Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Putting the frame on the outside

The beautiful building where we train at NLP Canada Training is currently covered with scaffolding. The roof is being repaired and replaced, and it will be a slow job. In the meantime, our warm brick is covered with a metal skeleton.

It's not pretty, but it is useful.

Think about this scaffolding when you have to repair or replace the way your audience understands the thing you want to communicate. Be especially careful when that understanding is keeping them safe from the elements in an unpredictable environment.

For instance, people frequently come to me with a version of "I don't like this thing that happened to me in the past and the way it has me stuck now."

Their understanding of the current situation is like a roof: it both limits how far they can see and gives them a measure of predictability in an unpredictable world. It's a trade-off: to protect themselves from a world where bad things might happen, they focus on a bad thing that has already happened (but they survived that one). What we need to do is the big work of repairing and replacing sections of that roof so that they can be more comfortable in the present as they think about both the past and the future.

What kind of scaffolding would you use to do that kind of work? I've already suggested some of how I build the external framing that will help people begin to work on the meaning they assign to their past experiences. The first layer of scaffolding is time: I remind them of the difference between past and present and future. This is like the metal frame you can see in the picture.

Next I need to put up the boards (the floors) that allow workers to move on and around the scaffolding. The boards will facilitate a new way of moving from past to present to future without going into the building (their core experience). In my work, these boards are often observations about how human perception works to give meaning to sensory reality. More specifically, our sensory representations (what we imagine seeing and hearing and feeling) provide the floors that allow us to move between the levels of past and present and future. Thinking about how we perceive and interpret instead of what we perceive and interpret is like moving on a scaffolding, going up and down without going into the building itself.

In your work, people might be afraid of a new goal, and you might allow them to imagine the tools, conditions, and results of that goal before they were ready to tackle the steps necessary to achieve it. Or you might need to introduce a very large problem by creating a framework made up of the history, the willpower, and the resources that give people the courage and resolve to face it.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The many meanings of "make" all lead back to this: you make yourself

We'll open this post with a quote from W. B. Yeats, my favourite poet:

What does it mean to make something? The Oxford Online dictionary lists 13 different meanings for this one little word (one of the 1000 most used words in the language). That's a hint: this word is important (and "make" doesn't always make sense, but it does always make a difference.)

You can make a bed without creating one. You can make a change or a mess or a mistake (and sometimes have a hard time knowing which it is). You can make art or make things happen or make yourself go there. But whenever you make anything, you become a cause of something and not an effect.

Making matters because when we make, we are active in the world.

Whenever we are active, we encode both the action and its results in our brain/body/mind and the combination becomes a pattern we use to predict. When we act, we learn how action leads to changes that will satisfy or hurt. As we make, we make our expectations, which makes us into a kind of person who expects some things and not others. Whatever else we make, whenever we make, we make ourselves.

What's the alternative to making? You can be made: you can be defined by someone else or something else. You can be acted at or acted upon instead of making action happen. You can remember effects without causes and live in an unpredictable and mostly frightening world. You can be shaped by expectations made without willpower and lived without hope.

It doesn't matter all that much whether you make a mistake or you make a pie. Either way, you are giving yourself agency: the ability to change the world so that you can also change yourself. When Yoda tells Luke, "There is no try" what he means is that making an effort always has a result and that result makes a difference in determining how you predict what is possible.

So choose to make.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Surprise! Language doesn't have to make sense to be effective

Recently I read a very good book by Amy Herman called Visual Intelligence. In the end, however, I thought her comments on effective communication should have been defined better. Her advice is very good when the purpose of language is to have information jump from one person to another. But that's not the only purpose of language. There are other roles for language to play, and other ways to use it brilliantly.

Surprise! A burst of lavender doesn't make sense but it does activate your senses.

While it is useful to be preoccupied with making sense (which means taking sensory information and understanding it as having meaning), it is less useful to be preoccupied with having your words make sense. Here are three times when you might be brilliantly effective by being less clear and sensible:

  1. Your primary purpose is to build a connection. If this is true, your language needs to mostly mirror the style and strategies of the person or people with whom you are speaking. This is especially true when you are conveying information that challenges their beliefs or frames. Because you will be communicating  two things at once (that you connect, and that you disagree), your language will not always be as clear and sensible as you would like.
  2. Your primary purpose is to build a feeling. This isn't just likely when you are motivating a big room; it's actually more likely when you are speaking privately with one person. You may need to change their feeling (in NLP terms, their state) before you offer any information you want them to remember.  Think of it this way: if someone gives you information when you're angry, the easiest way to recall that information will be to get angry again. If you want to convey information, you probably don't want the other person to have to recall being angry every time they think of the information. The easiest way to avoid this is to change the feeling before you introduce the information.
  3. Your primary purpose is to explore. We use language because it allows us to explore new territory in remarkably efficient ways (no travel, no expense, and not much terror). If your language is very clear, it's because you're not trying to say anything new. When you want to use words to explore, you'll sacrifice some clarity because you'll be on unfamiliar ground and you won't yet be sure what you're perceiving around you.
  4. Your primary purpose is to surprise. Surprise is under-rated. Although we talk about it in terms like "surprise and delight," we focus mostly on the delight. Surprises are uncomfortable. They create a full stop, and then a sense of unfamiliarity. This is very helpful when the familiar pattern is no longer a useful pattern, whether it is a pattern of thought, communication or behaviour. You can shock someone with clarity, but the result will be confusion, not immediate clarity. "Seeing the light" is a metaphor. Think about it. What happens when you look into a light? You're momentarily blinded by it. That's why the best way to surprise someone is often with a bit of nonsense. It gives their eyes time to adjust before they take a closer look at what you are communicating.
I started each of these sentences with the same three words: your primary purpose. There is no good use of language that does not begin with knowing what you want to do with it. Once you know, language is a surprisingly flexible and resilient system for making connections and for making sense.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

A bridge can be breathtaking

This is the boardwalk at Greenwich in PEI's National Park. It allows people to cross a fragile ecosystem and a pond to reach a beach that is absolutely breathtaking (I'll put a picture at the end of this post, so you can get your own glimpse of it).

The boardwalk reminded me this week that the work it takes to build a bridge is not compromise and it's not a necessary evil. It's a necessary beauty, an effort to connect resources and build something that is both useful and beautiful. This is how I like to see communication.

Communication of all kinds requires that we build bridges: we must build them with the craftsmanship that knows what will be stable and what will last in different environments. The work is often painstaking and troublesome and it feels like the slow way to a result. And yet, when it succeeds, communication builds connections that are not only strong and stable: they are beautiful in their own right.

I can guarantee that you will need to build a bridge this week to get somewhere you want to go. And I can guarantee that some of the ground you will need to cross will be fragile or unstable or just plain mucky. It might feel like the people you need to communicate with are deliberately making your path slippery or steep. It might feel like there should be an easier way to go it alone.

When you feel that, stop and remember a bridge or a boardwalk that you have seen or crossed and believe to be beautiful or, at least, well-built. Take a moment to study it in your mind, noticing the supports, the materials, and the shape of the bridge. Imagine standing in the middle, and looking to either end. If it's a bridge over water, take a look over the edge with all the curiosity and interest of a small child. 

This bridge represents communication. Your job is not to struggle through or to dump information or to fight it out. Your job is to build something as sturdy and useful and elegant as my boardwalk, made out of your attention to where you are, where you need to land, and what you need to cross in the middle.

Here's the beach I found at the end of the boardwalk. I am very grateful to the craftsmen who made it possible for me to discover it.