On December 26th I wrote a post touching very briefly on each of the 15 Presuppositions of NLP (see 15 Presuppositions to be in Control for a review). One of these presuppositions that I find very useful in work and life in general is The Map is Not The Territory. Once you adopt this presupposition it changes completely how you approach communicating and interacting with others.

What is the Map

‘The Map’ is the unique and dynamic perception each one of us holds in our mind of the world we live in. No two people share the same identical view of the world, even people who share very similar backgrounds such as siblings or twins. This is because each of us has a unique combination of experiences that we are exposed to, no matter how much in common we have with another person. Each of us also has a unique biological and neurological make up that affects how we interpret information. Another term for this is Nurture vs. Nature, the debate over which has more influence on a person’s character.

Both our experiences and our neurology evolve over time, and the combination of both result in how we interpret new experiences and events. This is why two people standing side by side can interpret the events of a shared experience differently. Each of the two people experience the same situation from their own unique ‘Map’ and, therefore, apply different filters and interpretations to the event.

We can all remember times when we shared an experience with someone that when we compared notes with him or her afterwards, they remember details very differently than we did. This often results in shock and dismay and the belief that the other person is either doing it on purpose or may simply be from another planet altogether.

What is The Territory?

If ‘The Map’ is our own unique perception of the universe we live in, then ‘The Territory’ is the reality that is the universe, or in other words, the universe as it actually is.

I’m sad to bear the unfortunate news that no one has a precise perception of the world around us. We each have our own unique, and inaccurate, model in our minds of what reality is, and this is why ‘The Map is Not The Territory’.

An example of the biological limitations we have is the human eye which can detect the range of the light spectrum from 400 nanometers (violet) to about 700 nanometers (red), but this is not the full spectrum of light that exists. Ultraviolet lights, those under 400 nanometers, and Infrared lights, those over 700 nanometers can not be perceived by the naked human eye, but we know they exist because we can detect them with special equipment. The same is true for sound, smell, taste and touch. We are limited to only a range of the possible senses to be experienced by the world, and therefore, we can only register in our minds the part of our universe that is within the range of our senses.

For an example of how differently we interpret things, think of the image of a holy cross, the primary symbol of the Christian religion. Obviously, people from different cultures and religions will have a different internal representation of what a cross means to them. However, people from the same cultural background will also have very different interpretations of what a cross means to them. For some, it can mean purpose and direction for others confusion. For others still it can be comforting and peaceful while others feel obligation and commitment and other still even pain and discomfort. No two people will have exactly the same definition for what the cross means to them is you search deep enough.

Pre-Christianity, a cross was a Roman instrument of death that brought fear of punishment to most that beheld it. The reality (as close as I can come to describe it at least) is that a cross is simply two inanimate pieces of wood connected together at right angels, but few people would be able to look at a cross without experiencing some form of alternative meaning for it.

How To Use This

Once I realized how true this presupposition is, it made start to realize just how different people really do see things. Even words mean different things to different people. Try it. Take a work like ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ and ask someone to define what it means to him or her. I bet you will find there are many subtle differences in their definition.

The good news is that this is all perfectly normal and we shouldn’t think there is something wrong with us as a species just because we are all essentially making up our own versions of the universe. In fact equipped with this knowledge we can begin to see disagreement as a very natural course of human interaction.

Once we adopt this presupposition as a belief, and thus as part of our own Map, we can start removing negative emotions from interactions we have with people that would have made us angry or give up in the past, because now we know they don’t share the same perspective as we do.

This means:

  1. It’s easier to avoid experiencing a negative emotion when you know the other person has a difference model of the world than you do.
  2. When you know someone has a different model of the world from the start, it prevents you from making assumptions about their beliefs and drives you to find their perspective before building your argument.
  3. When you know someone has a different model of the world you realize that it is necessary to view their behaviors and actions based on their model and not your own.
  4. It’s easier to remain objective when you know it’s possible to share two opposing views on a subject and both can be correct in their own context for the person holding the specific view.
  5. We know that there is no right or wrong, only our interpretation of such. This means we can be more tolerant of people who have different views than we do because we know there model of the world is as strange to us as ours is to them.
  6. Finally, we can learn something from everyone.

(Photo by Emilie Ogez)