Metaprograms: How big are your chunks?

In the last blog I visited the concept of ‘metaprograms’ – the general approaches to life that influence our view of the world and affect the success of our choices and outcomes, both positively and negatively. There are no ‘wrong’ metaprograms, and they are preferences rather than hard and fast rules. So in the last example, having a preference for a ‘toward’ metaprogram, or an ‘away from’ metaprogram each has their own benefits and disadvantages.

Another metaprogram that can have a significant effect on your world view is ‘chunk-size’.

A stonemason was working on a huge rock on the site of a new cathedral. A passing priest asked him what he was doing and the stonemason replied: ‘I am using these tools to make this rock the right shape to fit with other rocks. By doing this I will earn money for my family and keep us safe.’

The priest nodded and walked on to see another stonemason working on a similar piece of stone. When asked the same question the stonemason replied ‘I am using these tools on this rock to help build an huge building that will stand for thousands of years.’

Finally the priest met one more stonemason before he left the site. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘I am working by the grace of God, to build this magnificent cathedral in his name. Millions of people, over time, will come and worship the Lord and many souls will be saved. The Cathedral will stand as a testament to God’s glory.’

Chunking levels in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)

Chunking is a word often used in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to describe the way people analyse their experiences. Essentially, it is the difference between ‘big-picture’ and ‘small picture’ thinking. When you ‘chunk-up’ you are looking at how what you are experiencing fits into the grand scheme of things. When you ‘chunk down’ you are looking at the detail of the experience in preference to the big picture.

In the stonemason story, the first stonemason is ‘chunking down’ to the detail. The third stonemason is ‘chunking up’ to the big picture. There are benefits of both styles of thinking, depending on the context. The second is somewhere between the two.

We all tend to have a preference for a certain size of chunk. This is natural, and being aware that changing the level of detail in your analysis can expose flaws in your reasoning or your strategy, is a very powerful skill.

One lady was stuck in a job she hated. She said she had to remain, because she needed the money to support her family. Chunking up, I asked her what is the overall purpose of supporting your family? For her it was happiness and love. In this context she could see that no matter how well she supported her family financially they could never be happy, while she did not love her job.

Equally I worked with another person who told me that he felt that his wife did not love him, because she went out with friends twice a week without him. I asked him ‘how specifically does your wife enjoying the company of friends ‘mean’ that she doesn’t love you?’ When he analysed this in detail he realised that his wife’s need to be with others was not relevant to the amount of love she had for him and that there were a vast number of things that his wife did and said that demonstrated that she loved him very much. Here, chunking into the detail, helped the client get a better idea of the big picture.

How do chunk up and down?

There are some questions to ask yourself if you are struggling with a situation and want to get a fresh perspective:

1. ‘What is this an example of?’ or ‘What’s more important than that?’

These questions help you chunk up to a bigger picture when you may be focussing too much on the detail of a situation and getting bogged down.

e.g. ‘I lost my job.’ ‘What’s more important than having your job?’

2. ‘How/who/what/when/where specifically?’ or ‘What other example of this can I find?’

These questions chunk you down to details and ensure that you are not generalising things too much.

e.g. ‘Everybody hates me’ – ‘Who specifically hates me?’

Chunking up and down is a key skill in coaching and NLP and it is a great thing to improve on for yourself. It’s also how many jokes work and can make you great at lateral thinking. Edward de Bono is a great person to read on this subject.

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Robert Sanders is a therapist and life coach, supporting people in their present and helping them create their future.

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