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Charles S. Peirce, founder of the philosophy known as pragmatism, believed that the ‘meaning’ of a message is the behavior it induces….

This, of course is not totally true, the behavior may not reflect the message as intended, but it does reflect the message as received.

The central task of human intervention is the understanding of human behavior. To say, however, that our behavior is complex is not to deny that it has structure.

A common feature of the encounter with a client is that the counselor tries to find out what the client has come for; what the client wants to change. In terms of this process, the counselor is attempting to find out what model of the world the client has. How does s/he see the world and his/her place in it?

One way to think about the formulation of this model is to indicate three mental structures:

Reference Structure – When an experience occurs it is encoded into the brain in terms of its sensory quanta – or submodalities: taste, movement, pitch, etc.

Deep Structure – almost immediately, the person then makes judgements about the cause and the effects [implications] of the experience and encodes these in a complete linguistic representation of the experience. In this representation they identify attributions [causal explanations] and utility [biases about the pleasure/pain elements of the experience] – these decisions are then moved to the next abstract level of generalizations about this and other experiences. One of the things that goes on in most assessments and helping relationships is a series of verbal transactions between the client and assessor/changeworker. A common feature of the encounter is that the counselor tries to find out what the client has come for; what the client wants to change. In terms of this process, the counselor is attempting to find out what model of the world the client has. How does s/he see the world and his/her place in it?

As the person begins to speak, s/he makes a series of choices (transformations) about the form in which they will communicate their experiences. These choices are not, in general, conscious choices. The outcome of those choices is the Surface Structure and this is the structure of the person that others in his/her ecosystem perceive.

The process of communication at the Surface Structure allows us to accomplish the most extraordinary identification of the person’s model of the world by using three general mechanisms:.

Generalization is the process by which elements or pieces of a person’s model become detached from their original experience and come to represent the entire category of which the experience is an example. Our ability to generalize is essential to coping with the world.

Information is generalized in three main ways:

Universal quantifiers: generalizations that preclude any exceptions. ASK: do you really mean all, every or never? Surely there might be some exceptions!

Modal operator of necessity: words that require particular action, e.g. should, shouldn’t, must, must not, have to …. ASK: what would happen if you did/didn’t?

Modal operator of possibility: words that imply no choice, e.g. can’t, haven’t, won’t. ASK: what would happen if you did/didn’t? What is stopping you from … ?

Generalization may lead a human being to establish a rule such as ‘Don’t express feelings’. This rule, in the context of a prisoner-of-war camp, may have a high survival value. However, using the same rule in a marriage, limits the potential for intimacy.

The point here is that the same rule will be useful or not, depending upon the context.

Deletion is a process by which we selectively pay attention to certain dimensions of our experiences and exclude others. An example would be the ability that people have to filter out or exclude all other sound in a room full of people talking in order to listen to one particular person’s voice.

In the structure of the person’s use of language we can identify differing types of deletions that occur regularly. The deletion may simply be a ‘shorthand’ method of responding in which the person is easily able to specify what is missing; or the deletion may confuse the client as well as the changeworker, since the client is unable, when attention is drawn to it, to supply the additional information without help.

Information is deleted in six main ways:

Unspecified nouns: any noun that has as many meanings as there are people using that noun. ASK: what, specifically?

Unspecified verbs: verbs that delete the specifics of the process. ASK: how, specifically?

Nominalizations: verbs made into nouns, thus deleting the process or action. Very often creating a sense of ‘stuckness’. ASK: who, how, what is ….ing? Turn the nominalization back into a verb.

Lack of referential index: the pronoun is not specified, thus deleting who or what it refers to. ASK: who, specifically?

Simple deletions: information is simply missed out. ASK: about whom, about what?

Comparative deletions: the standard of comparison is deleted. ASK: compared to what?

Distortion is a process that allows us to make shifts in our experience of sensory data. Fantasy, for example, allows us to prepare for experiences that we may have before they occur. All the great novels, all the revolutionary discoveries of the sciences involve the ability to distort and misrepresent reality.


Information is distorted in five main ways:

Complex equivalence: where two experiences are interpreted as synonymous; x means y. ASK: how does doing X mean that Y?

Lost performative: value judgements, rules and opinion in which the source of the assertion is missing. ASK: how do you know that . . ?

Mind reading: assuming that you know another person’s internal state. ASK: how do you know that . . ?

Cause and effect: belief or implication that one person’s action can cause another’s emotional reaction. ASK: how does his/her doing X cause you to Y?

Presuppositions: basic assumptions that must be true for a model to make sense. ASK: how would X lead to Y?

As human beings we often assume we know what a person is talking about because of our own scenarios. However, by paying attention to the generalizations, deletions and distortions and asking what they mean, we have an opportunity to clarify, for both ourselves and the person speaking, the impoverishment of their model of the world. For example,

Specific Language Patterns

A sentence can contain several language patterns. Which one you will use to ask a question depends on the information you want to get. If you don’t get the response you want to your question, ask another question, or another type of question. The ambiguities and nuances are identified in the following example sentence.

He must be motivated by that job because he was always good at programming applications.

he = unspecified referential index (who are you talking about, what is the person’s name?)
must = modal operator of necessity (What would happen if he is not motivated by the job?)
motivated = unspecified verb (How do you know he is motivated, what does he do to be motivated?)
by = cause and effect (how does the job motivate him?)
that = unspecified referential index (what job are you talking about?)
job = nominalization (what does he have to do specifically in that job?)
He must be motivated …= Mind reading (How do you know he is motivated?)
always = universal quantifier (Don’t you know about an occasion when he wasn’t good at programming applications?)
good = comparative deletion (good compared to whom?)
programming = unspecified verb (what does he do exactly?)
application = unspecified noun (what kind of application in specific?)
The second part of the sentence is a judgement (Who is saying that he is better, how do they know, what evidences do they have?)
The combination of the first part of the sentence and the second one is a cause and effect relationship (“If he was not good, wouldn’t he like it?” Or “Do you have to be good at programming applications for liking that job?”)
presuppositions: the job he likes is somehow related to his programming skill, when you are good at something you like it

Another example of ambiguity is embodied in this sentence with nine words in it from Levinson and Godin. What does it mean?

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

The meaning depends on the words you choose to emphasize; we can indicate, for example, five [05] different meanings:

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

He was fired for stealing, but you must have heard it from someone else.

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

I told Bob that Harris was fired; I didn’t tell you.

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

She didn’t fire him, someone else did.

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

It wasn’t Harris! It was Bob.

I didn’t tell you she fired him for stealing.

He got caught skipping out, not stealing.