Hierarchy of Ideas or Chunking in NLP

The Hierarchy of Ideas (also known as chunking) is a linguistic tool used in NLP that allows the speaker to traverse the realms of abstract to specific easily and effortlessly.

When we speak or think we use words that indicate how abstract,  or how detailed we are in processing the information. In general, as human beings our brain is quite good at chunking information together in order to make it easier for us to process and simpler to understand. Thinking about the word “learning” for example is much simpler that thinking about all the different things that we could be learning about.


Chunking in NLP

When we memorise a telephone number or any other sequence of numbers we do not tend to memorise them as separate individual numbers, we group them together to make them easier to remember. This is chunking. Chunking together of information.

For example:

“I am feeling really grumpy today”

The phrase above is quite abstract. “Grumpy” can mean lots of things and different things to different people.

“I have had a bad start to the day. I stubbed my big toe on the end of the bed as I got out of it this morning.”

This is a much more detailed explanation but someone could use either to describe the same thing. The first sentence is at a higher chunk, and is more abstract. The second one is at a lower chunk and is more detailed.  “Grumpy” is a bigger chunk as it could contain many more possibilities than the second sentence. The second sentence is specific and does not leave us guessing.


Sets and Subsets

Think about sets and subsets. Sets are at a higher chunk than subsets. Sets contain subsets that may contain subsets of themselves.

We often express sets and subsets in a hierarchical format. Eg:


Subset     Subset    Subset

Subset     Subset    Subset    Subset    Subset    Subset

Subset     Subset    Subset   Subset     Subset    Subset    Subset     Subset    Subset

We could replace the words set and subset in any scenario with words that we use in our sentences that describe what we are talking about. It could be a word or a group of words that give away the level at which someone is thinking and speaking. Eg:


BMW (Subset of car)

BMW 325 (Subset of BMW)

Wheel (Specific area of the BMW 325 car)

Tyre (Specific Part of the wheel of the BMW 325 car)

Chunking and problems

Using the example above. Someone may have a problem with their “Car”. They may phone the garage and express it this way “I have a problem with my car”.

In order to discover the real problem, the mechanic will have to dig a little deeper. They will need to ask questions to get more detail.

“What make of car is it?”

“Which series of BMW?”

“What is the problem with the car specifically?”

“Which part of the wheel?”

“Is it completely flat or just a bit deflated?”

You could apply this equally to a therapeutic situation where a patient is explaining a problem to a doctor or a therapist. “I am not feeling very well.” We need more detail to find the real problem, don’t we?

“I am feeling anxious?”

We still need more information. “Anxious about what?” “Are you anxious all the time?” “When are you anxious and when are you not anxious?” Getting the detail (subsets) to the problem in order to solve it.

So you see the hierarchy with sets and subsets and how we express it in our language.

In NLP we learn to use this hierarchy of ideas and chunking to assist others in overcoming their problems, we use it to improve our communication skills (so we understand how others are thinking and how we are creating our own problems).  We use it to discover the deep structure behind peoples thinking and the words that they are using.

Chunking and Conflict

When two parties are in conflict, they are normally at a really low chunk in their thinking. They are really specific with the details of the conflict. We always say, “We were arguing over nothing, really small things.” this is what I mean by low chunk. EG:

Woman says: “You always leave your bowl out on the work surface after breakfast. It is really bugging me.”

Man replies: “You are far too fussy. It really bothers me that you pick up my bowl and wash it after I just put it down. It is really ticking me off”

This is an example of two people at the opposite end of two spectrums of subsets. At this level of thinking they fundamentally disagree. They cannot resolve their problem at this level unless one of them concedes.


In order to find a solution they need to be guided to a bigger chunk in their thinking. This means getting them to see that they have common ground in some areas. “This is interesting. Do you disagree about all areas of cleaning and housework?” (“All areas” is the bigger chunk)

“Oh, no. We talked about it when we first moved in together and we agreed a schedule so we take it in turns to do various housework tasks.” (We have agreement at this level)


“Is there some way that you could apply the same solution to clearing up the breakfast bowl?” (Chunking back down again, holding agreement).

“Yes, we could talk about it.”


This is rather simplified, and hopefully if gives you an idea of how chunking can work in solving problems.

We can use the NLP language patterns of Milton Model and Meta Model  to chunk people up and chunk people down in their thinking.


  • To gain agreement – chunking up –  used in negotiation.
  • People chunk at different levels, therefore it is used for them to gain understanding.
  • To induce trance – chunking up.
  • To explore thoughts and ideas for new projects.

…Further thoughts on Chunking in NLP

This concept is discussed in depth at our NLP Training courses and there are online demonstrations of the process available with our NLP online training packages.