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The Map Is Not The Territory
By Christoph Schertler
In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) we talk about people's 'maps of the world.' This term describes a person's unique experience of reality. A map is not reality itself, only a representation of it. Just as a map of Yellowstone Park is not the park itself, but a two-dimensional simplification on a piece of paper that has enough information to enable a visitor to navigate through the park.
Likewise, we humans create maps of the world around us that help us to function in our daily lives. These maps include all the necessary information and ground rules we need to master a given situation. A pilot has various 'maps' relating to flying a plane, such as knowledge about aviation, engineering, and weather patterns. These maps allow the pilot to fly a plane and make the right judgment when facing a wide variety of situations in the air. In the same way spouses have maps regarding marriage, singers have maps regarding music, and so on. Our maps - a mixture of a compass and a measuring gauge - enable us to make sense of a situation and therefore are at the very core of our success in life.
Imagine you flew to a different continent and visited an exotic civilization where the citizens yelled at each other to express affection and turned their back on each other while communicating. If you judged this style of communicating by your maps for social interaction, it would appear to be dysfunctional, to say the least. You would be confused by such behavior, until someone told you the reasoning behind it. Why? Because you don't have the right map to make sense of this exotic civilization's social etiquette. Your map for successful communication and kindness includes eye contact, smiling and moderate volume and voice tone as ground rules; yelling and turning your back on another conveys hostility on your map.
Sounds like a funny scenario to imagine, doesn't it? However, you do not have to fly to a far away culture to find this kind of misunderstanding and confusion. All you have to do is find another human being, be it your spouse, friend, colleague or teenage kid. The truth about us human beings is that we all have our own unique maps of the world and as a result misunderstand each other. The way you see and judge a situation is unlikely to be seen and judged that way by others. Yes, a shared cultural background and similar life experiences do lead to similar maps, but even then, significant differences remain.
Life is a system of systems in which countless maps are connected to each other; We share maps as groups (nationality, culture, religion, language, supporting the same sports team, etc) and at the same time have our individual maps (values, behaviors, and beliefs, personal history). Of course, the mixture of maps being so complex means that every person is unique in their perception of the world.
This complexity is what makes life so colorful and challenging. It is also the recipe for success for reality TV shows like Big Brother, Wife Swap or Survivor. By selecting people with different or openly conflicting maps and forcing them to spend time with each other in close proximity, quote-raising drama is guaranteed. Your family or office life might sometimes feel that way, too.
What can you do to get by in a world that is set up in such a way for conflict? One way is to try accepting that other people's maps are real to them, even if they don't make sense to you. You do not have to share their opinion, but try to demonstrate that you understand how the situation looks, sounds and feels when experienced through their map. Place yourself in their shoes and you will begin to see their map's perspective. Ask yourself: "If I were that person and had that kind of map, how would I make sense of this situation?"
If you have no idea what their map looks like, you can ask them questions that bring forth the criteria by which they judge a situation, such as "What about this [situation, person, place] is important to you?," "What does this mean to you?," or "What would your best outcome look like?" The more you learn about how they arrive at their conclusions, the more clearly will you understand their map.
The next step is to demonstrate that you have an understanding of where they are coming from. You can do this by making comments or asking questions that indicate that you understand them. An easy way to do this is to backtrack the other person's words and repeat what they have just said in a non-judgmental, non-mimicking way, e.g. "It sounds to me like you feel that...," "XYZ seems to be important to you," "I hear you saying..."
Try not to overdo it, otherwise the conversation can seem unnatural and might irritate the person you are talking to. Another thing you can do to improve the quality of your communication is to ask the other person to clarify what exactly they mean when they use general terms, e.g. "What do you mean by XYZ," "Who are 'they'?," "You said this happened a while ago, can you be more specific?" Again, use this technique with care and when appropriate. Using such communication skills will demonstrate your ability to listen and your willingness to understand, which will increase your chances for a harmonious and productive conversation with that person.
Some of our maps are impoverished. Actually, most of them are. What do you know about indigenous tribes living in the Amazonian rainforest? If you are like most of us, not much. How about Bavarian folk dancing? Equity Trading? Scuba Diving? Maintaining friendships? Raising children? If you feel that one or more of your maps needs to be enriched, use your common sense to do it. If you want to enrich your maps regarding being a parent, read good books about good parenting, attend parenting classes, share your experiences with other parents, kindergarten and school teachers, and spend more time with your kids (or children you are closed to, if you haven't any children at the moment). Remember, there is no copyright on maps, so if you have a role model who exemplifies everything you value, by all means, analyze their map and make it your own.
There are over 6 billion people on this planet, and each person has their unique identity, values, beliefs, capabilities, and behaviors, which influence the type of maps they create in order to make sense of the world around them. By becoming more aware of the maps we use to navigate through life and by respecting other people's maps you can move towards improving your communication skills and becoming your greater self.