Presuppositions in Language (4): Complex Equivalence

(Not sure what presuppositions are? Read this article first.)

‘Complex Equivalence’ is another form of linkage that people make between different internal representations, and the tip-offs are the verb ‘to be’ in any form, or ‘means’, or ‘so’.

What we’re doing with complex equivalence is either saying something is the same as or equivalent to another, different thing (hence the name) as in “Time is money”* – or saying that something means something else, or is a sign of something else: “They’ve increased my salary, that means they really value me”. Sometimes you get an implied complex equivalence; that last example would still mean the same if you said, “They’ve increased my salary, so they must really value me” or even just “They’ve increased my salary, they must really value me” – because the ‘that means’ is understood.

Another form of complex equivalence (I think – I’m not sure what the guardians of NLP orthodoxy, if there are any, would say about it) is when a thing or concept is relabelled as something else, without that relabelling being made explicit. For example, if you took your concerns to your boss, and they said, “Don’t bother me with that garbage,” they’re equating your concerns to garbage.

The question that any complex equivalence could prompt (in your own mind at least – it isn’t always a good idea to say it out loud) is: “How is this the same as that?” or “How does this mean that?”

The question invites the listener to examine their own thought processes a bit more deeply. It’s possible that they made a complex equivalence linkage between two unrelated things or ideas several years ago, and haven’t questioned it or checked if it stands up against reality since.

What Presuppositions of Complex Equivalence Tell You

Presuppositions of complex equivalence, when you hear them, give you clues about how people categorise and label the world around them.

Also, you can use complex equivalence presuppositions to get people to make connections that they hadn’t seen before, or assign new meanings to things: “If you’re feeling confused right now, that means you’re taking on board new information, which is part of the process of learning”. Notice that although there’s an ‘if’ in that sentence, it’s not the same as the ‘if-then’ of cause and effect. In fact, we’re saying that the feeling of confusion is actually an effect of the process of learning – which, if they accept it, redefines confusion in their mind as a good thing.

Time to Practice with Complex Equivalences

Here’s an exercise to try. Complete these sentences in as many ways as you can – don’t overthink it, just write whatever comes to you:

  1. “I’m learning NLP, so… “
  2. “I’m having experiences each day, and that means…”
  3. “I’ve achieved some things, I…”

Here’s another one: take a chunk of prose from a newspaper, book, or website (about a half page or so), and search out all the complex equivalences in it. You might be surprised, especially if it’s an opinion piece, but you’ll probably find some even in a factual report. What underlying beliefs or implicit assumptions do those complex equivalences reveal?

Finally, you could look for complex equivalences in your own thinking. If you get a lot of internal dialogue, notice what complex equivalences you come out with. Or if you do journalling or any form of writing, look over your output from a while ago and see what complex equivalences you can spot.

* This is also, of course, a metaphor

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© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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