I’m always writing about how amazing our brains are. And one of its most amazing capabilities is to be able to manage the vast amount of information that we are constantly receiving from the external world.
To make sense of it all, our brains create an internal working model of the world. And we work to that model every day, reflected in our language (spoken and thought), in our behaviours and in our results.
But of course, it’s not reality (meaning: the “reality” everyone else is working to). Because each of us has created that working model for ourselves; and we’ve done it by applying 3 processes: deletion, distortion and generalisation.
And not only does our brain apply these filters to incoming information to create the model; our brain applies them again when it plays the model back to “us”. So we filter everything. Twice.
Having an internal model enables us to survive in the world; but it can also keep us from our potential.
To address those limitations, it’s helpful to understand a little about the mental processes at work, as reflected in our language. And that then gives us the opportunity to challenge and enrich our model – and so function more effectively in the world.
It would be impossible for us to focus on every stimulus around us. So our brain is constantly tuning into some elements, whilst filtering-out others. It’s an attention economy.
We delete elements of our experience primarily in 4 ways:
- We leave things out: “I’m frustrated.”
- We imply comparisons: “It’s better to do it this way.”
- We make vague references: “They don’t listen to me.”
- We are vague about verbs: “I communicate badly.”
To challenge your deletions: get to what’s been left out. Get specific with your questions:
- “You’re frustrated about what, precisely?”
- “It’s better than what?”
- “Who, specifically, is not listening to you?”
- “How, specifically, do you communicate badly?”
In simplifying our model of the world, we inevitably distort reality. Sometimes that process can be negative: we jump to conclusions without all the information. Other times, the process can be positive: we envision things that haven’t happened yet, like goals, discoveries and inventions.
Here are 5 common examples of negative distortions:
- Implying cause and effect: “She makes it impossible.”
- Mind reading: “He thinks I don’t respect him.”
- Equating two different experiences: “I failed my exam – I’m useless.”
- Expressing opinion as fact: “It’s not right for new employees to lead teams.”
- Nominalisation (turning verbs into nouns): “There’s no communication.”
To challenge your distortions: resist the temptation to think our perspective on the world is accurate and the only one that’s valid. And instead, remind ourselves that our view is partial and distorted. Again, get specific with your challenging questions:
- “How, specifically, does she make it impossible?”
- “How do you know he thinks that?”
- “How does failing your exam make you useless?”
- “Not right, according to whom?”
- “What’s not being communicated?”
Every experience and thought gets broadly the same treatment from our brains: lightning-quick comparison with previous experiences. From there, the follow-on process of generalisation can sometimes be helpful: it can allow us to learn something quickly. But it can also be unhelpful: as when we use one experience to represent an entire category of experiences.
3 common forms of generalisation include:
- Universal quantification: always, never, everybody, nobody.
- Modal operators of necessity and possibility: must, mustn’t, should, shouldn’t, can, can’t.
- Presuppositions: when an implication is required to make sense of a statement.
To challenge your generalisations: start by noticing and examining the generalisation to expose (and challenge) the underlying belief. And from there, find new and liberating choices.
- “Never? Not even once?”
- “What would happen if you could do that?”
- “How do you know they don’t listen to you?”
The benefits of an enriched mental model
Understanding the ways in which we all create our models of reality is very useful when working with others: in eliciting quality information; and in helping them to clarify their thinking.
But there are also considerable benefits when we apply these challenges to ourselves and our own model:
- We become more effective communicators: by expressing ourselves with precision and great clarity, resulting in increased influence and impact.
- We are clearer in our thinking: as our use of clear and specific language improves the way we encode our experiences.
- We no longer uphold limiting beliefs and behaviours: when our more constructive internal dialogue ultimately leads to positive changes and new results.
Practise usefully challenging your own deletions, distortions and generalisation to enrich your internal coding of experience. And open yourself up to new perspective and potential.