Without the instinctual ability to generalize, humans wouldn’t get very far. Think about it. When you’re growing up and learning what things are and how they work, you need to generalize in order for the learning to be consistent.
Knowing what a doorknob is and how it works wouldn’t be very productive if the knowledge didn’t generalize to all doorknobs.
Can you imagine walking up to a door and not knowing what to do because the knob isn’t an exact replica of any doorknob you’ve seen before? Without the ability to apply previous knowledge to new and different-yet-similar situations, we’d all be severely limited. Luckily, our tendency to make sweeping generalizations is second nature to us.
That’s the upside to generalization and it’s significant. Without it, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. The downside, small by comparison, is nevertheless very troubling. Because we naturally generalize, precise communication is extraordinarily difficult. It doesn’t come naturally.
Poor communication is perhaps the number one reason why couples break up. Small and large businesses hemorrhage cash because of it. Long-held friendships die and neighbors harbor grudges against each other due to misunderstandings. Life is tough all around and our unclear communication habits deserve their share of the responsibility. Our tendency to generalize is so important to our survival that evolution hasn’t seemed to care that it also ruins many individual lives along the way.
Here are some examples of how generalizing – the application of prior learning to new and different-yet-similar situations – can work against us interpersonally. Just imagine these simple scenarios developing naturally and you will land in the middle of a mess that is, unfortunately, too close to home for far too many people.
Your spouse says I love you. To understand what she means by this, specifically, you might ask her how she loves you. What does it mean she is willing to do? And what won’t she do? Where does she draw the line?
Instead, you generalize the statement based on prior learning of what love is (to you) and assume:
You love me so you are willing and obligated to put up with my selfishness and temper tantrums (like my mother did).
Your business partner expresses his intense desire for your company to prosper. To understand what your partner really means, you might ask, “How, specifically, will this company prosper? What do you believe will be required of us?” Instead, you generalize his desire based on the successes you have seen and naturally make the assumption:
Then you will work 80 hours a week and set aside your family’s needs. That’s how businesses succeed in this world.
Your fiance says, “I’m looking forward to our life together.” To really get what he means, you could ask, “What, specifically are you looking forward to? How will it happen?” Instead, you generalize his statement and assume he means what you realized long ago that you want in life:
You look forward, as I do, to a life full of travel to underdeveloped countries, education and service.
“The key to success in business is healthy employees,” claims your CEO. To fulfill this CEO’s vision, you’d better ask, “What, specifically, IS a healthy employee? How do we create healthy people in this company?” Instead, you generalize his vision with that of your prior supervisor and assume: We need to make it easier to take time off work and increase employee benefits.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see where problems might begin to develop in any of the above scenarios. Yet, these are typical assumptions that take place every single day. We take what someone says and run hog wild, interpreting its meaning and application according to prior experience or any prior self-realization.
The couple in love assumes each other has a similar dream of the good life. When they discuss it, they do so in vague terms, not taking the trouble (or the risk) of becoming more precise about how, specifically, those dreams might manifest. Business partners rarely discuss mutual expectations in great detail. Parents fail to consider that their children have learned and are generalizing powerful lessons picked up – yes – from relating with the parents at their worst. And so on. Assumptions RULE the day and they get us into BIG trouble time and again.
This all too human tendency affects all of us and may be unavoidable to some degree. At least, I do not believe anyone has escaped the harangues of wild assumptions that result in failed relationships, sloppy business practices and dashed dreams. This is life. But there IS hope in the NLP Meta Model, which was developed to confront and challenge the generalizations, deletions and distortions that plague our language.
So, you love your spouse or partner? How do you love him or her? And how do you need to be loved? Do you need to be noticed and complimented on how you look? Do you need to be given gifts? (Visual) Do you need to hear those words I love you and have sweet nothings whispered in your ear? (Auditory) Or do you just need to be held closely? (Kinesthetic).
And what about those dreams together? How do they match up? How, specifically, do you define “the good life” and does your expectation match your partners? These are very basic issues, yet time and again we gloss over them when forming relationships. Generalizations reign! We receive the communication of others and, without necessarily noticing, assume it means what we need it to mean or what it has always meant. When reality strikes; when we realize our assumptions are simply inaccurate, the truth can be shockingly painful.
What does it mean that someone loves you? Does it mean they should be devoted to you for life regardless of your behavior? Should they take care of you when you become upset? Or does it mean that YOU should take care of them? Just what are we getting ourselves into, specifically, when we fall in love? The answers vary WILDLY depending on with whom you speak. What about YOU and YOUR partner? Have you been clear and specific with each other or are you resting your compatibility on hidden assumptions (and perhaps even punishing each other for their lack of fulfillment)?
This is the purpose of the NLP Meta Model. Get clear. Become specific. The NLP Meta Model is a systematic series of questions (or challenges) that can be used to combat our tendency to generalize, delete and distort information. The NLP Meta Model gets right to the heart of the matter and does not let up until you reach something concrete and unmistakably clear.
It can be scary to be so clear when you are used to living in a vague wonderland. It’s sort of like taking comfort in assuming you have enough money, as opposed to checking your specific bank balances regularly and making financial decisions accordingly. One way, you get to feel good until you discover you’ve bounced a series of checks. The other way, you confront the pain of knowing you may not have as much cash as you want, but you make more mature decisions that keep you out of trouble.
So, what, specifically, do you expect from your business partner, week in and week out? How, specifically, do healthy employees bring success and how should we encourage greater health? Questions like these, based on the NLP Meta Model, go along way toward preventing the disasters that a common, everyday lack of clarity tends to create.
Learning the NLP Meta Model and applying it with care can change your life perhaps more than any other aspect of NLP because the Meta Model compensates for one of the greatest blessings and greatest curses of the human condition.