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NLP First Principles

The Map is not The Territory

One of the first concepts to be introduced in an NLP practitioner course is the idea that
people are like mapmakers. We create internal representations of the world. We absorb
information through our senses and code it so that it can be stored as part of our mental
map. Then it is available to us when we need to interpret new experiences.
For example, we may need to go to a building we have never been to before. When we get
there, we know from our internal map, "This is a door, it indicates where to enter the
building." We may never have seen that particular door before, but we know from our
mental map what the purpose of a door is and how to use it.
Maps are essential. But for maps to be useful, we must distort, delete and generalize. If we
did not delete parts of our experience, the mental map would be too cumbersome. Imagine
if a map of Alaska were the actual size of Alaska without any distortion, deletion or
generalization. It would be too big to be useful. Similarly, we cannot include all the details
of our experience in our maps.
NLP is interested in how we distort our experience to make our maps. How we feel, our
state of mind, our knowledge and memories are shaped by our habits of distortion, deletion
and generalization.
One of the NLP presuppositions is that "The Map is Not the Territory". This presupposition
reminds us that all of our experience is subjective. Every internal map we have of an event
or person or situation is distorted. Our map of the event is not the event. It is not a perfect
representation of objective reality.
This seems simple enough to grasp, but it is human to forget and to think that our map is
reality. For this reason, we are more often limited by our mental maps than by the
constraints of external reality. We don't question the map.
One form of limiting map is what I like to call "questionable prerequisites". These take the
form "I have to do (or have or be) this before I can do (have, be) this." A beginning coach
might assume, "I have to be certified (or have a brochure or have more experience) before I
can approach business clients." An employee might assume, "I have to be invited to work
on this project." An individual might assume, "I have resolve all my own issues before I
can have a meaningful relationship." OR, The coach could just start talking to people about
coaching. The employee could contact the project leader and say they are interested in
working on the project. The individual could enter a relationship as an imperfect human!
With NLP, the coach can begin to call attention to how clients distort, delete and generalize
to create a map of whatever situation is being described. NLP focuses more on the How of
a person's thinking (the patterns) than the What. As habits of thinking are changed, the
world transforms. The client becomes aware of territory beyond their current map. Choice,
Flexibility, Movement. . . .