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Linguistic Presuppositions

By Roger Ellerton Phd, ISP, CMC, Renewal Technologies Inc. www.renewal.ca

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NLP has two types of presuppositions - linguistic and epistemological. Linguistic presuppositions, the topic of this article, describe the information or relationships that must be accepted as true for the listener to make sense of what is being said. Epistemological presuppositions are fundamental beliefs, rules or principles that form the base of a system. For example, our mathematical systems are built on a basic set of rules. The NLP presuppositions can be viewed as a fundamental set of principles on how you may choose to live your life.

A linguistic presupposition is something that is overtly expressed in the body of the statement itself, which must be presupposed or accepted in order for the sentence or utterance to make sense. It is an inference that can be made from the structure of language that provides a path from the words expressed by someone (often called the surface structure) to what is actually going on inside the person (inner feelings, thoughts, memories, beliefs, values -- the deep structure). Linguistic presuppositions allow for the internal universe of the speaker to be revealed; and thus presumed by the listener from the words that the person is using. The information that a person reveals through speech is not necessarily accurate or correct and will nonetheless reveal what they hold to be true in their model of the world. As the listener gains an understanding of the internal representations of the speaker, she can use different sentence structures or a change in words to offer the original speaker alternative internal representations for consideration - thus potentially assisting the original speaker to expand/loosen his model of the world.

Identifying Linguistic Presuppositions

As the receiver of a communication, it is important to distinguish between what is presupposed in a communication and what you superimpose or assume, based on your interpretation of the communication through your filters, history, beliefs and values. How often have you been in a conversation with someone and then made an assumption about what they were saying only to find out that you had guessed wrong! This happens quite often and can be the cause of misunderstandings or arguments, resulting in lost friendships/relationships. These inferences, deductions or conjectures that we infer from what has been said (based on how we see the world or our beliefs) are often called mind reads in NLP.

For example, consider the following sentence: “Ivan left town yesterday after causing a great deal of suffering.” Which of the following are presuppositions and which are mind reads?

  • There is a person called Ivan.
  • Ivan will return and cause more suffering.
  • Ivan physically hurt someone.

I was being tricky here -- they are all mind-reads! Ivan could be many different things -- a person, a dog, a hurricane, … . There is nothing in the sentence that presupposes that Ivan will return. Ivan caused suffering and we do not know if it was physical or emotional suffering. Did you identify them all as mind-reads or did you make assumptions based on your model of the world?

More examples:

  • Read the following sentence and then decide what is presupposed: “My spouse’s parents treat my children differently because they are handicapped.” I have a spouse - yes; my spouse has parents - yes; I have children - yes; my children are treated differently - yes; my children are handicapped - mind read, it may be my wife’s parents that are handicapped.
  • Consider the following: “My life is a mess.” Does this presuppose that the speaker has an understanding of what it would be like if their life were not a mess? Yes. For example, you only know if something is hot if you have an understanding of what ‘not hot’ (or cold) is like. Instead of imposing our model of ‘not mess’ on the speaker, we need to get curious and discover what they mean (internally) by a mess and how from their perspective, it could be different.
  • Now consider the sentence, “I can’t fix the problem.” Assuming the speaker does not know how to fix the problem is a mind read. It is quite possible that the speaker does know how to fix the problem but is not able to do it now, possibly due to time restrictions or limited financial resources.
  • When you read the following, what do you think of? “When did your children first beat you?” Did you think of beating in the context of physical violence or in the competitive sense of winning at a sport or game, or something else? These are mind reads. From the information provided, we do not know what “beat” means”.

We will discover how to gain more clarity on what a person has said through the Meta Model, the subject of a future article.

Using Linguistic Presuppositions

You can use linguistic presuppositions to assist your listener in gaining a different perspective on a problem or the world in general. Please note: From an NLP perspective, we respect the other person’s model of the world and only assist our listener in viewing things differently, if he has given us permission to do so.

You also need to be aware of the presuppositions that you use in every day language as they can have a significant impact on the listener. For example, my father recently passed away and many well-intentioned people said something like “I know you are sad at the loss of your father.” To make sense of this sentence, I had to accept the presupposition of ‘being sad’ and what do you think was the potential impact on my emotional state? Now consider the sentence “I know you will find the strength to cope with the loss of your father.” Would this not put me in a different state of mind?

To gain a better perspective on the power of linguistic presuppositions, consider the following examples:

  • “Do you want to address your problem today or during our next session?” The main presupposition or what the listener must accept to make sense of the sentence is that ‘he will address the problem’. In a similar way, you could say to your children: “Would you like to go to bed now or in half an hour.” In reality, they have many more options from which to choose. However, if they accept the presupposition in the sentence, their choices are limited to now or in half an hour. This is called a double bind.
I have used double binds a number of times, with great results. In one situation, I was dealing with a large national company and was getting the run-around from their staff. Fortunately, I had documented all of our communications. Finally, I wrote a letter to each member of the company’s Board of Directors, with an attachment providing full details on how I had been treated. The final sentence of my letter was the following: “Either you fully support how your staff has handled this or you commit to resolving it in a way that is mutually satisfactory to all parties” (notice the double bind). Two weeks later, I received an offer that exceeded my expectations!
  • “Don’t resolve this problem too fast.” A presupposition is that it is possible to resolve the problem and the only real question is the speed at which it will be resolved.
  • “After you have finished this exercise, you will notice how easy it is to make the changes you desire in your life.” Two presuppositions in this sentence are ‘exercise will be finished’ AND ‘easy to make changes’.
  • “Since you have volunteered for this exercise, you are making the changes now.” Presupposes that the listener is ‘already making the changes’ - whatever they may be.
  • “What issue do you want to address today?” This question is simple, direct and focuses the listener’s attention on the fact that he will address an issue today. You could follow this sentence with a double bind such as: “Do you want to address issue A or issue B?”
  • Compare the following two sentences: “Are you continuing to improve your relationship with your family?” to “Are you improving your relationship with your family?” The word ‘continuing’ in the first sentence implies that the listener has already been improving his relationship, while the second sentence has no such implication.

For linguistic presuppositions to be effective, they must be accepted by the listener’s unconscious mind. Obviously, rapport and the listener having a sense of safety are essential to this activity, as is the case for any other change related activity.

And NLP is Much more than that!

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Author: Roger Ellerton is a certified NLP trainer, coach, certified management consultant and the founder and managing partner of Renewal Technologies Inc. (www.renewal.ca). The above article is based on his book Live Your Dreams Let Reality Catch Up: NLP and Common Sense for Coaches, Managers and You.

Copyright © 2004, Renewal Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.

 

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