Presuppositions in Language (8): Exclusive/Inclusive Or

The tip-off for this presupposition, you won’t be surprised to learn, is the word ‘or’. So what’s the difference between the ‘exclusive’ and ‘inclusive’ versions of this presupposition?

The ‘exclusive or’ offers a choice between alternatives but excludes all other possibilities. ‘You can do either this or that.’ Usually just two alternatives are offered, but there could be more: ‘Our choices are this, that, or this third option.’

If you have kids and they are young enough, you can use exclusive ors to give them the illusion of choice while still doing what you want: ‘Do you want to have your bath first, or tidy your room?’ Of course, after a while they eventually catch on and say ‘Who says I have to do either?’, but it’s great while it lasts.

That pattern is known as a ‘double bind’. The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson used to use double binds a lot to give his clients choice about how they moved in the direction that Milton wanted them to. ‘I don’t know if you want to go into a trance now, or after a while, and whether you would like a deep trance or a lighter trance’ – but they were going into trance whatever.

The double bind also the basis of the ‘Alternative Close’ in sales – ‘Would you like it in red or black?’ ‘Will you be using cash or credit card?’ which excludes the possibility that the customer won’t buy at all, while including options of finish or how to pay. This pattern can work well, as long as the customer is at the right point in their buying cycle. Using the ‘exclusive or’ too early in their buying cycle would make the customer feel pressured, and you would lose rapport.

Another situation in which to be aware of ‘exclusive or’ presuppositions in your own language is if you’re gathering customer or user requirements, or gathering information about a client’s problem. You’ll notice that ‘Are you working with a large team, or a smaller one?’ is a closed question – although it’s not going for a yes or no answer, it’s still giving the listener just two alternatives to choose from. It’s forcing the conversation down a particular path, quite possibly in the direction of your preconceived notions of what the solution should be, which means you may be missing important information. Open questions that don’t limit the alternatives on offer work much better: ‘What size of team are you working with?’

Other words that exclude other possibilities are words like ‘only’, as in ‘Only you can decide’ which excludes the possibility of me, or anyone else, trying to tell you what to choose; and ‘just’, as in ‘Just focus on the essentials’ which aims to exclude focusing on anything else.

The ‘inclusive or’ also offers alternatives, but you could choose one or both: ‘Would you like mustard or ketchup on that?’ In logic, the ‘inclusive or’ in ‘x or y’ would return ‘true’ if one of x or y, or both x and y, were true, but in practice, in the real world, we also have the option of having our hot dog (or whatever) without mustard OR ketchup.

You’ll note that the structure of the exclusive ‘Would you like it in red or black?’ is pretty similar to ‘Do you want mustard or ketchup on that?’ In practice, the context will usually let you know whether the ‘or’ is exclusive or inclusive.

You can also open the possibility of other unspecified options: ‘We can do this, or something else.‘  It presupposes that other choices exist, and does not shut the door on them. This type of ‘or’ is useful in meetings, or a mentoring situation, when you have a suggestion, but you are open to other possibilities.

NLP language patterns book

Want to know all about NLP language patterns? This is the book you need: Practical NLP 2: Language (available in paperback or Kindle ebook format)

© 2023 – 2024, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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