Read on if you would like high quality and masterful communication skills. Arising from NLP and the cognitive-behavioral sciences, here are seven critical distinctions for unleashing your best communication skills and performance and for mobilizing the resources for becoming the most professional and masterful communicator that’s possible.
The Seven Critical Distinctions of a Masterful Communicator
“Genius” in every area involves making distinctions, making finer and the critical distinctions which others do not. In the area of being a professional communicator, this involves distinguishing between the following—
- Map and Territory
- Person and Behavior
- Meaning and Response
- Sensory and Evaluation information
- Frame and Feeling
- Exploring and Asserting (questioning and telling)
- Current and Desired state
Now when a person can clearly make these distinctions and use these distinctions as governing frames in communicating, it eliminates the major communication diseases. Do you know about those diseases? These create tremendous dis-ease in the process of seeking to understand and work out negotiations. Ellis and Beck in Cognitive-Behavioral psychology describes these as the ways to make yourself and others miserable.
- Confusion of words with reality
- Mind-reading and hallucinating
- Judging, judgmentalism, exaggerating
- Emotionalizing: minimizing, maximizing
- Personalizing: over-identifying, defensiveness
- Blaming, accusations, insults.
- Distracting, changing the subject, refusing to focus.
By way of contrast, the seven critical distinctions create the foundation for those powerfully profound skills and states that facilitate the very best of communication. These include:
- Ability to be present in to the moment and focus on the now
- Stepping back into an observing or witnessing state that facilitates objectivity
- Getting the ego out of the way to be as “clean” as possible
- Staying open and receptive to feedback
- Flexibility to adjust to real-time feedback and making on-course corrections
- Thinking systemically and recognizing leverage points
- Exploring curiously to discover what is
- Seeking clarity in problem-definition
- Solution-focus thinking in creating forward moving
- Suspending meaning so there can be true dialogue
Intrigued? Let’s get into the distinctions:
MASTER FRAME #1:
DISTINGUISHING MAP AND TERRITORY
“The map is not the territory” summarizes the common-sense wisdom that a map never is the territory it is designed to represent. The menu is not the meal; the sex manual is not love making; the photo is not the person. These are different phenomenon. They operate at different levels and in different dimensions.
So simple, yet so profound. So simple and yet so easy to forget. How and when do we forget it? When we think (and feel) that what we think (our mapping), what we perceive, what we believe in, what we value, what we identify with, etc. is what is real. That’s the delusion. Yet it never is; it cannot be. At best it can be a good, useful, and fairly accurate map about it.
But when we forget, we identify. We identify map and territory. What I think about something is real, is the final word, is absolute, is beyond question, is unquestionable, etc. And this describes the concrete thinker, the absolutist, the pulpit pounding pundit who has “the answers,” the guru who demands blind and unquestioning obedience, the fundamentalist in any and every system (Christian, Muslim, Liberal, Conservative, Political, etc.).
The masterful communicator knows that all of our mapping is fallible and is, at its highest development, still our best guess. He or she also knows that the value of a map lies in its usefulness, lies in it being able to provide us some navigational guidance as we move through the world and experiences. Does the map correspond well enough so that we can use it to direct our thoughts and actions? Does it facilitate me having the experiences I want to have? To achieve the things I want to accomplish?
MASTER FRAME #2:
DISTINGUISHING PERSON AND BEHAVIOR
A person is not his or her behavior. What we do differs from what we are. In this, we are more than our behaviors. Our behaviors are expressions of our thinking and feeling, expressions of our states, understandings, skills, development, contexts, environment, and many other variables. In this our behaviors develop over time from incompetence (at the time of birth) to various degrees of competence and perhaps even mastery in a certain number of areas. Our behaviors at 2 years old, 13, 23, 37, or 65 are just behaviors and reflect our learning, aptitudes, discipline, interests, etc. at that time.
Our behaviors also are always and inevitably fallible. What we do is a function of how our aptitudes, talents, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and learnings come together in any given context and time to express ourselves. This is performance. It leads to achievements or to the lack of achievement. This is the area that we call self-confidence, confidence in what we can do, in our skills and competencies.
What we are, well that’s a very different question and dimension. What are we? We are a class of life that has the ability to reflect on ourselves and to create conceptual frames that we are a highly reflective beings who inevitably (and inescapably) reflect on ourselves, our states, our thoughts, our feelings, our experiences, our history, our future, our origin, our destiny, our values, our meanings.
I am more than my behavior; you are more than your behavior. Behavior is behavior and always fallible and therefore always game for correcting and adjusting. Talking about behavior is not talking about who we ultimately are. Yet, if we don’t make that distinction, we will feel that we ourselves are being attacked. And that will elicit defensiveness, judgment, yelling, closed-mindedness, self-righteousness, counter-attack, and escalating responses.
It is the person/behavior distinction that enables us to step into the state of being un-insultable so that we can defuse someone who has “lost it” and has become judgmental, blaming, accusing, etc. We become more professional and more masterful to the extent that we can manage our own state, stay focused on the issue and separate issue from person.
MASTER FRAME #3:
DISTINGUISHING MEANING AND RESPONSE
This distinction is best expressed in the NLP premise, “The meaning of your communication is the response you get, regardless of your intention.” And the rest of this premise is, “We never know what we have communicated. We never know what the other person ‘heard.’ It is only in the response of the other person that we can begin to discover what the other person ‘heard,’ the meanings that the other generated, and therefore the meaning that was inadvertently co-created (communication, the communing of meaning).”
Meaning is a construct, a construct that occurs within a mind-body-emotion system, and a construct that only arises from how we link and associate things, and then reflexively apply to ourselves as our frame-of-reference or frame of meaning. So meaning is an inside thing; response is an outside thing. These differ radically as they occur in different dimensions.
That’s why a person’s response begins to give us some clue about the meanings that must exist in the other’s mind. So we explore further. What did you hear? What does that mean to you? And if we discover that the other has constructed meanings that we did not intent to transmit, we can ask if we can try again. “Sorry, that’s not what I was attempting to say. I’ll give it another try.”
This meaning/response distinction also means that another person’s response is not the same as the meanings you give to it. The other’s stressed tone of voice is just a response, what meanings we give to that is our meanings. It may correspond to the other’s meanings, it may not. If we don’t suspend our meanings, and if we don’t ask, we won’t know if we are just hallucinating.
When we automatically and quickly attribute meaning to the responses of others we are coming from our maps of the world and so we are hallucinating what it means to us. We are not communicating. We are not giving the other person a chance to transmit his or her meanings. We are jumping-to-conclusions and perhaps confusing map/territory and then assuming that the meanings we create is what the other is saying or doing. This is a great way to create confusions and distortions and to completely ruin relationships.
To avoid that we have to use the meaning/response distinction to our advantage and do one of the most challenging things for us meaning-makers to do, namely, suspend our meanings and explore with the other from the state of refusing to over-trust our meanings. This is what those most masterful at communicating do. They know that they don’t know. They know that the greatest seduction in the world is that of coming from our meaning constructs (our matrix) and seeing responses through our filters.
They also know that this is the formula for being blind and deaf to others. That’s why just witnessing responses and distinguishing responses from meaning is so important for staying in the game.
MASTER FRAME #4:
DISTINGUISHING SENSORY AND EVALUATIVE DATA
When I took my first NLP training with Richard Bandler, a reframe was repeated over and over. It went like this, “If you’re going to be a professional communicator, you have to distinguish sensory based information and evaluative based information. If you can’t do that, you will make a mess of the communication enterprise.”
Sensory data occurs as information and events impact our senses and at first is outside of our conscious awareness. By the time it comes into awareness, we have the “sense” of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting that information and so we can representationally track that information to the movie screen of our mind. That’s when we begin to make our inner movies as we bring the world inside our mind and re-present it to ourselves. This also was the stroke of genius from NLP, that we think in the sensory languages of images, sounds, sensations, etc.
Yet all of this is very, very different from evaluative data. While both occur in the mind, we first make sensory representations and then we make evaluations about it. This is the process of stepping back from ourselves, in our mind, and bringing other thoughts and feelings to it. In doing so, we abstract at a higher level as we draw conclusions, make generalizations, create distortions, make decisions, invent beliefs, set intentions, etc.
You can tell that you or another has jumped a logical level to the evaluative level if you cannot put the terms, words, phrases, or language on a table. We can put the referents of sensory words on the table, or in a chair, or in a wheelbarrow. Chair. Dog. Green grass. Man with large nose. But we cannot put the referents of evaluative language out on the table. Good, bad, brilliant, disappointing, rude, nice, mean, beautiful. As evaluations, these things are creatures of the mind.
This is where we use precision questions to bring our high level evaluations down to the representational screen. With the precision questions, we step back down from our matrix of invented reality and back into sensory life.
Yet this is the challenge. Most of us are so easily seduced and hypnotized by evaluative language and do not make the sensory/evaluative distinction. Someone says, “He’s mean. He blasted that waiter.” And we’re off hallucinating and inventing our meanings about what those non-specific words means. In this, there is no “meanness,” no “rudeness,” no “kindness,” no “hurtful,” “healing,” out there in the sensory world. These are words from the evaluative world of mind. And unless we ask, “What do you mean by this word?” “How do you know that it is this X?” we are not communicating, we are hypnotizing ourselves and imposing this on others.
Whenever we accuse someone of being defensive, hypocritical, incongruent, loving, sensitive, intuitive, or ten-thousand other things, to be masterful at communicate we need to immediately feel the lack of precision, the inability to track those words directly to the theater of our mind. If we don’t, we will be seduced into a story. And to the extent we go into that trance, we are creating more and more misunderstandings and distortions, putting us further and further from clear communication.
Without this sensory/evaluative distinction we become poor communicators and great mind-readers. We can then even impose our judgments on others and never have a clue that that’s what we’re doing. With the best of intentions of trying to understand others, we are actually not seeing them at all, but seeing them through our filters. Our judgments then come out in a most subtle way, a way that may make it almost impossible for the other to push away those impositions.
That’s why the kindest and most compassionate thing we can do with our loved ones is to drill in this distinction between sensory/evaluative data so that we stop imposing our maps and judgments on them. Doing so is not a loving thing.
MASTER FRAME #5:
DISTINGUISHING THOUGHTS AND FEELING
Feelings are mostly symptoms of our thinking and indicate that we may need to update or change the thought process or update and enhance our skills in relating to the world as we navigate some arena. While symptoms are important as information signals, they differ from the cause, the thinking. Because our emotions reflect the difference between our mapping and experiencing of the territory, all of them are right. They rightly weigh the difference. They are also relative, they are relative to the mapping and the experiencing. Yet because our mapping may be off and our neurology (health, skills, competencies, environment, etc.) may be off, emotions invite us to explore, to discover what’s creating the difference.
The danger is setting a frame of believing in our emotions and thinking we have to “be true to them.” That was the big mistake during the 1960s with the emotive therapies. They made emotion primary rather than secondary. An even bigger mistake is to assume that “if we feel something, that’s evidence and proof that something is real.” Believe that and you will become a slave of your emotions and every emotional experience will become so loaded semantically, that you can come to believe in all kinds of crazy things.
Distinguishing between thoughts and feelings will allow us become more professional as a communicator with others and with ourselves. If we don’t, we can kiss it goodbye because we will personalize things, emotionalize (assume that we have to obey every feeling that we experience, and that if we feel something, it’s must be so), minimize, maximize, exaggerate, and be driven and tormented by other cognitive distortions.
MASTER FRAME #6:
DISTINGUISHING EXPLORING AND ASSERTING
When it comes to communicating, there are dozens upon dozens of things we can do with words. Yet the two major categories are exploring and asserting. We explore by asking questions, being curious, wondering, just witnessing so that we can seek first to understand. We assert by giving advice, telling, making definitive statements, feel certain, close the mind to other possibilities, and push our way through.
In the exploring/asserting differentiation, the second feels much more powerful. We feel powerful when we are taking a stand and asserting. We feel strong when we are telling someone something, giving advice, teaching, preaching, and informing. We are taking our model of the world, the maps and meanings we have created and we are imposing them on the other. And, true enough, there are times for this. There are situations in which we even get paid for this — as a lecturer at a University, a teacher in a classroom, a consultant with expert advice to offer, etc.
The other side of this distinction feels much weaker. When we are just asking questions, just exploring, seeking to gather information, and seeking to understand, we are coming from a place of openness and emptiness. We are not certain, not sure, not absolute, not definitive, and yet, questioning operates in the brain in a way that’s a hundred times more powerful. This is due to the nature of the brain, it is “the ultimate answering machine.” Put a question to a brain and it has a compulsive need to come up with an answer! Place a question in a brain, especially one that it cannot answer, and the brain will primarily go into overdrive seeking an answer.
How different with a statement or advice. Because every brain already has answers, because we have already mapped out some meanings, the meanings as the ideas we literally “hold in mind,” also operate as a defense against contrary ideas. Because our minds like to know and has a vested interest in what we already know, it will automatically eliminate ideas that doesn’t fit. So to tell someone something that doesn’t have easy access in elicits the ego-defenses so that the ideas (even if they are great and brilliant ideas) can’t get in.
Obviously, in communicating, to commune meanings, to work through meanings and to share and expand meanings, exploring and asking questions provides a tremendously more powerful approach. That’s why master coaches and communicators ask questions. Out of the gate they ask questions. They even ask questions about their questions. They explore meaning, significance, intention, etc. They assume little and massively explore. When they assert, they can feel the difference.
MASTER FRAME #7:
DISTINGUISHING CURRENT AND DESIRED STATE
The final distinction required for becoming more professional and masterful as a communicator is the current/desired state differentiation. This is the ability to look at ourselves and others and to recognize two temporal dimensions, now/then.
Current state asks such questions as: Where are we now? Where are you now? What’s currently going on? What are the challenges, problems, constraints, pros and cons, etc. of the current situation? This is the ability to be present, to come into the now, to acknowledge and accept whatever is for whatever it is without needing to defend, argue, rationalize, or use any other ego-defense mechanism. Obviously, to do this takes a lot of ego-strength — the strength to accept what is without caving in or going into a fight/flight type of response.
Desire state is the other time dimension, the dimension of imagining, envisioning, and creating a future that we can then move to. We elicit this by asking, Where do we want to go? Where will we go if we don’t make a change? How will we get there? What’s involved in the journey? What resources do we need? What are the steps and stages along the way? How will we know when we get there?
In current state we need problem solving skills, and the ability to create a well-formed problem. Without that, we may be solving a pseudo-problem. Without that, we may be trying to work on a mere symptom, a paradox, or the wrong problem. In desired state we need to create a well-formed solution and to use the precision questions to clearly define what we want.
This distinction keeps problem and solution separate and empowers us to clearly define both so that we can think and communicate strategically as we develop the plans, tactics, and resources for making a dream come true. This distinction enables us to then synergize our away-from and toward motivational energies so that we build up a propulsion system and not suffer from a out-of-balance motivation strategy where we only are pushed by aversions or pulled by attractors.
The best communication performance inevitably comes from establishing the most elegant and effective frames about communication. And these distinctions are the key ones that those most masterful in communication use.
Co-Author – L. Michael Hall, Ph.D
Michael is a developer, researcher, coach, NLP and NS trainer and prolific author in the Cognitive Sciences having developed the most cutting-edge new concepts in NLP and Neuro-Semantics today, the Meta-States Model, Matrix Model, and co-developed the Axes of Change Model. Michael co-founded the International Society of Neuro-Semantics and The Meta-Coach TM Foundation
(MCF). Michael is the Academic Director and Researcher for the Meta Coach Foundation and has authored and published more than 30 books on NLP to date. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.neurosemantics.com.