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Understanding Metaprograms and How They Open The Doorway To Influence

We all want to influence the behaviour of others; both at home and at work … and part of that is pitching your ideas so that you get buy in from the people you pitch them to. Here’s a peek into the psychology that underpins the most influential ways to present information.

Today there is more competition for time and attention, less time to do it in, more options for people to choose from, and greater frustration as you are challenged to get buy in to your good ideas. And what’s worse, we get the opportunity to actually present our ideas and the PACKETS OF INFORMATION we send are in the wrong format for the audience.

George Lee Sye AOBILThis article is a short extract from my Global Influence Skills training. It provides some key insights into how to get inside someones head in order to influence what they feel and how they behave.

It is based on the idea that you first need to open the doorway to their mind before you can influence what happens inside their mind.

One thing that helps us correctly form these packets of information relating to WHY people would buy into your idea and WHAT your actual idea is are referred to as Meta-progams.

What Are Metaprograms?

We might think of Meta Programs as “habits of thought” or “programs of attention”. These are the processes we unthinkingly use to sort what we pay attention to from what we filter out in various contexts.


A golfer might process distances through the frame of hitting a golf ball with a club. In order to work out how far it is from the front fence to the back fence of a house the golfer might think about what club would carry a ball that distance and thereby work out the distance

Someone might give you direction like “you go down the main road until you reach Macdonalds, turn left and take the first turn right after you pass Subway, then the place you want is about 4 doors past the pizza place on the left”.

Both are examples of metaprograms; i.e. what an individual takes notice of and how they process information.

Metaprograms are Similar to MBTIs In One Way

A Myers Briggs Type Indicator characteristic sits on a continuum with extremes at either end. For example one person could be an extreme introvert while another person is at the other end of the continuum as an extreme extrovert.

It is the same with metaprograms; each characteristic rests on a continuum with extremes at both ends. You could be at one end in one context or sit somewhere in the middle. Depending on context, you will have a bias one way or another.

Example Metaprogram

Let me give you an example to start with to help explain what they are.

If I were to show you the image below and ask you to describe what you see.

what are metaprograms

The very first thing you would notice is (a) they are all circles, or (b) there is one odd one out of the set of three.

In this metaprogram, which we refer to as a Contrast Frame, a person with a bias towards one extreme looks for what’s similar about things. They see all of the circles first and then notice that one is a different size. On the other hand, a person at the other extreme looks for what’s different about things and notices there is a mismatched set of shapes although they are all circles. Subtle but significant in terms of mental processing.

How can we use this knowledge? Well that’s what the AOBIL training is about.

With this as an example, let me give you a snapshot of a few of the metaprograms that you can use in practical situations. There is obviously a lot more to this than we present here, but it gets you started.

#1 – Contrast Frame

We have the MATCHER (looks for similarity) at one extreme, and the MIS-MATCHER (looks for difference) at the other extreme.


Matchers look for similarity in things. They see what it is that is the same about things or other people. They tend to be easier to build rapport with and tend to respond well to an idea when it is presented in terms of how it is similar to another already successful idea.

Uses words like “this is much like (a success)” and “like our last success, this one …..”.


Mis-matchers on the other hand, look for what is different about a situation or a person, compared to what they know. They make good auditors, due to their ability to easily identify errors. They are often difficult to build rapport with, and often contribute to conflict. They tend to respond positively when an idea is presented in terms of how it is different from one that has previously failed.

Uses words like “this differs from (a past failure)” and “unlike that last failure, this one …..”.

Which one are you?

#2 – Motivation Frame

We have the people who MOVE TOWARDS things at one extreme, and those who MOVE AWAY from things at the other extreme.

Moves Towards

A person who moves towards tends to be focused on goals. They know what they want and go for it. They respond well to incentives. When presented with an idea, will tend to be positive about it if they know the benefits it will bring.

Uses words like “the benefits of doing this are …..” and “if we do this, we will get …..”.

Moves Away

A person who moves away, recognise problems easily. They are very clear about what they don’t want, and often focus too much on that to their own detriment. They tend to respond well to ideas when they understand the consequences of not doing it.

Uses words like “the consequences of not doing this are …..” and “if we don’t do this, we will have problems like …”.

Which one are you mostly?

#3 – Evaluation Frame

Some people give priority to things that are Important to SELF, while others give higher importance to things that are Important to OTHERS.

Sort by Self

People who ‘sort by self’ are more concerned with how something affects them personally than other people. In meeting environments they seem to only be concerned with themselves, and show little sensitivity or empathy for the facilitator or presenter. They are able to completely ignore the people around them and do something for their own satisfaction during a meeting, such as read the paper, play a game on their PC, or even have a conversation on the phone. They tend to respond positively to an idea when they understand how it will benefit them personally.

Use words like “you will personally benefit by …..” and “only you will know how to …..”.

Sort by Others

People who ‘sort by others’ are more concerned with how something affects people around them, as opposed to themselves. They are more caring and conscious of the impact of a situation on other people. In a meeting environment, these people are the ones who work with the facilitator, and tend to provide signs of encouragement such as nods and positive gestures. They tend to respond positively to change when they know the benefits this will bring to others.

Use words like “we will all benefit by …..” and when all employees …..”.

Which one are you mostly?

#4 – Focus Frame

We also have people who are more MACRO FOCUS (the big picture) while others have a more MICRO FOCUS level (the detail).

Macro Focus

Macro level thinkers are conceptualizers. They are concerned with the big chunks of an idea, and details are often irrelevant. They will be more likely to support a change if they know the purpose, the desired outcome, the value it will offer, and the macro level steps for achieving it.

Use words like “at the macro level, we will be …..” and “the big ticket items are …..”.

Micro Focus

Micro level thinkers on the other hand, are the detailers, the fine print people. Before being committed, they will need to know the specific details of whatever it is being discussed. They will want to know the breakdown of tasks so that they have confidence that the goal will be achieved. Time must be given to answer their questions as they will probably have a lot.

Use words like “at the detailed level, we will be …..” and “we can break this down by …..”.

Which one are you mostly?

#5 – Logic Frame

Some people have a strong PROCESS logic while others are more OPTIONS oriented.


Linear thinkers are process oriented, and very traditional in the way they approach any task. They like to undertake methodical tasks that have set routines and clear guidelines about how to perform them. They run things by the book and are very uncomfortable when tasks are ambiguous, have unclear guidelines, or circumstances are changing frequently. When presented with change, they will be more inclined to support it if it has a sound process for implementation, and they know that the idea was the result of a logical process of reasoning.

Use words like “The way it will be done is …..” and “we will have a clear process for …..”.


Lateral thinkers on the other hand are option oriented. They can move from one idea to another without any obvious connection. They are innovative in their thought processes, and are drawn to circumstances where options present themselves. Lateral thinkers have no problem dealing with ideas even when they are presented in a randomised or ambiguous manner.

Use words like “while we have a clear process, a number of options are still open …..”.

Which one are you mostly?

Meta-Programs are Context Specific

Whilst meta-programs are habitual, they are not absolute. They depend very much on the context in which they are applied. What motivates us to buy a new car (move toward) when the old one is okay may be completely different in the context of going running each morning to help lose weight (move away). We do not respond to every stimulus in the same way; however we do have a tendency to prefer one mode to another. We will call this mode the ‘dominant’ mode.

To find out which mode people prefer (with respect to the motivational meta-program), you could ask a question like “Why did you choose to live in the neighbourhood you currently live in?” If they answer by telling you what they do not want in the neighbourhood – for example noisy neighbours, high crime – their dominant mode is to move away or avoid pain. If they tell you what they want; quiet street, friendly neighbours, good resale value – their dominant mode is to move towards or seek pleasure.

In the Master of Global Influence Skills program we teach a range of different ways to elicit someone’s preferred metaprograms for a given context.

Value in knowing someone’s preferred meta-program

What value does knowing about these modes offer us? If you were trying to implement a significant change in your business, you could communicate the value that the change will offer the business and its employees, as well as the consequences to the business and its employees if the change is not undertaken.

Our tendency is to communicate on the basis of our own dominant mode, so if we were more likely to move towards something, we would probably focus our attention on the benefits of doing this change.

Problems arise when we deliver this communication to someone who has a different dominant mode. We tell of the benefits and they are looking for the consequences, and in effect we may as well be speaking different languages. That person will not be swayed and we will experience resistance, yet ponder the reason why. If you know the dominant mode of a specific individual then you should focus your communication towards their strategy.
If you do not know the dominant mode, or you are going to communicate to a group, then you must communicate in both modes.

Those of you with children can benefit greatly by knowing about these particular modes. To convince your son or daughter that they must study at school, you can focus your communication with them on the benefits of study or alternatively the consequences of not studying. My son has a dominant mode of ‘moving towards’, so in that regard I keep him thinking about the opportunities he will have in his life if he studies hard. Telling him he will be a ‘bum’ if he doesn’t has no effect. If on the other hand he were dominant in the mode of ‘moving away’, then the consequences of not studying would be a more effective driver of behaviour.

Parents who constantly threaten children to study by offering ‘smacks’ or ‘detention’ may be constantly frustrated by the lack of effect they have on children who are more inclined to ‘move towards’ or seek the benefits of something. By communicating in as many of the preferred modes (for relevant meta-programs) as possible, your ability to influence your children will be greatly enhanced.

Final Thoughts

1. Each and every one of us has preferred meta-programs, and we tend to unconsciously communicate in those forms.

2. By communicating in the preferred meta-program of other people, you are in a good position to influence, motivate, help learning and build rapport with those people.

3. If you communicate in such a way as to cover both extremes of any form of meta-program, your chances of convincing the entire audience is extremely high.

4. Meta-programs are not fixed, nor is a person’s position at one end of the spectrum cut and dried. Our positions vary according to the context being applied. They can also be changed, however the foundation for any change is the recognition of what our preferred meta-programs are in a particular context, and the desire to change them.

There is much more information about metaprograms, how to elicit them and how to structure your language and presentations so you effectively touch them to open the doorways into peoples’ minds.  These have practical application in home and work situations.

George Lee Sye

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