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Deep Structure vs. Surface Structure

Our individual understanding of the world is very detailed and complex. This detail exists in our brains though we don’t always think about all the details. We often think in more abstract terms and generalizations. For example, we know what different kinds of flowers look like, what colors they can have, if they have a lot of petals or few petals, if they are tall and thin or small and bushy. However, when we walk by a flower garden we generally don’t think of all these details — we just think “there is a flower garden”. Later, when talking to a friend you may say something like “I saw a beautiful flower garden today”. Chances are you aren’t going to go into great detail about all the different kinds of flowers, what each flower looked like, or how the garden was laid out. You friend, having not seen the flower garden, will fill in the missing details based on their experience. This person will have an understanding of what a flower garden is but it will likely be different from the one you are referring to.


The above example demonstrates several aspects about how we think and communicate. We generally don’t take the time to fully experience something we come across. If we see a flower garden we don’t spend a few hours getting to know each individual flower, how many petals and leaves it has, and where it is in relation to the other flowers. In fact, this kind of detail can take away from the overall experience. Furthermore, when we communicate our thoughts to someone else, we leave out much of the details which the other person fills in based on their experience and expectations.

The NLP Meta Model

In order to help improve communication, the NLP meta model, as described in Introducing NLP: Psychological Skills for Understanding and Influencing PeopleExternal Link, contains a set of tools that can be used to identify how and where information is lost during communication. The meta model also includes techniques to identify and uncover lost information to help improve understanding.

You can use the following skills to improve your understanding of yourself, of other people, and for making yourself better understood.

More Information

Unspecified Nouns
Unspecified Verbs
Modal Operators of Possibility
Modal Operators of Necessity
Universal Quantifiers
Complex Equivalence
Cause and Effect
Mind Reading