NLP Presuppositions (6): Respect for the other person’s model of the world

Map by Pietro Coppo, Venice 1520, from Wikipedia

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This presupposition follows directly from the idea that everyone has their own model of the world. If you want to communicate with that person, and especially if you want them to do something or change their minds about something, you have to start from where they are.

When I was a fairly junior employee in a big software consultancy, we used to have a big company get-together every year. It was a welcome opportunity to catch up with workmates, as often we would working away at far-flung client sites for months. Before the good part (a slap-up meal with free bar), we’d gather in a big hotel conference room to hear about the group’s successes, have a presentation or two on some innovative project the company was involved in, and finally the big boss would get up and give us a pep talk about how great we were and how we needed to stay smart and keep working hard.

I don’t remember much about these speeches – it was over 20 years ago – but one has stuck in my mind, as an example of what not to do. The climax of the boss’s speech – with lots of flashy Powerpoint transitions of course: “So we need to innovate and stay ahead” he said “because that’s how we’ll increase shareholder value.”

The applause was somewhat muted. Shareholder value? That was it? That was supposed to be our motivation for working long hours and spending months away from home? Personally, I didn’t care about shareholder value. I was an employee, not a shareholder. At that moment, it felt like I was working for no reason at all, and I was demotivated if anything. Why? Because the boss hadn’t put himself in the shoes of his audience.

If you are talking to engineers, think like an engineer. If you’re trying to get the finance department to let you buy a new laptop, don’t go on about how technically advanced it is – show them that it will improve your productivity and save them money. If you are coaching someone, don’t demand that they ditch everything they believe before they can start improving their performance.

Most of all, if you are aiming to persuade someone to change their minds, you have to start from where they are. Don’t expect them to jump out of their map and join you in yours. Why would they? What’s in it for them?

You have to start with seeing the world from the other person’s point of view. In particular, appeal to their values. What you think is important doesn’t matter to them. If they don’t see your message as relevant to what they feel is important, why would they even bother listening?

When people feel their map of the world is under attack, they dig in, harden their attitudes, and resist. This is particularly true if, unlike you, they are not aware of the distinction between map and territory. Of course they are going to shut you out and not listen – to them, you’re talking nonsense and threatening the very existence of their viewpoint. At this point, their primary objective becomes not to change their mind.

What follows from this is that when a leader, or a coach or therapist, or a sales person meets ‘resistance’, that’s most likely a lack of rapport. This isn’t about fancy tricks to get the person in rapport with you, it’s about clearing out the obstacles to communication. When you are in rapport with a colleague, or a client, or a customer, you take things at the pace that works for them, using language that appeals and makes sense to them, and you work from their map, so they never have to think “Hang on, that isn’t right!”

If you encounter resistance through lack of rapport, the first thing you should do is pay more attention.

I want to talk briefly about ‘winning’ arguments and the ‘need to be right’. When you see someone attempting to ‘win an argument’ by grandstanding, or scoring points off their ‘opponent’, the real message they are giving out is “I am a poor communicator”. Even if they ‘win the argument’ – in other words, they’ve worn the other person down so they shut up – what they are doing in the long term is storing up resentment and hardening the other person’s attitudes.

Only when you start from other person’s map do you give them a chance to start finding their way from where they are to where you would like them to be.

This doesn’t mean giving up your map and adopting theirs as true – it just means respecting their map and working with it.

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