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What language would you use to influence – laser precise or artfully vague?

Language is a huge component of influencing skills. It’s interesting to consider whether being precise or ambiguous with language is most influential. Well, it depends.

Based on two models of linguistics drawn from Neuro linguistic programming, we have on the one hand, a powerful insight into the value of ambiguity shown by the Milton model: a common psychometric tool. On the other hand is another psychometric testing example: the Meta model, which demonstrates the value of precise language. In this post, we’ll look at the Meta Model.

Grinder and Bandler developed the Meta-Model – a tool for gaining understanding of what people say by examining how thoughts are translated into words. This research studied two successful therapists: Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, and noticed both therapists tended to use certain questioning techniques. These question techniques are simple and easy to apply in order to enhance our influencing skills.


Unpacking shorthand

When we speak we cannot convey everything we are thinking and feeling; it would take too long. We speak in ‘shorthand’ as we filter information through our beliefs, values and prejudices. We delete and generalise information assuming others will understand our shorthand. ‘Unpacking’ this shorthand is very valuable if we are to understand others’ reasoning and subsequently influence them.


Deletions are when people omit key information. For example, consider the statement: “They know all they need to know about it”.

Typical Meta-Model questions to gain clarity would be:

• “Who specifically are they?”

• “What precisely do you mean by ‘it’?”

• “What exactly is it that they are supposed to know?”

We generalise when we use a few instances as representing the entirety. For instance, listen out for words such as: “all”, “every”, “never”, “nobody”. The Meta model takes the generalisation and repeats it as a question, being careful to pose the question in a soft tone of voice, so our response does not seem aggressive:

• “What always?”

• “Absolutely everybody?”

• “Nobody at all?”

The Meta model teaches us to use the same approach if we need to challenge when others signal self-imposed rules. These are often invalid rules which we put around our actions and we speak as if they are true. It is helpful to challenge these because invalid rules waste time and might limit our options for reaching agreement.

Listen out for phrases like:

• ‘We have to…’

• ‘You have to…’

• ‘You shouldn’t…’

• ‘We should…’

Have a go for yourself – during your next conversation listen out for deletions, generalisations and self – imposed rules and try out some of the meta model questions. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes.

For more information regarding leadership coaching or management coaching, contact me on 01302 220221.

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