” of the anger when they have a more resourceful response.

Rob: Very few were aware of grief but after resolving resentment they would still have a lower intensity negative emotion, which upon inquiry was grief. They were recognizing a relationship was over and missing the possibility of the good things that had been in the relationship.

On reflection, to be truly accurate, I should say to the client, “As you think of this person and what happened, on a 0-10 scale what is your current level of distress.” And then track the distress as being made up of discrete experiences of resentment, grief, and or trauma.

I tried this in the most recent training. I invited people to rank the overall intensity of distress, (using a general term for their negative emotional experience) on a 0-10 scale and then invite them to break it into how much was anger, how much hurt, or how much was grief. I didn’t really find it helpful and took up too much time in a group setting trying to get specific.

Steve: “Distress” is a very general term that could apply to many different kinds of unpleasantness, so using that word is an invitation to mix different things together. I think it’s better to be specific, after using the forgiveness process. “Do you feel any anger or resentment now?” Assuming a “No” response, then ask, “Do you have any other unresolved feelings or concerns?” and if so, find out what they are. And it’s even better to do this at the beginning if you can.

Rob: On reflection I think my best strategy is to begin with the resentment, especially since that is what was advertised and has drawn people to the retreat or training. As I mentioned, very few are initially aware of grief and only discover it after a layer of anger was resolved.

Steve: Good point, especially in that context.

Rob: Here are several other things that I have found important to be aware of. Often I have found that people will have at least two different resource locations. People I have forgiven and now trust, and people I

have forgiven and still don’t trust because they are essentially untrustworthy.

Steve: Yes, absolutely. You need to keep forgiveness separate from “trust” or anything else the client has combined with forgiveness. Again see my previous post on resolving hate for an example of this.

Rob: Some people aren’t initially aware of that distinction and will put the “untrustworthy” image, in the trustworthy location. Clarifying these objections and finding the appropriate resource location will usually result in a profound digital response and the level will result in a highly sustainable 0 level of distress.

Steve: Yes, I agree.

Rob: Probably a third of the people in my classes also have the added problem that the person they are forgiving is someone that they will continue to encounter such as work mate/boss/family member and will most likely continue in their hurtful ways. Developing and future-pacing additional resourceful responses toward the forgiven but untrustworthy person is crucial.

Steve: Sure. And often they need more than just an emotional state resource. They may need very specific behavioral choices to protect themselves in the ongoing relationship.

Rob: Making the distinction between forgiveness (how I deal with my past) and reconciliation (an agreement between people about how they will be together in the future.)

Steve: “Agreement” requires the cooperation of the other person, which is an ill-formed outcome because it’s not under the client’s control, and may not be achievable. Best to teach them skills and behaviors that don’t require agreement.

Rob: This is a very important distinction, especially for church people who radically confuse the two and naively assume forgiveness means I have to trust everyone.

Steve: Again, it’s crucial to separate forgiveness from trust, or any other belief that is mixed together with it.

Rob: Reconciliation is a huge value in church settings and from my experience in these settings, it needs to be clearly distinguished from forgiveness. Giving people the freedom to forgive and not to be reconciled is extremely important. I have created Rob’s Rule of Reconciliation: “Never be reconciled to someone who does not share your values.” I make the point that while Jesus forgave the Romans as they were pounding nails in his hands he was never reconciled to the mission of Rome. It is amazing how that one point can be a freeing revelation to people.

Steve: I think that “reconciliation” is a word that has many such troubling connotations. I don’t use it, and I suggest avoiding it altogether, unless the client uses it. If the client brings it up, ask them to tell you in detail what it means to them, to discover what they may be assuming.

Rob: I have used three different ways of responding to the grief response to rebuild their sense of the future. I have used the process of having them imagine the qualities of the person as glowing cards in their hands and casting them into the future.

Steve: I love that piece, developed by Robert McDonald, and clients usually love it too. It’s such a nice nonverbal invitation to unconscious processes to scan the future for new opportunities to have the old valued responses that were lost.

Rob: I have also had the person future-pace the specific value that was violated by inviting them to imagine them sharing that value with others they will encounter. This seemed more appropriate when the relationship itself did not seem to have much of value, but a significant value of the client’s had been violated.

Steve: That’s a more conscious-mind way of doing the same thing, as long as “sharing that value with others they will encounter” is sensory-based, and not just intellectual. There is still the drawback that the conscious mind’s selection of “others” will be narrower than the unconscious, so some valuable opportunities may be missed with that approach.

Rob: Depending on the context, in some workshops I do a preliminary exercise in which people remember a series of life-giving values as golden threads that weave through their life and out into their future. If people have that resource I will use it and it has been effective in resolving the grief. In all of these cases the resolution of grief has also been quite digital.

Steve: That’s basically fine. However “golden threads” may not fit for some people, for whom “guiding light” or “compass needle” or “cloud of knowing” would be a better fit. Whenever you offer content, offer at least 3 examples, followed by, “or whatever fits best for you” to give them the option of finding their own metaphor.

Rob: I have found the golden thread exercise to be helpful when resolving trauma. When dealing with trauma I have also found many people will have some “residual” distress, which also is a grief response (“I can’t have a life because of what was done to me”) rather than a trauma response. Again these are very discrete, digital responses and not analog.

Steve: Sure, “I can’t have a life because of what was done to me” has a digital “not” in it, and it is also a prediction about the future. My favorite initial response to that kind of belief is to lean forward expectantly and extend my hand, as I say, “Let me see your fortune-telling license.” That is usually a surprising interrupt that is useful in focusing their attention.

Or you can say, “OK, let’s test your fortune-telling ability. Predict what I’ll say two minutes from now, and write it down on paper; I’ll tell you when the two minutes are up, and we’ll compare what you have written with what I say.”

Or you can ask about several predictions they made in the past that didn’t happen, to build a database of failed predictions.

Rob: Running the golden threads through the person’s history including the distressing event and on out into the future has been highly effective in resolving this residual grief response.

Steve: Can you say more about that? It’s not entirely clear to me how that is useful, and I’d rather not hallucinate.

Rob: In the golden threads of life exercise I invite a person to think of things that they deeply value, especially the timeless and not the temporal experience. For example a specific person is a temporal experience of the timeless quality of friend. I find that distinction helpful when doing Robert McDonald’s exercise of casting glowing cards out into the future. We don’t want to imagine a very specific future with a six foot tall, blond hair, blue-eyed (or other temporal quality) person, but with the qualities of kindness, sense of humor, strength of personality.

Steve: Yes, absolutely.

Rob: So we can take the quality of friendship and imagine it as a golden thread, and watch it go back through time connecting other friends they have had and going back out into the past before they were born, and then out into the future. I repeat the process with other things that they value in their life. Some have woven a band of gold threads in their mind, others a rope or cord. I imagine beams of light would also work.

Steve: That all sounds useful, basically a substitution of golden threads for glowing cards. Threads or cords will help build a sense of continuity, which will be particularly useful for a client who experiences their life as fragmented, broken up into unrelated chunks.

Rob: When people have experienced hurt in the past that wouldn’t qualify as PTSD but is still experienced as a hurt, I’ll invite the person to transform the submodalities of the visual representation of that “hurt” experience to the submodalities of other neutral emotional experiences of that time in their life. I have found trauma pictures are often “fuzzy” or “blurred,” as though the person doesn’t want to see what happened. When resolved they spontaneously become clear. The person is able to see clearly what happened without having a painful emotional response to what happened.

Steve: Yes, that is typical—and very useful when a traumatized person needs to testify to the details of events in court.

Rob: Then from the present moment in time I invite them to look back as they watch the movie of their entire life, with the painful experience in its correct place in their timeline up to the present moment. This will result in a significant change in response.

However, there will be some people who will have a significant amount of hurt remaining. I invite them to then see the golden thread going back through their past, through the event that used to be painful, and back to before they were born. I then reverse their awareness and as it comes back through time and they see it passing through the time that used to be painful they can see it possibly getting frayed, and they can be aware that it was never completely severed and then to watch as they go through their present and out into the future.

Steve: Thanks for all the clarifications. That is basically a way to put the difficult experience in a much larger time context, seen from the perspective of the present. That will tend to minimize the difficult experience, so it’s generally a very useful intervention that will often result in a digital shift.

Rob: Usually I will have used a 0-10 scale of their hurt prior to the exercise. Changing submodalities of the painful event will result in a change in response of say 8 to 3. The golden thread will invariably resolve the final 3 points. From our discussion I see these as digital and not analog, they are discrete steps rather than a gradual reduction in the person’s pain. While the exercise may be reinforcing the dissociation from the painful event, I think it is actually resolving grief by restoring hope of a future life worth living.

Steve: I think that is a nice distinction.

Rob: This past Lent several of the clergy I have taught have run forgiveness programs in their congregations. The best story was of one of a priest’s parishioners going through the process and then went to her work and did it successfully with several of her co-workers.

Steve: Great! Feedback doesn’t get any better than that!

Rob: Once again I am deeply grateful to you for your work and insight.

Steve: Thank you for your diligence in making good use of the method. 

Rob can be reached at: robvoyle(at) or

Terry Real Case Report Commentary

In the May/June 2016 issue of the Psychotherapy Networker, Marian Sandmaier asks several therapists:

“What’s Your Most Memorable Therapeutic Moment?:
Six Master Clinicians Share Their Reflections”

In his piece, “The Found and the Lost,” Terry Real describes his work with a couple in difficulties. In the following excerpt, he recounts a tragic event during his ongoing work with them:

Driving her daughter Carrie home from a friend’s house, it was Sylvie’s goodness that compelled her out of her car one snowy New England night to help another car that had skidded on an icy curve and got stuck on the shoulder of the road, caught in a snow bank. That’s when a second car skidded in exactly the same spot, careening into the first car, and then careening into Sylvie and Carrie. Sylvie had multiple fractures in an arm and both of her legs. Carrie died within minutes.

When her husband Ben called me the next morning, he was weeping, grief-stricken for the loss of his daughter. But he was also worried sick about Sylvie. She was in the hospital on a high dose of morphine, and “between the drugs and the shock, she’s pretty much out of her mind,” he said. “She keeps waking up and asking for Carrie: ‘Where is she? Where is she?’”

And no matter how many times Ben tried to tell her, and no matter how he put it, she would not let in that her daughter was gone. “She turns her head, changes the subject, acts like I haven’t even spoken,” Ben said. “You’ve got to help,” he said urgently. “She’ll listen to you. She always listens to you.”

When I walked into Sylvie’s hospital room, the profusion of flowers and gifts had the opposite effect of cheering me. It looked like a funeral home. While I’d tried to prepare myself, the sight of her was shocking—tubes everywhere, both legs and one arm in traction, her face swollen almost beyond recognition. I sat next to Ben and took her good hand. “Sylvie,” I said, “Something terrible has happened.” She closed her eyes. We went round and round for 5 minutes, 10 minutes. I felt cruel, sadistic.

At one point, Sylvie looked at me, really looked at me. Her eyes grew wide. Then she swung her head away from us and sobbed, letting out raw, heart-wrenching sounds.”

After many minutes, she turned to Ben. “Go home and get Carrie’s old fisherman’s sweater.” Her voice was trembling, urgent. “It’s in her bottom drawer.” Then she turned to me. “You’ve got to make sure she gets it,” she told me. “She’ll need it. She’s cold. She’s dead.”

Carrie was buried in that sweater three days later. It seemed like half the town had come out. Friends and family squeezed into every church pew, a sea of kids spilling out the steps and into the street. I sat close to the family—Sylvie propped up in a portable hospital bed, Ben standing next to her, holding her hand, straight and stiff in his handsome new suit.

Over the next several months, I went to their home as often as I could. About three months into it, Ben pulled me aside and confessed that since the accident—and unbeknownst to Sylvie—he’d been keeping a blog. He’d been pouring his anguish out into the internet, garnering thousands of followers from all over the world. I read the posts; they were shattering. Later on, I asked his permission to excerpt an early entry, entitled “Holding My Breath.”

People ask me if I miss her. Actually I don’t, not yet anyway. Maybe I’m in shock or some kind of denial, but I actually feel close to her. I feel her in the air, the sky. She’s with me now as I write. What I miss isn’t her, but us, the two of us together. The back and forth, teasing—what she called, “talking smack.”

Everything froze the minute they told me. My heart stopped, my world stopped. Since then, I’ve hovered somewhere between here and god knows where. I’m the ghost. I don’t think I’ve taken a full breath since. I don’t really want to. If the whole thing started up again—if I begin to live again—it would mean that the world will go on without her, and that’s just not thinkable. I can’t imagine accepting that. There can be no world without her in it, laughing and alive.

Ben told me he was keeping his blog secret from Sylvie because he was afraid it would hurt her too much. But shortly after our meeting, a friend spilled the beans to her. She went right to her laptop and read every entry. “It was amazing,” she told me at our next visit. “Here was my poet’s heart—the man I loved. I fell for him all over again.” She took his hand. “It’s not just the blog,” she explained. “It’s Ben. The way he’s showing up for his own feelings. And the way he’s showing up for mine.”

Ben squeezed his wife’s hand. “We’re holding each other up, best we can,” he said. He was looking at her, not me. “We’re in this together.”

About six months after the accident, we sat together, each of us locked into what felt a heavy, interminable silence. Three people breathing, each of us thinking what Sylvie finally spoke out loud. “I lost my daughter,” she said, “and found my husband.”

You hear that the greatest single predictor of divorce is the death of a child. You hear that no force on earth is more capable of ripping apart a loving union.

But not always.

Steve Andreas comments:

Is this a dramatic, heart-rending and touching account? Absolutely!

Is it a “Most Memorable Therapeutic Moment?” No.

If that statement seems surprising to you, pause to review Terry’s account, and consider why I would say that. . . .

Firstly, though it’s not explicit, the “therapeutic moment” apparently refers to Sylvie’s reading Ben’s blog entries, and being deeply touched by them. However, it was a friend who “spilled the beans to her,” (not Terry, despite the fact that Terry had earlier knowledge of the blog). Ben’s blogging healed the gulf between this couple, without any therapeutic intervention by Terry, so it wasn’t a “therapeutic moment,” no matter how wonderful the result.

Secondly, Terry made a gigantic blunder when he insisted that Sylvie realize that her daughter was dead, and he shows not the slightest recognition of this mistake. Sylvie had already made it abundantly clear, both verbally and nonverbally, that she didn’t want to know that her daughter was dead. “She turns her head, changes the subject, acts like I haven’t even spoken,” These facts alone should have been sufficient reason for respecting her wish. But apparently driven by some idea that Sylvie should “face reality,” Terry continues to confront her, until she finally gives in. “Sylvie,” I said, “Something terrible has happened.” She closed her eyes. We went round and round for 5 minutes, 10 minutes. I felt cruel, sadistic. At one point, Sylvie looked at me, really looked at me. Her eyes grew wide. Then she swung her head away from us and sobbed, letting out raw, heart-wrenching sounds.”

In addition to Sylvie’s clearly expressed desires, there are plenty of objective reasons for waiting until later for her to “face reality.” With Sylvie “in the hospital on a high dose of morphine, and between the drugs and the shock, she’s pretty much out of her mind,” clearly she’s in a severely diminished mental state, not able to think clearly, or process the news of her daughter’s death well. With “tubes everywhere, both legs and one arm in traction, her face swollen almost beyond recognition,” she has quite enough to contend with already, without the added mental and physical stress of accepting her daughter’s death. “Then she swung her head away from us and sobbed, letting out raw, heart-wrenching sounds.”

So what would I have done in response to her urgent asking for Carrie, “Where is she? Where is she?” while at the same time honoring her need not to know? Utterly simple. A soft, “Carrie can’t be with us” is truthful, and to the point. Then I’d quickly follow with questions designed to elicit fond memories, which will give Sylvie an experience of Carrie’s presence, which is what she wants and needs. “What’s one of the things you most enjoy about Carrie? Is it her humor, her honesty, the way she walks in the door after school? The way she tilts her head? What’s special about her?” If Sylvie returned to her urgent question, Where is she?” I’d simply repeat, “Carrie can’t be with us,” and again immediately follow with additional questions, “What subjects in school does Carrie enjoy most? Can you think of a recent special memory? Did she ever have a crush on one of her teachers?” continuing as long as necessary until Sylvie relaxes into a pleasant memory, so that she can concentrate on the immediate task, recovering from her injuries.

Eventually, of course, Sylvie will need to be told that Carrie is dead—or she may come to that realization on her own. Depending on Sylvie’s condition and readiness, and other circumstances such as the scheduling of the funeral, this could be as little as a few hours, or as much as a few days.

Later Terry reports, “Ben squeezed his wife’s hand. ‘We’re holding each other up, best we can,’ he said. He was looking at her, not me. ‘We’re in this together.’ About six months after the accident, we sat together, each of us locked into what felt a heavy, interminable silence.”

This is a pretty good indication that they are both still grieving, and could benefit greatly from experiencing the NLP grief process, which could have resolved their grief in a session or two, saving them six months of therapy. However, since most mainstream therapists aren’t trained in this method, that’s too much to expect.

I have listened to a number of Terry’s webinars, and found them far more useful than most, particularly when he demonstrates what he would actually say to a client in a particular circumstance. I have also read his book, The New Rules of Marriage, and found it useful in the same way — though I think “guidelines,” “tips,” or some other gentler word would have been better than “rules,” which inevitably sets up a rigid “should” to be followed. Perhaps the publisher “overruled” Terry on the title.

I sent the post above to Terry, inviting him to respond. Here is his reply:

I am delighted with Steve Andreas’ serious consideration of my work and I welcome him as a colleague. I must say, though, that moments taken out of context can be a bit misleading. 

Had he been present, Steve would have witnessed the repeated torment of Sylvie waking from stupor, frantically insisting on knowing the whereabouts of her child, being told her child had been killed, howling, slipping back into torpor, only to have the same cycle repeat every 20-30 minutes. A Groundhog Day in hell. 

Of course the husband and medical staff had tried a softer approach: as in, “She can’t be with us now,” followed by attempting to distract. Sylvie was having none of it. She wanted her daughter and she wanted her now. Vagueness, distraction, or superficial bromides were useless. The husband asked me to do what I could to end this repeated torment and I did what I could.

Sylvie wasn’t happy after the news got through to her, but she did begin to find peace. 

I would not infer that the heavy silence that fell on this family six months after the death of the daughter indicated anything other than normal grief, which I’d be in no rush to take from them. It is a sacred part of the relationship to their daughter that remains, and in my mind, utterly appropriate. 

Steve Andreas responds:

Terry is quite right that I wasn’t present; I had only Terry’s written account to go on. There was no mention in that original account that the “. . . medical staff had tried a softer approach: as in, ‘She can’t be with us now,’ followed by attempting to distract.” And I’m sure that “Vagueness, distraction, or superficial bromides were useless.” Although my suggested response could also be described as a “distraction,” it was very specifically designed to elicit in Sylvie a felt sense of her daughter’s presence, which is what Sylvie wanted and needed.

Of course my suggested intervention might not have succeeded, even if sustained. However, even though the medical staff may have started with “a softer approach,” apparently they quickly defaulted to direct confrontation. “. . . Sylvie waking from stupor, frantically insisting on knowing the whereabouts of her child, being told her child had been killed, howling, slipping back into torpor.” With that unfortunate background, it would have been very difficult for Terry to shift direction and do something more useful.

Finally, many people share the view expressed in Terry’s closing paragraph on what appropriate grief is, and that “grief work” is a lengthy process of “saying goodbye.” If they could witness the transformation from tears of loss to tears of joy that results from reunion with the lost experience based on the opposite principle of “saying hello,” they might change their minds — but that is another discussion.

I sent all the above to Terry, in case he wanted like to add anything further, and have the last word. He replied, “It’s fine, thanks.”

Andreas/Hall Dialogue: Responses to Comments

Steve Andreas writes:

My previous blog post contained a statement by myself, presenting exercises eliciting several very different experiences that could be described using the word “Meta,” stating that we need to be more specific about which of these experiences we refer to, and concluding that since the word “Meta” is so ambiguous, it would be better to abandon using “Meta” altogether. This was followed by a response from Michael Hall, who is the foremost proponent of using “Meta” as a way of understanding and changing experience.

There were eight comments in response to this post, which are reproduced below (in brown) for convenient reference.

Comments 1-3 are mostly thanks to both of us for the respectful discussion format we used, and encouraging others to discuss other topics in a similar way. Comments 4, 6 and 8 also urged us to continue the dialogue.

Comments 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all agree with the distinctions I made between very different kinds of “Meta,” the resulting ambiguity, my proposal to abandon the word “Meta” in favor of more specific experiential descriptions of subjective experience, and that this would avoid ambiguity and increase precision in our instructions, and our ability to predict the results of using a given intervention:

(From comment 6) (paragraph below in brown)
“These distinctions could improve the effectiveness of the whole “Meta State” approach by identifying which of the six (or more) possibilities the “Meta State” question was intended to create and what was actually created.”

(From comment 7) (paragraph below in brown)
“So I find Steve’s suggestion to be more specific a useful one, for it brings the discussion to a more practical ground, i.e. the relevance of “meta” for change and how to more effectively lead a client.”

(From comment 8) (paragraph below in brown)
“When you tell a client to do X, their intuitions about what that means and how to carry it out inform what they actually do. If they do something else that doesn’t work, or if they don’t know HOW to do what you asked in a useful way, no amount of trying harder will get the job done. This is where very specific instructions about EXACTLY what to do and how to do it really shine.”

  1. Bruce Grimley


What a respectful and educational format. I hope NLP as a group learn from this and adopt it when discussing differences in the future. Thank you, Steve and Michael, for your discussion and with best wishes, :-)

  1. Viktoria Ter-Nikoghosyan


Thank you Steve for posting this exchange of opinions! I learned a lot! Steve’s specific examples always teach me new ways of using my NLP knowledge skills. So, grateful!

  1. Marco Fida


Thank you for posting this very interesting discussion, and thank you both for offering your positions.
I find the proposed discussion format both respectful and useful.

For a next time, I also think that organizing the discussion along answers to agreed points or questions would facilitate to compare the positions.

I also appreciate Steve’s proposal of replacing the somewhat ambiguous instruction to “go meta” with a more specific description of the experience we want to elicit. I believe this will both enrich the NLP model and facilitate to guide our clients.

  1. Kelly Gerling


That appears to be round one. 

Steve, are you going to respond, to start another iteration of the discussion??

  1. Will Murray


If I had to translate this into simple English, would I be close if I said “‘meta’ may mean many different things?” And in NLP, which relies on accurate and specific meaning appropriate to the context, making the distinction about what “meta” means in the specific context would be important.


Steve Andreas writes:

Comment 6 below offers examples of additional uses of the word “Meta” giving further support for my assertion that the word is nonspecific and ambiguous, and potentially misleading. Some of these examples overlap with the examples I presented. For instance, 3. Above, is one of many possible changes in point of view, and the examples in 5. Reflexive / Evaluate Evaluations, and 6. Organise are all descriptions or categorizations of experience at a more abstract logical level.


  1. John McWhirter


Thank you both.

I wrote this as part of an Article on Re-Modelling NLP in 2003. It is a description of six different things that are described as being “Meta.”

Summary of types of Meta

Development of Type of use of ’META’
Examples related to NLP
1. After:
Original use: Not in official use in NLP:
It could be used for identify as use of conjunction and sequence
e.g. “You are feeling anxious and now can beginning to relax”.
Some types of ‘Meta States’

2. Beyond Another older usage: Not in official use:
It could be used for things like non-sequitor e .g. “You are getting angry at him and you have to get the food ready for the children tonight”.
Some types of ‘Meta States’

3. Above “Go Meta”

“ Now float up and look down and see how you and your wife are relating”.
Some types of ‘Meta States’

4. Contain Models that contain other models or parts of models.

“NLP Meta Model”
“NLP Milton Model”
Some types of ’Meta Theories’
Some types of ‘Meta States’ e.g.

5. Reflexive / Evaluate Evaluations require changing perceptual position to complete them (See article 13)

Work of Satir leading to Meta States e.g. “What do you feel about feeling that?”
Also potentially useful are:
“What do you think about feeling that?”
“What do you want to do about feeling that?”
“What do you feel about thinking that?”
“What do you think about thinking that?”
“What do you want to do about thinking that?”
“What do you feel about doing that?”
“What do you think about doing that?”
“What do you want to do about doing that?”

6. Organise
“Meta Programmes: organise sensory and language ‘programmes’”
“Batesonian Meta Learning and Meta Theories”
Some ‘Meta’ States, e.g. depression, joyfulness
The DBM® Levels of Modelling NLP (See Article 1)

One of the benefits of modelling is to identify the different ways that both the speaker and listener in any communication use words. For example Virginia Satir’s reflexive question could elicit all six of the uses of ‘meta’ (and probably more). These distinctions could improve the effectiveness of the whole “Meta State” approach by identifying which of the six (or more) possibilities the “Meta State” question was intended to create and what was actually created.


  1. Marco Fida


It seems to me that it is now clear that “meta” can mean refer to several experiences, the point would be to agree on what might be the conventionally agreed meaning and use of it as a distinction within the NLP model.

In my understanding, “meta” has been mainly used to indicate a state from which one can reflect upon or consider his own perspective on things (present state, desired state, resources etc.) in a less involved or objective way. Because of the spatialization of timeline, it was referred to as a “meta-position.”        

Because “meta-cognition” (thinking about thinking) can apply to any content or thought, it can refer to many specific experiences, such as Satir’s “How do you feel about feeling that way?”, V/K dissociation, observer position, etc.

In other words, in all these cases what counts, or what makes change possible, is how I relate to what I am experiencing, i.e. the process vs. content difference.

So I find Steve’s suggestion to be more specific a useful one, for it brings the discussion to a more practical ground, i.e. the relevance of “meta” for change and how to more effectively lead a client.

Finally, it seems to me that while submodalities in themselves can be usefully described as subdivisions within the sensory modalities, the ability to voluntarily change them seems to me to require to “dis-identify” from one’s own thoughts and “objectify” them (meta-cognition) in order to choose a more useful way of thinking.


  1. Joy Livingwell


Interesting discussion and comments!

Artful vagueness and sensory specificity both have their place. What are you trying to accomplish? How are you trying to accomplish it?

Change work relies on the client’s intuitions. When you tell a client to do X, their intuitions about what that means and how to carry it out inform what they actually do. If they do something else that doesn’t work, or if they don’t know HOW to do what you asked in a useful way, no amount of trying harder will get the job done.

This is where very specific instructions about EXACTLY what to do and how to do it really shine. If a client’s intuitions are similar enough to those of a technique’s developer, you don’t need detailed instructions; just give general ones and the client will follow them successfully. When the client’s intuitions differ a lot from those of the technique’s developer, and from yours, exact instructions help a lot, as do instructions about what to do with various client presentations, and this is something Steve excels at.

Other times artful vagueness is just what you need to keep the client from getting bogged down in or distracted by irrelevant details. IMO Michael is particularly good at artful generalizations and large-chunk, big-picture thinking and instructions. My experience is that his instructions as given work well for a lot of people, but not everybody. YMMV.

What interests me most here is the contrast in how two great minds generate intuitions, inferences, and generalizations; what they pay attention to; and what results. Such differences can make understanding and communication difficult. They can also be highly useful, pointing to things that one person alone would not have created, and generating useful synergies. I hope the NLP field will see far more of this sort of discussion and synergy in the near future.


Steve Andreas writes:

Finally, I received another comment from a colleague privately, which I think points out additional aspects of our dialogue.

“In reading your description of Meta, I felt no need to ask meta-model questions, you answered them all. You gave sufficient examples of each category so that I could generate other lateral chunks. It was well thought out and organized. Michael’s descriptions were so vague that even if I thought I knew what he meant, which occasionally I thought I did, I was not so sure. I had a hard time getting through it. The quotes seemed random and not connected. Did he know what he meant but did not sufficiently chunk down for it to be correctly understood? I am mind-reading that you are not at all surprised by his lack of specificity.”

As Michael and I exchanged earlier drafts of my article and his response, I repeatedly asked him to be more specific and experiential, and to respond to the distinctions I made, but he continued to respond with abstractions and quotations from pioneers such as Korzybski and Bateson. Eventually, I decided to post his final draft without any further comments that might prejudice the reader.

However, now I want to point out several (“Meta”) aspects of our exchange that I think are useful and important:

1. I presented exercises that elicited specific subjective experiences, while Michael’s responses are almost entirely linguistic abstractions that don’t clearly specify subjective experiences.

2. Accordingly our “dialogue” might better be described as a pair of monologues, since Hall didn’t respond directly to any of the distinctions and conclusions that I offered. This is an example of the informal fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, “missing the point” identified by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. It can be summarized as, “If you don’t have a good response to an argument, talk about something else.”

3. A large part of Hall’s response consists of quotations from Korzybski and Bateson. A pithy quotation can be an effective way of presenting a point, particularly if both parties in a discussion have agreed that the person quoted is an appropriate authority. I respect the efforts of the pioneers who first explored the land of “Meta” with the limited conceptual and experiential tools at their disposal. However, we have learned a great deal since their early stumbling efforts to adequately describe that landscape. The use of many quotes is another informal fallacy known as “argument from authority,” also identified by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. This can be summarized as, “It’s true because a lot of authorities said it is.”

4. Lastly, I’d like to point out that all the different comments that readers made about our dialogue are “Meta” comments, and all my different responses to them (including this self-referential sentence) are also “Meta” comments. Assuming that Michael chooses to respond, his comments will also all be “Meta.” To lump all those different detailed responses into the general category “Meta” (as I have just done) gains nothing, and loses all the distinctions, arguments and conclusions that any of us made. That is one of the inevitable results of using highly abstract general categories like “Meta.”


Additional Comments on the Use of the term “meta”

Feb. 25, 2018

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

The Greek term “meta” has to do for lots of references. Like any multi-ordinal term (see Korzybski, or the Extended Meta-Model in Communication Magic or in Magic De-Mystified), the word means different things when used at different logical levels.

It would be great if we could reduce it to 6 distinctions and limit it to only 6. In that, I can sympathize with Steve’s desire. If only it was that simple! But sometimes such reductionism does not serve us well.

The simplest use of “meta” is a reflection— thinking about what you just experienced. This is the use of “meta” in early NLP History. We had meta-positions, meta-comment, meta-tactics, meta-comments, and on and on.

Things get more complex when the system under consideration operates systemically and not merely linearly. With reflexivity, you can track the meta move to the next higher logical level easily (well, if you are trained, fairly easily) a level or two. This gives the basic and most simple meta-states like joyful learning (joy about learning), respectful anger (respect about the person with whom you are angry), etc. The gestalt that occurs when you have two or more meta-levels interacting simultaneously creates a new level of complexity. The gestalt — the experience that becomes more than and different from the sum of the parts” — now cannot be explained linearly by reductionism.

Now the states (of thinking, feeling, somatizing, etc.) merge and mix so that the resultant state (as a gestalt experience) arises as a meta-stating of multiple variables. Now we have new resultant states like courage, seeing opportunity, magnanimity, forgiveness, etc. that cannot be explained by reducing things to their parts. When I describe this very specifically, Steve calls it vague. Well, yes it is “vague” if you are searching for the answer in a reductionistic way. It is not vague if you are thinking systemically. (For more about this, see my book, Systemic Coaching, 2012).

In chemistry (Steve will love this) when you bring sodium and chlorine together, the two poisons do not create a super-poison, but table salt. Something more than the sum of the parts, something different from the sum of the parts. You can’t explain table salt in terms of the parts. Now you have to think systemically.

The recursiveness that occurs when you reflect back upon your state repeatedly layers multiple layers, but it is not a hierarchy. In systems language, it is a holarchy. This is what Robert Dilts and I have been focusing on and emphasizing for years. I think John McWhirter has moved in that direction as well.

By going meta to your experiencing and layering awareness, beliefs, values, memories, imaginations, permissions, prohibitions, and many, many other meta-level frames (I have over 100 in the book, Neuro-Semantics, 2012), a rich system of recursiveness occurs and because it is all going on simultaneously (or nearly so), this generates new and higher and more complex “states.” Hence, that is what the Meta-States Model models— the self-reflexive consciousness of we humans. I have detailed that in Meta-States (2007).



Since Michael suggested that Robert Dilts and John McWhirter might support his position, I sent them the exchange above and invited them to contribute. Dilts didn’t respond, but McWhirter did.


John McWhirter responded:

A few further reflections on the “Meta” conversation. I want to add a few points which will hopefully clarify a few common confusions around “meta,” “levels,” “recursion,” and reductionism in general.

1. It is not reductionist to “specify” and enrich our understanding. It is reductionist to take six (or more) different processes and reduce them all to one vague “Meta.” If we don’t know that there are six (or more) different ways to respond, how can we decide which is most useful and make sure that the client responds usefully?

2. My original appreciation of feeling about feeling was from the work of Virginia Satir 35 years ago, where she would change the “feeling” until she got one that she wanted to work with. I also recognized that this could also be used negatively to move away from a feeling or to avoid exploring how a specific feeling was being producing. While it can be useful to move away from a feeling and go to a different one, to a “bigger” encompassing feeling, or a higher organized feeling, it is not universally useful. Indeed 40 years ago I enjoyed greatly the Gestalt Therapy awareness exercises that directed attention “down” from the language of feeling to the feeling of the feeling (I still recommend Steve’s book “Awareness” [John O. Stevens] and was pleased to read Robert Dilts praising it in a recent posting).

3. Linear progression vs recursion: This is another common confusion, that when something is repeated that this is recursive, for example, “How do you feel about feeling this?” it is only a repetition. Recursion necessitates the inclusion of the new product back into the previous one. I played with this many years ago and found that it was useful for developing specific reactions, understandings, and feelings. Instead of progressing in the Satir way of repeating, recursion can be used to stay with the original feeling and develop it. For example, Client feeling angry,
T: “How do you feel about feeling angry?”
C: “Disappointed!”
T: “Now this feeling angry, how does it feel knowing that you will feel disappointed?”
And so on doing the same to develop through recursion rather than moving away or “up.”

4. In the example of Sodium, Chlorine, and Salt: The difficulty in predicting runs both ways, not just from the joining but also from the separating. Equally there is no new need for systems thinking, there is the same benefit from systems thinking in both examples. We benefit from making more precise distinctions at all sizes, within each size and between sizes.  I could have used “levels” here instead of “sizes” but it is not the accurate label. There are no levels operating here. The overuse of levels when describing different sized structures is another common mistake, especially with the western cultural bias that “higher” is better. Instead of “sizes” I could have used “scope” which also covers other types of extended structures and functions, but I wanted to describe the specific one here.


Steve Andreas comments:

As before, Michael’s response is full of important-sounding abstract linguistic terms—“multi-ordinal,” “reductionism,” “systemically,” “reflexivity,” “gestalt experience,” “multiple variables,” “recursiveness,” “multiple layers,” “hierarchy,” “holarchy,” “more complex ‘states,’ ” “self-reflexive consciousness”—without a hint of what subjective (VAK) experience those terms might indicate. NLP is often described as “the study of the structure of subjective experience” (not “the study of the structure of linguistic terms”) Without subjective experience, there is no structure to study, nothing to go “Meta” to.

Knowledge in any field progresses in two interrelated ways:

  1. Accumulating specific detailed data/information through observation, experimentation, quantification, etc.
  2. Organizing the specific information available into abstract hypothetical/theoretical categories, relationships, cause-effects, etc.

Additional data often suggests new or revised ways to organize it, and organizing it often suggests new or revised ways to search for more specific data/information.

Data without organization is only an incomprehensible jungle of specific facts, and grand abstract theories are just as useless if they have no link to the real world of specific observations.

“Meta” is a very large abstraction that includes many different kinds of subjective experiences, three of which I described in my original statement, and John McWhirter’s comment identified several more. Using the same word for very different experiences creates ambiguity and confusion at best, and serious misunderstandings at worst. I’m going to focus on three paragraphs of Michael’s response, to show how easy it is to go astray with such a large and ambiguous generalization.



Michael wrote:

“In chemistry (Steve will love this) when you bring sodium and chlorine together, the two poisons do not create a super-poison, but table salt. Something more than the sum of the parts, something different from the sum of the parts. Now you have to think systemically.”


Steve writes:

I do love this example, because it nicely illustrates the limitations of large generalizations, and the importance of specific detail. Both sodium and chlorine are poisons because they are very chemically reactive, causing serious burns. The category “poison” is a large generalization based on their effects, which result from opposite and (equal) reasons. The reactivity of sodium results from the fact that its atoms have only one electron in its outer shell, which is loosely held and easily lost. The reactivity of chlorine results from the fact that its atoms have one missing electron in its outer shell, which strongly attracts an additional electron. As any high school chemistry student can tell you (I have a BS in Chemistry from Caltech) it’s “elementary” to predict that the poisonous effects of each are completely nullified when they react together to form table salt. You can “explain table salt in terms of the parts” quite easily.

The words “thinking systemically” may sound erudite, but it’s only “smoke and mirrors” that hide the ignorance of how chemicals react. Basic chemistry allows you to predict that sodium will react similarly with fluorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine, and that chlorine will react similarly with lithium, potassium, rubidium, cesium and francium. There will also be differences in their reactivity, and these are also predictable, given enough knowledge of atomic mass, isotopic composition, etc.

It’s very useful to recognize that whenever someone speaks of “emergent properties that couldn’t be predicted in advance,” that is only a statement about the speaker’s ignorance. When you understand anything in great detail, you can make all kinds of predictions, and that is also true in NLP. Thinking in vague abstract categories get vague and unpredictable results; detailed thinking gets specific and predictable results. That is why the core of the Meta-Model’s ability to reveal the structure of subjective experience is the word “specifically.” “Who specifically, how specifically, what specifically, when specifically, where specifically.” We need to apply the Meta-Model to the term “Meta” in order to know what kind of experience we’re talking about.



Michael wrote:

“By going meta to your experiencing and layering awareness, beliefs, values, memories, imaginations, permissions, prohibitions, and many, many other meta-level frames (I have over 100 in the book, Neuro-Semantics, 2012)”


Steve writes:

It’s not “reductionist” to continue to learn more and more about the underlying structure of how chemicals react, and it’s not reductionist to learn more and more about the different structures that underlie the generalization “Meta.”

Michael is apparently arguing that since he has “over 100 meta-level” frames, having only the three I proposed (or the six that McWhirter proposed) is reductionist. However, “awareness, beliefs, values, memories, imaginations, permissions, prohibitions,” etc., are all differences in content. No matter how useful those frames might be (like positive intention) the structure, “I X about Y,” is identical. The difference between content and process is a key distinction in NLP; that’s what allows us to quickly change any phobia, regardless of the content, because we know that the structure is the same.



Michael wrote:

“The recursiveness that occurs when you reflect back upon your state repeatedly layers multiple layers, but it is not a hierarchy. In systems language, it is a holarchy.”


Steve writes:

If I reflect on my own experience, that is indeed recursive, because it’s a categorization of my own experience, as in “I’m angry about feeling powerless,” because the subject and the object of the sentence are the same, creating self-reference. But if I reflect on someone else’s experience, as in “I’m angry about Fred’s passivity,” that is also a “Meta” statement, but it’s not recursive, because the subject and object are not the same. “Meta” “states” are not always recursive or reflexive as Michael seems to think.

“Layers multiple layers” is a metaphor that doesn’t specify what a “layer” (or “multiple layers”) is in subjective experience, or how it is represented (VAK). Does “layers” mean translucent images superimposed? If so, do you see one image through the other, or do the two images blend into each other to form a single image? Or something else?

Take a moment to notice the image that pops into your mind spontaneously when you read the word “surgeon”. . . and “butcher.” . . .      Now notice your image of the sentence, “The surgeon was a butcher,” . . . and compare that with your image of, “The butcher was a surgeon.” . . . The first sentence describes a person as a surgeon within the larger category butcher, while the second sentence does the reverse. The order of the nesting of categories makes a huge difference. Notice how it determines which context is preserved in the combined image, and what aspect of your image is amplified. These effects are not even hinted at by the metaphor “layer.”

Finally, a sequence of nested categories (of whatever length, and whether recursive or not) does create a hierarchy of logical level classification, which I described in my original statement as a third kind of “Meta.” (imaging “person,” “human,” “mammal,” “vertebrate,” etc.) A holarchy creates a very different kind of hierarchy of scope inclusion at the same logical level, which I described in my original statement as a second kind of “Meta” (seeing “leaves,” “branches.” “trees,” “forest,” etc.).

When someone describes a system as a holarchy, in which holons interact with each other in a non-linear way that is recursive or reflexive, that is a very abstract description that could apply to an organ, an organelle, an organism, an ecology of organisms, the components in an electronic amplifier, a solar system, or any number of other systems.

The universality of that general understanding is one of the key advantages of abstraction, but it also provides a false sense of understanding that is essentially meaningless unless you know the specific details of the particular system being described.

A further source of misunderstanding is when someone uses important-sounding words without really knowing what they actually mean. For instance, read the following words, notice your (VAK) understanding. . . .

Then check out the definitions of system, holarchy, non-linear, recursion, and reflexive, and compare your understanding with what you read. . . .

You probably did pretty well with “system,” because it is a common term used to describe familiar experiences (“nervous system,” “economic system,” etc.) But how accurate was your understanding of the other terms? And do you find it easy to apply those abstract terms usefully to the change work that you do with clients?

Yet another source of error in any large generalization is the omission of counterexamples. For instance, some interactions between holons in a holarchy are not non-linear, and many are not recursive or reflexive.

As an old saying goes, “The devil is in the details,”—but so are the angels!


This blog post was sent to Michael, offering him the opportunity to respond further. He replied, “My full training schedule, and other personal events, make it impossible for me to respond further at this time.” Any future response can become a further continuation of the dialogue.

What is the Experience of “Meta”?

What is the Experience of “Meta”?
A dialogue between Steve Andreas and Michael Hall

Some time ago, I (Steve) made the following general proposal to Michael for a dialogue to exemplify a respectful exchange of views in the field:

In the past, you and I have had significantly different fundamental understandings on a number of issues that could be the basis for a public dialogue between us, such as:

1. Whether or not it is important to distinguish between two uses of “meta” to refer to large scope (“the big picture”) or general category — a topic I explored at length in my Six Blind Elephants books.

2. My description of your concept of “layering” as the reverse of nested categories in the logical levels of naïve set theory, as set forth in Elephants, pp. 114-116

3. Whether Submodalities are meta or subdivisions of scopes of experience.

Of course you may have changed your views on one or more of these issues, or you might prefer to choose others. Assuming we could agree on an interesting issue on which we have differing views, I have some fairly specific ideas about how to create a respectful dialogue to avoid misunderstandings, side issues, etc.

Privately one of us would write up a position statement on the selected issue, and the other would respond to it in writing. Then we would each edit or revise our positions until we are both satisfied that we have had an opportunity to present our position fully, respond fully to the other’s position, and that we each understand the other clearly, to avoid problems like, “Well, that’s not what I said,” or “That’s what I said, but what I really meant was—” etc. This would also be an opportunity for each of us to notice any “ad hominem” arguments or other logical fallacies, and remove them.

After we are both satisfied with the result of this process, we would jointly offer this to the public (the summit group, your and my blogs) and invite comments from others.

I think this could serve as an example of working toward clarification or resolution of important issues that currently divide or confuse the field. Please let me know if you might be interested in joining with me on this, and/or if you have other views on how we could better accomplish the goal of presenting contrasting views in a way that could provide a productive dialogue.

Michael agreed in principle, and sent me a number of different extensive position statements on the meaning of “Meta,” and I take this as an invitation to focus on this topic. I prefer to begin with a more concise statement for our dialogue, but other writing projects (and my struggle with greatly diminished energy due to Parkinson’s disease) have delayed me until now.

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