NLP Practitioner

Meta-Model Distinctions – Generalisations

Written by Lee Avery

The Generalisations are an easy short-hand in conversations, if we did not generalise then every conversation would take 100 times longer than normal as we were specific over every point. Imagine a weather report where they had to be totally specific about each street – it would take forever! Generalisations are a useful part of communications however there is a tendency to over use them and apply them poorly. This often leads to confusion and a poor map of the world.

Universal Quantifiers

This is All or Nothing thinking and invariably use such words as ‘everyone’, ‘always’, ‘never’ etc. When we use this kind of language we are implying that there are no exceptions to the rule, that there is an absolute which doesn’t vary under any circumstance.

“Everyone hates me” – Everyone? I like you. Who likes/loves you? Anyone in particular?

“No-one cares if I finish my work” – What about your boss? No-one?

Challenging the Universal Quantifier can take one of three main approaches; Counter Example to point out where the universal rule breaks down; Detach and Challenge which puts complete focus on the generalisation and explodes it up to show the improbability of the statement; Amplify and Defend the statement, which will cause the statement to be questioned.

Counter Example

Because the Universal Quantifier is such a broad generalisation it is often quiet easy to spot a counter example which undermines the statement and breaks the generalisation. Although it is relatively easy this doesn’t mean that finding a single example will immediately solve the issue and very often it will take several different contrasting statements to fully break the statement.

Detach and Challenge

The Counter Example approach works by breaking the overall statement, with Detach and Challenge the focus moves directly to the individual Universal word in the statement and challenges the validity. Is it ‘Everyone’ or a specific subset? Is it ‘Always’ or is it at a particular time or during a clear-cut interaction.

This approach is by far the easiest to attempt and can often be the quickest way to identify what is really going on with the client.

Amplify and Defend

Caution – This technique can be difficult to pull off effectively and requires a good connection between the subject and practitioner.

Both Counter Example and Detach & Challenge are designed to break down the Universal Quanitifer with logic, making it clear that the thinking is flawed. This process uses humour and lightness to make the statement ridiculous and unable to support the original premise.

By taking on the Universal Quanitifier statement and assuming it is true changes the perspective of the client, no longer are they defending their point of view, but they are supporting someone else who is in agreement. It is often much harder to support someone else with a global world view (even if it was yours to begin with) and the client will find it easier to pick holes in their own argument.

Using this approach moves the client to the 2nd Perceptual position without them realising it which effectively gives them a different view of the problem.

Modal Operators

Modal operators are a special type of generalisation that creates rules about reality. Modal Operators of Necessity define rules that must be obeyed and there are usually undefined consequences should they be broken. Modal Operators of Possibility create limits on what can or cannot be done or achieved, they reduce the flexibility and capability of a client by defining arbitrary barriers.

Modal Operators of Necessity

The Modal Operators of Necessity set boundaries which, if overstepped, will cause some unknown punishment. Because they are ‘rules’ they can be ‘broken’ and this gives them less power over a client than the Modal Operators of Possibility.

The rule based nature leads to consequential based language such as ‘must’, ‘need’, ‘have to’ and ‘should’. The stronger the key word the tighter the rule e.g. a ‘must’ based operator is stronger than a ‘should’ one.

Very often Modal Operators of Necessity are found in people who feel pressure from outside to change e.g. “I must lose weight”, “I have to exercise more” etc. In these cases the ‘rule’ is being set by some other pressure often with no consequence, in these situations making change happen becomes very problematic.

Breaking Modal Operators of Necessity

The whole point of Modal Operators of Necessity is that there is an implied consequence, a hidden punishment, for not obeying the rule, however in reality this exists only in the mind of the client and often has little or nothing to do with what would actually happen.

There are three different approaches that can be used to interrupt the thought process and introduce a new perspective;

  • What would happen if you did/didn’t?
  • Is it really necessary? What makes you?
  • Imagine that you didn’t, what would that be like?

In each case you are asking the client to critically evaluate the consequences of breaking the ‘rules’ and then decide whether they still want to continue to apply their Modal Operator.

One other step that can be taken is to move a Modal Operator of Necessity (a rule) into a Modal Operator of Necessity (a capability). Abilities are much more open to change than rules and moving a must to a can is a liberating experience.

This simple change can make a significant difference. Take the phrase “I must do a presentation”, there is a rule here, a consequence with some hidden punishment. Moving this to “I can do a presentation” changes the whole tone of the statement, the overarching threat is gone. The next step would be “I get to do a presentation”, perhaps a step too far for some, but here we have moved from Necessity to Possibility just by changing one or two words in a statement.

Modal Operators of Possibility

Where Modal Operators of Necessity focus on consequences of doing or not doing something and are somewhat easy to overcome, the Modal Operators of Possibility are about the limits of Capability which are often more ingrained in the belief systems of the client and are therefore harder to deal with.

The language patterns of the Possibility are ‘can’, ‘possible’, ‘able’, ‘can’t’, ‘impossible’ etc. A client is likely to have both positive and negative reinforcing Possibility Operators, there will be things that they will know that they ‘can’ do, and some that they feel that they ‘can’t’ do.

Naturally dealing with the capability enhancing Operators isn’t an issue as they are the type that we hope our clients have in abundance, the problem arises when they have an overriding number of negative, limiting Operators. In this situation it behooves us to work with the client to open them up to greater possibilities.

One of the most common causes of a negative Modal Operator of Possibility is a fear of failure. If they believe that they cannot do something and create and internal rule that confirms this ‘fact’ then they won’t try and then they cannot fail. They ‘know’ it is outside of their capability so why embarass yourself trying.

Undoing Modal Operators of Possibility

Modal Operators of Possibility are self-imposed limits of capability and because of their hold over us we need to undo the string that binds us…fear.

As would be expected the ways to overcome the Modal Operators of Possibility are similar in structure to those for Modal Operators of Necessity;

  • What would happen if you did?
  • Question the assumption. What is stopping you? What will you feel?
  • Imagine if you could do it, what would it be like?

About the author

Lee Avery

Professional Therapist, Clinical Hypnosis & NLP Trainer with over 25 years of experience in training new professionals and treating clients. He specialises in Trauma related Psychological health issues. After years of running training classes Lee has decided to publish his training materials online to further the accessibility of NLP and Hypnosis. He is an advocate for Clinical Hypnosis Excellence and is constantly looking to improve the professional standing of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy within the medical community.

He also runs Achieving Greatness a software development company producing mobile apps for the mental health community.

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