Communicating with small, safe experiments

It’s taken me all this time to write about experimenting in our communications with others. Odd in some ways. After all, therapy is about communication; with words, but often with gestures and posture.

I guess it is such a large topic that I have felt deterred up to now. After all, how can I do justice to the subject?  Not many people are good listeners.  Much of the spoken word is ignored, misunderstood,or quickly forgotten. Robert Bolton once said ”there is a huge difference between merely hearing and listening” I am told the word “listening” is derived from two Anglo Saxon words, hlystan (“hearing”) and hlosnian (“waiting in suspense”). Therefore, the act of listening is not a single skill or simply attending in order to speak. It is a psychological alignment with another person.

Here’s an illustration that highlights my dilemma to some degree:

Complicating communication

I’ll start to consider this issue of communication using areas such as assertiveness training and motivational interviewing.  There are two models of psychology with communication at their centre worth highlighting; those models are Transactional Analysis (TA) and Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP).

I have mentioned TA on a number of occasions. It had a large impact on my own personal and professional development in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Look at this page, for more information. Does it invite you to design a safe experiment when you are talking to others? Consider, for instance, when you speak to some-one else, what ego state are you talking from and what ego state are you talking to?

Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) was developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970’s. Their work built on the practices of leading therapists such as Milton Erikson and Virginia Satir but it owed a debt to earlier work by Truax and Carkhuff. Here is another mention of David Brazier as he has a paper on Robert Carkhuff on the post-Rogerian age.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) did offer specific strategies relating to communication, and I will refer to some of them. I like the model as it offer many practical suggestions. Its techniques are effective in changing our experience of the world. It is less a theory and more an ‘attitude’, but I would add that it needs to be ‘attitude’ with a moral compass.

Why is this important? Sadly, as I see it, NLP was high-jacked by a few colourful figures and they promised more than they could deliver. Also, it became exploited by business and marketing organisations to advance sales and profitability, rather than client welfare. It was here that NLP seemed to lose its moral compass. Therefore, I will confine myself to the elements that will help you, as an individual, to design concrete changes in your way of communicating with the world around you.

Some things that NLP encourage are:

  • a preference for positive statements, rather than a focus on ‘pathologies’; that is, what is wrong. NLP is not alone here and you will find Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology worth investigating. This perspective can help us find any positive intention behind the behaviour of others.
  • a focus on ourselves and our feelings and beliefs, rather than ‘lecturing’ others on what they should do.
  • the need to look for evidence. In practice, this means that a small safe experiment does not exist until I have considered the results and I have noticed what worked and did not work.
  • attention to the present experience. This is now a central issue in several modern therapies arising , as it does, from Western therapy beginning to learn from meditative practices from other parts of the world.

In brief, then, in your communications can you pay more attention to:


What is happening, and

HOW you feel about the experience.

Safe Experiment: consider a recent contact you had with some one who is important to you. What was said and done? If you had your time again, how might you do it differently?

The Body Scan is an essential part of this process. It is a safe experiment that helps me notice what I feel, notice, see, hear etc. Of course, I cannot do a brief Body Scan before my every sentence, but I can make it a systematic way to ‘audit’ what is going on around me. It may help me to notice how the world is impacting on me.

In particular, the Body Scan helps us ‘read’ the machine code of our bodies. Anatonio Damasio tells us that emotions are the feelings of what happens. When we put a label on it, in English, it can become an emotion, say, sadness. English is the ‘higher language’ but our sensations provide the experiential information. Sensations are the body’s Machine Code!  Tears and a heavy heart are the more basic clues – the solid evidence for the experiences we are having.

We can just notice our day-to-day experience when doing a ‘safe experiment’. This can help us to know what worked and what did not. The NLP model encourages us to pay attention not only to words, but also to ‘tiny’ movements; to our posture, to the way we hold ourselves and to use our eye contact to connect – or disconnect – from other people. Modern neuro-science has added to this by highlighting the impact of the smallest muscle movement in our face. Seeming, large amounts of data travel from face-to-face via small changes in expression. See Stephen Porges for more insights into these processes.

The NLP model helps us to gather, record and weigh the evidence available to you. That evidence helps you build on ‘victories’ and do something differently in the face of ‘defeats’.

NLP draws our attention to linguistic patterns in our daily use of language – the way we include something, but not another; the way we distort or magnify an attitude; or the way we generalise things so that are given the appearance of being ‘facts’, rather than just surmise or assertion.

Above all, as with cognitive models of psychology, NLP draws our attention to faulty thinking such as ‘mind-reading’, e.g “I can tell you hate me” and mixing causes and effects, such as “you make me angry“.

NLP draws attention to“fogging”,the art of being vague. This was a strategy associated with Milton Erikson. Also, there are ‘nomilisation’ – often used by astrologers. This strategy involves using words that are not tangible and they can take on many meanings. For example, you notice some-one is uncertain and confused. Saying that to them explicitly may well not help, but asking a question might do better, e.g. “are there difficulties in your life at the moment“? The nomilisation here is ‘difficulties’ as it covers a number of possibilities. By the way, put this way the other person can always say “no” and it mays to ensure that option is available whereever possible.

Texts on NLP will offer a number of subtle changes we can make to our use of language. One, The Structure of Magic, is freely available to you on the internet.

A sample of small safe experiments

Take time to listen to the language you use every day.

Notice how your words might – or might not – match what the rest of your body is doing. Think: am I being consistent in my words and in the way I ‘hold’ myself. Consider, for instance, the well known phrase – ‘shifty eyed’. This is a good example of a likely mismatch between our words and our actions!

Edit the words used: this means listening to our language as you speak and altering specific words. When you hear a word you want to change, then do so.    Some examples might be

*changing ‘”can’t” or “should” to “won’t”, or

* deleting “why” questions in favour of hows, whens and whats etc. This is really useful. ‘Why’ questions assume there is an answer available to your companion. Often there is not, and ‘why’ questions can become embarrassing to the other person. Rewording is more likely to get a reply, e.g. “how come you found it difficult to get in touch with …..”

* changing a statement into a question. e.g. “I don’t want you to do [such and such]”, into “can you tell me more about what you want to do“. This is not an easy task as you will need to clear about the behaviour you are concerned with. It is important to be specific when drawing attention to another person’s behaviour. It can be irritating to them!

HEALTH WARNING When you first do this kind of experiment, your edits will have to come after the event. You will not be quick off the mark at first. Therefore, you will need the back-up plan of “what I wanted to say is ……”

In time, however, you will hear a sentence coming in your head and you may be more able to bite your tongue and change a word or two before you speak.

This will require patience and persistence, as well as kindness toward yourself. Expect frustration and let it motivate you to do more, not to give up.

Back to:


How to give yourself a nudge

Transactional Analysis

May be its just about change

Small defeats