NLP Practitioner

Meta-Model Distinctions – Distortions

Written by Lee Avery

Changing the reality to fit in with your own beliefs is common when trying to communicate. We all have our own rules as to how the world works, and when reality doesn’t ‘fit’ then we distort our interpretation so that we are comfortable. This leads to more misunderstanding as everyone’s ‘rules’ are different, and we distort what we hear to suit our own view of reality, thus distorting the distortion.

Mind Reading

At one time or another we’ve all doneit, we’ve all assumed that we know what someone else is thinking. A spouse, a colleague, a family member or an (ex-)friend has thought this terrible thing about us, and we can’t forgive them…except of course it never happened.

In so many social situations we ponder what other people are thinking of us, the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we stand, sometimes our mind is in total overdrive trying to understand why people think that way about us.

Then reality hits, they aren’t really thinking about us at all, they’re probably thinking about what we think about them…doh!

Within the Meta-Model framework the distortion of Mind Reading is the distortion of presuming that you know what another person is thinking without any evidence other than your own map of reality. When this takes place you give others motives and thoughts that only exist in your narrative of their lives as if you are an author writing their internal script for them.

The Distortion of Mind Reading is a subtle trap, not only can you fall into the line of ‘knowing’ what people are thinking about you but you can also believe that they can Mind Read you, and they ‘know’ what you want. It becomes a bit of a mental loop, with you thinking they know what you are thinking, and you know, they know, you know…aargh! This way lies madness!

“I know that she hates me.” – How do you know that? What evidence do you have?

“They all think I’m useless.” – How do you know? What have they done to show this?

“You know I don’t like that.” – How do they know? What have you done to show this?

“Don’t you know how that makes me feel?” – How do they know?

More arguements have been started between partners due to Mind Reading than any of the other Meta Modal Violations.

The problem with Mind Reading is that it is so easy to do and very comfortable too. ‘Of course that’s what they think! I would if I were them!’

The Thought Police

The great thing about Mind Reading is that it is one of the easiest of the Distortions to avoid, all you need to do is ask ‘How do you know?’.

If there isn’t any physical evidence (they’ve told you or written it down) then it is pure supposition, and No, someone else telling you isn’t evidence…that may be them Mind Reading.

A word of caution
I often hear new practitioners struggling with this. Often they will ask the question ‘How do you know?’, with a response of ‘I just know?’, at that point the practitioner gets stuck…changing the question to What proof? or Who says? can be enough to get the client to rethink their answer.


Taking a Verb and turning it into a Abstract Noun is a nominalisation; it is turning an activity into a ‘thing’, even though it doesn’t exist as an object, you can’t pick it up e.g. to relate -> relationship, communicate -> communication, to excel -> excellence etc.

When we discuss an event with someone we will always say that ‘Person A did Action to Person B’, this is clear and understandable, we can understand what went on. The Nominalisation deletes Person A and Person B and changes the Action into an activity by itself, the detail is lost and the event is distorted.

Nominilisations are an important part of the way in which we pass information around. Without them we would need to painfully and explicitly explain exactly what we mean, so we use them as a commonly understood shorthand, except of course anything that is commonly understood is also massively misunderstood too.

What a ‘relationship’ means to one person isn’t the same as what it means to someone else. To one person it may signify physical closeness and a openness to another opinions, to another is may mean nothing more than sharing the same office.

Often this misunderstanding is hidden from us as we apply our own meaning of the Nominalisation in our efforts to understand those around us.

Precise Meanings

To really gain clarity and solve the problems that are caused by Nominalisations the process is simple, take the noun and move it back to a verb, in other words turn it back into an Action. To do this you need to add back the missing information, the referential indexes need to be reintroduced so that the statement makes more sense.

“We have a poor relationship.” – How do we interact? What is missing from our conversations?

“They don’t give me any help.” – How would you like to be helped? What do you mean by help? Who are They?



No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt

The Cause-Effect distortion is the giving away of control to another, it assumes that our emotions and behaviours are at the mercy of the world around us and that we are ‘but reeds in the wind’.

Unfortunately, the language of Cause-Effect distortion is ingrained in every part of our lives, it is easy to create a link between an event and a trigger, whether it is real or not. Very often the only connection between the two events is their interaction in Time, because one event follows another chronologically it is easy to assume that the earlier event initiated the latter one.

Our need to find patterns in events ‘makes’ this easy <— see what I did here!

People are considerably more complex than simple reactionary animals, and to jump to the conclusion that Event A caused Emotion X limits the flexibility of the individual and assumes that there are no thought processes going on and removes personal choice.

Cause-Effect thinking can be seen in such statements as;

  • She upset me
  • Just the way he talks to me makes me angry.
  • I am unhappy because of the current work situation.

In each of these statements the responsibility for my feelings come from outside, I am just reacting to the world around me.

This kind of thinking can be joined with Mind Reading to produce the reverse effect, taking responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of others. This can be seen when someone says;

  • I’ve upset them
  • I said ‘No’ and now they’re angry

The first is pure Mind Reading with created by Cause-Effect thinking, I have the power to upset them.The second statement is a clear Cause-Effect statement, I did this and that made them angry.

Undermining Cause-Effect Distortions

The Cause-Effect pattern only works if the client gives away responsibility for their own emotions, so it makes sense that the best way to undermine the distortion is to get the client to retake ownership. There are three steps to this:

  1. How – Start by assuming that the statement is true and identify the precise mechanism at work within the client to create the emotion. If someone ‘upset’ the client, how, precisely, did it happen? What was done?
  2. Find Alternatives – Get the client to understand that there is a choice in their reaction. Does the response have to be automatic? What alternative response is there? Expand the clients options and help them find a more resourceful response.
  3. Ownership – The final step, and often the hardest for the client to accept, is to have them assume ownership of their own emotion and take responsibility for what they feel. This can be difficult for many people to accept, especially if they have a long history of feeling as if they are a ‘victim’ of circumstance.



Complex Equivalence

People sometimes make a connection between two unrelated ‘events’ and claim that the one event is equal to the other, e.g. always late for work = don’t care about the job. By connecting two ideas that really don’t belong together it allows for the creation of arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with what is happening in the real world. The NLP practitioner must break the connection to get a better understanding of what is really in the mind of the client.

We have to be careful with the Complex Equivalence with our clients as there is often a personal ‘values’ component within the connection. The A = B comparator may well have been created by past experience and replayed in a new situation, remember the NLP Presupposition that ‘All behaviour is valid in the appropriate context’, so the connection between the two sides of the Complex Equivalence may well exist because of some prior event where a it seemed appropriate.

being the operative word in this case as often there is no logic in the pairing of the two sides of the equation other than an internal reference by the client to make the two appear equal. Their Map of reality makes the two sides equal, and they may not be able to spot the problem with their connection until the inaccuracy is carefully pointed out.

It can be difficult to spot one of these distortions as it may be buried in what the client is saying, and the two sides of the equation may not be closely connected in the conversation.

Unequal Partners

With Complex Equivalence the client has distorted reality to make two very different statements become joined so that the one Means the other, the role of the practitioner is to break this connection which they can do using 3 very simple techniques;

  • Ask how are the two statements equivalent
  • Give counter examples
  • Ask the subject if the same applies to them.

“You must be upset with me because you went to bed early” – How does going to bed early mean I’m upset? Do people go to bed early when they’re not upset? I go to bed early when I have to get up early. Haven’t you gone to bed early, when you’ve felt ill

“You got in late;You don’t care about this job” – How does coming in late mean that? What other reasons could there be for being late? (bad traffic, illness etc). Have you never been late for work?

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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