Deletion, Distortion, Generalization

Universal modeling processes can work to your advantage

Professional communicators who know how to use the brain’s process of filtering information can achieve a broad range of goals elegantly.

As neurolinguistic programming (NLP) points out; deletion, distortion, and generalization take place as we express ourselves, and again as we take in what others say. We leave out detail, shift things around, and turn instances into generalities.

As I listened to the State of the Union address last week, I was fascinated by what is left in and what is left out of a speech like that. The polls were positive, evidence of the artistry of striking the right chords.

While there were a few specifics, such as human interest stories about invited heroes, most of the speech consisted of nominalizations and other deletions, distortions, and generalizations. This is appropriate for a speech to millions of biased listeners. The words had to be general enough to fit many mindsets and yet carry a sense of substance.

We are all biased listeners and so are our clients. The words we use resonate for others based on their personal history, not ours.
Our shared history – and perhaps shared culture and assumptions – allow us to interpret each others’ meaning surprisingly well.

When you put in more specifics you are transmitting more of your experiences and thoughts. When you delete specifics, you are leaving the other person more room for their own experiences. Which one you want to do depends on your purpose.

When I am working with someone about an aspect of their experience, I can refer to it without knowing it in detail. I can trust them to know what it is. We can have a conversation about “the most important thing you learned” without my knowing details about what they learned. The other person knows. If they want to share more detail, they can do so.
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This works with groups also: I want to bring out a certain quality or feeling, so I refer to it in a way that each audience member can easily find an equivalent.

We all vary the level of specifics in our conversations, depending on the purpose of the conversation.

Coaches, speakers, negotiators, leaders, can leverage the motivation of their audiences by balancing the use of detail and stories with the use of evocative generalizations. The great hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, MD, is widely studied for his mastery of this skill.

When we want to tune in to another’s specific experience we can ask questions that retrieve deleted information and break up generalizations. This often opens doors to hidden solutions.

Whatever our purpose, it is wise to consider how we can best use the structure of language to access the resources to accomplish it.

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