Observing cleanly without jumping to conclusions
NLP acknowledges a distinction between what we observe and what we think about what we observe. The reason it's useful to make this distinction, which may seem obvious at first glance, is that it's not always obvious to our brains.
When we do or say something, we can observe the results, which may or may not match what we intended. If we like, we can perform an additional step of making a judgment about the success or failure of our action. We can step back even further and apply that judgment to ourselves.
If I intend to stand up, but then make all my muscles relax and thereby slither from my chair to the floor, I might say that my actions failed. I might then say, since my actions failed, that I am a failure. I can carry this reasoning even further to the conclusion that, since I am a failure, whatever I do will fail, so there's no point in changing my actions. I might also feel sad that "I am a failure", feel angry that I have to feel sad, feel helpless about feeling angry, and so on. This is a great way to produce a really miserable state of mind.
But without the secondary thought process, I would simply observe that making my muscles relax the way I did produced slithering to the floor instead of standing up. I formed an intention, took an action, and observed what happened.
Now, if I wanted to find better ways of standing up, would it be more useful for me to view the results of my relaxation behavior as feedback, or would it be more useful to conclude that I am a failure?
The process of making observations and then thinking about what we observe -- creating interpretations, conclusions and judgments-- is one most of us do by reflex -- and we do it very quickly. That is, we don't think consciously about the process of our thinking, at all. We simply allow our brains to use whatever process or programs they've been given by training, acculturation or unconscious learning.
If our thinking process arrives at "failure," it might be useful to observe the process itself.
How do we manage to get observation and interpretation mixed up?
The Rain Forests of Venus
Carl Sagan once told the story of early astronomers who looked up into the sky with their primitive telescopes and observed the planet Venus. It puzzled them greatly because Venus had no observable surface. Not at all like the Moon or Mars, it appeared just like a featureless, flat disc in the night sky.
"What on Earth could possibly explain that?" they asked. "Well, suppose it was covered in clouds." "Yes, that would explain it, since clouds obscure everything beneath them." So they continued, "What surface conditions are needed to make clouds?" "Well, heat, which we know Venus has because it's close to the sun, and water." That made sense, so they continued, "What kind of surface do you get when you have heat, light and water?" "Well, tropical rain forests, for one thing." That made perfect sense, so they concluded that the surface of Venus was covered with tropical rain forests
As it turns out, the temperature on the surface of Venus is 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the clouds are made of sulfuric acid.
Which brought Carl Sagan to his point. "Observation: featureless disc. Conclusion: tropical rain forests."
How far wrong we can go -- in just a few short steps! The conclusion of those astronomers may seem silly to us, now that we know more about the conditions on Venus. But the process they followed in making their mistake was one which most of us easily follow. In the study of logic, the process is called inductive reasoning. Observe particulars, derive generalities from them.
Deduction vs. Induction
Gregory Bateson, an important contributor to the early development of NLP, was sometimes described as the last, great generalist of his time. But he was not overly fond of generalizing from particulars. He preferred, instead, deduction -- beginning with general principles and deriving particulars from them.
Bateson scolded scientists for overuse of inductive reasoning. An "excessive preference for induction," he called it. "This preference must always lead to something like the present state of the behavioral sciences -- a mass of quasi-theoretical speculation unconnected with any core of fundamental knowledge."
But it's not just scientists who fall prey to the overuse of inductive thinking. Induction is the most popular style of reasoning in the West. The chief difference between scientists and non-scientists in this "excessive preference for induction" is nothing more than the number of steps needed to reach a conclusion.
For many non-scientists, the number required is precisely two.
Observe -> Conclude. Done!
I happen to like wearing a scarf. Scarves are not a commonly popular item of clothing, at least for a man living in a temperate climate, for reasons that completely elude me.
A finely made scarf, preferably of dense grey cashmere, is one of the most comfortable and versatile articles of clothing in existence, particularly if you live in Northern California where you can never predict the weather or wind chill around the next corner, summer or winter. A scarf can be slung back from the neck for extra air if the temperature is suddenly mild, wrapped around in a hurry for chilly gusts, comfortably crossed at the neck for general, all-around Pacific climate wear, or easily packed up in any convenient compartment when it's warm.
Yet, how often I have been affably challenged by new acquaintances regarding my scarf. People I've just met sometimes get a quizzical look on their faces and pop out with an interesting question, "Are you cold?" Now, since I wear a scarf so often, I completely forget that I have it on, so the question almost always catches me by surprise. "Huh?" I say.
"Are you COLD??? ...You're wearing a scarf!"
There was a time when a 'younger me' would attempt to explain, "Oh no, I just like wearing it." But when several NLP master practitioners presented me with the same observation -> conclusion behavior during an advanced NLP training, I decided to stop tacitly accepting their presupposition that they could go directly from the observation that I wore a scarf to the explanatory theory that I must feel cold. I began to reply without explanation, "So that's what you think!"
Observation vs. Interpretation
I began teaching the difference between observation, interpretation, and belief. I designed a teaching experiment for graduating NLP practitioner students in the hope that by the time they reached more advanced trainings, they would be well equipped to distinguish observation from interpretation.
The experiment was designed for four students. I created a short deck of index cards with instructions on each card like this:
Situation: You have lost your car keys
Your Intent: To remember where you put them
Your physiology: Head down, hand to chin, eyebrows knit, shoulders slightly hunched
Your language: Silent
Your gestures: Occasional, slight shaking your head 'no' as you rule out possibilities
Your emotional state: Perplexed
One student would pick a card from the deck and act out the instructions. Of the other three students, one would be the observer responsible for calibrating the state of the actor using only observation without interpretation. The remaining two students were instructed to observe the behaviors and, when they had a thought about them, to whisper their thoughts to the observer. The experiment lasted about five minutes per round.
In every case, the observer reported that the students whispering to him said things about the actor-student like, "He's depressed." "He just lost his girlfriend." "He's angry." etc. One interesting "side effect" that consistently emerged for the observer was an intense feeling of frustration at trying to remain in observation mode while having interpretations constantly whispered in his ears.
Once again: Observation: a particular posture and physiology. Interpretation: Depression, grief and anger.
Such common leaps to interpretation are precisely why NLP rejects popular notions of "body language." Crossed arms does not mean a person is "closed." Crossed arms mean something different for every person, and something different in different contexts. Sometimes crossed arms are simply the most comfortable way to hold them.
Monty Python's 1974 movie, "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" portrays several examples of the difficulties that can arise when interpretations get the best of verbal communication. The following excerpt is from the scene, "The Tale of Sir Lancelot:"
FATHER: Guards! Make sure the Prince doesn't leave this room until I come and get him.
GUARD: Not to leave the room even if you come and get him.
FATHER: No, no. Until I come and get him.
GUARD: Until you come and get him, we're not to enter the room.
FATHER: No, no, no. You stay in the room and make sure he doesn't leave.
GUARD: And you'll come and get him.
GUARD: We don't need to do anything, apart from just stop him entering the room.
FATHER: No, no. Leaving the room.
GUARD: Leaving the room, yes.
FATHER: All right?
GUARD: Right. ...Oh, if-if-if, uh, if-if-if, uh, if-if-if we...
FATHER: Yes, what is it?
GUARD: Oh, if-if, oh--
FATHER: Look, it's quite simple.
FATHER: You just stay here. And make sure he doesn't leave the room. All right?
GUARD: Oh, I remember. Uh, can he leave the room with us?
FATHER: No, no, no. You just keep him in here, and make sure--
GUARD: Oh, yes, we'll keep him in here, obviously. But if he had to leave and we were--
FATHER: No, no, just keep him in here--
GUARD: Until you, or anyone else,--
FATHER: No, not anyone else, just me...
GUARD: Just you...
FATHER: ...get back.
GUARD: Get back.
GUARD: Right, we'll stay here until you get back.
FATHER: And, uh, make sure he doesn't leave.
FATHER: Make sure he doesn't leave.
GUARD: The Prince?
FATHER: Yes, make sure he doesn't leave.
GUARD: Oh, yes, of course. I thought you meant him [pointing to Guard #2]. Y'know, it seemed a bit daft, me having' to guard him when he's a guard.
FATHER: Is that clear?
GUARD: Oh, quite clear, no problems.
FATHER: Right. [starts to leave, but both guards begin to follow him] ... Where are you going?
GUARD: We're coming with you.
FATHER: No no, I want you to stay here and make sure he doesn't leave.
GUARD: Oh, I see. Right.
Try It Out
With just a little practice, a person can acquire the skill of keeping observation and interpretation appropriately separated. There are lots of different ways of doing it. Alan Watts, while meditating, used to allow his mind to quiet itself so he could simply 'be' there and experience the present moment without constantly interpreting it internally. He did this with a little trick he made up. When interpretive thoughts would occur to him, he pictured them as little puppy dogs running up to him and wagging their tails for attention. He'd pet each one on its head and send it on its way. And that worked well for him.
Be as creative as you like. Whatever appeals to you, and whatever works, is a good step forward. And if something doesn't work, there's no failure, only feedback.