Communicating with small, safe experiments

Something not said?

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

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.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) did offer specific strategies relating to communication, and I will refer to some of them. Sometimes criticised, and imperfectly ‘marketed’, I like the model as it offers practical suggestions.

Its techniques can be effective in reframing our experience of the world. Like the Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) model, it is less a theory and it offers more of an ‘attitude’, if one with a dubious a moral compass. Why is this important? Sadly, as I see it, NLP was hi-jacked by a few colourful figures. They promised more than they could deliver. It became exploited by business and marketing to advance sales and profitability, rather than client welfare.

I will confine myself to the elements that may help you to design and implement 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 offers an antidote 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 …..

…. can your communications pay attention to

NOW: 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 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.

The art of just noticing

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“.

The art of being vague

NLP draws attention to “fogging”, that is the art of being vague. This was a strategy associated with Milton Erikson.

Fogging strategies use words that are not tangible, or able to 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 any difficulties in your life at the moment“? The term ‘difficulties’ covers a number of possibilities.

By the way, put this way, the other person can always say “no” and it may pay you to have that option more available, where 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 you use: 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. Early on in this experiment it will not be easy to change the words that come out of your both. As you slow your delivery, you may find it becomes possible more often.  

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 as ‘why‘ questions assume there is an answer available to your companion. Often there is not, so ‘why‘ questions can become embarrassing to both of you. Rewording is more likely to get a reply, e.g. “how come you found it difficult to get in touch with …..”

As I say, 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 ……”

Over time, 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.

Further lines of enquiry

How to give yourself a nudge

Following the scenic route

Actions that might be used in a small, safe experiment

Transactional Analysis

Communicating without words

May be its just about change

Small defeats