The unconscious forces of memories, images, sensations, and stories interact in communication and, ultimately, in consumer decision-making and buying behavior. Let’s explore how two linguistic models, which function differentially like opposite sides of the same coin, demonstrate how the subliminal and ambiguous present us with a unique opportunity to fine-tune our communication.
In advertising, sensory experiences are utilized to speak to our unconscious minds and they possess a priming effect that can influence our behavior without us realizing it. Certain colors, sounds, and aromas can sway us toward making a certain decision.
Language can similarly affect us, impact our emotions, and drive us toward specific behaviors and choices. Think about how much information you take in daily and how much of it is ostensibly forgotten. Most of what we consciously think about is actually based on this “forgotten” information, the things we delete, distort, or generalize. So, when it comes to communication, what we primarily have at our disposal is this filtered information. This means our communication is generally ambiguous, because it is based on summarized, incomplete, and distorted information – it’s merely representative of experience, much like a map is only a representation of a territory. This ambiguity only increases when we consider that our words are simply labels for experiences, and that these labels mean different things to different people. Two people may appear to agree on the basis of such a label when, in fact, a conversation can quickly reveal differences in thinking.
During the 1970s, linguist John Grinder and mathematician Richard Bandler developed The Meta Model, based upon the work of prominent marriage and family therapist, Virginia Satir. This linguistic model uses clarifying language to seek greater understanding, by identifying a deeper level of meaning within communication. Our powers of persuasion and ability to help others make up their minds depends on such an understanding.
One important component of our persuasive capabilities is the ability to recognize information that has been filtered out in our interpersonal communications. To heighten our powers of persuasion, we must identify what’s been deleted, distorted, and generalized. The Meta Model helps us clarify such deletions, distortions, and generalizations by asking questions like “Why?” “How?” and “Who?” These questions help us recover the missing information that can expand the limits of the other person’s thinking and uncover the meaning they’ve attached to a label, situation, or event.
Examining how the Meta Model identifies and questions filtered information will show us how such expanded meaning can be reached.
- Comparative Deletion: This is a language pattern wherein a comparison omits the thing to which it is being compared. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve heard someone say, “This is a better way to do it.” The Meta Model helps us clarify and respond to this statement by asking “Better than what?” or “Better how?” The answers to these questions help us recover missing information and clarify the deletion. By clarifying the deletion and identifying the reason for the comparison, we can better understand the point of view of the person who made the original statement.
- Clarifying Distortion: Here’s one: you’re in a situation where someone is claiming to know just how you feel. When someone claims to understand your internal state without specifying the process through which they came to know this information, we call it “mind reading.” A distortion like this is common; how often do you presume to know how someone is feeling? You may think you ‘know’ that your boss is happy with your performance, or that you ‘know’ someone is ignoring your email. The Meta Model helps us respond to these ideas by questioning the source of the distorted or missing information. For example, you could ask yourself or others, “How, specifically, do you know that your boss is happy with your performance?”
- Universal Quantifiers: Universal quantifiers are a set of words that contain universal generalizations that lead to a lack of clarity around what is being referenced. When it comes to generalizations, the Meta Model creates clarification. Common examples of universal quantifiers include “all,” “every,” “never,” “everyone,” “no one,” and so on. These universal quantifiers can detrimentally exaggerate aspects of our lives. Your friend may say their colleague shows an undesired behavior “all the time,” or that they “never listen.” To clarify these generalizations and help your friend, you could ask questions like “All the time? Are you sure?” or “Think back, there must have been some time they listened to you?” You’ll notice that the answers to these questions can ground and motivate us by clarifying our disempowering day-to-day language patterns.
In addition to the Meta Model, Grinder and Bandler created the Milton Model, which utilizes ambiguity and hypnotic language patterns to facilitate change. This model was developed after studying the renowned psychiatrist and hypnotist, Dr. Milton Erickson. Have you heard of priming — leveraging sensory experiences we unconsciously absorb that predispose us to certain behaviors? The Milton Model similarly primes the mind by using ambiguous statements and questions. Such a statement may be as seemingly simple as “There are things you’d still like to accomplish in your life, aren’t there?” The ambiguity inherent in this statement lets the respondent fill in the blank. It is precisely this missing information that guides the response, because the specifics of the accomplishments in question are left up to the listener to determine. Thus, the reply is more likely to match their model of the world.
As a persuader, using the sort of ambiguous language typical of the Milton Model can actually help you make your communication more relevant. When you make ambiguous statements, you’re letting the audience come to their own determinations about any ‘missing’ information.
Together, the Meta and Milton models help you communicate with and persuade others more effectively. Whether you’re clarifying ambiguity with the Meta Model or intentionally leveraging it with the Milton Model, remember to always be principled by keeping your integrity, and the dignity and ethics of others, at the forefront. With these models you can go forward and help others realize their desired state, while you move toward your own.short url: