There’s listening… and there’s really listening.

Normally when we’re listening to somebody we tend to pay attention to what they are actually saying. We listen to the words, the sentences, the descriptions, the story line, etc. As a result we may have feelings about them and what they are saying. Yet we are really just hearing and responding to a quite superficial level of their full message.

On the other hand some people, and especially those who have had a thorough training in NLP, will ‘hear’ more. They are also listening for what’s underneath the words, in other words what is going on inside the person doing the talking? How are they really feeling? And this level of information is picked up by paying attention to the implications of their words and phrases and tonalities.

NLP Language Patterns: Presuppositions

(In NLP we call this type of clue a Presupposition because it presupposes something. As with a lot of NLP terms this is not immediately self-explanatory so it’s a bit easier to think of such terms as ‘Forced Assumptions’ since they force us to assume something in order to make sense of what a person is saying.  So, for example, if I say ‘the third thing we did was …’ this sort of forces you to assume that we did two other things first!)

NLP and TV Watching

TV and radio can be excellent mediums for honing your NLP skills as long as you’re selective about which programmes you use. For example, last evening I was watching a re-run of a rescue/makeover programme in which the two owners of an hotel which was sinking into debt had called in Ruth Watson, the Hotel Inspector, to guide them in how to get the hotel back on its feet.

I find such programmes great for picking up clues to what’s beneath the words: to the speaker’s feelings, beliefs, doubts, conflicts, expectations, real intentions, and attitude.

What’s beneath the words tells us what really happening for them. And, in the case of the rescue/makeover programmes, this can provide lots of clues into the unspoken attitudes and beliefs and conflicts which got the owners into their current predicament..

The ‘implications’

In this particular programme there were two obvious clues that the outcome would not be overwhelmingly successful:

  1. they were initially defensive when deficiencies and faults were pointed out to them.
  2. Under Ruth’s ‘encouragement’ they did start changing things. But when questioned about how business would subsequently improve one of the owners continually denied her own words – by qualifying what she was saying with ‘hopefully’.

Well, hopefully, people will like this.

Hopefully we’ll attract new business with this change.

Hopefully everything will be ready on the big day.

She did not convey a belief or a determination to make things work – these would have been reflected in statements like:

We’ll make sure people like this.

This change will attract new business.

Yes, everything will be ready on the big day.

‘Hopefully’ vs. ‘definitely!’

There are a number of likely implications in her use of ‘hopefully’. In a live interaction these could be verified but here I have to guess and my guesses include

  1. She doesn’t believe her actions will produce the outcome that she wants
  2. She doesn’t perceive a clear link between their improvements and the results these are aimed at
  3. She will be unable to inspire her staff because of her own lack of belief and vision
  4. She is not truly committed to what she is doing

Isn’t it better to be hopeful?

Yes, you could say she has hope – which may be true although her body language didn’t suggest this. But even if she has, hope is a very passive emotion. It’s not one I’d rely on to get things done.

The author and travel book writer R. L Stevenson wrote ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’ which, if you’re travelling around the world in some luxury in the late 1800’s, may be true.

But this phrase is more usually quoted to support a passive wish rather than a clear determination.

The implications of ‘hopefully’

Imagine that you are at home and you discover you’ve run out of milk. Your partner is in town and due home shortly. so you phone them and say ‘could you pick up a litre of milk on your way home’.

Which reply contains the implication that the milk will soon arrive:

Yes, hopefully I will get some milk!


Yes, I will get some milk!

I know which one would convince me – and which would suggest it’s going to be black tea or coffee this evening.

Action point

‘Hopefully’ may seem like a figure of speech or a throwaway remark – but there’s a lot more to it than that. And its use has two effects – on you and on your listener.

Self: When we use the word it works reflexively – it both reflects and strengthens a passive attitude and/or a negative belief in what will happen.

With others: When someone hears us using this it evokes doubts in them. Their belief in us will be weakened at very least. This usually occurs subliminally, out of conscious awareness, and has the result that they afterwards have an uneasy or negative feeling about us.

Begin listening to how often, if at all, it slips into your own speech.

So what about that hotel?

By the end of the programme things had improved somewhat and it looked as if, with a fair bit of determined action, they could make it work.

It is now a few years on from the original run of that programme and the hotel is still in business… and there is a notice on their website: ‘Under New Management.’


  1. GrahamJ on 22nd May 2010 at 6:47 AM

    I like this article very much.
    When you are writing the next in the series, hopefully you will use examples as a means to clarify those NLPisms and I’ll be just as impressed.

  2. Reg on 22nd May 2010 at 8:41 AM

    Hi Graham: Thanks for the comment – and for the suggestion. Good idea about the NLPisms. I’d make sure to clarify with examples – or maybe do a blog series on ‘NLPisms in Plain English’.

    After 31 years of using NLP I’m just about able to fully understand most of the strange and arcane terms we use… But others should’n’t have to wait that long to be able to do it. 🙂

    We already have on in the Pegasus NLP Newsletter but that’s just one per newsletter and it’s published every 6 weeks of so.