The Literature and Further
Developments of Early NLP

By Carl Buchheit, Ph.D. and Ellie Schamber, Ph.D.

The Meta Model

From the beginning of their collaboration in 1972, John Grinder and Richard Bandler noticed that language patterns were key to the success of the highly accomplished psychotherapists whose competence they were modeling. Intrigued by the therapeutic brilliance of Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir (and later Milton Erickson), the two young men sought to replicate these language patterns in their own workshops. They did not understand how they themselves were using behavior and language that affected change in their clients, so they began to analyze their language patterns and formalize them so other therapists could utilize them successfully. Bandler had an uncanny ability to imitate these linguistic structures, and Grinder discovered that the analytical tools of Noam Chomsky’s transformational grammar could be directly applied to explicate just how the patterns worked to produce marvelous results for clients. 1

Grinder and Bandler also learned that if they could properly challenge the words that a client used to talk about his or her experience, this had the effect of also challenging the presuppositions behind the words. They found that when people changed their language patterns, they experienced change in their lives. This work led to their first book, The Structure of Magic, volume I, published in 1974. 2

The name of this work, The Structure of Magic, implies that the “magic” that occurs in change work done by great therapists can be understood and communicated to others by analyzing the structure—not just the content—of their communications. 3  As Virginia Satir writes in the first paragraph of the Forward to The Structure of Magic, volume I:

Grinder and Bandler have come up with a description of the predictable elements that make change happen in a transaction between two people. Knowing what these elements are makes it possible to use them consciously and, thus, to have useful methods for inducing change. 4

The Introduction was written by the famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who declares that he and his colleagues had attempted “something similar” about twenty years earlier. He explains that, like the two authors, he had endeavored “to create the beginnings of an appropriate theoretical base for the describing of human interaction . . . [including] not only the event sequences of successful communication but also the patterns of misunderstanding and the pathogenic” 5  However, as Bateson describes, he and his colleagues had used cultural contrasts and psychosis as a starting point rather than neurology and linguistics. Bateson writes that the two founders of NLP “have succeeded in making linguistics into a base for theory and simultaneously into a tool for therapy . . . . [They] have succeeded in making explicit the syntax of how people avoid change and, therefore, how to assist them in changing.” 6

In The Structure of Magic, I, Grinder and Bandler explain how language not only represents and communicates, but actually creates, people’s maps and models of the world.  They describe what they call a meta model of language.  The meta model is a series of categories of processes based on transformational grammar.  These processes investigate the transformations that take place between our perceptions and experiences and how we talk about them.  The language we use in our internal talk to ourselves, as well as the language we use to communicate with others, is a function of and represents our model of the world. 7

The writers explain that the three major processes in the ways that people construct their maps of the world, are generalization, deletion, and distortion. “A person’s generalizations or expectations filter out and distort his experience to make it consistent with those expectations.” 8

They clarify that:

Human beings live in a real world.  We do not, however, operate directly or immediately upon that world, but rather we operate with a map or a series of maps which we use to guide our behavior.  These maps, or representational systems, necessarily differ from the territory that they model by the three universal processes of human modeling: Generalization, Deletion, and Distortion.  When people come to us in therapy expressing pain and dissatisfaction, the limitations that they experience are typically in their representation of the world, not in the world itself.  The most thoroughly studied and best understood of the representational systems of maps is human language.  The most explicit and complete model of natural language is transformational grammar.  Transformational grammar is, therefore, a meta-model—a representation of the structure of human language—itself a representation of the world of experience. 9

The founders expound on how the therapist can use knowledge about the structural operation of a shared language as a toolset within the psychotherapeutic interaction.  They emphasize that since people create maps of the world and use these maps to guide their behavior, effective therapy must assist the clients in changing their maps.  They provide a meta model for language-based therapy, proposing meta-model challenges to contest the client’s model, so that s/he will have alternative ways to view the world and therefore more choice in behavior. 10

The Structure of Magic, volume I, is based on the work of scientist/philosopher Alfred Korzybski and linguist Noam Chomsky.  Korzybski’s concept that the map is not the territory is the cornerstone of this book, as are his ideas about the ways in which language both represents and influences our map of the world.  Chomsky’s transformational grammar is the basis of the meta model. The authors went beyond Korzybski and Chomsky, however, in clarifying the processes of linguistic representation and by demonstrating how the therapist can use the structure of language itself to change the experiences of the client. 11

Structure I brilliantly poses some of the basic questions of what would later be called NLP, and lays the foundation for the subsequent work in the field.  However, it is very dense and difficult to read.  Its jargon, drawn from linguistics, continues to haunt NLP today.  The terms used in the meta model, such as lost performatives and unspecified referential index, are derived from complex linguistic terminology and obscure the usefulness of understanding and mastering the processes to which they refer.  A simpler, less insistently technical language and style would perhaps have induced more therapists and other students to engage with these concepts and tools, to their very great benefit.

Further Developments in NLP

The class taught by Bandler and supervised by Grinder in the spring of 1972 expanded into several training workshops and programs.  The first meta-model study groups met at the house of Frank Pucelik, Leslie Cameron, and Judith Delozier in 1972.  The group included David Gordon, Stephen Gilligan, Terence McClendon, Byron Lewis, and (later) James Eicher and Robert Dilts. 12 In the period between the study of Perls and the emulation of Satir, the focus shifted from gestalt therapy on themselves to exploring each new linguistic pattern: first of Perls, then Satir, then Erickson. 13

Bandler met Virginia Satir at a cocktail party during this period and was intrigued by her very effective communication techniques in her system of family psychotherapy.  In these early NLP gatherings, Bandler conducted many of what Satir called parts parties and family reconstructions.  Some classic NLP techniques, such as reframing (changing the client’s view of the meaning of an event), developed during this period. 14

In 1974 Bandler and Grinder developed the concept of the 4-tuple, which refers to the ongoing flow (outside of conscious awareness) of multiple sensory representational systems: V (visual), A (auditory), K (kinesthetic), and O/G (olfactory/gustatory). Then they noticed that people had individual processing biases toward one or more of these representational systems, and that these biases are evident in people’s use of verbal predicates.  For example, if a person says, “I see what you mean” rather than “I hear you,” this often indicates that s/he is oriented more toward visual processing than auditory, at least at that moment.  Later on, they also found that so-called sub-modality changes (changes in representational sub-distinctions) significantly affect people’s experience.  For example, if a client changes a visual representation—an internal picture—from color to black and white, this usually immediately changes his or her experience of the situation. 15

Also in 1974, Bandler and Grinder experimented with a unique application of Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning process, by which a desired response becomes reliably associated with a specific stimulus. 16 Around the turn of the century Pavlov had discovered that, by ringing a bell while he offered food to a dog, he could create a direct association between the dog hearing a bell and food. The dog eventually salivated when it heard the bell even without the food being present. Pavlov’s finding was extrapolated to pertain to human learning and was the foundation of the behaviorist school of psychology, led by John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, that was predominant in the United States between 1920 and the mid-1950s. In 1949, the Canadian neuropsychologist Donald O. Hebb demonstrated that the human brain can change (i.e. it has neuroplasticity) because neurons form interconnections when they are activated at the same time.  As psychiatrists Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding explain, “When groups of nerve cells (or brain regions) are repeatedly activated at the same time, they form a circuit and are essentially ‘locked in’ together.” 17 Hebb’s theory is frequently summed up in the paraphrase, “Neurons that fire together wire together18 Thus, neuronal structure can be altered by experience.  Experience changes the brain, and ultimately our genes. 19

Building on these discoveries, the NLP founders developed an application of conditioning that they called “anchoring.”  This technique facilitates change in people by associating a kinesthetic, auditory or spatial trigger with a desired internal response. They learned to use anchoring in a variety of ways, especially to assist clients to eliminate unwanted emotional reactions and to have more access to positive resources.  Eventually the group was anchoring entire 4-tuples and portions of 4-tuples and their relevant sub-modalities, and applying this new methodology to outcomes such as pain control and the permanent interruption of negative behavior patterns. 20

Perhaps the most remarkable discovery, also in 1974, was what these brilliant innovators called patterns of eye-accessing cues.  Grinder and Bandler noticed that there is a correlation between eye movements and internal representations.  The eye movements are correlated with specific internal sensory events that are the basis of all cognitive and emotional experience. 21   This was an original discovery of momentous proportions—a foundational leap in the evolution of NLP.

In 1976, Grinder and Bandler published The Structure of Magic, volume II. While in volume I they focus on verbal communication, in the second volume they discuss a model of communication and change involving the other modes of communication that people use to represent and communicate their experience. The book continues the discussion of VAKOG from volume I. It also describes how to identify and match the client’s preferred representational system by matching his or her preferred verbal predicates. 22  For example, to convey the meaning, “I understand you,” a kinesthetic person may say, “What you are saying feels right to me,” a visual person may say, “I see what you are saying,” and an auditory person may say, “I hear you clearly.”

Then the authors explain the process of switching or adding representational systems as part of therapy, and they address the issue of incongruity between what the person says and the body posture, gestures, tone of voice, etc. There is also a discussion of sentence structure that is not “well formed,” in that the speaker places responsibility for his or her feelings on an external source (e.g., “You make me angry”) or assumes that s/he knows what others are thinking (e.g., “He thinks I’m ugly”). Finally, there is a discussion how family therapy applies all of these procedures to the family system. 23

Structure II is a more comprehensive work than Structure I, since it discusses the five representational systems rather than only language. Also, it contains a number of illustrations of how to use the techniques. Brilliant as this work is, like volume I, it is difficult to read. The language is complex and not easy to navigate, and as a result this work is rarely read, even by students and teachers of NLP.

Milton Erickson

In 1975, Bandler and Grinder wrote Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, MD, volume I. 24 This book centers on identification of the voice and language patterns used by Erickson in his hypnotic therapy. In the Introduction, the authors reiterate that the map is not the territory and review the concepts of deletion, distortion, and generalization, as well as the various sensory representational systems. They then show how Erickson works with these patterns within the context of his hypnotherapy. 25

In Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, MD, volume II, published in 1977, 26 there is an in-depth description of Erickson’s patterns of hypnotic communication, such as trance induction and embedded questions and commands. According to Erickson, hypnosis interrupts unconscious patterns in behavior by means of a confusion technique. This renders the subject available for (vulnerable to) new learning. Erickson persuaded the NLP founders that it is not possible to successfully coerce the unconscious mind, since authoritarian suggestions are usually resisted. Instead, Erickson offered his model of what may be called “permissive” hypnosis, in which the unconscious mind is invited to allow itself to change through techniques involving artful vagueness, questions, suggestions and metaphors. 27

Grinder and Bandler noticed that Erickson’s hypnotic language model is the inverse of the NLP meta model that was based on the techniques of Perls and Satir. Instead of challenging the client’s model of the world by requiring that the verbal description of it be made more specific (meta-model challenges), Erickson uses deliberately vague and general language to enable the client to work at an unconscious level. This method has the effect of distracting the conscious mind, thus allowing easy access to the unconscious in order to gather information from deeper levels of mind or lead the client into a more deeply altered state of consciousness. The practitioner is thus able to speak directly to the unconscious mind without interference from the conscious mind, with all of its attachments to “reality” and the rules that govern the scope and speed of change within it.

Thus, while the meta model worked with the conscious mind in developing a fuller linguistic map by questioning generalizations, deletions, and distortions, the Milton model, in contrast, allowed highly effective communication with the unconscious by actually emphasizing and utilizing this lack of specificity. 28 As Stephen Gilligan explains,

A main purpose of the Meta Model was to develop a more complete mapping of experience. The idea . . . was that the deletions, distortions, and generalizations made (typically without awareness) in a representational process, resulted in an impoverished map that led to limited choices. The implication of the Meta Model was that developing more complete and less distorted maps would allow other choices and thus superior experience and performance . . . . But a second, equally prominent emphasis of the early days was learning to navigate without fixed maps . . . . [an Ericksonian] hypnotic induction is a set of communications that de-frames or dissolves fixed maps, thereby allowing new experiences unhindered by the map bias. 29

The two volumes describing the work of Milton Erickson contain very insightful analyses of Milton Erickson’s therapeutic method and show its profound influence on the two writers. NLP had now become a combination of meta-model maneuvers and Ericksonian hypnotic techniques.

Virginia Satir

In 1975, in Structures I, Grinder and Bandler had attempted to provide a model of the competence of successful therapists such as Virgina Satir. In 1976 Grinder and Bandler worked with Satir directly, seeking to apply their new discoveries about communication process to her work in the field of family systems and family therapy. Satir had been quite frustrated that she did not know how to communicate her methods and the internal processes behind them so that others could replicate her know-how. She wrote the book Changing with Families with the two NLP founders, to enable them to model and communicate her techniques. 30

In this work, Satir uses some of Grinder’s and Bandler’s concepts and language to describe her process. For example, she refers to their concepts of map, referential index, meta-model challenges, complex equivalence, and so on. However, the book as a whole is written in much clearer language than Structures IandII, describing and clearly illustrating her thinking and processes without the encumbrances of specialized complex linguistic terminology.

Taken from Carl Buchheit, Ph.D. and Ellie Schamber, Ph.D.,  Transformational NLP: A New Psychology.


1 Richard Bandler, and Garner Thomson, The Secrets of Being Happy (Devon, UK: I.M Press, Inc., 2011); In the Origins of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, ed. J. Grinder and R. F. Pucelik (Bethel, CT: Crown House Publishing, 2013); T L. McClendon, The Wild Days: NLP 1972-1981 (Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1989).
2 Bandler and Thomson; McClendon.
3 Grinder and Pucelik.
4 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic: A Book About Language and Therapy, Vol 1 (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1975b), vii.
5 Ibid, ix.
6 Ibid, x.
7 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Frogs into Princes, ed. S Andreas, Moab (UT: Real People Press, 1979), 68; Carmen B. Bostic St. Clair and John Grinder, Whispering in the Wind (Scotts Valley, Ca: J&C Enterprises, 2001), 148-149.
8 Bandler and Grinder, (1975b), 16.
9 Ibid, 179.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
13 Grinder and Pucelik.
14 McClendon.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding, You Are Not Your Brain (New York: Avery, 2012), 63.
18 Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007),, 63; Schwartz and Gladding.
19 Doidge.
20 McClendon.
21 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
22 John Grinder and Richard Bandler, The Structure of Magic: A Book About Communication and Change, Vol. 2 (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1976).
23 Ibid.
24 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H Erickson, M.D. Vol. 1,  (Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1975a).
25 Ibid.
26 John Grinder. Judith Delozier, and Richard Bandler, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H Erickson, M.D. Vol. 2, (Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1977).
27 Ibid.
28 Grinder and Pucelik; McClendon.
29 Grinder and Pucelik, 84.
30 Richard Bandler, John Grinder, and Virginia Satir, Changing with Families: A Book About Further Education for Being Human, (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc, 1976).