Communicating: Dealing with Error

When dealing with another human being, the difficulties associated with getting our messages across intact and free from error, are not inconsiderable. NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) highlights three particular issues that we will look at in this article. In addition to these three difficulties, we will also postulate a fourth difficulty which I believe can be logically inferred and, I believe, empirically observed.

NLP is defined as ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience’. That’s quite a mouthful but, it seems that we do not all experience reality in exactly the same way, hence the phrase ‘subjective experience’.

These three difficulties are known as: deletions, distortions and generalisations and they are ever present in all forms of communication, including both written and verbal. Briefly, a deletion occurs when one person says something (or communicates it via some other means) and the receiver loses some of the message, effectively a portion of the message has been deleted. Deletions can occur for a number of reasons: for example, background noise or perhaps the receiver is simply not paying enough attention to the communication.

A distortion is where we hear the message, as it was intended, but we attach some meaning to the words that was not originally intended. A famous example of a distortion occurred when the Light Brigade made their fateful charge into the valley of death during the Crimean War. I am sure you know about this incident, but, when you think about it, it is truly astonishing that six hundred lightly-armed men, swords drawn, should engage in a cavalry charge against astonishingly unfavourable odds, however, that is exactly what they did,

Amazingly, the Light Brigade, whilst they did lose a large number of men along the way, did actually manage to get to the end of the valley and displace the enemy from their guns. Military strategists have since recognised that the surprise element – clearly not something the enemy expected – could have made the tactic a stroke of genius if only it had been intended. If the charge had been followed up rapidly, it could have been a dramatic success they say.

The actual order, issued by Lord Raglan was as follows:

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.

It was never intended that the Light Brigade should make that reckless charge. Lord Raglan’s intent was that they should advance down a different valley where a few of the enemy were attempting to capture some guns and the intention was for the Light Brigade to chase them away. The order was misinterpreted somewhere down the chain of command and so, despite its rather obvious illogicality, six hundred men mounted their horses and rode down the valley to engage the enemy on the main front.

Immortalised in Tennyson’s poem:

Canons to the right of them
Canons to the left of them
Canons in front of them
Volleyed and thundered.
Into the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.

Distortions occur all the time, every day whenever we are engaged in communication of any kind. The difficulty relates to the meaning attached to the communication. And that meaning is made in the head of the recipient of the message; it is not contained within the actual words themselves as the above example demonstrates.

The third difficulty, according to NLP, is a generalisation. Generalisations are rules we derive from experience when we take specific occurrences and infer from it something about the nature of reality. For example, if we meet a chauvinistic male and infer that all men are chauvinists, then that is a generalisation. If deletions and distortions are more about the receiving end of a miscommunication, then generalisation is more about the transmitting end.

With deletions and distortions, corruption of the message essentially occurs when the recipient does not correctly receive or interpret a message correctly. With a generalisation, the message is already corrupted before it is transmitted. Clearly, all men are not chauvinists. If someone tells us that they are, we can receive that message and understand what the sender intended even though the message itself contains an error.

In my workshops, we can often demonstrate deletions and distortions in communication exercises and they can be real eye-openers when people actually see information distorted or deleted in practice. From my own experience, it is also tempting to postulate the possibility of what I like to call ‘insertions’. This is not an NLP term, but is my own term for a communication error that is the reverse of a deletion. An insertion, I would like to suggest, occurs when a speaker does not say something, but the receiver becomes mentally convinced that they did.

Perhaps the best evidence for such events can be found when two people decide to make-up after an argument. In the dialogue that often ensues after everyone has agreed to drop the whole matter, we hear the post-mortem during which we might hear one person insist that something was said and another person denying that they said whatever it was. Again, insertions, like deletions, are more concerned with the receiving end of the communication.

So there we have a number of things to watch out for in our communication with others. Although I have often shared my observation about insertions with my workshop attendees, I have never before shared the idea online. So take it for what it is – an idea and something to think about. As a listener, understand that we have a tendency to get hold of the wrong end of the stick – not deliberately, of course – but that is the nature of insertions, deletions and distortions.

Remember too that messages are sometimes corrupted before they are transmitted, essentially a product of the beliefs derived from the generalisation of experience by the sender.

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