One of the best ways to become aware of the astonishing diversity of human reactions is to speak to a group of people. You can’t help noticing how differently people react to the same thing. You tell a motivational story, and one person will be transfixed, another bored to tears. You tell a joke, and one person howls while another doesn’t move a muscle. You’d think each person was listening in a different mental language.

The question is, why do people react so differently to identical messages? Why does one person see the glass as half-empty and another see it as half-full? Why does one person hear a message and feel energized, excited and motivated while another heads the exact same message and doesn’t respond at all?

Shaw’s quote is precisely right. If you address someone in the right key, you can do anything. If you address him/her in the wrong one, you can do nothing. The most inspiring message, the most insightful thought, the most intelligent critique, are absolutely meaningless unless they’re understood both intellectually and emotionally by the person to whom they’re being addressed. They’re major keys not just to personal power, but to many of the broader issues we must confront collectively. If you want to be a master persuader, a master communicator, in both business and in personal life, you have to know how to find the right key.

The path is through metaprograms. Metaprograms are the keys to the way a person processes information. They’re powerful internal patterns that help determine how he forms his internal representations and directs his behavior. Metaprograms are the internal programs (or sorts) we use in deciding what to pay attention to. We distort, delete, and generalize information because the conscious mind can only pay attention to so many pieces of information at any given time.

Our brain processes information much the way a computer does. It takes fantastic amounts of data and organizes them into a configuration that makes sense to that person. A computer can’t do anything without software, which provides the structure to perform specific tasks, Metaprograms operate much the same way in our brain. They provide the structure that governs what we pay attention to, how we make sense of our experiences, and the directions in which they can take us. They provide the basis on which we decide that something is interesting or dull, a potential blessing or a potential threat. To communicate with a computer, you have to understand its software. To communicate effectively with a person, you have to understand his metaprograms.

People have patterns of behavior, and they have patterns by which they organize their experience to create those behaviors. Only through understanding those mental patterns can you expect to get your message across, whether it’s trying to get someone to buy a car or understand that you really love him/her. Even though the situations may vary, there is a consistent structure to how people understanding things and organize their thinking.


All human behavior revolves around the urge to gain pleasure or avoid pain. You pull away from a lighted match in order to avoid the pain of burning your hand. You sit and watch a beautiful sunset because you get pleasure from the glorious celestial show as day glides into night.

The same is true of more ambiguous actions. One person may walk a mile to work because he enjoys the exercise. Another may walk because he has a terrible phobia about being in a car. One person may read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald because he enjoys their prose and insight. Another might read the same writers because he doesn’t want people to think of him as an uneducated dunce. He’s not so much seeking pleasure as avoiding pain; he’s moving away from something, not toward it.

As with the other metaprograms I’ll discuss, this process is not one of absolutes. Everyone moves toward some things and away from others. No one responds the same way to each and every stimulus, although everyone has a dominant mode, a strong tendency toward one program or another. Some people tend to be energetic, curious risk takers. They may feel most comfortable moving toward something that excites them. Others tend to be cautious, wary, and protective; they see the world as a more perilous place. They tend to take actions away from harmful or threatening things rather than toward exciting ones.

To find out which way people move, ask them what they want in a relationship—a house, car, job or anything elseDo they tell you what they want or what they don’t want?

What does this information mean? Everything. If you’re a businessman selling a product, you can promote it in two ways, by what it does or by what it doesn’t do. You can try to sell cars by stressing that they’re fast, sleek, or sexy, or you can emphasize that they don’t use much gas, don’t cost much to maintain, and are particularly safe in crashes. The strategy you use should depend entirely upon the strategy of the person you’re dealing with. Use the wrong metaprograms with a person, and you might as well have stayed home. You’re trying to move him toward something, and all he wants is to find a good reason to back away.

Remember, a car can travel along the same path in forward or reverse. It just depends on what direction it’s facing. The same is true on a personal basis. Let’s say you want your child to spend more time on his schoolwork. You might tell him, “You better study or you won’t get into a good college.” Or, “Look at Fred. He didn’t study, so he flunked out of school, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life pumping gas. Is that they kind of life you want for yourself?” How well will that strategy work? It depends on your child. If he’s primarily motivated by moving away, it might work well.

But what if he moves towards things? What if he’s motivated by things that excite him, by moving towards things he finds appealing? If that’s how he responds, you’re not going to change his behavior by offering the exampling of something to move away from. You can nag until you’re blue in the face, but you’re talking in the wrong key. You’re talking Latin and the kid understands Greek. You’re wasting your time, and you’re wasting his. In fact, people who move toward are often angered of resentful of those who present things to be moved away from. You would motivate your child better by saying, “If you do this, you can pick and choose any college you want to.”

Header image ©Shutterstock/Telekhovskyi

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