|1221 Left Hand Canyon Dr., Boulder, CO 80302, USA
phone: (303) 442-2902
NEW BOOK Training Schedule Email Newsletter List
Articles Resume Links Home
This brief excerpt is from the book, Six Blind Elephants: understanding ourselves and others volume II: applications and explorations of scope and category. © 2006 Real People Press
by Steve Andreas
"You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself, and how little I deserve it." -William S. Gilbert
Every communication has three aspects: Information, Command, and Relationship. These three functions occur simultaneously, and are only partly conveyed through the content of the words. All three functions are heavily influenced by nonverbal aspects of communication, and also by the context.
Information The most obvious function of communication is to convey information from one person to another. If I say to you, "I just ate a mango," that tells you something about an event which presumably you did not witness or know about previously. Information is presented primarily by the content of the words, so it can usually be understood in written form, which eliminates most of the nonverbal information and context. Since this function is so obvious, I will have little more to say about it.
Command If I order you to do something, "Listen to me!" the command function of language is very obvious. What is less obvious is that even a simple sentence like, "I just ate a mango," effectively commands the listener to have an internal experience of the meaning of the sentence. A listener has to make an internal representation of any sentence in order to understand it, and most people are much less aware of the impact of this. In addition, the internal representation that the listener makes in response to the meaning of the words will often alter their emotional state, and this is most obvious in emotionally loaded messages. If I describe a horrible auto wreck in colorful detail, that will result in a much different state than if I describe a delightful concert or children's party. So the command function impacts at both conscious and unconscious levels of awareness. When the command function is mostly unconscious, we call the communication hypnotic.
Relationship When someone commands someone else to do something, that also defines the relationship between the speaker and the listener as one in which one commands and the other obeys. Since all communication has command function, there will always be a relationship function as well. A communication may indicate a relationship between equals exchanging information, or some other relationship between equal opponents, what has been called a symmetrical relationship. Or it might indicate a relationship between people in complementary roles-parent and child, teacher and student, someone important and someone unimportant, etc., what has been called a complementary relationship between unequals.
Nonverbal communication Although all three functions occur simultaneously in every communication, we usually pay more attention to only one, or at most two of them, and the other functions are mostly out of our awareness. We are typically more conscious of our words than our many different nonverbal responses, both others' and our own.
Since the nonverbal aspects of communication largely express and determine the command and relationship functions, we are often much less aware of these aspects. Auditory emphasis is one of the more obvious elements in nonverbal communication. Say the sentence, "I just ate a mango," repeatedly, but emphasize a different word each time, and notice how the meaning of the sentence as a whole changes. . . .
When a word is emphasized, we tend to think of alternatives to that word, and this alters the meaning of the sentence by implication, which we explored in chapter 1. For instance, when the "I" is emphasized, that makes us wonder, "Who else could have eaten the mango?" When "just" is emphasized, we think, "What else might he have eaten?" or "I wonder what he ate before that?" etc.
In ordinary communication, all these messages, both verbal and nonverbal, combine in a way that supports a single message, or perhaps several parallel messages. When the information, command and relationship functions agree, we call a communication congruent. Even when it is unpleasant, a congruent communication is clear and unambiguous, and doesn't result in confusion or misunderstanding. But if any of these components is ambiguous or contradictory, we are faced with the task of responding to different messages that disagree, and this often results in confusion.
Contradiction The word "contradiction" comes from the Latin, "contra," "against" and "diction," to "say or speak," a "contrary declaration," or "assertion of the contrary of what has been said." Two people who express opposing arguments contradict each other. In usual conversation, if I say one thing, and you say the opposite, you have contradicted me, because what you said is "against" what I said.
Contradiction can be either sequential or simultaneous. If we are having a disagreement, we may courteously take turns stating our opposing views, but if the argument becomes heated or violent, we may express our differing views in the same scope of time, becoming a "shouting match." Even when one or both of us are not talking, opposing nonverbal messages occur at the same time.
Simultaneous contradiction often occurs between the verbal and the nonverbal aspects of a message. For instance, if someone says, "I like you," while withdrawing and turning away, that is an example of simultaneous contradiction. Two nonverbal messages may send simultaneous opposing messages, for instance when one hand beckons while another pushes away, or one side of the body moves forward as the other moves back. However, when a verbal statement contradicts itself it is always sequential, because of the sequential nature of speech (whether spoken or written).
Usually contradiction occurs at the same logical level; I say something is true, and you say it's not, or offer a contrary understanding. However, I may say, "X is true," and you may counter with, "You believe all sorts of garbage." That statement is at a higher logical level, since it categorizes a group of my statements, rather than just my statement about X. I am likely to follow your shift to this higher logical level by contradicting your categorization of me, saying something like, "That's not true." Now the argument is at the same logical level again, although at a more general one.
If I am able to track the levels in this argument, I can respond in a way that keeps the argument at the original level of my statement. "It may be true that I believe all sorts of garbage, but that is irrelevant to this discussion, because in this case I have the following evidence that X is true." Often someone will shift logical levels when their evidence at one level is weak, or they have run out of arguments, so it can be very useful to keep an argument at the same level to get some resolution, or at least a clear understanding of the differing views.
Self-contradiction When a statement contradicts itself, the contradiction can occur in any (or all) of the three functions: information, command, and relationship. Since all three functions occur simultaneously, contradiction often occurs in more than one of these functions, and sometimes it is hard to decide how to describe a particular contradiction. Keeping this in mind, here are a few examples that can be assigned to each function.
Information The quote at the beginning of this article expresses a contradiction in the information communicated. Part of the sentence says that the speaker has a "poor opinion" of himself, followed by the "how little I deserve it," indicating a good opinion.
Years ago I read a short article that said that research had found that it was difficult for people to understand a sentence that had more than 17 words, so articles should have sentences that are no longer than that. (The previous sentence has 29 words; did you find it difficult to understand?) However, every sentence in the article itself had more than 17 words, making it self-contradictory; it did what it said should not be done.
Command "Do not read this sentence" tells the reader to do something in a context in which it is impossible to comply, an example of a contradiction in the command function. In order to do what the sentence commands you to do, you have to do what the sentence tells you not to do, an impossible situation. If you simply don't read the sentence, that is not complying either, because you can only comply with a command if you are responding to it. This may seem like only a cute, but meaningless example, but at one time there were printed emergency instructions on one airline that actually said, "If you can't read these instructions about what to do in an emergency, please speak to an attendant"!
Another variation of this contradiction is, "Don't be so obedient," another command that cannot be obeyed without disobeying it. Like any other communication pattern, this can also be used in a positive way in an appropriate context. If you are communicating with someone who always looks to you for direction, you can command them to not pay attention to anything you say.
Richard Bandler had a client once who obsessively read license plates and derived messages from them that he had to follow compulsively. So Bandler got a "vanity" license plate that said "STOPIT" and put it on his car, which he parked in a spot visible from the chair in his office that his client sat in.
Relationship "I insist that our relationship is between equals," is a self-contradiction in the relationship function, because the statement expresses a relationship between unequals at the same time that it defines the relationship as between equals.
These kinds of contradiction are quite common, and they can cause a great deal of confusion and unhappiness. They are commonly referred to as paradoxes, in the wider usage of the word, meaning "unexpected" or "self-contradictory." However, I prefer to use the term "self-contradiction" for this kind of message.
We can also experience contradictions between the three different functions: information, command, and relationship. Since a self-contradiction that is entirely in words is often pretty obvious, often the opposition is between a verbal message and a relatively unconscious nonverbal one.
For example, someone who approaches someone else to initiate a relationship may nonverbally express their certainty that no one would want to be in a relationship with them. If they aren't aware of their nonverbal messages, it will be hard for them to realize this contradiction. When others respond to the nonverbal messages by showing little interest in them, that will confirm their belief.
If someone says, "I want to help you," in a whining, weak tone of voice, the verbal statement of the relationship is the opposite of the nonverbal command function of the voice tone, which effectively says, "Please take care of me."
If you ask someone a question, they may reply, "I don't know," in an abrupt and dismissive voice tone that says, "Shut up," or "Don't bother me about that!" "I don't know" is a response to the request for information, while the nonverbal command is a rejection of this request. Often they actually did know the answer, but said, "I don't know" as a quick way to end the communication.
These nonverbal contradictory messages are literally "unstated," and often they are somewhat ambiguous. As a result they are usually processed unconsciously, and someone may only be aware of the bad feelings that they have as a result. When trying to help people out of their confusions, it is especially useful to examine these nonverbal messages, because often they contain the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Often messages are nonverbal and ambiguous because someone doesn't want to express them directly, or has mixed feelings about being direct. So if you try to clarify the communication, for instance by asking, "Do you want me to shut up?" the other person may respond indirectly, saying something like, "I don't know what you mean," or with a message that punishes, "Well, of course; isn't that obvious?!" or "How could you think that?" In these examples the nonverbal relationship message is, "I'm smarter than you are," which often ends the exchange.
For many years, thousands of psychiatrists and psychologists have attempted to help schizophrenics with therapy, while at the same time firmly believing that schizophrenics could not benefit from therapy. How they could ethically charge money for what they were certain could not work, is a question for which I have not yet heard a satisfactory answer. The psychiatrist's belief was undoubtedly communicated to the schizophrenics nonverbally, and their lack of response to treatment confirmed the psychiatrist's beliefs.
When self-contradiction occurs in a single sentence, it is usually fairly easy to recognize the resulting "gridlock." However, two sentences (or three, or more) can create a larger loop that can be somewhat harder to notice and understand.
For instance, many years ago, I knew a woman who had difficulties in relationships. She wanted to be with a man who had good judgment, and she had a very poor self-concept-she didn't think much of herself, and had poor self-esteem. When a man showed interest in her, she thought to herself, "If he likes me, he must have very poor judgment, so I don't want to go out with him." She would only consider dating men who showed no interest in her, or who thought badly of her, which led to abuse and other unpleasant situations. If they showed any interest in her, she immediately lost interest in them.
She found herself in the same trap as Groucho Marx' famous statement, "I wouldn't dream of belonging to a club that would be willing to have me for a member," a curious way to say that he doesn't want to be a member of any club. However, this woman did want to be in a relationship, but she didn't recognize how her two beliefs interacted in a loop that resulted in a logical contradiction, and prevented any possibility of having a good relationship.
Causality/determinism It is especially difficult to notice self-contradiction when a hidden premise is part of a contradictory loop. About 20 years ago in San Francisco at an imagery conference (The "first world imagery conference," as I recall) Larry Dossey was speaking to about 300 people, making a distinction between what he called "causal thinking" (traditional western logical thinking) and "non-causal thinking" (not very well-specified, at least in my memory now). He said that causal thinking had resulted in many of the problems affecting us, and that non-causal thinking would clear up these problems, and allow them to be more easily solved.
I looked around in wonder as 300 people nodded in agreement, apparently not realizing that he was saying that his "non-causal" model would cause us to think better, a blatant contradiction! In live conversations, most people have considerable difficulty keeping track of even two logical levels. Even fewer notice the looping of self-reference between two levels that provides an opportunity for this kind of contradiction. Gregory Bateson noticed years ago that this inability often got people into difficulties.
This brief excerpt is from the book, Six Blind Elephants: understanding ourselves and others volume II: applications and explorations of scope and category. © 2006 Real People Press
Implication: Saying Without Saying
"When can couple therapy be terminated?"
"When the husband says to the wife, ‘This coffee is terrible'
and they BOTH know that he is talking about the coffee."
Implication is one of the most common ways that we unconsciously make meaning when we communicate. A speaker's words imply something that the listener infers. My wife says that she is cold, implying that she would like to be warm, and I infer that she would like me to turn up the heat. I say that I didn't hear about what our son did today, and she infers that I would like to know, so she tells me. If you examine your ordinary daily communications, you will find that implication is usually far more common than direct and explicit communications like, "Turn up the heat, please," or "What did Mark do today?"
Implication is a result of attending to the more general significance or meaning of a particular scope of communication, action, thing, or event, categorizing it in some way. In a good relationship, thinking beyond what someone says to what else they might mean or want is a sign of respect, consideration, and caring. I hear my wife say that she is cold, I put myself in her position, and think, "I'll bet she'd like to be warmer; I'll turn up the heat." Using "other" position in this way is the basis for empathy and compassion, attending to others' needs and wants in addition to my own. Compassion and empathy is a fundamental component of any good relationship, and it is also a basis of any civilized society that treats all its members as human beings.
Unfortunately, the ambiguity of implication is also an opportunity for misunderstanding, confusion, or worse, separating people rather than bringing them together. For instance, if someone gives you a present, what is the implication? Is it a spontaneous and freely given sign of appreciation-"no strings attached." Or is it a dutiful satisfaction of a past obligation, or an atonement for some guilt, real or imagined? Does this gift imply a sexual invitation, create a future obligation, or something else altogether?
Years ago, when a friend of mine baked some bread and gave
a loaf to her psychoanalyst, the implications of that gift were explored for the next six months-at a hundred dollars an hour! As far as she was concerned, it was simply an appreciative gift, and not a symbolic communication that she wanted to "mother" him because he was immature, or that he was "loafing," or that he was doing a "crumby" job.
In a good relationship, even these kinds of possible implication can be expressed and explored openly and playfully, with no one taking it very seriously, an opportunity for creativity and interaction. But if a relationship is strained, tense, or defensive, people have a tendency to search for negative and harmful implications that can be very damaging to the relationship.
The more threatened and defensive someone is, the more they are likely to be vigilant for any possible negative implication. As an old joke goes, one person says, "Good morning," and the other says to himself, "Hmm, I wonder what he meant by that?" When someone frequently attends to negative implications in a wide range of contexts, we describe them as "paranoid." It seems likely that someone would learn to do this in a context in which family members used a lot of negative implication instead of direct communication about important issues, with severe punishment for not making the correct inferences.
For instance, by the time a couple decides to come in for therapy, they have already been arguing and fighting for some time, and are unhappy, confused, fearful, and have at least thought about separating. This creates a backlog of implication for the unwary therapist. Whether the couple realizes it or not, the most important unspoken question in both their minds is, "Are you going to be on my side or his/hers?" Their next question is almost certain to be, "Are you for marriage or separation?" another either/or categorization. As a result, both will be exceptionally vigilant, noticing the slightest word or action that might imply an answer to either of these questions.
Before anything useful can happen, the therapist has to respond to these either/or assumptions, and embrace both sides of them, by explicitly (and hopefully congruently) assuring the couple that s/he is on both their sides, and neither for or against marriage or divorce. That is their decision to make; the therapist's job is to clarify their needs and their communication, to help them reach a decision that fits best for both of them.
Of course, sometimes it is very important to attend to the implication of an event, because even a very small event may have a very important meaning. A friend of mine found books of matches around the house from places he had never been. This puzzled him, but he didn't think too much about it. About a year later, he found out that his wife had been having a series of affairs, bringing back matches from different bars and restaurants where she had met her lovers.
However, there might have been some other completely innocent meaning for the strange matches. They could have been a casual gift from a friend who was clearing out her kitchen cupboard. "Here, can you use these matches?" In that case, if my friend had thought of threatening implications, that would have been an imaginary meaning that would have caused unnecessary unhappiness.
Often we find implications on our own, but sometimes others invite us to do it. "It's interesting that you would say that," is a vague implication that the speaker is putting the statement into a larger category, and the listener is likely to search for what it is. Depending on the facial expression and tone of voice, this ambiguous communication could be a criticism, a compliment, an accusation, a sexual invitation, or any number of other possible communications. The absence of communication, particularly when someone is expecting it, is even more ambiguous and fertile in possible implications. What does that silence mean?
So while implication can be a very graceful and respectful way to communicate, it can also be a source of serious miscommunication, disguising accusations, blame, and all sorts of other destructive messages. Like all patterns of communication, implication can be used in negative ways or positive ways. When we understand how they work, we can avoid a lot of misunderstanding and unhappiness. There are several kinds of implication, and each is somewhat different. I want to begin with a fundamental kind of implication that provides a basis for exploring how other kinds of implication work.
Model of the World
Whenever someone is "stuck" in a problem or limitation, they are categorizing it in a way that isn't useful in resolving it. However, they are usually also categorizing this categorization at a higher logical level as the only way to do it. "The problem is that she wants to control me, and that's a fact." Implication is particularly useful in gracefully and gently making a distinction between how the world is-which we can never know directly or completely-and how we perceive it, think about it, understand it, or interpret it, what has often been called the "map/territory" distinction. Our experience is always only a "map" of the territory. Although we can sometimes come very close to it, we can never completely know the territory itself.
Different communication patterns that elicit a distinction between our map and the reality that the map describes have been grouped together under the name, "model of the world." I want you to have an experience of these different patterns before discussing them. Think of some specific problem or limitation you have (or imagine being someone else that you know who has a specific limitation), and imagine expressing this problem to someone else in a brief statement. For example, "My husband never thinks about the social consequences of what he says." Then notice your internal experience of this sentence. . . . (Three periods indicate a pause.)
Then notice how your experience changes when you imagine someone responding to you with one of the interventions on the list below. Pause after each one, so you can notice the impact of each. The blank indicates where you would insert the statement that you made about the problem. It can be even better if you ask a friend to read these responses to you, one at a time.
a. "So it seems to you that (your husband never thinks about the social consequences of what he says)."
b. "So the way you see the situation "
c. "So for you, the problem is "
d. "So you think that "
e. "So now you feel that "
f. "So your experience of this situation is that " (rising inflection at end, indicating a question)
g. "So your understanding is ‘ ' (statement of the problem in quotes)."
h. "So for you, the way you see it now, the problem is that (problem statement in quotes)" with rising inflection at the end.
Now that you have an experience of an example of hearing these different responses, let's examine each of them to see how they work. They appear to be simply statements that match or paraphrase someone's experience, yet each is actually also a subtle intervention. Each of them gently implies that there are other ways to perceive or understand the same events, without overtly saying so. This always results in an expansion of scope beyond someone's present experience.
a. Unreality predicate Notice what happens in your mind when you make an image of a car, and then say to yourself, "That seems to be a car," or "That might be a car." When I do this, my image becomes wavy and insubstantial, as if I'm looking at it under water, but there are many other ways to represent uncertainty. For some, the image becomes somewhat transparent, fuzzy, or flat, or as if it were a cardboard cutout.
b. Awareness or description predicate In a similar way, picturing a situation is a little different from how the situation is. Any word like "view," "see," "describe," "think about," "understand," etc., implies that you could also perceive or categorize an event in a different way. When you say that it appears to be a car, or looks like a car, the implication is that it is not really a car.
c. Self/other Saying "For you-" implies that some other person might have a very different perception or understanding.
d. Tonal emphasis Take any simple sentence, such as "I don't like green mangos," and say it to yourself as you would normally say it. . . .
Then repeat the sentence, noticing how your experience changes when you emphasize the first word "I". . . .
Then emphasize the second word "don't" and notice how that changes your experience. . . .
Then do the same with each following word in turn. . . .
Whenever a word is emphasized, it implies alternative possible scopes. When the "I" is emphasized, the listener's attention is drawn to "others." When the "don't" is emphasized, "do" is elicited-"I don't" makes me think "others do." When "like" is emphasized, it makes us think of other responses that are the opposite of liking-"disgust," "rejection," "lack of taste," etc. When "green" is emphasized, I think of "ripe," and when "mangos" is emphasized, I think of other fruit. These different alternatives imply that there is more than one possible way to experience an event.
e. Time When any reference to time is emphasized, it makes us think of other scopes of time when our response might have been very different. "So that's how you thought of it at the time that it happened," implies that now it is possible to think of it in a different way. "How long have you thought about it in this way?" implies that there was an earlier time when you thought about it differently. "How will you think about this five years from now?" elicits the same implication about the future.
f. Questioning tonal shift In English, a rising tonal inflection at the end of a sentence indicates a question-even when the communication is grammatically a statement. A question is overtly
a request for confirmation or more information, but it also implies that there is some uncertainty or ambiguity about the content being discussed.
g. Quotes Quotations can simply indicate that someone said something, as in "Yesterday, Joe said, ‘I like learning about implication.' " But quotes can also be used to imply that someone else might describe an event differently, so the quoted description may be inaccurate. Quotes can be clearly indicated by using a sentence structure that introduces a statement that someone else made, as in "Suzie said " Pausing briefly before the beginning of a quote can help identify it as one, and using an accent, or some other very different tone of voice can clearly indicate that a sentence was originally spoken by someone else.
h. Combination All these different patterns of implication can be used together for even greater impact, as in the example given after h. in the list above.
Practicing these patterns in a playful way can make these skills an automatic part of your communication. A format for an exercise that you can do with others appears on the facing page.
Model of the World Exercise
(Trios, 20 minutes)
1. Problem A thinks of a problem or limitation (or role-plays someone else with a limitation), and then makes a brief statement about it. A pauses to notice how s/he represents this problem internally. . . .
2. Backtrack B first makes a simple "backtrack" statement or paraphrase of what A said, and then indicates to C which category of "Model of the World" pattern to use from the list on pages 5 and 6, by pointing to it silently.
3. Intervention C makes a backtrack statement that uses an example of the kind of pattern specified by B.
4. Response B notices any nonverbal shifts in A, while A notices and briefly reports any changes in his/her internal experience.
5. Recycle Go back to step 2, until all six individual patterns have been used.
6. Discussion A reviews the changes in his/her experience, and indicates which patterns were the most impactful. Notice if there was a cumulative effect due to the sequence of patterns.
7. Adjustments A suggests ways for C to improve the patterns s/he offered (changes in voice tone or tempo, wording, posture, nonverbal expression, setup, etc.). C practices using this feedback to change how s/he delivers the pattern, using A as a coach.
8. Rotate positions and repeat the exercise, until each person has experienced all three positions.
"Stretches" (to further develop your skills)
a. B chooses two (or more) categories of pattern for C to use in the same sentence.
b. A gets more exaggerated, bizarre, or "psychotic" with his
original problem statement.
These patterns are useful when communicating with people who have very fixed ideas about their categorizations of the world, and who would not appreciate any direct suggestion that the world could be understood differently. If you say, "So that is how you understand the situation now," that is clearly true, and the implication is not something that they can clearly identify or take issue with. If they do notice the implication and attempt to challenge it, it is easy to simply repeat it, and even embellish it. "Well, that is how you understand it now, isn't it? Did you have that understanding when you were two years old?" When the same implication is delivered in different ways over a period of time, it becomes even stronger and more persuasive, while remaining covert.
Link To Order Six Blind Elephants: Vol. II.
©2000-08 Steve Andreas