5 minute expert guide to language patterns that change minds

In our third article on NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) we look at the ways in which skilled communicators use ‘vague’ and ‘precision’ language patterns to influence and change minds. Artfully vague language is used by CEOs, politicians and presidents. This type of language pattern is very powerful because it is believable and can change the minds of listeners.

This article was first published in June/July 2005 in Student Accountant.

Artfully vague language is known as ‘the Milton Model’ in NLP and can be used to gain rapport, motivate, and influence others. For example, the following is taken from a CEO’s annual speech where delegates were extremely motivated by what the CEO had (not) said: ‘This company’s people are its most precious resource and we recognise the need to continually invest in our people to give them the necessary skills for the future. Effective investment in training is crucial to our business success and only in this way can we remain competitive and be prepared for the future.

‘Our success in winning the National Training Award is a clear demonstration of our commitment to sound investment in training and development. I congratulate you all and invite you to celebrate in our continued future success.’ Precision language patterns can be applied to vague language patterns – such as those in the CEO’s speech – to make the language more specific and uncover any potentially influential misleading information.

Precision language is known as ‘the Meta Model’ in NLP. Here we apply it to selected parts of the CEO’s speech:

  1. Unspecified nouns
    This vague language pattern deletes specific ‘who’ and ‘what’ information in the CEO’s statement ‘we... continually invest in our people to give them the necessary skills…’ The Meta Model responses could be: 
     - Which people?
     - What skills specifically?
  2. Unspecified verbs
    This vague language pattern deletes ‘how’ information as in ‘...we recognise the need to continually invest in our people…’ The Meta Model response could be:
     - How specifically are we investing in our people?
  3. Lost performative
    These are value judgments made within the vague language pattern and delete the who information as in ‘This company’s people are its most precious resource...’ The Meta Model response could be: 
     -  According to whom?
  4. Cause and effect
    This is a very important vague language pattern. It involves one thing having a causal relationship to another and can, potentially, result in relationships that create limitations and/or the perception that we have no control over an event or our response to it. For example: ‘If Karen took a holiday now the department’s productivity would drop.’ ‘The audit manager makes me angry.’ The Meta Model responses could be: 
     - How would Karen taking a holiday now cause productivity to drop? 
     - How do you allow yourself to get angry?
  5. Complex equivalence
    This pattern involves two statements that are given the same meaning. In the CEO’s speech, the following is a good example: ‘Effective investment in training is crucial to our business success…’ The Metal Model response to this statement could be: 
     - How does effective investment in training lead to business success?

Milton and Meta Model language patterns, if used to excess, can lead to a breakdown of rapport. There is nothing worse than someone continually bombarding you with Meta Model responses. Clearly there are also ethical considerations, and language patterns should only be applied for positive change. For example, I apply language patterns when communicating with ACCA students to positively influence their behaviour towards study and ‘change their minds’ about their ability to pass. Hopefully you just thought ‘what and how specifically does he do that?’

Chris Cain is a certified trainer of NLP and regional director at FTC