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Language & Communication
Category: Core Paradigm
Last Updated: March 2011

Many of the problems we encounter with language when used as a form of communication come down to something called consciousness of abstraction* - or to be more precise: our lack of it.

This means being consciously aware that the words we use are an intangible and subjective representation of the thing / concept described.

If someone wants to talk about a new idea or experience they've had, firstly they need to encode this information into words using their internal word-to-concept map. Words, being relatively clumsy when compared to the infinite variety of the Universe, will by necessity be more of a generalised summary of the concept to be communicated.

The communication will also contain a lot of assumptions about common knowledge that shouldn't need to be mentioned - partly to shorten it and partly because if one person considers something 'obvious' then they're likely to assume that other people will also think the same.

The recipient of this verbal communication will then need to translate, or 'decode', the words using their own word-to-concept map before they finally have some inner representation of what the other person was trying to say.

No two people have exactly the same way of coding words to concepts so there is always the possibility of the original idea not being communicated correctly. But if someone is not aware of this dual process of encoding and decoding then they might believe that the other person must have had the exact same meaning in mind, no matter how incorrect it actually might be.

Maybe you might be thinking to yourself, "Well this is just how misunderstandings happen - they're a way of life."

What if they didn't need to be?

Back in the 1970's John Grinder and Richard Bandler put together a number of 'signposts' to look out for as part of their 'meta-model' project: it gives us a list of linguistic 'generalisations, distortions and deletions' that we can use to spot potential problems.

Here are just a few examples to start you off:


Presuppositions - "What present are you going to buy me?" - What makes you think I'm buying you a present?

Nominalizations - "Communication is a problem in this business" - Who is communicating what? To whom? How are they doing this communicating? What makes them think that it isn't working?


Modal Operatives - "I can't tell them that" - What would happen if you did? What do you believe stops you?

Universal Quantifiers - "Things always go wrong" - Always? Nothing has ever gone right? (Note that 'Things' is also a deletion - what 'Things'?)


Comparative Deletions - "It's better this way" - Better than what? Better in what way? Better for whom? According to what criteria is it better?

It's important to realise that these are 'warning' signs to indicate that information might have been lost. The point is to consciously notice each of these instances and be aware that some clarification might be required, not to mindlessly interrogate every single example.

Ask yourself: Do I need to clarify this?
Can I be confident that my 'guess' will be accurate enough?

A good way to learn the 'meta-model' is to use it on newspaper articles. Pick one or two out of the above list and scan through the article looking for other examples of this type of linguistic pattern. I've also found it very enlightening to use the meta-model on TV debates - whenever the discussion hits an impasse you can be sure that a number of the meta-model warnings will be responsible.

Some familiarity with the formats behind 'debating tricks' might also be useful - because these tricks mimic already-existing 'muddled thinking'.

Internal Mental Chatter

These exact same things are of importance when we talk to ourselves.

Consider that when most people mentally chatter away to themselves about what's going on in their life, their options, abilities and opportunities they will be using language - inner words, speech and so on.

So it follows that if they habitually use language in ways that accidentally 'delete out' important information then these mental discussions will also have this important information 'deleted out'.

And then if this 'important information' that has been deleted is crucial to solving some current 'life issue' then that person will become stuck with some life problem that seems to be 'just part of the way things are' - when really it's 'just part of the way they are thinking about how things are'.

But this important distinction is lost. The map becomes the territory, the menu becomes the meal, the thoughts become the reality.

However... the more practise you have spotting these problems in spoken and written communications the more you will find yourself automatically noticing these things in your own inner dialogues.

And then the more you test these generalisations, deletions and distortions in your internal dialogue the richer your map of the world will be - and the more opportunities you will be open to.

Sources / Other Information

The Secrets of Magic by L. Michael Hall

A comprehensive list of many different types of linguistic 'data-loss' with examples of mis-use, suggestions for recovering this information and discussions of the more important types.
- now re-titled as 'Communication Magic'.

* - I believe 'Consciousness of Abstraction' was a term coined by Alfred Korzybski in his seminal work 'Science and Sanity' - which should have been one of the 20th Century's most important books but instead is out of print and virtually unknown.