• Maud Vanhoutte

What do we learn from NLP’s meta-programs to improve teaching skills & adapt to learning styles

Introduction to NLP

NLP, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, you might have heard of it, but do you know what it is and how it can make your life easier? Let us start with the terminology. NLP consists of three components that focus on different aspects of an individual:

❖ Neuro: what is memorised by our brain and our five senses.

❖ Linguistic: what manifests through our language, both verbal and non-verbal.

❖ Programming: what comes from our experiences and our habits.

NLP is originated from America in the seventies with John Grinder (linguist) and Richard Bandler (mathematician and psychologist). Their initial intention was to observe successful people, to see what makes them successful, to understand how their brain works to replicate extreme human excellence. Their findings led them to realise that the brain works by programming. They formalised their modelling techniques under the name 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' to symbolise the relationship between mind, language and body.

In other words, NLP is a powerful tool to change your programming for the better; it is the manual for excellence.

What do we learn from NLP’s meta-programs to improve teaching skills & adapt to learning styles

How can NLP make your life easier and better? Picture a house, your house if you wish. Without strong foundations, you can try to make as many repairs as you want, if something big happens – wind, heavy rain, storm – your house will not resist. It is the same for us humans; without strong foundations, challenging life events can cost us a lot. NLP is assisting you in creating those strong foundations, and it can represent more or less work depending on planned and unplanned discoveries; just like when building a house on a new field, you never know what you will encounter.

NLP is not magic or a quick fix. Working on yourself and your house is a continuous process. By having a strong foundation, you can withstand pressure from unplanned circumstances. From time to time, you will have setbacks, but thanks to your stable foundation, you are always able to bounce back quickly.

We can all have a different approach to NLP; my seven big areas of work are the following:

  1. Setting up your goals: a clear vision for precise results

  2. Embracing your values as a decision-making tool

  3. Turning your limiting beliefs into positive ones

  4. Getting to accept, respect, and love yourself unconditionally

  5. Understanding and accepting others better

  6. Developing your resources to reach your full potential

  7. Learning excellent communication skills to engage in positive relationships

This article dives deeper into aspects four and five. By introducing the concept of meta-programs, you will gain a better understanding of the reasons behind your own and others' actions while in a learning environment.

Understanding the concept of meta-programs

To start, NLP asserts meta-programs are mental processes which manage, guide and direct other mental processes. These so-called "meta-programs" are internal programs that drive our behaviour and influence how we function in the world. Meta-programs are responsible for the following:

  • What we notice

  • How we code our experiences differently

  • How we use different language patterns

  • The level of importance we give to different things

Meta-programs can differ per occasion since it is context-based. You may find your behaviour changing depending on your situation. You can act according to a meta-program or the entire opposite or anywhere in-between these extremes. The image below illustrates the range where you can find yourself.

What do we learn from NLP’s meta-programs to improve teaching skills & adapt to learning styles

Benefits coming along with an understanding of meta-programs:

  • Appreciating other people's differences

  • Communication flexibility

  • Increased sense of empowerment

Discover some interesting meta-programs to understand your students better and adapt your teaching to your learners' learning styles.

THE VAKOG learning style

You probably already know this one, but do you use it correctly?


V for visual

A for auditory

K for kinaesthetic

(O for olfactory)

(G for gustatory)

The VAKOG learning style in our representation system focuses on our five senses. In a classroom, we usually focus more on the VAK learning styles. Some people can easily read a text quietly and remember its content, whereas other people need to read it out loud to remember it.

How it impacts the learning experience

The visual learner sees, visualises, and pictures everything. He needs to see the information and learns best with diagrams, illustrated textbooks, videos, and handouts.

The auditory learner hears or pronounces sentences, and concepts to remember them. He needs to hear the information and learns best with verbal lectures, discussions, and talking things through.

The kinaesthetic learner enjoys contact and doing things. He needs to do, move or touch, and learns best with a hands-on approach.

How to spot it?

You can easily spot this meta-program in your students; by simply listening to them.

The visual learners will use this vocabulary: "I see", "It is clear", "Enlighten me", "Show me", "I have seen that"…

The auditory learners will use this vocabulary: "I hear you,'' "I am listening", "It sounds like", "Tell me", "I have heard that"…

The kinaesthetic learners will use this vocabulary: "I feel", "I was touched", "It affects me", "Emotional", "Sensitive"…

A final tip

The aim of knowing the different learning styles is to understand how the brain works when it absorbs information. As a facilitator, you want to adapt your presentation to all learning types.

You also want to ensure that you are not focusing too much on your learning style and that you manage to stimulate all learners through different perception canals.

Towards or away: understanding motivations

What do we learn from NLP’s meta-programs to improve teaching skills & adapt to learning styles


The meta-program "towards or away" works with our motivations. It highlights the fact that you are either motivated to do something by moving towards achieving it or by moving away from something you do not want. It is the "carrot or stick" situation.

How it impacts the learning experience

Moving-towards learners will be motivated to learn, to realise or to achieve something. For example, a moving-towards learner can enrol in training to develop new skills to apply to a higher position in his company. He will need to be inspired, motivated and will prefer hands-on experiences.

Moving-away learners will be motivated to learn to avoid the consequence of not knowing something. For example, a moving-away learner can enrol in training to avoid losing a job for lacking an essential skill. He will need for the training to provide him with the right resources.

How to spot it

You can spot this meta-program early in a training class when you question the participants about their expectations and motivations for the day. The moving-towards learner will tell you that he wants to learn to achieve something when the moving-away learner will tell you that he needs to learn to avoid a consequence.

A final tip

By knowing what influences your learners' motivations, you can increase their motivations. It is also an excellent tool for self-awareness as it will help you boost your motivation.

Internal or external frame of reference

What do we learn from NLP’s meta-programs to improve teaching skills & adapt to learning styles


This meta-program is about our frame of reference when making a decision. Some of us will need to share their ideas and confront their point of view with others before taking a decision or accepting a way of thinking; this is the external frame of reference. The internal frame of reference is the opposite; we do not need other people's opinions to come to a decision or to accept a way of thinking.

How it impacts the learning experience

Internal frame of reference learners will prefer to think by themselves; they do not need others' approval to move on with a decision. These learners solely require internal approval.

External frame of reference learners will prefer to confront their opinions with others; they will enjoy group discussions and activities. This learner needs to be reassured and encouraged.

How to spot it

The internal frame of reference learners will look more assertive and straightforward in their statements; they will not question their thinking out loud. The external frame of reference learner will always double-check with others and ask for opinions; they might look unsure from time to time.

A final tip

Knowing your learners' frame of reference will help you to know which ones need more encouragement and guidance. If you have an external frame of reference, you will avoid asking too many questions and feedback about the organisation and the learning experience as it could misrepresent as a lack of self-confidence. If you have an internal frame of reference, you will have to pay extra attention to your group to assess if you are all on the same page.

Global or specific locus of control


Either you focus on the broad overview, and you are more a global thinker, or you focus on the small details, and you are more a specific thinker.

How it impacts the learning experience

The global learner will need the big picture to understand a concept. It can be challenging for him to listen to in-depth details and lengthy monologues.

The specific learner will need to know all the details to understand a concept. He will want to go in-depth with the explanation to be sure to understand it well. Only having the big picture is insufficient.

How to spot it

Global learners use few words and give big pictures when specific learners will share all aspects of a story when sharing with the group.

A final tip

It is essential to adapt your presentations to this meta-program to meet all your learners' needs. Be sure to always share the big picture before going through the details. If you are a specific thinker, try to reduce your explanations and go straight to the point. If you are a global thinker, you will need to make an extra effort to detail your explanations.


All in all, being aware of your students' learning styles will enable you to adapt accordingly to deliver your message effectively. In this world of rapid change, all professionals working in training, learning and development are challenged on their flexibility and adaptability. Being aware of today's learning styles helps you stay on top of your game.

Maud Vanhoutte

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