Change Work April 2008

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination

John Lennon

If you've ever been walking in the countryside, using a map to navigate, you might have experienced getting the "mapping" wrong. This is where your interpretation of how the map relates to your surroundings goes awry. According to your reading of the map, there's a hill to your right. You see a hill to your right - so that must be it! Unless you carefully check the direction and height of the feature, you don't notice that it's actually a different, smaller one. The one you've mistaken it for is a bit further on.

When you come to the "real" hill you look for a feature on the map to match it to. You find one, but it's a couple of miles away from where you thought you were. "Must have come further than I thought", you say to yourself.

So now, when you look for the next landmark to set your direction by, you start to force the map to fit the surroundings. You focus on similarities and ignore things that don't seem quite right. Eventually, you come to a road with a signpost. There isn't a road marked on the map at the place you think you are.

"Must be a new road", you say, and walk on ...

So what's going on here?

In this situation, we start to distort and delete visual information to make it fit our existing representation. But this isn't an unusual state of affairs that only occurs in orienteering. It's how we operate all the time!

The philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879 - 1950) said, "The map is not the territory", by which he meant that our understanding of something in the world is not the same as the thing itself.  It's only a representation of it - incomplete and inaccurate.

In a previous issue of "Change Work" I discussed how we transform sensory data to create an internal representation of an event. This representation will usually be different from those of other people involved in the event. It will also be different from what "actually" happened.

Taking this idea a little further, you can conclude that everything we know of the world is our own representation. It is not "reality".

Now, you might think that there are some things that are just facts. For example, "the train left for London at 8.05 am" is either true or it isn't and can be verified by reference to evidence. Whilst it's still possible for some people to disbelieve this, even in the face of the evidence, what's more interesting (in my map!) is what then gets tagged on to the facts and how the resulting map affects future behaviours.

The fact may be that management announced a new initiative to reduce costs.

None of this additional meaning was present in the original announcement - it has been added by individuals as they unconsciously try to make sense of the data.  "Making sense" involves fitting it into your existing map - even if you have to distort it in the process!

So, in your communications - be they with individuals or large audiences - bear in mind that your listener, reader or viewer is running their own "making it fit" program as they absorb the message.  What they think it means is a function of what's already in their map as much as, or perhaps more than, what you said.

Your mental model of the world is where you live.  And I live in mine.  These are different "realities" that only partially overlap.  And when you have to choose a course of action, you choose from what's available within your reality.  If it's not there then it's not a possibility for you.

By the same token, your awkward team member lives in a different world - has a different map - from you and everyone else. How he behaves is OK in his map - so why should he change?

So, in preparing any form of communication, it would be useful to ask yourself these questions:

This last question is important because even after you've refined your words, visuals and delivery, others will still perceive meaning that you didn't intend.  The only way to get your different understandings to converge is through dialogue - and that might not be practical.  So, plan for being misunderstood!

You never know, someone else's "misunderstanding" might just alert you to the limitations of your own map!