NLP for people who like to think for themselves

“I know just how they feel” – NLP and fuzzy thinking

Different languages!11115913_s

The rush-hour train from London was crowded but I got a seat at a table in the noisy, smoky buffet section.  (This was just before smoking in public places was outlawed in the UK).

So I was sitting there, listening to relaxing music in the headphones to drown out the noisy boozy office workers at the bar, and quietly reading my book when, out of the corner of my eye, I became aware of two male bellies beside the table – and addressing me.

Even above the music I could make out the plummy “Why aren’t you having fan?”

I looked up at my questioner. He and his laughing friend were standing over me, swaying to the motion of the train, each with glass of booze in one hand and cigarette in the other;  a couple of sozzled Hooray Henrys on their way home from the City.

Jolted out of my concentration, I had no idea what he was asking about: although smoky the train wasn’t all that stuffy so I could see no need for a fan. I shrugged my shoulders, put the earplugs back in, and returned to my book. The Hooray Henry uttered a few more inane comments, and then he and his friend swayed off to rejoin their colleagues at the bar.

Later, while chatting about the incident at home, it dawned on me. “Why aren’t you having fan?” was Public School English for “Why aren’t you having fun?” Not having been to public school I’d completely missed the point of his question.

Attaching Meaning

So, because of our ‘language difference’, it took me a couple of hours to recognise that my drunken friend was demonstrating an important NLP pattern. (In traditional NLP it’s usually called Complex Equivalence, although here at Pegasus NLP we use the Plain English Attaching Meaning, since this describes what is actually going on).

The pattern worked like this:

  1. In his view my public school acquaintance recognised that I wasn’t having fun.
  2. To him having fun meant lots of booze, lots of cigarettes, and sharing loud chatter/laughter with his peers.
  3. To him silently listening to music and reading meant that I was unhappy.
  4. He attached his meaning to my behaviour.

How it works

It’s a very common thinking pattern: we attach our meaning to other people’s behaviour like this:

  1. We observe somebody behaving in a certain way
  2. We decide: “If I were acting like that I’d be in this mood”
  3. Now we know what it is like to be them. Simple!

It’s so much easier than going to the trouble of actually asking them how they are, isn’t it… 🙂

And, not surprisingly, it causes lots of problems in our personal and working relationships!

My rules rule!

It’s very similar to the old “my rules for me, my rules for you” thing. Let’s look at a few examples::

  • She laughs a lot – therefore she must be a happy person.  (Could she be laughing to cover up other feelings?)
  • He’s very quiet – he must be depressed. (Could he have an amazing imagination? Or be absorbed in planning things?)
  • My colleagues never acknowledge me when I arrive at work – they hate me. (Could they be so intent on getting on with their work they hardly notice your arrival. Or, since you do not speak with them either, think you prefer to be left alone?)
  • My team are great at their job – they never bother me with problems. (Could they be intimidated by you? Or quietly floundering in a mess?)
  • They’re a very happy family – the children are so well-behaved. (Could there be another explanation for the children’s obedient behaviour?)
  • She doesn’t love me – she never buys me flowers. (Does she know you want her to buy you flowers?)
  • I didn’t finish that on time – I’m useless. (Let’s look at what occurred in the process – and see if that verdict is accurate.)

Jumping to (our own) conclusions

When you find that you or others are jumping to conclusions is this way recognise that it is lazy thinking. Rather than think things through, or actually ask people how they are, we decide we know what ‘s going on.

  • Lots of parents do it – rather than take the time to engage with their children
  • Lots of managers do it – rather than take the time to ask their team members what is going on for them
  • Lots of teachers do it – rather than take the time to engage with the pupil
  • Lots of people in relationships do it – ‘ I don’t need to ask; we’ve been together so long I can read him like a book!”

Keeping friends

When we  first learn this pattern it’s tempting to rush out  and put the world to rights by questioning every single example of this type of verdict thinking!

This does not endear you to your friends or family.

I know I’ve tried it – briefly.

(Incidentally, the Attaching Meaning pattern is just one of the 13 patterns in the wonderful NLP Meta Model – which could really be called ‘How to recognise Fuzzy Thinking’.) The Meta Model is a great tool for gaining insight into what makes people tick and for improving our understanding of them.)

  1. Ruth Culver on 23rd August 2012 at 1:25 PM

    Hi Reg – nice post.

    I’m always amused that the universal comment when people hear me singing quietly to myself in a shop/street/tube is: “You’re happy”.

    What’s amazing is that the tone of voice often sounds resentful. Occasionally this morphs the comment into: “No need to be so happy” – !

    In fact, such an incident usually has one of 3 explanations:
    – As a musician there’s almost always a tune in my head – occasionally one slips out unnoticed
    – I have a gig that evening, so I need to warm up my voice
    – I’m NOT very happy but know that singing is a brilliant mood-enhancer

    Occasionally I share the latter reason – who knows, someday it may be useful…

  2. Anthony Beardsell on 28th August 2012 at 12:57 PM

    I like this post Reg.

    It’s definitely a scenario I recognise. I take it that you didn’t think of replying to them with an NLP Meta Model response of, “how is what I am doing not having fan?”

    There are times and places for the Meta Model and this wasn’t one of them as you say!

  3. Reg on 28th August 2012 at 1:32 PM

    Hi Ruth

    Yes, it is amazing how many people use their interpretation of how we may be feeling as an accusation!

    As in “You’re very cheerful today… (pause, while they wait for us to explain ourselves)…aren’t you…”

    I think they’ve learned over the years that if they comment on a person’s behaviour, be it favourably or unfavourably, the person will then attempt to explain or justify their behaviour or mood.

    And our explaining ourselves gives them power/status.

    There’s also the other thing, in Northern European societies, that if someone is alone and cheerful, and especially if they’re smiling or singing, there must be something wrong with them.



  4. Reg on 28th August 2012 at 1:41 PM

    Hi Anthony

    Yes, thought of a few different things I could say – and then recognised he was quite harmless, pretty drunk, probably spending 12-14 hours a day working and commuting, and enjoying a few minutes of escapism. I didn’t feel like attempting to burst his little euphoria bubble – nor in allowing his behaviour to alter my mood.


  5. NLP on 12th September 2012 at 5:25 AM

    Interesting. I agree with Anthony. Why didn’t you replied with a META model response?

  6. Reg on 13th September 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Hi Kaimott:

    I’ve no doubt that a lot of other people would also agree that I should have immediately jumped on the comment and Meta Modelled it ruthlessly. And that, as NLPers, it is our god-imposed duty to tell everyone how wrong and stupid they are when they dare to use a Meta Model pattern.

    This is a use of the Meta Model which one of its originators, Richard Bandler, has been railing against for over 25 years – he termed people who have been taught to use this challenge-every-violation approach ‘Meta Monsters’.

    Like a lot of other training organisations we do not rush people through a fast-track 5-10 day NLP Practitioner but take 20 days. This means that, in addition to fitting a lot more into the programme, we have time to do things thoroughly – including looking at how to use the Meta Model as it was designed to be used.

    In the situation with the drunk toff interaction I had no desire to interact with him at all, let alone to begin using the Meta Model. The book and my music held more interest for me 🙂


  7. Justin L on 14th September 2012 at 10:06 PM

    Nice insight to the situation Reg and a good reminder about using nlp to get what you want in this thread.

    Do you think using the term ‘attaching’ nominalises meaning?
    You being there you could tell if they were trying to make the point stick or if it was something in passing?

    I’m quite conceptual so wondering if the attached meaning comes; as a bolt-on or it’s fitted-in.

  8. Reg on 15th September 2012 at 7:05 AM

    Hi Justin:

    Yes “meaning” is a nominalisation – so are the words insight, situation, reminder, love, truth.

    Nominalising activities into single words is very useful – without doing so any description (another nominalisation) would be long and convoluted.

    Your comment “nice insight to the situation” takes only 5 words but to avoid using the two nominalisation would require something like “nice way of recognising and relating the various ways in which the people were interacting” (15 words)

    We could set out to avoid using nominalisations and it is theoretically possible. But they are useful ways of short-cutting long and tedious verbage.

    Like all the Meta Model patterns they are neither good nor bad: this is determined by the context in which they are being used.


  9. John Jenkinson on 2nd October 2012 at 1:01 PM

    Interesting blog post. I cannot help but think that maybe you weren’t having as much fun as you might have on previous occasions? Obviously lol your friend ( as you call ) him was having more of a neurological thrill than you were outwardly demonstrating what he thought was fun. Maybe he was having more fun than you? Regardless of what the normalization is or isn’t? Then again I wasn’t there!

    Nice blog post

    (29 December 2013 – link to no longer connecting)

  10. Justin L on 13th October 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Reg, that seems a pretty rigid interpretation of meaning, that isn’t there in the classificaton of the term.
    Sure , by adding -ing to the verb it is a nominalisation but it is equally definable as an intransitive verb.

    Meaning can easily be exchanged and transit between two communicators. I was only pointing out that ‘attaching’ meaning reifies the content in a way that really makes it a strict nominalisation. I think a discussion about ‘associating meaning’ would allow meaning to remain an intransient verb.

    I’m not 100% sure that’s the case but it seems a more apt description of the exchange you highlighted. There are lots of meaningful associations being made, in the encounter you describe, that aren’t apparent if meaning truly was being attached.

    I’m being picky because of the existence of attachment theory and the fact that this word suggests a bond, not just a connection.