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The map is not the territory

Throughout my NLP journey there have been too many ‘aha’ moments to count. You know those moments where something just really strikes a chord with you and you wonder why you’d never thought of it before? 

Well this was one of the earlier ‘aha’ moments and it’s one that really helped to lay the foundations for me in moving forward. 

The map is not the territory.

What does this mean? Well let’s circle back to when we were born for a minute (go with it). Just imagine that when we’re born, we’re each presented with the same map of the world. On the map you can see regions, cities, roads, rivers, canals and so on and so forth. 

The map might look complete. But there’s so much that is open for interpretation. The map doesn’t show you the potholes in the road or the tree in the middle of a field. It simply gives you a snapshot. 

So, although we may all have the same map, we have to make our own assumptions about what is missing. And these assumptions are formed based on the experiences and beliefs that we build up over time. In other words, the way we see the map isn’t reality itself, it’s actually our own interpretation of reality.

Straightforward right? And I’m guessing you, like me, kind of already acknowledge this to be true. But how many of us actually apply this in our day to day lives when interacting with other people?

Let me explain what I mean.

Think back to the last time someone did or said something in a situation that you didn’t agree with. Let’s call them Gail. How did Gail make you feel? Angry, frustrated, upset?

Now apply the map is not the territory principle. 

Gail was simply responding to the situation based on her interpretation of reality – in other words, what she believed to be true. Her response wasn’t intended to evoke a negative reaction in you (another NLP presupposition that we’ll explore at another time…behind every behaviour lies a positive intention). 

So, with this knowledge, how might it change how we respond the next time we’re in a similar situation? Rather than getting angry or upset, what if we asked questions in order to get a better understanding of how the other person sees, hears and feels the world around them? What made them respond in such a way? What reality were they responding to? 

Seek first to understand and then to be understood.

Stephen Covey

The application of this, whether with colleagues, customers or in a personal relationship, means we need to be open to different perspectives. To accept that our perception and view of the world is not the truth – it is our truth. We need to check that we have understood another person the way they intended to be understood, and that they understood us. 

When we better understand what beliefs, thoughts and perceptions underpin people’s behaviour, the chances are, it will make a lot more sense to us. I’m not saying that you will necessarily agree with it, but you will have a better understanding and therefore, more choice in how you respond.

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