When conducting life or recovery coaching, have you ever felt that you’re just going around in circles with a client or that you’ve hit a barrier? Then, this article may help you in your work. It is about a process known as meta-programming a form of neuroscience called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). I like to refer to this term as habits of thought: How people think, make decisions, and how their thinking styles influence and motivate their behaviors.

As you may already know, all behavior is based on how a person stores and accesses both positive and negative experiences and information based on their beliefs and what they’ve been taught to value. Meta-programming is just another tool that coaches use to get a greater understanding of their clients’ addictive thinking patterns and beliefs as they help clients break free from the shackles of their own limitations.

In learning to read our clients, we must first understand that m-programming comes with certain suppositions, beliefs or givens which are useful in effecting change in clients:

  1. Communication is more than just what someone is saying.
  2. No one response is wrong or right. It just is.
  3. There is no such thing as a failed response. There is only feedback.
  4. Expressing any option (in any form) is better than not having an option at all.

The key to great coaching is to pay close attention to what a client says, how it is said, and from that, glean clues as to how the person thinks and acts resourcefully. Meta-programming also yields information as to clients’ frame of reference and what their intrinsic values and biases are that may be holding them back from moving forward on what often are obvious options.

If a coach can identify the intrinsic values of the client, and as a result, can better help their clients bridge any existing cognitive gaps, enhance self-discovery and empower themselves to move forward, then it’s called coaching.

The NLP literature has identified five common frames of references inherent in clients and which can be used to create client awareness, analyze problems, uncover cognitive gaps and develop solutions.

Frames of References:

  • Toward vs. Away thinkers: Persons with a “toward” frame of reference are more active goal setters, but can easily step on life’s potholes. This may be because their motivation is to gain, obtain and achieve at all costs and as a result, may become blinded by the potholes in life. “Go toward where angels fear to tread,” is a common descriptor of the toward thinker.[divider_padding]Away thinkers, on the other hand, focus more on moving away from pain and avoiding risks. These types have trouble setting goals and have to study a situation, just make sure everything is safe before moving forward.[divider_padding]
  • Self vs. Others: Persons with a Self frame of reference view the world through an “I” or “me” lens or a what’s in it for me perspective. This group uses whatever means necessary to look after themselves by avoiding risks. They are self-sufficient and figure things out on their own. They may be perceived as uncaring and arrogant. They are capable of participating in group coaching, but tend to want to take over the sessions.In one-one-counseling they are debaters or “yes but”ers. In group counseling they can often suck the energy out of the coaching process.[divider_padding]Those with an Others frame of reference spend a lot of time making sure everyone is comfortable and happy and may neglect their own needs for the needs of others. They are good team players, but their personal well-being can suffer through too much consensus-building and putting other people first. In a coaching setting, they can be perceived as unpredictable because many of their decisions are based on what others think or feel and how they might be perceived.[divider_padding]
  • Internal vs. External: Persons with an internal frame of reference instinctively know when they have done a good job and prefer to solve all their own problems with little input from others. They can stay motivated even when there is little feedback or praise. The disadvantage of this type of individual is that he or she tends to disregard external evidence, facts, and sound advice from other people. They rarely ask for advice and make their decisions based on their own judgments, feelings and opinions. Coaching this group can become difficult, but they respond best with questionnaires, journaling, and visioning.[divider_padding]A coach will need to emphasize visioning or forming a mental picture of what the client will have, get out of, or achieve as a result of doing x, y, or z and how satisfying that will feel.External thinkers, on the other hand, measure themselves against the feedback from others and make decisions based on facts gathered or through a “feel good” factor. They thrive on “pat on the back” feedback.[divider_padding]When faced with a challenge, they seek evidence, advice and opinions from other people and sources. The disadvantage of this frame of reference is that external thinkers easily get stressed when there is a lack of external feedback on progress and performance as it relates to personal goal setting and follow-through. Sincere positive feedback in coaching is important to this group.[divider_padding]
  • Global vs. Detailed: Clients with a detailed frame of reference will be concerned about the specifics of a situation. Their conversations in coaching will likely be long and drawn out to cover all the details. While focusing on the details of their issues they will sometimes forget the overall purpose and will require some prompting from the coach. The advantage of this type is that they can capably articulate their goals, dreams and their plans, but can get bogged down in detail.[divider_padding]Clients with a global frame of reference tend to have the head in the clouds and in group coaching especially may feel uncomfortable holding a detailed conversation. They experience great frustration with articulating details regarding their situation as they tend to have too many options rolling around in their heads and very little ways of executing them.[divider_padding]
  • Possibility vs. Necessity: Persons with a Necessity frame of reference are motivated primarily from a must or what they need, rather than by what they want. Most are impossibility thinkers, and do something because they must. They’re not pulled to take action by what is possible. The person who is motivated by necessity is much more interested in what’s known, fact checked, proven, and what’s secure. They have a limited perception of what is possible.[divider_padding]Clients in recovery who have a necessity frame of reference must be shown and convinced that their choice to explore options is critical to their recovery.Possibility thinkers, on the other hand, are motivated by options. These clients can be rare or short-time participants in coaching settings as they are more self-directed and can become easily bored once they get the information they think they need.

Uses in Coaching Settings

Each of us have our own strategy for interpreting the world around us. As a result, clients are always providing us clues as to those interpretations which can be rational or irrational and result in positive, neutral, or negative consequences.

Remember that Meta-programming are verbal or non-verbal language patterns that can often keep clients from thinking clearly. By understanding these patterns of thinking, coaches can figure out how and where their clients work best in a coaching setting.

It is important to gauge and calibrate the interactions of clients by listening and taking note of specific patterns: distortions, omissions, protecting old turf, generalizations, deletions, “all-is-well” thinking (when it’s not), lies of omission (leaving out critical information) “no-big-deal” thinking (when it is), and other cognitive distortions.

Coaches use NLP information to collaboratively explore, question, and restructure clients’ faulty thinking patterns, erroneous assumptions, and irrational beliefs to “screen” the quality of in-coming communications and make calculated distinctions about the people they are coaching while accelerating the coaching process.

Distinctions to observe:



  • Mismatch between words and action.
  • Nervousness in voice inflections.
  • Inability to express/share feelings.

Fear & Doubt

  • Changing the subject.
  • Sharp breath intake.
  • Too many inane questions.
  • Playing the “Yes, but….” Game.
  • Pulling away from the coach/group.
  • Tone doesn’t match words.
  • Reliance on jargon/clichés. [/one_half_last]

Signs of Readiness & Goal Desire

  • Excitement
  • Willingness
  • Self-motivation
  • Signs of inner strength.
  • Ability to think and respond conceptually.

(Sources: Tony Robbins & Chloe Madanes; 1998. Clyde D. Feldman, Ph.D.; 2004; Carol Talbot: “Hitting the Wall and Breaking Through” 2008.)

Starting Point Academy wants you to experience the potential NLP has in changing the lives of your clients and improving them beyond expectations. Finding success as a life or recovery coach doesn’t just happen…it is learned.

Life transformation requires proven skills, materials and evidence-based content that will quickly jump-start your confidence in your ability to coach persons recovering from any addictive disorders.

Learn to transform lives by becoming a Certified Recovery Coach today!