Language skills 2
Here is the second part on language. And in this one, we’re going to start to think about when you hear certain patterns in someone’s language, how you can use a model to help frame an appropriate and powerful question. How useful will it be for you to know exactly which question to ask when you’re coaching and helping the other person fully understands what’s creating their current situation? How intrigued are you to find out how you recognize the patterns and then turn that into questions? Well that’s what we’re going to be up to in this session.
Our objectives in this session are, firstly, that you’ll be able to explain the importance of the Meta Model for coaching, that you’ll be able to identify the impact of deletions, generalizations, and distortions on achievement of results, and that you’ll be able to analyze how to respond to deletions, generalizations, and distortions in a person’s language.
We’re going to look at a model of language called the “Meta Model.” This was created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their work on modelling excellence. Bandler and Grinder modelled some excellent change agents. These are people who are able to help people change in very elegant ways and in particular, they studied the work of Milton Erikson, Virginia Satir and Fritz Pearls. They found that they were able to help people change by getting people to go back to the source of information from which they’ve created their distortions, deletions, and generalizations, and to help people begin to take responsibility and ownership and to think about how they can move forward.
The idea of the Meta Model is to recover more detail about the situation so you can then help the person find other solutions. This model is one I use a lot in coaching and you may well find it’s very useful in all sorts of other areas of your work and life, too.
We’re going to consider deletions, generalizations, and distortions separately. First, let’s think about deletions. The first type of deletion is called a comparator. The names of these language patterns are not important but what is important is to be able to recognize the pattern and then ask a question in reply. A comparator is when someone is comparing themselves with someone else or comparing their performance to something else.
If someone said to you something like, “She’s a better person than me,” what more information would you like to know before you could start to help? Well it may be, “Better than who?” or “Compared to who?” In other situations, you may ask, “Better than what?” or “Compared to what?”
We very often do comparisons and sometimes they’re useful, and other times they cause us a few problems. I remember coaching someone not so long ago on a time management issue and when I started to talk to this person about the issue, they said to me that they just never got enough done in a day. When I started to delve into that and to get some more detail and to use Meta Model with that, and to really investigate what she meant by “enough,” I said to her, well, how did she know when she’d done enough? What was she comparing herself to?
Then she realized then what she had been doing was that she had had this to-do list and what she’d been doing was to put everything that came, the tasks she had to do, on the to-do list, whether they were to be done in six months’ time, three months’ time, a week’s time, or on that particular day. It was hardly surprising that when she got to the end of the day and she just only ticked a few things off from this enormous list that she started to get demotivated. You see, by challenging that, I was then able to help her think of other ways that she could handle the to-do list so that she stayed motivated.
The next pattern has the wonderful title of “Lack of Referential Index.” All that means is that someone has missed out or deleted the person or thing that has been talked about. This happens when someone says something like, “They don’t work hard,” or “It doesn’t help.” The question you’ll want to ask is, “Who exactly doesn’t work hard?” or “What exactly doesn’t help?” Getting specific like this then helps the person understand what is happening and helps you, as the coach, find the next question to move on with them.
If we take, “They don’t work hard,” and then you ask the question, “Well who doesn’t work hard?” and the answer is, “The rest of the team.” “Who exactly in the rest of the team doesn’t work hard?” “Well it’s the two supervisors.” Now you can start asking about what it is that the two supervisors are or are not doing and how this person can handle it.
Now we come to a pattern called simple deletions. This is where, in a similar way to the last pattern, useful information has been left out. In fact, in any sentence, there are deletions. We just can’t help do it. We can’t give everybody absolutely every minute detail of things that are going on.
If someone said to you, “I’m very unhappy,” what information would you need to be able to start to help them? What questions will you ask to get that information? It could be something along the lines of, “Well what are you unhappy about?” or “Who are you unhappy about?” Or perhaps someone will say something like, “I just can’t cope.” What will your response be? “What can’t you cope with?” or “Who can’t you cope with?” because once you’ve filled in those gaps in the information, then you can start to help the person.
The last one under the heading of deletions is called normalizations. These are important ones to spot because they’re often the cause of someone getting stuck. Normalizations are where a verb or a doing-word has been turned into a noun or a thing. “To communicate” has been turned into a “communication”, or ” observe” has been turned into an “observation”, or “to manage” has been turned into “management”, or “to supervise” has been turned into “supervision.” The effect of this is to turn something that is really a process and has movement and action into something that is solid and stuck.
For example, if someone said, “There’s no communication around here,” and who hasn’t heard that one? Well then all of a sudden, they have turned the process of communicating into a thing that is solid and stuck. Your response with a normalization is to turn it back into a process or action by asking something like, “Well who is not communicating with whom?” Now you have movement back a little.
Someone may say, “I can’t make the connection,” and you’ll ask, “What would you like to start connecting?” Someone may say something like, “I have anxiety.” In their mind and language, they have turned the process of being anxious into a solid thing, anxiety. It makes it seem much more permanent and something that you have and that’s it, but if you turn it back into a process by asking the person something like, “What is it you’re being anxious about right now?” Then it seems like something less solid and with the possibility of movement.
If someone says, “There’s total misery in this office.” The response may be, “What is it you’re miserable about?” or even, “What are you being miserable about?” Responses like that start the person to think about what action they can take rather than being stuck in total misery.
Those are deletion language patterns and the responses you may like to give when you hear them. Now we’re going to study generalizations. The first one is something called a universal quantifier and this is when something is generalized out to include everyone and all occasions. Universal quantifiers are easy to identify as you just need to listen out for words like “all,” “every,” “never,” “everyone,” “no one,” etcetera.
If someone says something like, “She never listens to me,” they have taken an occasion or a number of occasions that someone has not listened to them and in this statement, generalized it out to include every single occasion. You will often only need to use a one-word response to stop movement in this situation. You would just use the universal quantifier back at the person with a question mark at the end.
If they say, “She never listens to me,” and you can say then, “Never?” Then they may say something like, “Well, she does sometimes, but mostly she doesn’t pay attention to what I say.” Then you have somewhere to go because you can start to ask questions about the difference between the person does listen and when they don’t and how the client can use that. If someone says something like, “They all ignore me,” then your response will be, “All of them?” If they say, “Every time I walk into the meeting, they go quiet.” Your response can be, “Every time?”
“Everyone thinks that’s impossible.” “Everyone?” “No one can do that many in a day.” “No one?” By challenging these generalizations, we can begin to get more information to help the person get back to the specifics which are much easier to handle. That is universal quantifiers.
Now we’re going to look at one other type of generalization. These are called modal operators and you can hear modal operators of possibility and modal operators of necessity. They’re type of indicators of energy we put into things. Is it about things being possible or not, or is it about being things necessary? Let’s start with modal operators of possibility. These are whether someone has generalized to conclude whether something is possible or not because once they’ve made that generalization, they will take it for granted and then act on the basis of the generalization. You will want to challenge them on the basis of the generalization so that they can discover whether it’s helping or not.
In order to identify modal operators of possibility, you’ll want to listen out for words like “can,” “can’t,” “could,” “couldn’t,” “will,” “won’t,” “would,” “wouldn’t,” “it’s possible,” and “it’s not possible.” For example, if someone says, “I can’t tell him the truth,” they have now excluded the possibility that they could and we will act on the belief that they can’t tell this person the truth.
If it’s a problem to them, you may well want to open up the possibilities again. You can do this by asking, “What would happen if you did?” You can then find out what they’re imagining is going to happen and help them out with that. Perhaps someone says, “I can only just stand there and let it happen.” Your response could be, “What would happen if you couldn’t?” Once again, you’re opening up the possibilities.
Then we come on to modal operators of necessity. These suggest that the person is motivated out of necessity. They will use words like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” “mustn’t,” “got to,” “have to.” “You’ve got to do that.” It’s like they’re saying you have no choice. It’s a duty or an absolute requirement. The response to these is much the same as modal operators of possibility.
If someone said, “I have to be at the front.” You could say, “What would happen if you weren’t?” You’re opening up the possibility to them again by getting them to consider that belief. “I should go there every day.” “She shouldn’t talk to me like that.” “I must get this project finished today.” “I musn’t talk to the manager.” “I’ve got to read all these books.” These are all examples of modal operators of necessity and you just want to ask them what will happen if they shouldn’t, should, mustn’t or must, didn’t have to, or haven’t got to, etcetera. That’s modal operators and we looked first at possibility and then at necessity.
Lastly, we’re going to find out more about distortions. If you remember from the communication model, distortions are where we take the information coming in to us and distort it in some way and that is the basis of creativity. As with deletions and generalizations, we can create distortions which are very helpful that help us create new ideas and things which can help us achieve goals and also we can create distortions that are not so helpful. We’re going to think about distortions which are not so helpful and how you can use questions to help challenge those distortions.
The first of the distortions are called complex equivalents. This is where in someone’s mind, they have decided that one thing means, or is equivalent to, something else. “She’s very tall so that means she’ll never be able to dance gracefully.” When someone says this, they’ve taken the fact that someone is tall and created meaning that they will never be able to dance gracefully from that.
To pick out complex equivalents, then you want to listen out for the word “means,” or the implication of one thing meaning something else, and anything with the verb “to be” in it. For example, “I am wonderful,” is a complex equivalent because it is saying “I” is equivalent to “wonderful.” However, in coaching, you’ll often find people using a negative rather than a positive or a plight to someone else. They may say, “He is,” and then make some judgement afterwards. That’s still a complex equivalent. It’s saying “he” is equivalent to what comes afterwards.
It’s important to remember that the words that come afterwards are very often a judgement. A person is always, always more than any judgement that can be made about them. It’s just what the person who is making the judgement is focusing on at the time and often says more about the person who is making the judgement than the person they are judging.
This is important to remember if you have someone who is being judged by someone and it’s a problem for them, or someone who is judging themselves in unhelpful ways.
The person is not the judgement. It may be that something they have done, for instance, their behavior, is something that’s not up to standard to the person making the comment about it but they are not the judgement. They are much more than that.
That’s why it’s important when you’re giving someone feedback. To give them feedback on their behavior, not give them unhelpful complex equivalents about them. In response to a complex equivalent, you’ll want to challenge the link between the two things that they have linked. If someone says, “She’s always shouting at us that means she thinks we can’t get there.”
You will want to challenge the link by saying, “How does her shouting at you mean she thinks you can’t get there?” In this way, you’ll discover how this person is taking the information about being shouted at to have the meaning that they have actually given to it.
If someone says, “The organization is buying up new businesses every week. It will never succeed that way.” That’s an implied complex equivalent. Even though it hasn’t got the word “means” in there, it’s implied in the sentence. What would your response be? It could be, “How does the organization buying up new businesses mean it will never succeed that way?”
Then you have the statements with the verb “to be” in it. For example, “I’m a total failure.” The response for that would be, “How do you think you’re a failure?” You will then discover how they have created this meaning about themselves and how they have linked themselves to being a total failure.
Next, we have cause-effects. They are very interesting. This is where the cause of something is wrongly put outside themselves. You’ll be able to identify these by words like “because,” “in order to,” “makes,” “if so-and-so happens, then,” or “as so-and-so happens, then.”
When someone says something like, “He makes me angry,” they are putting the cause of their anger to “he,” whoever “he” may be, but the thing is that we have hundreds of ways to respond to situations and being angry is just one of them. We could respond in all sorts of other ways to whatever it is he’s doing but we have decided to be angry.
The cause is not the person who is doing whatever it is they’re doing. The cause is the way we have decided to respond. Very often, the response appears to be caused by the other person because things that other people do have become automatic triggers for us to respond in a particular way. It becomes an unconscious response but the cause is not the other person, it’s our learned responses.
We have many ways to respond and in coaching, if this is a problem, you’ll want to help the person respond in a way that’s more helpful and achieve the results that they want better. This is what we mean by taking ownership and responsibility. You’re questioning from a cause-effect language pattern. We’ll want to help the person to take the cause back and start to think about what they will do to improve things.
If someone is saying something like, “He makes me angry,” then you may want to respond with, “Well how does what he’s doing get you to be angry?” In this, you have acknowledged that it is them doing the angry bit, not caused by the other person. “I get frustrated because he takes so long to get ready.” Your response may be, “Well how does him taking a long time get you to be frustrated?”
“If it’s raining when I wake up, then I’m miserable all day.” “How does the fact that it’s raining when you wake up get you to be miserable all day?” These questions will help you and the client discover how they’re linking these things together and how, in their minds, the two things are connected.
The next distortion is value judgements. This is when someone is stating an opinion as if it were a fact. They will say things like, “It’s bad to exercise so much,” or “It’s wrong to worry the team about these things,” or “It’s not right to give your opinion.” I’m sure you’ve heard people do this in the past and you will want to challenge the judgement. You can respond to this by saying, “Well who says?” or “According to whom?” or “How do you know?” This uncovers the detail about how they have found out about this and whose judgement it is.
Lastly is the distortion known as mind reads. These are wonderful and we do them all the time. They are when we claim to know someone else’s mind. We often think we know what someone else is thinking or feeling, and then we act on the basis of what we think they’re thinking and feeling. In fact, we can never really know fully what is going on in someone else’s mind. People will say things like, “You don’t like me,” or “He doesn’t care about us,” or “Our manager only thinks about himself.”
That is the Meta Model for you. It’s a very useful tool in coaching to be able to ask important questions to recover vital information to the person that’s changing. Here is an exercise to help you practice the Meta Model. For each of the language patterns that we’ve covered, make out three sentences that are typical ones you hear using that language pattern and then write down the Meta Model response that you would give to that sentence