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NLP Q&A: How Do You Know If An Association Is Linguistic Or Sensory?

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Javi just sent me an email asking me to comment on that.

He read my exchange with Fatih in a previous article (you'll find it in the comment section) that resulted in Fatih resolving an issue he'd been struggling with for some time, on which he'd spent serious time and cash.

During the exchange, I said:

Pay close attention here. There was an “IF … THEN … ” link, but it didn’t exist in your nervous system as language. It was a straight sensory connection. This plays a big part in what kind of question will unlock new choices.

Javi asked me a few questions about this. Here are my answers for everyone's benefit.

"How do you know when there is a sensory connection and when there isn´t?"

Javi added: "(as I see this, there is always a sensory connections, the person is always feeling in some way the beliefs he has, and when he express his beliefs using language, that sensory connections is always there)"

Javi's right. Linguistic links are always stacked on top of sensory links. Always. Keep that in mind.

So linguistic links can't exist without sensory links. But sensory links can exist without linguistic links.

It's like atoms and molecules. You can't have molecules without atoms, but you can have atoms without molecules.

So what's the give away? What reveals whether the link is sensory or linguistic?

The answer lies in THE WAY the person describes what's happening.

Specifically, Fatih wrote:

Whenever somebody disagrees with me on something, I immediately feel “They must know it better than me, so I’m wrong about what I know.”

He first describes an external trigger (somebody disagrees with me). That trigger cues a feeling that he labeled "They must know it better than me".

Notice how the external cue went straight to the feeling (I didn't say emotion).

In NLP jargon, you'd call that an anchor. External stimulus --> Internal response

It's a gut feeling. No thinking involved. No rationalization. It just happens. It's prelinguistic.

It's also not cause and effect. It's not "if somebody disagrees with me, then I respond in that way." It's "When somebody disagress with me, I immediately feel..." It's instantaneous.

On the other hand, when Fatih writes: "They must know it better than me, so I'm wrong about what I know."

That's an internal linguistic link, and it's clearly articulated as such. "They know it better than me" means that "I'm wrong about what I know".

It's a complex equivalence between two ideas, two thoughts. Read this sentence carefully: "I'm wrong about what I know." Is there any sensory element in here?

Nope.

So this second link is definitely coded purely in language. Much easier to manipulate and play with. Probably no sensory grounding whatsoever in this link. So it's weak.

If it wasn´t a sensory connection, what type of question would you use then?

I actually used both types of questions in my intervention.

The first question I asked was:

When someone knows something better than you, what else could it mean?

This first question targets the linguistic link, the complex equivalence.

Fatih believed that "someone knows something better than me" means "I'm wrong about what I know".

My question invites him to substitute the second element of the link ("I'm wrong about what I know") with a new choice. Based on his Model of The World, Fatih can choose any number of possibilities:

"Someone knows something better than me" means "Wow! I can learn something new now!"

or

"Someone knows something better than me" means "Now I can focus on my core talent."

So that question addresses that link. Fortunately, Fatih made an empowering choice.

The second instruction I gave was to:

Wonder: What’s great about someone disagreeing with me?

This question targets the anchor. The sensory association.

It links the external cue (someone disagreeing with me) to an internal feeling. And the word "great" presupposes that "someone disagreeing with me" triggers a great feeling.

Once again, the question invites Fatih to come up with additional choices, bound by the "great" criterion. The cool thing is that Fatih had no problem in coming up with an empowering answer.

Here's how you reengineer sensory anchors

Remember. The structure here is "External trigger --> Internal feeling".

You simply ask:

What's ***emotion*** about ***trigger***?

What's exciting about speaking on the phone?

What's funny about returning merchandise to the store?

What's relaxing about approaching an attractive person?

What's stupid about running red lights?

Here's how you reengineer complex equivalences

The structure here is "Idea #1= Idea #2"

In Fatih's case, it was "someone knows something better than me = I'm wrong about what I know".

You ask:

When ***Idea #1***, what else could it mean?

When you get a bad grade on the test, what else could it mean?

When you make a mistake, what else could it mean?

When you forget about a birthday, what else could it mean?

Recap: this is simply...

Reframing.

Now go do it.

About the Author

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Martin Messier has been practicing NLP for 20 years. He was trained in NLP and Neuroassociative Conditioning by Master Trainer Rex Sikes and Tony Robbins. He holds a BA in Economics and International Studies and a Master's degree in International Political Economy.


  • Martin, thank you very much for your complete reply.

    Ok, I see it now. Your adress both type of situations with the two questions at the same time, and the idea is that every question unlock new choices he hadn´t thought were as possible as the only one he was able to see until this moment, right?
    I think it was an excellent piece of linguistic work!!

    Although Martin, I disagree with you in the theorical base:
    “”So linguistic links can’t exist without sensory links. But sensory links can exist without linguistic links””

    I don´t believe sensory links can exist without linguistic links. There would be always an “interpretation” of that sensory links/feelings, and that interpretation would lead almost always to a belief. What happens many times is that the person is unaware of that belief/interpretation and he is only being consciouss of it through the feelings he is perceiving, although he doesn´t know which belief is.

    I still think this can be seen as a cause-effect, and inside it there is a complex equivalence. Look at this in this way:
    If somebody disagrees with me on something, then (I think) I’m wrong about what I know, (so I immediately feel They must know it better than me)

    As I see this, what is happening here is that Fatih is expressing his belief putting emphasis in how this belief is making him feeling: “I immediately feel they must know it better than me”.
    But this: “I immediately feel They must know it better than me”, in no way is a feeling, is the interpretation or linguistic part of the feelings he is feeling. If you want to know what are the feelings, you will have to ask for them then: So, what are you feelings exactly? Or, Where are you feeling that? And he will go and would say probably something like: “well, I have this pressure here in my chest and so on…”

    Regards
    Javi

    • Hey Javi,

      You wrote:
      “I don´t believe sensory links can exist without linguistic links. There would be always an “interpretation” of that sensory links/feelings, and that interpretation would lead almost always to a belief. What happens many times is that the person is unaware of that belief/interpretation and he is only being consciouss of it through the feelings he is perceiving, although he doesn´t know which belief is.”

      Language is constructed on top of sensations. Sensations serve as references for language. Language is but a representation of sensations.

      Sensory linkages can definitely exist without language. Children of pre-linguistic age associate external cue to internal states without running them through any language filter.

      We maintain that ability throughout our adult life and can greatly benefit from leveraging it. You’ll notice extensive use of this skill in athletes and artists, who process sensory data purely at a sensory level without it ever crossing into their linguistic module.

      For more information on that, you can read Turtles All The Way Down and Whispering In The Wind, both by John Grinder.

      You wrote:
      “I still think this can be seen as a cause-effect, and inside it there is a complex equivalence. Look at this in this way:
      If somebody disagrees with me on something, then (I think) I’m wrong about what I know, (so I immediately feel They must know it better than me)”

      Key element in what you wrote: “I still think this can be seen [..]” You can definitely frame this any number of ways. It doesn’t mean it’s Fatih’s experience. That’s where you have to be careful!

      I’ll show you how it works in a second…

      You wrote:
      “As I see this, what is happening here is that Fatih is expressing his belief putting emphasis in how this belief is making him feeling: “I immediately feel they must know it better than me”.
      But this: “I immediately feel They must know it better than me”, in no way is a feeling, is the interpretation or linguistic part of the feelings he is feeling. If you want to know what are the feelings, you will have to ask for them then: So, what are you feelings exactly? Or, Where are you feeling that? And he will go and would say probably something like: “well, I have this pressure here in my chest and so on…””

      Actually, Fatih is using words here for the sole purpose of trying to communicate to me what and how he feels.

      Fatih wrote: “I immediately feel ‘They must know it better than me so I’m wrong about what I know’.” He did not write: “I immediate think/tell myself ‘They must know […].”

      When someone uses a sensory word followed by an interpretation, that language only serves as a bridge to communicate in words what they’re feeling. My experience tells me that Fatih came up with that on the fly as he was writing, which is why I asked the questions I did.

      Had he written “think” or “tell myself”, I would have taken another route based on the different information he’d have given me.

      Your challenge brings up a VERY important key to calibration and tracking of someone’s model of the world. it is this:

      What you observe and what the other person experiences might be completely different.

      Never, ever, ever, try to superimpose your model onto a client’s model. Often times, we’ll be tempted to do it to make sure everything fits to ours. But you’re best served by taking the info they’re giving at face value.

      I’ll give you an example.

      At a seminar I was giving last week, I was eliciting a participant’s values in front of the group — we’ll call her Linda. For the sake of the example, I’ll list her top three Target Feelings (you’ll learn more about this in Drivers Underground): happiness, fun, and satisfaction.

      Her primary vehicles for getting those Target Feelings were her family. Chiefly, taking care of her old mother. She described how she chose to stay with her mother instead of going to Carnaval in Rio (which would fulfill the “Fun” value).

      One of her friends, Susan, who was in the audience, then chipped in to say that sacrifice was really important to Linda. She knew Linda was a sacrificing person. That the fact that she’d forego Carnaval meant that she valued sacrifice.

      I immediately stopped her. What Susan was observing and stating was based on HER model of the world, not Linda’s! To Linda, there was no sacrifice. She didn’t feel it that way. It wasn’t her experience.

      Of course, any other third party observer might look at Linda’s choice and also see sacrifice in her life. But Linda didn’t live it that way.

      And we have to be careful not to staple our MOW onto the other person’s, because we can mess with it.

      So when Fatih tells me: “I immediately feel ‘They must know it better than me so I’m wrong about what I know’.”, that’s how he names the feeling that used to come up when someone disagreed with him.

      What’s within the quotation marks is another matter. That’s the linguistic bit. And I address it as such.

      Does it make more sense to you now?

      Keep asking. You’re on the right track.

  • Hi Martin.
    Sorry to come late to this…

    Hmn…, Ok, I am doing a wrong emphasis here. I will try to explain me in another way. My main point isn´t if feelings can be processed before language, or if what happens first is the feeling and after that comes the linguistic expression of that feeling.
    My main point is this: Beliefs determine feelings, so feelings follow from beliefs.
    In practice this means something very simple: If one is feeling something one doesn’t want to feel, it’s because in that moment, one is believing something one doesn’t want to believe; If one is feeling something that one want to feel, it’s because in that moment, one is believing something one wants to believe.
    Any belief we don’t want to have will produce feelings we don’t want to feel, and in the other way around. Shift the belief, and the emotion will shifts by itself.

    So in my view of the fatih´s case, the feeling he talks about is the result of his belief, and so he is feeling it because he is believing something he don´t want to believe. That feeling he is feeling doesn´t exist by itself, is linked to his belief. Then, when Fatih say he experience the feeling: “They must know it better than me so I’m wrong about what I know” (his own words, not mine), when someone disagree with him, is because he has a belief operating and that feeling is the product of the belief.

    With regard to try to impose my own model of the world here; hmn… well, you may be right here…
    I was saying that because looking back and checking my own process, it has been my experience several times when I want to describe a belief or a situation and I am immersed in the feeling of that belief. And also this has been my experience observing other people, for example friends of mine in a simple and trivial conversation, when they are fully immersed feeling a situation that their language turns very sensory when they begin to describe what simply are facts, situations or conclusions, something like: “ … … and I felt like I had to stand up and embrace him and say thank you guy, … …

    Regards
    Javi

    • Hey Fatih,

      Language is constructed on top of sensations. Sensations serve as references for language. Language is but a representation of sensations.

      Sensory linkages can definitely exist without language. Children of pre-linguistic age associate external cue to internal states without running them through any language filter.

      We maintain that ability throughout our adult life and can greatly benefit from leveraging it. You’ll notice extensive use of this skill in athletes and artists, who process sensory data purely at a sensory level without it ever crossing into their linguistic module.

      For more information on that, you can read Turtles All The Way Down and Whispering In The Wind, both by John Grinder

      You wrote:
      “My main point is this: Beliefs determine feelings, so feelings follow from beliefs.
      In practice this means something very simple: If one is feeling something one doesn’t want to feel, it’s because in that moment, one is believing something one doesn’t want to believe; If one is feeling something that one want to feel, it’s because in that moment, one is believing something one wants to believe.
      Any belief we don’t want to have will produce feelings we don’t want to feel, and in the other way around. Shift the belief, and the emotion will shifts by itself.”

      Yes. Belief is one of the driving factors of emotion. What’s important to note in Fatih’s case is how his TOTE has streamlined and bypassed the language module. What he feels isn’t emotion, but physical reaction.

      You wrote:
      “So in my view of the fatih´s case, the feeling he talks about is the result of his belief, and so he is feeling it because he is believing something he don´t want to believe. That feeling he is feeling doesn´t exist by itself, is linked to his belief. Then, when Fatih say he experience the feeling: “They must know it better than me so I’m wrong about what I know” (his own words, not mine), when someone disagree with him, is because he has a belief operating and that feeling is the product of the belief.”

      If you use the term “belief” in a very broad sense, yes. I think of beliefs as structures that exist explicitly in language. They have gone though the language module and are stored as explicit definitions we create of the world. A great example of this would be a lady thinking “All men are pigs” because one or two of her boyfriends broke up with her. She decided that using language.

      However, many associations are links created purely through stimulus-response, without ever having gone through any thought process, based on personal experience and history. Phobias are great examples of this. People who have phobias might have generated all sorts of beliefs based on their reactions, but the root of their reaction is not a belief. It’s a visceral association that might be based on personal history. These experiences create locks in their neurology without ever going through the linguistic module.

      John Grinder, Whispering In The Wind, tells the story of a woman who developed all sorts of limitations and disempowering beliefs because her father held her upside down on a ski lift during her childhood. Those limitations didn’t have a belief at their base, but a direct experience.

      From the way Fatih described his experience, I’m not convinced that he knew how the generalization that drove his reaction operated.

      But I’m purely sharing my model with you. It’s just the way I find it useful to carve things up. If you feel more comfortable, you can call all those generalizations “beliefs”.

  • Wow, amazing insights… great questions Javi. You see, the two of you DISAGREEING with eachother MADE ME LEARN a lot of valuable things 😉
    I was really suprised that my name and my case were used here… kind of made me smile 🙂
    Thanks Martin for you wonderful answers.

  • Hi Martin,

    Nice detailed post, great with examples.

    A lot of what’s written about NLP has no where near the detail needed to be useful or practical. This is a great example of also HOW to write a decent instructional NLP article.

    In appreciation,

    Mr Twenty Twenty

    PS: I agree with Fatih too. You two being able to disagree and yet the focus getting placed on moving forward toward a specific result is priceless.

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