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Questions about Meta-Programs

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78 Questions about Meta-Programs

Questions about Meta-Programs

Susie Linder-Pelz

This paper starts with some questions being asked in personality psychology that we NLP
practitioners may be able to help answer. It then reviews how NLP approaches ‘flexibility’
and ‘personality’ and highlights some fuzziness in the way we currently use the term
‘meta-programs’. That leads to some probing questions about existing meta-program
questionnaires and then to some questions that seem worthy of systematic inquiry. Finally
there is an outline of an approach for such an inquiry and a question for the reader.

Over recent years the need for evidence-based coaching and counselling has become a hot
topic—not only among academics in business and psychology but also among growing
numbers of human resource, training and development professionals.

Evidence-based practice means (1) demonstrating that what we do has links to established
principles, models and theories, and (2) having rigorous studies of process and outcomes to
inform our practice.

In my experience and that of some colleagues, most NLP coaches and counsellors just
want to know how to improve their skills and their practice; they are interested in
evidence only if someone else provides it and if it helps sell NLP. It is rare to find a
practitioner who is willing to invest time and effort in helping to provide evidence.

So why does evidence matter? Because if we only invest in improving our skills and our
marketing, we will never be able to make the case that the distinctive methods of NLP
make a difference to peoples’ lives and outcomes. Evidence is a matter of credibility and it
is evidence that will ultimately sell NLP (or not).

A topic I have been thinking about lately is the ‘meta-programs’ idea that is used widely in
NLP—probably because meta-programs seem central to how individuals make (or don’t
make) the changes they want. In this paper I offer an evidence-based approach to meta-
programs. I start with some questions being asked in personality psychology that I believe
we NLP practitioners may be able to help answer. Then I review how NLP approaches
Acuity Vol.2 No1 79

‘flexibility’ and ‘personality’ and highlight some fuzziness in the way we currently use the
term ‘meta-programs’. That leads me to ask some probing questions about existing meta-
program questionnaires and to pose some other questions that are worthy of systematic
inquiry. I outline an approach for such an inquiry and, finally, have a question for you, the

Questions from personality psychology

There is, in personality psychology as in NLP, an assumption and some evidence that
flexibility is better than extreme or inflexible behaviour (e.g. Kashdan and Rottenberg
2010, Pennato 2010).

Personality psychologists distinguish unstable or situational responses, including

cognition, from stable or dispositional traits such as Big Five Personality Traits (Robinson
2007). This corresponds to a distinction between research that focuses on personality
structure vs research on personality process or how personality works (Fleeson 2007).

Some psychologists interested in trait-relevant behaviour are now asking how trait content
is manifested in everyday behaviour. How is that behaviour patterned and where do
individual differences occur in those patterns? (Fleeson 2001: 1011). Personality
psychologists are increasingly looking at individuals’ ‘characteristic adaptations’ in terms,
for example, of ‘values and beliefs’, ‘cognitive schemas and styles’, and ‘coping
strategies’—all of which vary within individuals according to context (McAdams and Pals

Underpinning this interest in ‘within-persons variation’ are theories such as Kelly’s (1963)
personal construct theory of personality where ‘habitual categories’ play a profound role
in structuring everyday experience; it suggests that the processes of meaning-making does
not follow from personality, it is personality: “Cognitive processing tendencies may
predict daily emotion and behaviour even in the absence of correlation or interaction with
traits.” (Robinson 2007: 353)

A few weeks ago I heard a talk by a personality psychologist on the topic of personality
malleability, flexibility and development: “Even traits (stable behaviour, thoughts and
affects as distinct from fluctuating behaviour, thoughts and states) are to some degree
malleable but we don’t know much about how they can be developed; it may be more
fruitful to look at motivation, self-efficacy etc” (Beckmann 2010). Along with her
colleagues, Beckmann is interested in cognitive and non-cognitive flexibility more than
80 Questions about Meta-Programs

stable concepts of personality. She is asking: how can personality flexibility be developed?
And if personality is malleable, what exactly changes, and how?

In NLP, ‘personality’ has often been equated with the term ‘meta-programs.’ And so I
started wondering, is this not an opportunity for us to extend the rigour and reach of our
thinking and researching about meta-programs? Can NLP help shed light on the
distinction between dynamic and static personality characteristics and how they can be

How NLP approaches personality and flexibility

“Learning to recognize the filters that you and others use is a first step towards developing
flexibility.” (Knight 2002/2010)

In NLP we hold that in order to adapt, any part of the system needs to be as diverse or
flexible as the environment in which it is trying to adapt. This principle of ‘requisite
variety’ (Ashby 1965) is reflected in skills such as Meta-model questioning, dissociating
from unwanted states, associating into desired states, hypnotic language and use of
metaphors, changing perceptual positions and developing flexibility in meta-programs
using strategy installation and reframing. The principle of requisite variety also suggests
that the more flexible a coach can be in their communication the more likely they are to
influence the client’s system. (Linder-Pelz 2010: 77)

A key contribution NLP makes to understanding ‘personality’ is the precision questions of

the Meta-Model that enable us to denominalise personality. With Meta-Model questions we
focus specifically how people think, act, feel, choose and speak.

From its first years, NLP focused on the level of primary states and responses. In addition,
DeLozier and Grinder (1987) conceived of a ‘controller’ state at a higher logical level, a
second-order level or executive state. The idea of ‘meta-programs’ started with the NLP
Meta-Model and its insights about deletion, distortion and generalization (Charvet 1997,
Hall et al 2001). “They are programs which guide and direct other thought processes.”
(Dilts and DeLozier 2000). An early and influential book on meta-programs, drawing on
Jung’s work (Myers and Kirby 1994), talked of them as ‘personality’ (James and
Woodsmall 1988).

“Some strategies for sorting sensory experience inevitably run almost continuously
and unconsciously at a meta-level. The developers of NLP used the term Meta-
Programs (the second domain of NLP) to refer to the more basic sorting processes we
Acuity Vol.2 No1 81

use to decide what we pay attention to, and how we process it.” (Bolstad and
Hamblett 2001: 59)

Although Grinder’s view is that meta-programs are content and therefore not part of NLP
(which is concerned only with process), for others the meta-program model is now an
established part of NLP (Dilts & DeLozier 2000).

By the mid 1990s Michael Hall had co-founded with Bob Bodenhamer an offshoot of NLP
called Neuro-Semantics ( Michael started looking more closely
at the process whereby we become aware of our states, their precise sensory qualities and
the meanings we give them. He developed the Meta-States Model that proposes a process
by which people follow the feedback loop of information into their neuro-linguistic states
as they represent information from the outer world (Hall 1995/2002). People frame or meta-
state that information as they feed back to themselves more information about that
information; that is, they feed back to themselves layer upon layer of ideas, beliefs and
understandings. Each new progressive layer sets the frame for the previous layers. Then
people feed forward that information back down the ‘levels’ of their mind, brain and
neurology. This literally in-forms: it forms the individual on the inside and manifests as
emotions or somatic movements in the body and in behaviour. Here is an example of how
this Neuro-Semantic model works:

With a client who was feeling very stressed the coach used probing and provoking
questions which enabled the client to see and articulate the feedback process that had
(unconsciously) created her unwanted feeling of stress. The coach guided the client
in ‘unpacking’ her negative thoughts and beliefs until the client got to a core and
deeply unconscious belief. When the client saw the layer upon layer of thoughts and
feelings she was astonished at how effectively she had set herself up to feel stressed.
The coach then used questions to co-create a solution, inviting the client to imagine
herself thinking, looking, sounding and feeling differently. The coach also invited the
client to come up with beliefs and frames of mind about herself and her situation that
would enable her to genuinely feel excited about the future. The last step was to
assist the client strengthen the new neuro-semantic connections she was making. The
client stated her intention and then re-stated all her new, true and empowering
beliefs. She articulated the decision she was now making and noticed the positive
emotional state that came with that decision. Then she turned that emotion into action
steps. This feed forward process enabled the client to turn her intention into a
neurological (mind-body-emotion) pattern with which she would close the gap
between what she wanted and what actually happens.

The Meta-States model is similar to Richard Bolstad’s Strategies Model of Personality:

82 Questions about Meta-Programs

“Using Meta-States, the higher representational pattern of language tends to govern

the lower since it creates classes and classifications for the lower. In this way
language can actually blind us from seeing what actually exists before our eyes. We
come to see the world in terms of our labels, classifications and terms.” (Bolstad and
Hamblett 2001: 56)

According to Michael Hall, meta-programs are solidified (automated) meta-states which

occur when we set meta-level frames (Hall et al 2001: 144). He sees meta-programs as a
facet of the Meta-States model and thinks of personality as a gestalt of higher states (Hall et
al 2001: Ch 2).

Meta-programs are styles or patterns of thinking, believing, using language (including

metaphors), emoting, valuing, behaving and relating. They start from primary states of
thoughts-and-emotions as we experience the world through our senses. Through
repetition, habituation and self-reflective consciousness people create frames of mind or
schemas (rule-guided maps of responses to situations). These meta-level phenomena give
people their sense of self, stability and more.

Bolstad and Hamblett similarly consider that meta-programs are learnt patterns with a
structure in the sense of being automated or habituated strategies.

“The Meta-States Model offers an enriched strategy model that begins with and goes
beyond the TOTE (test-operate-test-exit) model…It can exceed the linear strategies
models to address ‘higher levels of mind and meaning’.” (Pearson 2003).

More recently Hall has defined personality as “a dynamic structure which is made up of
representations, states, language, meta-states, meta-programs and our matrix of frames”
(Hall and Bodenhamer 2006: 269). And, in differentiating meta-programs from ‘traits’, Hall
and Bodenhamer believe that meta-programs are dynamic or malleable rather than static
or stable.

In my view, Hall and Bodenhamer’s work (1997, 2006) is the most complete account of
meta-programs to date as they discuss historical and theoretical origins for many (not all)
meta-programs and cite some empirical evidence. They denominalise ‘personality’ and
give specific behavioural focus to our questioning about how people think, emote, choose
and speak. They also propose a classification of meta-programs as cognitive (or thinking),
emotional, choosing and semantic. There is also a coherent and theoretically supported
mechanism for meta-program formation (Linder-Pelz 2010: Ch 10). However, no systematic
studies have yet demonstrated which, or how, meta-programs are malleable.
Acuity Vol.2 No1 83

As an aside to this discussion of meta-programs: Symbolic Modelling, like Neuro-

Semantics, has its origins in NLP and is about modelling, exploring and unpacking meta-
level phenomena. It, too, focuses on clients’ unique process and map of the world, on self-
reflectivity and going to ‘higher’ levels of mind. Like Neuro-Semantics it addresses
metacognitive processes by using specific and subtle questionning to identify and change
higher and hidden frames. It facilitates people to model and modify their unique symbolic
landscapes and language —which are, in effect, ‘meta’ and ‘programs’. I hasten to add,
however, that the developers James Lawley and Penny Tompkins (2000) do not use the
somewhat mechanistic term ‘programs’; they talk instead of clients’ ‘metaphor
landscapes’. (

Fuzzy definitions
Citing the history of the meta-programs model does not, by itself, clarify the meaning of
the term. In fact, I found the more I read, the more confused I got. Consider the following
examples (with my emphases):

o Roger Bailey, the first developer of a meta-programs tool, described two types:
motivation traits and working traits and yet they are context or situation specific.
(Charvet 1997)

o Behavioural traits, determinants of personality (Brown 2003)

o Meta-programs are thinking styles as distinct from cognitive strategies; programs which
guide and direct other thought processes (Dilts 1998, Dilts & DeLozier 2000)

o They are learnt patterns or strategies (Bolstad and Hamblett 2001)

o They are the means by which we process and organize information, contributing to
our internal representation of the world; thinking and behaviour preferences (Brewerton

o Personality preferences that influence language and behaviour (Brown 2004)

o Filters that affect how we behave and communicate (Brown 2006)

o Motivational strategies that can be modeled (Hall and Bodenhamer 2006).

84 Questions about Meta-Programs

Julia Miller (2010) sums up the state of our knowledge of meta-programs: “We don’t know
if they are stable, flexible, independent, hierarchical, can be modified, and whether they
are a style or a strategy.“

Clearly we need to discuss and define what sort of phenomenon ‘meta-programs’ is;
Julia’s current work is a good step in that direction. I feel it is useful to conceptualise meta-
programs as ‘strategies’ rather than ‘styles’ because ‘strategies’ reinforces the key NLP
idea that any experience is the ordering and sequencing of sensory and linguistic
representations and their qualities (sub-modalities). Further, it may be useful to consider
meta-programs as cognitive and non-cognitive strategies, just as in the psychology of
individual differences ‘cognitive differences and thinking styles’ are generally
distinguished from ‘personality’ (eg McTurk and Shakespeare-Finch 2006). Similarly,
research on individual differences usually distinguishes ‘cognitive’ from ‘non-cognitive’
(which includes personality)’ differences (eg Munro et al 2010).

Questions about questionnaires

There are two main ways the idea of meta-programs is used by NLP-trained people: in-
the-moment modelling of individuals in the context of coaching or counselling, and self-
report questionnaires in the context of educational research, personal coaching, selection,
career development and organization development work.

Anecdotally we know questionnaires are very useful for highlighting peoples’ different
selling techniques, motivation, team behaviour, teaching styles and educational
experience. Used this way, such questionnaires fit the NLP ethos that we are interested in
whatever works rather than what is ‘true’. However, once we start developing
questionnaire items and scales, using sophisticated statistical tests to analyse the responses
and to find correlations and predictions, this raises questions about validity. If we choose
to use psychometric methods we have to play by the rules.

Issues regarding the reliability and validity of meta-program questionnaires include, for
example, how the number of questions and the way they were combined into scale
measures affects the correlation coefficients used in reliability estimates and other
statistics. For any questionnaire to be believable and trustworthy, the developers need to
be transparent and explicit about how they developed the questions. That includes being
explicit about the theory or assumptions behind the meta-programs they ask about in their
questionnaire. Indeed, scale construction and construct validation go hand in hand (John
and Soto 2007: 489).
Acuity Vol.2 No1 85

Construct validity means the degree to which a meta-program measure does indeed
measure the latent behavioural or cognitive phenomenon it purports to measure; in other
words, that scores on a meta-program scale can be interpreted as reflecting variation in a
specific underlying pattern of thinking, feeling and/or behaving. While a handful of
writers (including James and Woodsmall 1988, Hall & Bodenhamer 1997, 2006, Hall &
Duval 2004, Brewerton 2004, Miller 2010) have discussed and referenced (from various
areas of psychology including thinking styles, personality research, learning theory and
cognition) the source of specific meta-programs, many questionnaire developers have not.
Demonstrating that a meta-program measure predicts an outcome such as selection or
performance (criterion validity) does not justify lack of attention to its construct validity.

There is no single test of validity and even the term ‘construct validity’ encompasses
several meanings and tests. Validity is always a matter of degree rather than an all-or-
nothing property (Lemke and Wiersma 1976, John and Soto 2007).

And, as with any psychological measures, meta-program questionnaire developers need

to separate inevitable errors in measurement from real variations in responses to
questions; they also need to demonstrate consistency of measurement and replicability of
studies’ findings. And you guessed it: there is no one single test of replicability or

Does all this sound complex? Yes it is and that is why we need transparent, peer-reviewed
research. Peer reviewed publications are the currency of credibility in the wider world in
which NLP coaches, counselors and trainers offer their services.

What to ask yourself when you read about a meta-program questionnaire

• Were their findings peer-reviewed? Have they been published in an independent professional or
academic journal?

• How clearly do they conceptualise and define the meta-program variables they studied? What
are their assumptions about meta-programs as fixed traits vs contextual variables?

• Do they give a rationale for the selection of particular meta-programs they measure?

• How thoroughly and clearly do they discuss validity issues?

• Do they describe exactly how they generated and selected the questionnaire items?

• Even if they claim to have followed industry best practice guidelines for item selection and
validation, how transparent is that process?
86 Questions about Meta-Programs

• Why did they select the particular scaling method they used (e.g. Likert analysis or factor
analysis)? Have they explained their choice of question format and scoring intervals?

•How many items did they use to measure each meta-program variable? (Usually, the more items
of the same type the more reliable the scale measure.)

• Do they explain their choice of reliability test (internal consistency reliability within scales and/or
test-retest reliability)?

• Do they give details of which and how many respondents they used in the development stage of
the questionnaire?

From the information I have found, the CDAQ© questionnaire for use in occupational
contexts is the most credible (Brewerton 2004, It meets the minimum
requirements for registration as a psychometric ‘test’ by the Psychological Testing Centre
(PTC) of the British Psychological Society. That means it is based on transparent
psychometric criteria and has been peer reviewed.

Brewerton has described how a project team constructed the questionnaire and piloted the
items. He addressed criterion validity by comparing questionnaire responses to self-ratings
and acknowledged that the validation process needs to be ongoing and take many forms.
He found validation of the meta-programs construct in the “notable parallels between the
notion of ‘schemata’ and the idea behind ‘metaprogrammes’… Both refer to underlying,
context-dependent patterns of thinking consistent with our experiences and our developed
attitudes and values…they help us make sense of the world and, crucially, to respond to
the world in a way which we believe will result in desirable outcome….” (Brewerton

Brewerton states, “The 11 metaprogrammes (dimensions) measured by cdaq are those that
are most relevant to the world of work” (2009, However, I wonder if he
had evidence that those 11 meta-programs are more relevant than others in the world of
work? The owners of the CDAQ© say it has four dimensions: interacting with other,
processing information, making decisions, taking action (; however, I
couldn’t find empirical evidence for this, such as factor analytic studies.

Responses on CDAQ© were compared with those on an occupational personality

questionnaire (, validation study, 2006) and on the Myers Briggs
personality types (2005), implying that meta-programs are personality variables although
elsewhere he talks of ‘cognitive frameworks’ and ‘preferred thinking and behavioural
style’ (Brewerton 2004).
Acuity Vol.2 No1 87

Overall, the PTC rated CDAQ© “good” on quality of documentation and reliability and
“adequate or reasonable” on construct validity. As I mentioned above, the validity of
questionnaires is a matter of degree and, despite its solid foundations, there is as yet only
a tiny number of validation studies of CDAQ© compared with other, established
personality and thinking styles questionnaires.

For some in the NLP community for whom the essence of any change work means
modelling the complex and unique ways clients think, feel, speak and behave, the use of
checklists of distinctions or typologies represents a departure from NLP. From this
perspective, meta-program questionnaires provide less direct, immediate and complete
information about meta-programs; they nominalise or reify patterns and implicitly treat
meta-programs as static rather than dynamic.

Whether or not you hold the view that the use of questionnaires contradicts the principles
and intentions of NLP practice, it seems the meta-programs idea is now widely associated
with NLP—even if it may not serve the important distinctions between NLP practice and
psychological testing for the meta-program questionnaires to be marketed as an NLP tool.

Some research questions

Whereas questionnaires are useful for studying meta-program differences between people,
NLP modelling is a way to study within-person differences in how meta-programs change
or not.

There is, of course, lots of good anecdotal evidence that the complex skill of NLP modeling
allows us to notice, flesh out, distinguish and alter patterns or strategies that are out of
unconscious awareness. For example: Bolstad (2001, 2002) gives examples of ‘opening up
the person’s model of the world’ and Wake (2008) describes how ‘generative’ modelling
assists clients explore their inner world. Hall (2001) reports on using NLP patterns
successfully to change ‘personality strategies’; so does Knight (2002/2010). Detailed case
examples of flexibility in meta-programs are also found in Hall and Bodenhamer 2006 and
Hall and Duval (2003/2004, 2004).

However, we don’t yet have independent studies of how the NLP and/or Neuro-Semantic
approach to modelling and altering meta-programs works as a change intervention. So we
need to start systematically analysing and documenting the changes clients experience
during and after the process of meta-program elicitation and alteration.
88 Questions about Meta-Programs

As with any systematic inquiry, we need to start with specific research question/s.
Drawing on Michael Hall’s work, I offer here some research questions for you to think
about— recognising that no one study can answer them all.

1. How does precise questioning uncover a person’s linguistic mapping and create a fuller
linguistic and sensory representation which shifts and enriches the person’s experience?

2. Is there a distinct ‘driver’ meta-program or metaphor operating whenever a person’s

need or desire for change occurs?

3. How does a trained practitioner-modeller detect clients’ meta-program defaults (e.g.

their goal style, values, motivation direction, self-confidence, ego strength, adaptation
style, operational style, attention to detail)?

4. How does a practitioner-modeller find out which meta-programs their clients need to
use to reach their current goal and then alter or expand the client’s frames (the belief,
decision, value, understanding, identity and/or meaning that hold their meta-program in
place) so that there is a cascading and desired effect on the client’s responses?

5. How does the practitioner-modeller assess how much flexibility clients have regarding
their default meta-program/s?

6. Is flexibility regarding meta-programs a variable within persons? (Michael Hall asks

himself: “How much flexibility does my client have regarding this meta-program?”)

7. Are some meta-programs more malleable than others?

8. Is there support for the NLP hypothesis that language indicates specific, discrete meta-

9. Is language flexibility the key to personality malleability? Do distinctive questioning

models (Meta-model, Meta-questioning, Well Formed Outcome questions) enhance
client’s language and cognitive flexibility i.e. meta-program flexibility?

10. Do NLP and Neuro-Semantic modelling methodologies add to our understanding of

personality structure and processes?

These research questions suggest the need for a qualitative case study approach that is
both explicit and rigorous (Bazeley 2007, Brannen 2007). This could involve a series of
coaching or counselling conversations between a practitioner and their client which would
be observed and/or recorded and transcribed. The recording and transcripts could be
analysed by a 3rd party NLP/Neuro-Semantic investigator-modeller. Additional
Acuity Vol.2 No1 89

information could be obtained with questions put to the practitioner and the client by the
investigator after the series of conversations. And such a case study approach does not
preclude having the client complete an established personality and/or thinking styles
questionnaire both before and after the coaching or counselling series in order to see, from
the perspective of conventional psychology, whether and how the NLP/Neuro-Semantic
intervention had an effect.

So, finally, questions for you, the reader

How interested are you in participating in a study that contributes to the credibility of our
work and to the wider field of study on personality and individual differences? Perhaps
you are looking for a project that complies with your degree requirements? Please email
me if you have feedback or are interested in collaborating (

Susie has worked in business, academia and personal development. With a PhD from
Columbia University she was a behavioural science researcher before developing a
successful NLP-based career coaching practice. Susie has authored 22 articles in peer-
reviewed journals and five books including NLP Coaching: An Evidence-Based Approach. She
thanks Irena O’Brien and Paul Tosey for their valuable feedback on a draft of this article.

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