5 min read
Have you ever come across someone who is able to cut through all of the ambient chatter in a room and affect people using only their words?
When you are feeling stuck — in your job, relationships, or home life — try putting it into words and notice how it comes out.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
In the 1970’s, Richard Bandler (a student of psychology) and Dr. John Grinder (a linguistics professor) sought to identify and study psychotherapists who had gained a reputation for having this effect on their clients.
Bandler and Grinder wanted to know the key ingredients that separate life-transforming conversations from more routine interactions. Their findings not only revealed the key characteristics of successful therapists but also illustrated common ways that people get stuck in their language when talking about problems.
The culmination of Bandler and Grinder’s work was a two volume book series called The Structure of Magic. The insights from this book were eventually expanded and branded as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which today has become a multi-billion dollar self-help and corporate training industry. Despite its popularity, though, scientific studies have largely failed to confirm many of the core tenets of NLP.
Still, much can be learned from Bandler and Grinder’s observations and their description of how the secret to change may be hiding in the empty spaces between our words. From their perspective, what you don’t say or leave out in your communication may have the same (if not more) importance than the words that are actually uttered.
Here are some of the most powerful insights from their initial writings:
When talking about our lives we often leave out crucial details. We might be in a hurry, assume that the listener can infer the missing pieces, or consciously/subconsciously censor the parts that we think are embarrassing or uncomfortable.
It turns out that the information we leave out when we ‘…yada, yada, yada…’ over these details can reveal something about our most deeply held beliefs about the world. Bandler and Grinder found that master therapists often sought to make this implied content explicit, allowing for clarification (and possibly revision) of implicit meanings lurking beneath the stated message.
For example, if I were to tell you that, “I’m frustrated,” you might naturally wonder: Frustrated at who? Over what? Since when? And for how long?
If you were to actually pose all of those questions to me and I took the exercise seriously, it would probably be difficult to give you very precise answers. I’d have to fumble around and figure it out bit by bit. If we were to keep this exercise up for 45 minutes, it would probably start to look a lot like a therapy session.
And indeed, that’s what Bandler and Grinder found. The master therapists they observed would skillfully seize upon their clients’ omissions and tease out the full details, often leading to profound insights.
Bandler and Grinder also noted a tendency for verbs to get turned into nouns, rendering an otherwise ongoing and dynamic process into a static and immovable one. They referred to these linguistic distortions as nominalizations.
Here’s an example. If I were to tell you that, “I have regret over my decisions” you may notice that regret is treated as a static outcome, implying that I will always feel the same level of regret now and in the future.
If you were one of Bandler and Grinder’s master therapists, you might encourage me to subtly shift my perspective to see regret as more of a fluid process. Though it may seem only a minor adjustment to revise my statement to, “I am regretting my decisions” this shift could make all the difference between feeling completely stuck and being able to see opportunities for change.
For example, this revised version now allows for the possibility that perhaps one day I could feel less regret, which then begs the question: What might such a scenario involve? In what set of circumstances could I see my decisions, not with regret, but as character-building struggles that have the potential to inspire positive change? The key to getting unstuck could be hiding in the answers to these very kinds of questions.
Even when some details were provided, Bandler and Grinder noticed a tendency for the therapy clients that they observed to speak in broad generalizations and use vague pronouns and verbs.
As an example, if I told you that, “People let me down,” you’d probably be left with more questions than answers. Who exactly is letting me down? And how are they doing it? Are they cheating, stealing, lying, or just being annoying?
Though perhaps tedious, being specific about these details matters. Speaking (and thinking) in broad generalizations creates a situation akin to trying to play chess with your back turned to the board. Just as in life, you cannot develop a new strategy for moving forward without first being clear about what chess pieces are actually on the board.
The Bottom Line
So, how can these insights be applied in your own life? When you are feeling stuck — in your job, relationships, or home life — try putting it into words and notice how it comes out.
What parts are missing? If you were a dispassionate detective, trying to get to the bottom of what’s ailing you, what questions might you ask after listening to this account? How might you get more specific and provide a fuller picture of what’s going on?
Watch also for the way active, ongoing processes might be spoken about as passive, static outcomes. If you notice this tendency in your language, consider the possibility that these rigid outcomes may be more flexible and dynamic than you think.
If you try this as an exercise, tell us about your experiences in the comments box below. We want to know how it goes for you.
Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1975). The Structure of Magic I: A Book about Language and Therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Witkowski, T. (2010). Thirty-five years of research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP research data base. State of the art or pseudoscientific decoration?. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 41, 58-66.