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Understanding NLP Thinking Styles

by Frances Coombes(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 241 - October 2017

“The most complicated piece of equipment comes with no instructions and performs in a different way ever day – it’s people.”  Sir Tom Farmer – CEO Kwik-Fit

Our thinking patterns affect how we respond to situations in the world. Yet often we run thinking patterns, called ‘metaprogrammes’ that are outside our awareness.  Understanding thinking traits is key when seeking to communicate, influence or motivate people to buy from you according to the thinking patterns they run.

Understanding metaprogrammes is useful if you are a team leader, a parent, a colleague or a lover.  The tool is used to train sales groups in large companies on how to get the edge in selling and helped American and Canadian political parties and presidents such as Barak Obama design campaigning strategies based on understanding how differently people think and decide how to take actions. 

People use combinations of different thinking styles but do have traits.  Some of the easiest types of thinkers to recognize are noticeable because they operate at the extreme ends of the continuum.

Frances Coombes 241 NLP Thinking Styles

Matchers sort for sameness in a situation, they notice points of similarity, they like change to be gradual, and use words such as ‘same’, ‘just like’, and ‘similar’.  Mis-matchers sort for what’s missing in a situation; they notice what is different or what doesn’t work.  They can easily get into arguments because of their mis-matching language and behaviour. Donald Trump is a  ‘Mismatcher’ elected as US leader by many because he was seen as an outsider and thorn in the side of complacent bureaucracy - hence the rise of  the unreasonable man.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.  The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  That is why all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  George Bernard Shaw

There are people who move ‘away from pain’ and others who are motivated to move towards pleasure’.  Politicians who want to move away from pain may recommend a cost cutting fiscal policy to save us further pain in the future.  Whilst those who move ‘towards pleasure’ will say it’s okay to spend money now because we can pay it all back later when things get better.  One group uses the carrot, the other the stick.  Although their aims may be similar, but their methods for reaching their outcome, and explanations for how well their strategy will work, will be different.

To know if a person is ‘away from pain’ or towards pleasure’ you pay attention to how people talk when they answer questions, rather than what they talk about. Away From pain’ thinkers will tell you what they don’t want to happen rather than what they do want.  People who move towards outcomes’ are motivated by accomplishment and what they want to achieve.  Sometimes it happen that in their haste to complete they may have a gap in their thinking and miss things that they need to be aware of in order to get things done.  These can be the people who set up a meeting to announce a fabulous new idea – but don’t inform participants soon enough to be able to attend the event.

Some people are internally referenced; they have their own internal standards to judge if they have done a good job, whilst externally referenced people rely on feedback from others.  Metaprogrammes are methods of organizing information and patterns of thinking and behaviour which we run which are outside of our awareness, yet they have a major effect on how we respond to situations in the world.

Margaret Thatcher was an ‘internally referenced’ politician, someone who makes their own decisions and is not swayed by others. In 1985 she took a solitary stand against imposing economic sanctions against South Africa, whilst negotiators on behalf of the other forty Commonwealth leaders sought to reach agreement on a programme of joint action to end apartheid in the white-ruled republic. When the vote on sanctions was announced she was asked to comment and she said ‘I feel sorry for the other 49’ - these were the people who voted differently from her.

If internally referenced people don’t praise or acknowledge other people, it is because they decide themselves whether they’ve done a good job or not. They don’t seek or need praise from others unless these are higher ranking people whom they rate and admire.  Whereas Externally referenced people need praise and to have it routinely withheld can cause them psychological distress. Typical responses from those who need recognition and feel it is purposely withhold goes along the lines:  "They treat us like mushrooms - we are kept in the dark - told nothing and dumped upon every now and then."

Donald Trump is a ‘big picture’ thinker; these people are comfortable with large chunks of information, talk in generalities, want to see the big picture first. They can be overwhelmed by details. The ‘specifics’ thinker at the opposite end on the continuum concentrates on small details, and asks ‘how does this situation relate to me’ before they draw conclusions.  Big chunk and specific thinkers who concentrate on the details can drive each other mad.  They are opposites in thinking styles and can fall out because they fail to see the other person’s point of view. 

Sorts for self –v- sorts for others. People who sort for themselves see situations in terms of their own needs and priorities and put themselves first.  Those who process for ‘others’ put other people’s needs before their own needs.  A lot of people in the caring professions process for others.  Both thinking styles, that of sorting for ourselves or sorting for others if taken to extreme can be problematic.  Sorting for self can end up seeming not just selfish but narcissistic.  Whereas sorting for others can end up trying to please everyone at your own expense and being all things to all men.


Metaprogrammes are useful predictors of behaviour. Recognizing thinking styles allows you to make crucial distinctions about how to communicate with people.  You can compare your thinking style with others and flag up differences.  Thinking styles are guides to behaviour only – no one is exclusively programmed to behave in a certain way.


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About Frances Coombes

Frances Coombes Advanced Dip CBT/REBT Dip CBT offers one-to-one therapeutic coaching in North West London and on Zoom.  She is a is a CBT/REBT psychotherapist in North West London, a NLP Master Practitioner and Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapist and runs life coaching groups in London and on Zoom.  She teaches NLP at The City Lit in Central London and tutors at the City Lit and Mary Ward Centre in central London on Using REBT for Managing Stress and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). She runs goal setting and REBT coaching groups for vulnerable people for inner London authorities and charities.  

Her most recent book is Motivate Yourself and Reach Your Goals, pub, November 2013, Hodder Headline. Available on and  For extract visit To inquire or book personal development courses contact Frances on Tel: 07818 896 795; 


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