Lesson 8: Generalisation, Deletion and Distortion

“Your eyes will only affirm or deny what your mind believes.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

Noted thinker and linguist Noam Chomsky posited a revolutionary theory in the late 1950’s that suggested all sentences in the human language have both a deep structure and a simple structure.

By adapting Chomsky’s theories, and studying great therapists Milton Erickson, Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, researchers Richard Bandler and John Grinder created NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). A fundamental part of NLP is something known as the Meta-Model which is a pragmatic communications model, largely a method of questioning used to specify information in a speaker’s language.

Central to the Meta-Model is the theory that we never communicate an event as it actually happened. Instead, we tend to modify it through three very basic filters:

  1. Generalisation: Making General Conclusions About Any Given Event
  2. Deletion: Omitting Details or Facts from a Significant Event
  3. Distortion: Modifying How You Describe a Significant Event

Generalisation: Making General Conclusions About Any Given Event

“Men are more apt to be mistaken in their generalisation than in their particular observations.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

Generalisation is a valuable tool that allows us to take one-time learning and generalise it. Take opening doors as an example, from being tiny babies, almost from the moment we are born, we watch people come and go through something that we fairly quickly come to identify as a door.  And, before long, we are able to try them out for ourselves. Unconsciously we are saying “Well, I know how to open the doors in my house, and all doors must be similar, so in that case, I must be able to open any door in any building.”

Generalisation is valuable because it helps us learn, adapt and move on. Without generalisation, we would have to relearn how to open a door, tie our shoes or drive a car every single day.

Unfortunately, generalisation as applied to our mental, emotional and spiritual lives has certain dangers. For instance, when we generalise about people – or certain types of people – we can fall into traps that look and sound dangerously like racism or nationalism. Assuming that the acts of one person means that “they all” act that way, can lead to limiting beliefs about an entire race, group or nationality of people.

It can also lead to limiting self-beliefs about ourselves. Remember, generalisation is a simple tool for making our lives easier; tying our shoes, opening doors, shifting gears in a car. When we try to extrapolate this tool to our emotional life, it may make things simpler, but it hardly makes them healthy.

Emotionally speaking, for instance, generalisation makes us “always” go for the bad boy, or date the aggressive female, or avoid women/men who are “just like” our exes. It encourages us to label certain “types” as good for us – or bad. But by now we should all know that this is a limiting self-belief. How many women or men who look like our exes could actually be “good” for us, if only we opened ourselves up to the opportunity to get to know them? “Maggie” is a great example of generalisation.

Did you ever meet someone that you sensed just plain didn’t like you? They just gave you that blank look or stared straight through you, like you weren’t even there! Well, that’s just what Maggie did to me.

I was giving a talk on Unconscious Communication, standing up there in front of my audience; it was easy for me to see everyone’s face. I was able to clearly see Maggie, sat safely in the center row, unreachable, untouchable and safe, or so she thought! It was a great event and the group all had a great learning experience looking at the different levels of communication that go on during a conversation.

When we broke for coffee, midway through the lecture, I walked up to Maggie and said, “I’m not him!”

She looked at me in confused way and said “Sorry?” in a tone that said, “I don’t believe I heard you correctly.”

“The guy who hurt you,” I added. “I’m not him!”

Maggie was a little bewildered as she asked, “How do you know about… him?”

I explained that I could feel the energy disconnection between us and since we had never met before and as I held her in unconditional, positive regard, it made sense that she was running a generalisation pattern on me.

Ergo, she had had a bad experience with a guy and, as a result, all men were now bastards!!

I went on to explain that, “Unless you do something to break this generalisation pattern, you will continue to play the ‘ice woman’ when all the while you want to be loved, but you’re scared that you will get burned again, so you don’t allow any man to make a connection with you.”

Tears welled in Maggie’s eyes as she stammered, “I d-d-didn’t mean to f-freeze you out, Matt. I didn’t even realise that I was doing it!”

Salt water is always a good sign of an emotional shift and sure enough the frost melted from around Maggie’s aura and we finally connected. “Not all men are bastards,” I chuckled. Maggie smiled a warm smile and her generalisation was now at an end.

Good thing, too, because if that behaviour had been allowed to continue, then her Saboteur would continue to maintain a wall of ice between her and anything looking remotely like her ex, i.e. most men on the planet!

I think you’d agree that this was not a healthy position for moving forward through life. Such is the danger of generalising too much – or too often.

In another case, let’s say your dream job was always to work for a greeting card company. You grew up making cards for your friends and family, writing them in your head, maybe even illustrating them, and worked hard to gain a qualification in creative writing, only to wind up with a junior position at your very first greeting card company right out of college.

Only… well… the experience was dreadful. Your boss was an egomaniac, the company was badly run, there was a strict chain of command where only senior people did anything creative and you found yourself a glorified office junior in a very unhealthy, very dysfunctional company.

You leave after only one year, completely disheartened, disappointed and disillusioned. Generalisation would have you believe, as would your unconscious mind (aka Saboteur Within), that ALL greetings card companies are run this same way. You decide that you should give up on your dream and do something else instead because obviously the world of greetings cards is a disaster area and not as you had imagined.

But… but… they’re not all run the same way. You don’t hate greeting card companies; just that greeting card company! Maybe this was the WORST greeting card company in the world and you just happened to work there first. There are 101 other wonderfully run, welcoming, nurturing, creative and efficient greeting card companies just waiting to find someone as passionate, educated and experienced as you.

If you give in to generalisation, and instruct your Saboteur to declare greetings card companies a danger zone then you are missing out on your dream.

Deletion: Omitting Details or Facts from a Significant Event

Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away

When I came home last night at three

The man was waiting there for me

But when I looked around the hall

I couldn’t see him there at all!

Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!

Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

– “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns

The other morning while shaving I was shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover several grey hairs. I thought to myself, “Where did those come from?” After all, they certainly weren’t there the day before.

I counted them; there were eight. Eight grey hairs. I promptly brought them to the attention of my wife Sonya, who just as promptly stated, “But Matt, you’ve been grey for years…”

But… but… how could this be? The fact is, I’d clearly been “deleting” the fact that I had grey hair from every image I saw of myself, almost as if my Saboteur was operating a special edition of Photoshop in my head. Why would I ever do such a thing? The answer is simple: it all goes back to my own personal “I AM” statement.

Who am I? Clearly, “I am a young man…” Have been for years, I tell you! And young men don’t have grey hair, so naturally my Saboteur Within will help me unconsciously overlook, deny and delete actual information that others can plainly see.

So, what’s the real danger in deletion? Well, while it’s clearly more “pleasant” for me to walk around life, denying and deleting that I have grey hair, the fact is when we allow ourselves to enjoy a distorted “I Am” vision, we are really only living half-a-life.

Youth is, in fact, overrated; at least when you’ve grown into a wiser, more mature and experienced man. Imagine the limits my self-beliefs have put on myself as I go about my day, acting as a young man and not putting to good use all of my valuable life experiences, credentials and hard-earned wisdom.

This was much the same story for Kevin, who, when he booked his sessions with me had a presenting problem of low self-esteem and a fear of public speaking. Kevin was a sales director for an international company with thirty years experience under his belt, yet, for some “unknown” reason he had recently started to feel that he knew nothing!

We chatted about his career journey and he told me how when he started out, all of the older members of the sales team were “useless” and didn’t have what it takes to be a good salesperson! Kevin had recently celebrated his 50th birthday and there, in that fact, lay the key to unlocking his problem. A few weeks into his fiftieth year Kevin had a big problem, something he had never experienced before.

For years he had stood up in front of audiences and spoken with ease and authority about his products, he had even handled hecklers well, now all of a sudden he was breaking out into a hot sweat at the very thought of talking to a few of his colleagues around the boardroom table.

Kevin had always treated the older sales professionals at his company with contempt and, on the morning after his significant birthday, he was suddenly faced with a 50 year old, “an old man”, staring back from the mirror. His Saboteur had worked tirelessly over 30 years to ensure that he was top dog within his field, while also wielding a sense of arrogance and disregard toward any older people, full stop! His “I Am” statement was, “I am young and vibrant and energetic and tech-savvy and eager and motivated and anyone over the age of 49 is not.”

Here, nine months on from that massive life distortion experienced on his own 50th birthday, Kevin was suffering at the hand of his own Saboteur. All of the things he believed about older people not being any good at anything, being clumsy and unable to do the job properly, were now acting against him, the poor “old” guy!

So, just like my grey hair, we would work on all of the positive things about becoming, wiser, more mature and experienced, the obvious facts about the over 50s that Kevin had spent years deleting. Together we transformed those deletions into supporting beliefs, new instructions for his Saboteur which would allow him to forge ahead, regardless of his chronological age. Inside of a month Kevin reported back that he was back in the saddle, with even more skills than he could ever have had as a young green horn, fresh on the job.

In both instances, our Saboteur was working to support our “I Am,” for better or worse; usually, for the worse!

Exercise 10: Beliefs About Age

What are your beliefs about age? Write them down below and you may surprise yourself!

  • Being 40 means ________
  • Being 50 means ________
  • Being 60 means ________
  • Being 70 means ________
  • Being 80 means ________
  • Being 90 means ________
  • Being 100 means ________

If you find that you have been a bit harsh with some of your answers, ask a friend to do the exercise with you, and then you both have an external person to give you feedback.

Distortion: Modifying How You Describe a Significant Event

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.” – Robert McCloskey                                               

We all know people who have a distorted self-image of themselves. Often it’s for the better; more often than not, it’s for the worse. For instance, Steve is a salesman for a local restaurant supply company who lives, acts and talks as if he is the next Alan Sugar. He is never NOT selling!

Steve lives large, looks good on paper and believes every word out of his mouth is a license to print money. But his life is a series of mixed messages. He drives an expensive car and lives in a hovel. Why not the other way around? Well, no one ever sees his home but everyone sees his car; this way he can continue the delusion that he is far, far more successful than he actually is.

In a word, Steve is distorting his entire life.

If Steve goes on a sales call that goes badly, he will verbally distort, repeating it thusly: “The buyer is small-minded and needs a small-minded company; that’s not who I represent. He’ll be ready for me next time!”

If he goes on a date that ends badly, he will distort some more, explaining, “She was too intimidated to be herself. Watch and she’ll call first thing next week!”

Distortion allows Steve to paint every scenario in his favor, whether or not it actually worked out that way. Now meet Sally; Sally uses distortion to downplay every advantage she has – and she has many.

Sally is a hairdresser with a booming business, but can’t – or won’t – take any credit for it. “It’s the location,” she’ll tell anybody who remarks upon her busy salon.

When someone compliments her latest style she’ll say, “Oh, so and so could have done it much better.”

If Sally goes on a great date, she’ll say, “I’m not sure he liked me very much.”

This trend leads us to something very critical in our learning at this stage:

Analysing the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The way our mind is able to distort information is absolutely fascinating and, as such, was worthy of a scientific study performed in 1999 by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, subsequently referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Wikipedia says “…Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches flawed conclusions about their own abilities, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realise their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is.” [Source.]

We’ve all seen the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action: the painful, shrill, tone-deaf singers who are flabbergasted and outraged when Simon Cowell and the other judges on Britain’s Got Talent hit the buzzer and give them a reality check. On the other hand, the highly skilled often tend to underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. Susan Boyle, the winner of that same show in 2009, is a perfect example of this: someone who is bemused, confused and disbelieving when the world gives them the feedback that they are truly amazing. It’s like, well, the Dunning-Kruger Effect in reverse!

“This leads to the perverse situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. Thus, the miss calibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miss calibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

I’m sure we have all experienced being invited to dinner by someone who has convinced you that they are a fantastic cook. You arrive, salivating with anticipation at the culinary delights that will be served and then find yourself sitting next to good old Dunning & Kruger trying to hide a grey, glutinous mass under your napkin and wondering just how quickly you can make your excuses and leave before the chip shop closes!

Both Steve and Sally are under the spell of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as they distort, to opposite ends of the spectrum – but for absolutely the same reason: to support their individual “I Am” statements. Steve’s statement is known as “illusory superiority.” He says, “I am the best salesman in the world” and all his distortions match this statement.

Likewise, with her “illusory inferiority,” Sally must think, “I’m not particularly good at anything, I really don’t have much to offer” and, similarly, all her distortions support that “I Am” statement as well.

So, what do your distortions say about you? Keep your eyes open for Dunning & Kruger or the Distortion Filter when you are out and about. I assure you, you will be amazed at how common – and potentially dangerous – it is.

Parting Words About Generalisation, Deletion and Distortion

The fact is; generalisation, deletion and distortion are all part of modern life. We have so much input coming at us, we often have to “cut corners” just to survive; generalisation, deletion and distortion help us get through the day, do our jobs, maintain our relationships and keep our “I Am” statements, intact.

The problem is that all three contribute to comfort, not growth. Remember, I am not here to make you feel more comfortable; I’m here to make you feel more alive! Generalisation, deletion and distortion are a fundamental part of our lives but you don’t have to blindly follow them and find yourself living only half the life you could have.

Instead, learn to recognise when you’re generalising, check for deletion and start to “delete” distortion. Fully engage with life and create an entirely new “I Am” statement to support you.