What level or chunk size of information are you comfortable with – the big picture or the details?
This metaprogram is about which levels of the ‘Hierarchy of Ideas‘ a person is comfortable operating with.
A person at the ‘General’ end of the spectrum will think in terms of abstract concepts and generalisations rather than specific details.
When faced with too much detail they will feel overwhelmed or bored.
A person at the ‘Specific’ end of the spectrum will feel more comfortable with facts, details and step-by-step sequences. Abstractions, and the big picture on its own, will feel vague and nebulous without more details and specific examples.
Identifying the General/Specific pattern
This pattern will come out in any general conversation. For an example, you could ask the person what they are currently working on, or how their day has been.
The ‘Specific’ person’s answer will be in the form of a step-by-step narrative with lots of specific detail. They will use lots of qualifiers (adjectives and adverbs). If you interrupt them, they may start at the beginning again, or else re-start where they left off.
The ‘General’ person’s answer will be shorter, in the form of a summary. It may not be in a temporal sequence, but will aim to give you what the speaker sees as the most important aspects first. This may seem like a random order to the listener.
Job role examples
Generally speaking, the higher level of abstraction a person can handle, the higher they can go in an organisational hierarchy (the upper ranks of the army are even called ‘generals’). The ability to think strategically – in other words, to be able to work with high levels of abstraction – is usually essential for board-level roles. Having said that, people need to able to handle details to perform well at lower levels on their way up.
A caveat: on one of NLP trainer Tad James’ NLP Practitioner audio sets, he talks about when he was explaining that being able to handle higher levels of abstraction was correlated with leadership and highly-valued roles. One of his class said that he had a PhD in philosophy, and thought in abstractions all the time, but he was paid peanuts! Tad explained that to perform a high-level management role, you normally need to also be able to communicate with people operating at more detailed and practical levels.
A detail focus is needed for: quality control, proofreading, health and safety, bookkeeping
A big picture focus is needed for: leadership, creative roles
If two people who are at opposite ends of this metaprogram spectrum have to work or live together, they may find it difficult despite both being reasonable and well-intentioned people, just because they are operating at different levels of detail.
An extreme ‘big picture’ person may experience an extreme ‘detail-focused’ person as: nitpicking, finicky, ignoring what’s important, can’t see the wood for the trees, sticking to the letter rather than the spirit, disagreeable (as the more you focus on details, the more there is to disagree about), frustratingly slow to make decisions (as they have to take more detailed factors into account to make a decision).
An extreme ‘detail-focused’ person may experience an extreme ‘big picture’ person as: vague, ‘off with the fairies’, dreamy, ignoring important facts, careless, impractical, rash or impulsive.
If you are at one extreme or the other, some flexibility in being able to move in the direction of the other person’s level of abstraction will help you get better results when you communicate with them.
Questions to help move from General to Specific:
- “What are examples of this?”
- “What specifically…?”
- “How specifically…?”
- “What does that mean?”
- “How does that work in practice?”
- “Which part of it?”
Questions to help move from Specific to General:
- “What’s the big picture here?”
- “What’s important about this?”
- “What is this an Example of?”
- “For What Purpose…?”
- “What is your intention…?”
- “What does that get you?”
Influencing and managing
As with all the metaprograms, match where the person is on the spectrum in order to communicate with them. If you need a ‘General’ person to be more specific, or vice versa, start from where they are and use pacing and leading to help them move up or down the levels of abstraction.
General: give the big picture, the overview, ‘the real issue is…’, ‘in a nutshell’. Calibrate to notice if they are getting bored or overwhelmed with detail.
Specific: use examples and sequences (first…, second…), give detail, exactly, specifically, precisely. Calibrate to notice if they are looking lost or if what you’re saying is going over their head.
Proposals and reports often contain an executive summary (for ‘General’ readers) and appendices with lots of detail and facts (for ‘Specific’ readers).
Like other metaprograms, this one is context-specific. Someone who thinks of themselves as big picture oriented may turn out to be surprisingly detail-focused when asked about a subject they are expert in.
How to explore this metaprogram further
- Where do you think you are on this spectrum? More towards ‘big picture’, or more detail focused?
- Think about the people you know well, especially family members and work colleagues as you don’t get to choose those. For each, are they more at the General or Specific end of this metaprogram’s spectrum, or somewhere in the middle?
- Think of a subject or ‘how to’ procedure that you know well. How would you start to explain it to:
- a strongly ‘Big Picture’ person
- a strongly ‘Detail-focused’ person?
The best book that I’ve found about metaprograms is Shelle Rose Charvet’s Words That Change Minds: The 14 Patterns for Mastering the Language of Influence, now in its 3rd edition. Highly recommended!