L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
  • Is there a difference between NLP and Neuro-Semantics?
  • If there is a difference, is it critical and significant or peripheral?
  • What are the differences between NLP and Neuro-Semantics?

To the first two questions, you will find that the answer in this article is, Yes, there is a difference between NLP and Neuro-Semantics, and yes, it is a critical one. To the third question, this article then details those differences. I could not have written this article when we began Neuro-Semantics, even two years ago I could not have written it. The critical differences that I’ve detailed here between NLP and Neuro-Semantics have been developing and are continue to develop. Here I have attempted to briefly summarize them. To make this as clear as possible I have created the chart on the next page to set forth the key differences. The text that follows the chart then offers a description of the distinctions.

As I identify these differences, I do ask that you do not read them as absolute statements. They are not. I have not written them to be absolute statement, only general ones. For example, what Neuro-Semantics has mostly done is to much more fully develop referencing, reflexivity, apply to self, community, systems, etc. This doesn’t mean that there is none of this in NLP, of course there is. In describing the differences, I most want to point to the key emphases in the two fields.

In the following descriptions then you will find many general statements about NLP and Neuro-Semantics. These are statements that are generally true of each model and field. For more specifics, check out the other articles on about both NLP and NS. As an NLP Trainer, I have over the years written numerous critiques with others on NLP. These were designed to offer feedback and insight as we acknowledged weaknesses in the model or the use of the model. Since the founding of Neuro-Semantics our focus has been to lead in a way that takes these critiques into account.

At its heart, the Neuro-Semantic difference begins with an attitude of apply to self. This focus leads to more congruency, more willingness to look at oneself, to use the processes with oneself, and to consciously aim to continually grow and improve. In turn, this leads to being more open and to honestly acknowledge the facets of NLP that we have found which do not work or are over-emphasized to the exclusion of something else. None of this is to say that one is right or better, but rather to point out differences, especially in terms of focus and direction.

When Neuro-Semantics began, it grew out of NLP and so it was not differentiated from NLP at all. We founded it during the days when Bandler had filed a 90 million dollar lawsuit against the field of NLP so we could continue if the worst-case scenario occurred. Today Neuro-Semantics has become significantly differentiated from NLP and I can only imagine that this will only continue in the years to come. The Neuro-Semantic difference supremely lies in an attitude—in an intentional stance about who we are who use the model. To that end we have adapted a statement from Richard Bandler and have added the wordrelationship.

“Neuro-Semantics is an attitude, that grows out of relationship and that leads to relationship, backed up by the methodology of modeling and that leads to hundreds of powerfully transforming patterns.”

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Neuro-Semantics

Focus is on Representation Focus on References & Referencing
Linear Thinking in Strategies Non-Linear Thinking: Reflexivity
Talks about Systems Systemic in its structure
Focus on Techniques Focus on Persons and Relationship and doing things to people and co-creating with others
Trained from Procedure meta-program Trained from Options meta-program
Working the magic on people Applying the magic to self first
Emphasis on Power, Success Emphasis on Connection, Authenticity
Effectiveness Ethical behavior and Win/Win Relationships
2 Meta-Domains 1st Meta-Model 4 Meta-Domains: 1st MM 2nd MP 3rd Meta-States
2nd Meta-Programs 4th Meta-Modalities or the Cinematic features of the so-called “Sub-modalities”
Primary Levels Meta-Levels:
Logical levels as Neuro-logical Levels Logical levels as Psycho-Logics, meta-levels,
Multi-ordinality, Matrix
Logical levels as Static, Hierarchical Logical levels as dynamic, fluid, layering
“Parts” of the mind Mind as holistic and systemic
No “Why” Question The Restoration of several “Why” Questions:
Why of Intentionality, Why of Outcome
Meta means “dissociation” Meta means “emotion” sometimes more, sometimes less.
Emotions seen as to be controlled Emotions seen as to be experienced, “bringing the kinesthetics back into NLP.”
Sub-Modalities seen as the elements of mind Sub-Modalities seen as meta-frames
Reductionism Gestalting, moving up levels to create new Generalizations
Focus on the Individual Focus on Individual and on Community and on numerous social and cultural contexts
Remedial Change: dealing with hurts Generative or Transformative Change: moving up to the next level of development
The power and dominance of the unconscious mind being mindful The power and balance of the conscious mind also,
“Pure NLP” Developmental NLP, NLP growing, changing, and developing over the years

From Representation to Referencing

The focus in NLP, and this is the genius of NLP, is on representation. Recognizing that we think in terms of our sensory systems and uses what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste to re-present to ourselves within our minds gives us control knobs for “running our own brain.” We have a Movie Mind and this empowers us to take charge of what plays out in the theater of our mind. Oftentimes the simplest shifts or alternations in the cinematic features (“sub-modalities”) that we use to encode our understandings is sufficient to create powerfully positive transformations.

The focus in Neuro-Semantics moves on from representation to references and referencing. First we bring in the world by taking a referent event and representing it. From there we transform the same event into frames of reference, and then frames of mind. This moves us up the levels as we classify or categories our learnings from the events. In this way we create layers of embedded frames that make up the matrix of our mind. And those layers emerge organically as the mind-body-emotion system grows. In moving up the levels, we do this primarily in language, hence the true place for the linguistic of NLP and the symbolic levels of Neuro-Semantics.

From Linear to Non-Linear Thinking

NLP mostly and primarily involves linear thinking. We see this most prominently in the domain of eliciting and modeling of strategies. While there is a place for a meta response in the strategy model using T.O.T.E. format, it is a minor piece and de-emphasized in actual practice. NLP mostly talks about sending or swishing the brain somewhere, moving from present state to desired state, identifying desired outcomes and formatting them to be well-formed and then just future pacing the experience. All of that is linear in nature and structure.

Neuro-Semantics focuses on and involves non-linear thinking precisely because it is driven by reflexivity. In Meta-States training we always begin with a warning that the kind of thinking required to understand meta-states is very different from the kind of thinking that governs NLP. At first, learning to think in non-linear ways can feel very disconcerting. Non-linear thinking means reckoning with going round and round in loops, spiraling up and down the levels of the mind, recognizing the numerous feedback and feed forward loops in a system, and recognizing that multiple processing will be occurring at any given moment.

From Non-Systemic to Highly Systemic

NLP talks about systems and well it should. It brought lots of system features in when it began by modeling Family Systems, Bateson’s cybernetics, and Korzybski’s non-aristotelian system. The problem is that it mostly talks about systems and actually operates in ways that are very non-systemic (i.e., linear, black-or-white, either-or, etc.). This has led several of us (Dilts, Bandler, McWhorter, and Hall) to work on creating models for “systemic NLP.”

To the extent that Neuro-Semantics has reflexivity built into its structure, it is systemic at its heart. Having incorporated many of the non-aristotelian principles of Korzybski into its structure, Neuro-Semantics identifies and uses both feedback and feed forward loops in its patterns and even has a self-correcting loop built into the model and community itself. This grew out of the 4 meta-domains (see User’s Manual of the Brain, Volume II, 2003) and led to the Matrix Model (2003).

You can see and experience the feedback loop in the Matrix model in terms of a number of the Neuro-Semantic patterns. For example, Mind-to-Muscle pattern enables us to feed forward a great idea into our body whereas the Intentionality pattern enables us to feed back to ourselves our intentionality up the levels. In the Neuro-Semantic community, we have built feedback into our trainings so that the trainers receive feedback (especially the Trainers and Coaches). We have numerous forums for feedback as well as our Neuro-Semantic Developers Colloquium.

From Techniques to Persons in Relationship

Much of the power of NLP is that it has focus so much on techniques and has developed many powerful techniques and patterns that allows a communicator, therapist, hypnotist, manager, etc. to do things to people. Yet this has also had many unfortunate consequences. It has led lots of people to judge NLP as manipulative and focused only on “programming” into others without a proper balance on relationship, rapport, ethics, or ecology. In many places in Europe, NLP is known so much for its techniques that it is also criticized for the same—that it is only about techniques, and the model is but a collection of techniques.

The focus on techniques has also brought out another NLP/ NS difference. NLP is mostly trained from a meta-program of procedures whereas Neuro-Semantics is mostly trained from an options point of view. This is one of those things that many people first notice in our trainings.

Neuro-Semantics focus much more on persons and relationship than on techniques. While there are many patterns and processes, the over-arching idea in Neuro-Semantics is to make sure the technology serves people and is offered in a healthy, balanced, ecological, and human way. To that end, Neuro-Semantics puts the focus on the personal context, on co-creating a solution with the client or customer, and on operating in Win/Win relationships with others. This is part of the vision for Neuro-Semantics as a community and movement.

From Doing to Others to Apply to Self

NLP certainly has the power for us to work “magic” on people. That’s what Bandler and Grinder found as the modeled Satir, Perls, and Erickson and so they wrote about “the structure of magic.” The problem with this is that the focus is on the NLP practitioner doing something to the client. And when that’s the focus, then the frames by implication is that the person doing it to another doesn’t do it on oneself. As a consequence, NLP as a model has a lot of criticism and bad press. Many NLPers who haven’t applied the model to themselves do not even know how to. And that leaves them not “walking their talk” and so being incongruent, they give NLP a bad name.

In Neuro-Semantics “apply to self” is built into the model. This has also become a major focus and emphasis, apply the magic first to yourself, and only then to others. Doing this enables Neuro-Semanticists to walk their talk, receive the benefits of the magic personally and to then be walking examples and models of the powerful tools and patterns. It makes for personal congruency—and personal power.

From Power over to Power with … or Authenticity

With NLP’s focus on techniques, it followed that there has been a strong emphasis on power, success, and effectiveness. This shows up in the advertizing and marketing of NLP. It shows up in the seminars and trainings. Robbins is a prime example, “Unlimited Power,” “Awakening the Giant Within,” “Date with Destiny,” etc. This over-focus on “power” and materialistic success predominates as focus on relationship, wisdom, ecology, community, etc. all take a back row seat. It also explains why there’s been so much bad press around the theme of manipulation. Of course, I’m using the term “power” here in the traditional sense of power over others rather than in the sense of power with others.

From the beginning, Neuro-Semantics has held forth a vision that emphasizes relationship, being authentic, connection with others, conducing business ethically, and creating Win/Win relationships that believe in abundance for all. I see this as a prevention to the “guru” mentality that has grown up in many parts of NLP (not to mention other seminar businesses). To be truly successful, Neuro-Semantics stresses the wealth of connection and relationships, and power with others as equals and colleagues. The foundation of this is being true to oneself. So in many Neuro-Semantics trainings we have consciously focused on balancing Being, Doing, and Having, especially in those trainings on building wealth and personal mastery.

Personal power and authenticity can go together. But it is not the old definitions of power as power overothers, doing things to others apart from their awareness, etc. Personal power in the sense of being personally effective, taking effective action, achieving one’s goals, and getting things done—in Neuro-Semantics we see that as a natural outcome of finding one’s own talents, passions, values, and visions.

From 2 to 4 Meta-Domains

In traditional NLP there are only two meta-domains, the Meta-Model and Meta-Programs. These are taught separately as different domains with little interconnection. Other domains exist in NLP, but not meta-domains (e.g., “sub-modalities,” strategies, time-lines, modeling, and hypnosis). These are also talk separately as if the domains have no inter-connections.

In Neuro-Semantics, the third meta-domain was initiated as the Meta-States model was discovered and articulated. The modeling influence of Meta-States then opened our eyes to other meta-domains. The first to be discovered was that of the meta-modalities or “sub-modalities.” This revealed that there was no sub in “sub-modalities.” When we play with the cinematic features of our mental movies (the “sub-modalities”) and use the distinctions of the visual, auditory, kinesthetic systems, we were really framing from a higher level, an editorial level to the movie. From this discovery, we came up with six new sub-models or patterns (The Structure of Excellence: Unmasking the Meta-Levels of “Sub-Modalities,” 1999). Meta-States also revealed that “time” and time-lines were also meta-states and could be tremendously enriched by the principles of Meta-States.

From “Sub-Modalities” to Meta-Modalities

In NLP we consider “sub-modalities” as the periodic elements of mind and so use them as a chemist would in putting together the building blocks of experience. This metaphor further encourages the breaking down of experience and so a reductionistic approach. For some in NLP, (especially those who bought into DHE, see article on website, “Ten Years and Still No Beef!”) “sub-modalities” govern everything.

In Neuro-Semantics we now recognize that there are no sub level for the so-called domain of

“sub-modalities.” The problem is a problem of mis-labeling. The cinematic features of our mental movies in the sensory channels are not at a lower or sub level, but are actually the meta-frames. As we now recognize that you have to go meta to even detect the so-called “sub-modalities,” we have to go meta to them to alter how we have framed a mental movie from color to black-and-white, from loud to quiet, etc. In meta-stating these distinctions, we are moving up and so gestalting the experience. We move up the levels of frames in order to create new generalizations of believing, valuing, expecting, deciding, intending, etc.

From Primary to Meta-Levels

While NLP speaks about meta-levels (meta-position and Neuro-logical levels), it focus mostly on the primary level. It does so to its glory as it speaks about the representational level of the sensory systems and the distinctive features of one’s internal movie. It also does, yet to its detriment, when it confuses beliefs, values, criteria, etc. as if they were primary level phenomena. After all, these are not primary level phenomena, but meta-states (layered thoughts-and-feelings about various ideas) and that’s why merely shifting the cinematic features (translated to NLP jargon, “sub-modalities”) seldom works.

From beginning with meta-states, Neuro-Semantics focuses on the layering of level upon level and the systemic nature of the meta-levels. Here our emphasis moves from the linear nature of NLP that focuses so much on the externals to our focus on internal thoughts and our layering of them. By distinguishing the levels and seeing how we layer frame upon frame to create the embedded frames of any given matrix, Neuro-Semantics provides principles and guidelines for dealing with this richness of interaction.

In Meta-States, there are principles governing the levels, detailed lists of the numerous ways levels can interact, and questions for flushing out the meta-levels (see Meta-States, Secrets of Personal Mastery orAccessing Personal Genius training manual).

In moving up the meta-levels our challenge lies not so much as to what is “out there” at the primary level, but in how we apply the higher level meanings to those events. Focus now shifts to how we have interpreted the events and how that interpretation impacts our lives. After all, the impact that anything has on us lies in the meanings that we give that thing. Our meta_level meanings creates the difference that makes the difference. This is why Neuro-Semantics places its focus on how we utilize and reframe our meta_levels for the best impact in our lives.

From State to Fluid Meta-Levels

NLP does have some “logical levels,” at least those centers of NLP that accept Bateson’s Levels of Learning and Robert Dilts’ Neuro-logical levels. While this model does not fit the criteria for being true “logical levels” it does provide a wonderful list of 6 distinctions about human experience. Yet the “logical levels” of this model are static and hierarchical. Using such nominalizations as “beliefs,” “values,” “identity,” “mission,” etc. the model talks about these layerings as if they were things.

Neuro-Semantics, starting from the Meta-States model, denominalizes “logical levels” in terms of the verbs or processes—this gives us layering, leveling, and embedding. From this we can more easily detect and work with the layering of the mind as we classify experiences using various categories. In this way, we type or format an experience and treat it as a member of some class. This describes the psycho-logics of our mind-body-emotion system and reveals that meta-levels refer to the ideas and feelings we embed other ideas and feelings within. This allows us to explore, “What do you think or feel about X?” Neuro-Semantics also uses the linguistic distinction of multi-ordinality to work with the reflexivity of certain words (nominalizations that we can apply to itself).

In Neuro-Semantics we see “logical levels” as dynamic and fluid. We layer thought upon thought and feeling upon feeling. The resulting system creates a dynamic and ever-moving matrix of our mind.

This highlights yet another NLP/NS difference. NLP, derived from Perls, Satir, and Erickson, spoke a lot about “parts.” This was a contribution that Leslie Cameron-Bandler brought in from T.A. (Transactional Analysis). In Neuro-Semantics we typically avoid such elementalism (Korzybski) and speak about things in a more holistic and systemic way, the mind-body-emotion system.

From No “Why” to Several “Whys”

n NLP practitioner we are taught to “Never ask Why.” The “why” question is considered taboo. Why? Because “it only elicits defenses, excuses, and rationalizations. It only takes you back into history.” This is certainly true with the “why” of identity or history questions. “Why are you that way?” “Don’t you know better than that? Why did you do that?”

Neuro-Semantics restores several “Why” questions to the process of modeling experience. While we seldom ask the “why” of identity or history, we most definitely ask other why questions. We ask about thewhy of intentionality, the why of outcome, and the why of reasons and reasoning. Why is that important to you? Why do you want that? Why would that be significant to you? And when a person is in a good state, a state we would like to confirm and solidify, we coach a person into that by asking why, “Why do you like that? Why do you believe that? Why do you want that?” We ask that because we know that in response, the person will find or create reasons and explanations that will support the experience.

Sometimes we want to know a person’s reasons for why he or she does a particular thing or feels a particular way. Why do I want to know this? Because reasons operate in our mind as our knowledge base, paradigm map, and domain of understanding by which we give meaning to things. In this, reasons create powerful motivations in our propulsion system (moving toward values and away from dis-values). If a person has enough reasons to do something, that person will do it. And if I can discover the reasons for an unwanted behavior, then those reasons provide a leverage point for me as a coach, therapist, manager, or communicator to reframe and invite a change of behavior.

Also, in so designing a customized propulsion system for an individual, we do well to assist that person in uncovering and/or creating high level away from reasons for changing the behavior as well as high leveltoward reasons for pulling the person towards the desired behavior. These why’s are critical to understanding and changing behavior and Neuro-Semantics provides the tools for doing just that.

From Dissociated Emotion to Meta-Emotions

In NLP, the term meta is generally defined or understood be equated with “dissociation.” To go meta for many trained in traditional NLP means to “become dissociated.” And being dissociated for them means to not feel, to be “just in the head.” This makes meta and the meta-position and anything that has meta as a preface something un-emotional, devoid of emotion, or non-emotional. And since in many parts of the NLP world, NLP is much more about controlling emotions than experiencing them, emotions are seen as to be controlled.

Neuro-Semantics takes a completely different position on all of this. First, in Meta-States, we understand that while sometimes a person can step back from one state of strong negative emotions and into a state of witnessing, observing, and calmness, the meta response or move generally involves some emotion and oftentimes more emotion. Joy about joy usually increases the joy. Joy of learning turns up the positive emotions for learning. Fear of fear increases the fear, as does anger at fear, fear of anger, shame of anger, etc. The term meta only refers to taking a position about another experience of feeling, thought, or physiology. It is not the same as dissociation.

This is important in Neuro-Semantics because we see emotions as part of the mind-body-emotion system and therefore to be experienced, even the so-called “negative” ones. That’s why so many have said that “Meta-States brings the kinesthetics back into NLP.” “Neuro-Semantics is about getting the neurology activated along with the mind.” We are always associated and always dissociated. It’s just a question of what mind-body states are we experiencing and which are we not experiencing at any given moment.

From Individualism to Community

NLP’s focus is almost entirely on the Individual. This is seen in the models and patterns that we have in NLP, in the individualistic nature of the founders and leaders and in the overall general direction—”run your own brain.” While there were invitations in NLP (Bateson’s anthropology and cultural studies and Satirs’ Family Systems), NLP has been very individualist.

Neuro-Semantics uses its systems focus to shift focus from the individual only to focusing also on community, culture, and social contexts. Using Meta-States, Neuro-Semantics has begun to model cultures and cultural phenomena and to use more and more group dynamics, teams, and networking to expand Neuro-Semantics around the globe.

From Remedial to Generative

Here is another generalization; in spite of NLP talking about generative change, most of the early patterns of NLP were remedial—curing phobias, re-imprinting the past, decision destroying, time-lining old emotional hurts, etc. In fact, as a psychologist, when I first found NLP and began teaching it, I put the best of NLP patterns together on Trauma Recovery and began teaching workshops on that. This really isn’t any surprise, NLP came from three therapists who worked with people with problems and many of those problems had to do with getting free from the past.

So what NLP envisioned in terms of generative or transformative change, Neuro-Semantics has more fully actualized. By making commercial models on weight control (Games Slim and Fit People Play), business (Games Business Experts Play), coaching (Meta-Coaching), etc. our primary focus, we have shifted from remedial change to transformative change. This has led to patterns that have to do with increasing performance, becoming masters of our matrix, playing new frame games, etc.

From Unconscious to more Consciousness

Coming from modeling Ericksonian hypnosis, traditional NLP has a strong emphasis on the unconscious. It even takes a cue from Erickson to assume that “the unconscious” is always much wiser and reliable than the conscious mind—which both Bandler and Grinder have come to describe as “a dick head.” In fact, to take Grinder’s Whispering in the Wind book seriously, we should never trust the conscious mind and should use Six-Step Reframing as the quintessential NLP pattern. Why? Because he created it when he was delirious and not in his conscious mind and because it depends on “the unconscious” rather than the conscious mind.

Neuro-Semantics puts a lot more focus on becoming mindful or conscious. We have also called into question this over-valuing of “the unconscious” mind as if there were only one unconscious mind (see article on website, Which Unconscious Mind do you Train?). For us in Neuro-Semantic, it is consciously running our own brain, being mindful of what we are saying and doing, and consciously present to this moment that makes us uniquely human. Yes, some states of “consciousness” are painful and problematic. Yet it is not consciousness as such that’s the problem, but the kind of consciousness. That’s why we focus on bringing a witnessing and non-judgmental consciousness to our own states.

From “Pure NLP” to Developing and Ever-Changing NLP

Finally here’s another difference. Today there are NLP Training Centers and trainers who are arguing for a return to “pure NLP” and that they and they only do “pure NLP.” Several of them have set 1985 as an arbitrary date for this. Prior to this date, NLP was “pure” after that date, it began to be corrupted by other influences. Grinder argues for this saying that we need to distinguish NLPmodeling from NLPapplication (see Whispering in the Wind, 2002). He argues that Six-Step reframing is NLPmodeling and not NLPapplication.

Of course, this is such a strange twist on a model that began as a paradigm shift and that presented itself as an ongoing ever-growing and developing model. In fact, it began with the founders saying, “We have no theory; we’re only modelers. We only care about what works and describing it.”

Neuro-Semantics has focused more on commercial models that apply the numerous meta-domain models rather than on the models themselves. They are only tools, only maps. Our question is entirely practical, What can we do with them? Can we use them to become financially independent, to become fluent and master stuttering, to master fears and become courageous, to defuse hotheads and other cranky people, to become resilience in business, etc.? And because of this, these have become the Neuro-Semantic “Gateway” Trainings.


  • While Neuro-Semantics grew out of the roots of NLP —along with Korzybski’s and Bateson’s work (and others, see the article The Roots of Neuro-Semantics), Neuro-Semantics differs from NLP now and will continue to in the years to come.
  • The vision and mission of Neuro-Semantics is to be much more congruent and aligned with the presuppositions of NLP and to refine the model as new information, research, and models arise.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, researches, writes, models, is an entrepreneur, and trains internationally in Neuro-Semantics. With thanks to Michelle Duval, a master Neuro-Semantic Coach in Sydney Australia for some of these distinctions.


Bandler, Richard and Grinder, John. (1976). The structure of magic, Volume II. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books.

Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bandler, Richard and Grinder, John. (1982). Reframing: Neuro-linguistic programming and the transformation of meaning. UT: Real People Press.

Bandler, Richard. (1985). Using your brain for a change. (Ed. Connirae and Steve Andreas). Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Bodenhamer, Bobby G.; Hall. L. Michael. (1999). The user’s manual for the brain: A comprehensive manual for neuro-linguistic programming practitioner certification. United Kingdom: Crown House Publishers.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000 second edition). Meta-states: Managing the higher levels of your mind. Grand Jct., CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob. (1997). Figuring out people: Design engineering using meta-programs.Wales, UK: Anglo-American Books.

Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob. (2001 fourth edition). Mind-lines: Lines for changing minds. Clifton, CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob. (1999). The structure of excellence: Unmasking the meta-levels of submodalities. Grand Jct. CO: Empowerment Technologies.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000). Frame games: Persuasion elegance. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Korzybski, Alfred (1933/1994). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Lakeville, Conn: Institute of General Semantics.