Communication 2: Avoiding Misunderstandings

Communication 2: Avoiding Misunderstandings

Date: 1/1/2000

In the previous newsletter we discussed the principle of pacing and leading as a first step towards your developing effective communication. The next step you want to become aware of is being on the right level of abstraction. In NLP this is called "the Hierarchy of ideas". Speaking in a more abstract manner is called "chunking up"; speaking in a more specific, detailed manner is referred to as "chunking down".

Let's consider three approaches to a common household request.....

--"Please clean up in here."

--"Please wash the dishes, dry them with the red towel, and then put them in the cabinet over the refrigerator. Please do it within the next ten minutes."

Some people will feel comfortable with "please clean up in here". Through their experience or by intuition they understand what you mean. They would find the second sentence annoying and feel that you are nagging them or speaking as if they were inexperienced at this task. Other people will find "please clean up in here" confusing. Clean up what, where, how, when? They would prefer clear, detailed instructions. Finally, there are people who function best when they hear the instructions somewhere in the middle:

--"Please wash, dry, and put away the dishes as soon as possible"

Misunderstandings are often a result of using abstract language when specific language is called for. After all, "please clean up in here" could mean doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, straightening up the shelves, or wiping off the counters--or all of the above! On the other hand, did you ever have the experience of conversing with someone who spells out every last detail to you when you already know just what they want?!

Ideally, aim to be chunked down enough to avoid a misunderstanding but chunked up enough that it flows pleasantly. With children this can be a little tricky. Since they are relatively inexperienced they may need to have things explained in greater detail. However, they may want to be treated as adults and may get annoyed when you start telling them precisely what to do. Too little explanation and they put away the toys when you wanted the laundry folded. Too much explanation and you may create unnecessary friction.

This can also be true with a new employee or a worker. I remember a house painter we hired who chose a particularly dark, ugly shade of pink for a pattern in one of our rooms. Well..we asked for "pink" and "pink" is what we got.

I used to run a small day camp in the Summer. It was made perfectly clear to every counselor that there was a "no hitting the campers under any circumstances " policy. The very first day one of the campers complained to me that his counselor had twisted his arm. I must have assumed that everybody understands that "no hitting" implies no arm twisting, too.

While abstract speech can lead to misunderstandings it can also be a very powerful way of getting your message through. For instance, Ehud Barak's campaign slogan in the recent Israeli elections was "Israel wants a change". Analyzing this from an NLP perspective, every word was excellently chosen. Let's just focus on our subject, the level of abstraction....

This slogan is pretty high up on the abstraction hierarchy. It says nothing about how much change, how, when, where, what, with whom, and to whom will this "change" be. As such, almost all of the meaning of the statement is left up to the listener's interpretation. To be sure, on a conscious level Barak's opponents found this statement loathsome as they anticipated his changing the country in a direction away from their values. But, many--if not most--people living in Israel really do want some kind of change (even if not exactly what Barak had in mind) . On an unconscious level the statement rings at least partially true. Don't underestimate the power this slogan had to subtly influence people's perceptions of this man.

Chunked up language has become standard in politics and advertising. Look at it this way: you can say something with very little content and make it sound profound and meaningful. If you also allude to some cross-cultural value, it can have tremendous mass appeal. One of the United States Presidents referred to World War One as the "war to end all wars". ( That's a chunked up statement if there ever was one!) How exactly it was supposed to accomplish this noble end he did not explain and it did not take history very long to prove him wrong. But to a war-weary world it must have sounded wonderful. You may find it interesting to scrutinize the words of some of today's big political leaders to see how widely used this kind of language is.

Business Application: Let's examine advertising. We have all seen chunked down advertisements like "one pill relieves runny nose, itchy eyes, and headaches for up to 12 hours when used as directed". When you are suffering from a bad cold these words have a certain sway. You are probably familiar with Coca Cola's chunked up "It's the Real Thing" slogan. Would you say that Coke is more "real" than Pepsi or Schweppes? And what exactly is so "real" about it? Obviously there is no "real" answer to these questions. Nevertheless it is a very persuasive slogan to a disoriented Western civilization groping for some "real" meaning to life! Here's some food for thought: a couple of years ago Pepsi Cola put the chunked up slogan "a Taste of America" on it's soft drink bottles in Israel.

Which style has the greater power to persuade? I made my own little research project perusing the advertisements in various periodicals. The most popular form of advertising is a combination of a chunked up slogan or statement followed by chunked down explanation. A variation of this is a chunked down explanation followed by a chunked up slogan or statement. This accounts for about 45% of advertising. About 35% of the ads are basically chunked up. Ads that are primarily chunked down account for only about 20%.

How can you know which style will best get your message through? In public speaking and in teaching you might consider going both up and down the hierarchy of ideas. This will help you to connect with all of your listeners at some time during your lecture. In private conversation try this formula: pay attention to your listeners' reactions as you speak, take note of the results you are getting from your communication, and adjust the specificity/abstraction accordingly. By now you are aware that this is a pretty chunked up statement. Of course, you also know what it means to you personally. Ultimately, that may be all that really matters.....

Please email me your personal experiences relating to this article.