Words That Change Minds

Words That Change Minds

The reality “out there” may be the same for everyone.

You and I both see a dog running around in the park.

The “reality” inside your mind depends on your “mental map” and is highly unique to you, but we both think it’s the objective truth, not our subjective interpretation.

I see the dog and think: “what a cute puppy, running around playing” and smile. You see the dog and think: “that monster is going to attack me!” and turn pale.

My mental map has a belief that “dogs in the park are generally friendly.” Your mental map has a belief that “dogs are dangerous.” In both cases, that belief is 100% our reality, and we respond accordingly: you turn pale and I smile. I get excited, while your hands begin to sweat. You back away, ready to run while I run to pet the dog.

Neither of us realizes that the other person’s reality is different, so it’s not surprising when I assume you’re foolish for thinking that the cute puppy is dangerous and you think me stupid for calling that 100lb monster a “cute puppy!”

Most arguments can be boiled down to different mental maps which shape the perceptions of the same reality. Being aware of just this fact can help us better interact with others. By expanding our maps we can perceive a reality that's closer to the truth and respond accordingly or have more choices of how to respond in various situations.

In the book Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski, the author discusses the idea that “the map is not the territory” (later restated by Alan Watts as “the menu is not the meal'') He makes the bold claim that we as humans can never experience reality (i.e. the territory) as it is. We can only experience it through our five senses which form internal representations of reality (i.e. mental maps).

These representations turn into generalizations (i.e. beliefs) that later determine the meaning behind multiple situations. That meaning becomes our subjective reality. If a dog attacked you when you were younger, you’ll generalize that situation to the belief that “dogs are dangerous” and that becomes your reality. Next time you see a dog, you’ll turn pale.

The problem is our brains assume this is the objective reality. You’ll believe 100% without a doubt that dogs are dangerous and because this is the truth, anyone who thinks otherwise is dead wrong.

Most of the time this is harmless. You and I can argue about whether dogs are friendly or scary, but that is not a big concern. Knowing that the other person has a different interpretation of reality is enough to give us the necessary wisdom to end these arguments gracefully.

Where things start to get interesting is realizing you can change the meaning by shifting someone’s perspective and get a completely different experience. This is what I call “shaping reality” and it’s probably the most useful communication skill you can learn.

To illustrate, let me tell you a personal story that completely flipped my life upside down…for the better.

I used to be quite shy.

I rarely talked to strangers at networking events, in fact, I tried to avoid them altogether.

Talking to girls? Forget about it! There was this girl at work I really liked and I’d always try to talk to her but our conversations ended up being very brief. One day I finally worked up the courage to ask her out as we were having lunch. I got so nervous that my throat dried up and I choked on my food….Ouch!

I was also terrified of speaking in front of a crowd. This is a useful skill if you want to move up in your career. My hands would get sweaty. My whole body would shake and my throat would feel like sandpaper.

That all changed the day I read a simple paragraph.

I have been reading self-help books for a very long time. They all offer the same trite advice “feel the fear and do it anyway” or “visualize yourself doing the thing you want” None of that worked!

This day I was reading a book about social networking and stumbled upon this gem of a paragraph:

“In fact, I could probably talk to anyone about anything. And
if I had no idea about a particular topic, I wouldn’t turn off, I
would turn on. I would get excited about the idea that this person I
was talking to could teach me something I didn’t know about and
broaden my horizons.”

When I first read it, it hit me like a lightning bolt!

Wow so if I was intimidated by someone's intelligence, instead of shutting off and not talking in order to not sound stupid, I could instead assume the student position and ask them to teach me? That’s amazing! I don’t have to feel stupid for not knowing, in fact, most people love to teach! It makes them feel both smart and useful.

That single paragraph completely rewired my brain in an instant. That very afternoon, I went to a local philosophy meetup where people sat in a circle and would stand up and discuss various points. Instead of just listening, I actually stood up and made my own point to a room full of strangers.

But that’s not all.

Later, after that meetup ended, I went to a movie premiere with another meetup group. I actually went with someone from the philosophy meetup and we chatted the entire way.

At that second meetup, I saw a girl I liked. I asked around and got her name and messaged her on Meetup to ask her out. She said yes and we dated for a while. (No we didn’t get married and lived happily ever after….this isn’t that kind of story)

The whole thing was quite surreal. How could words rewire reality just like that?

Later on, I discovered that what happened to me is known as “reframing” and that it can be done deliberately. You change the frame someone uses to see reality and it changes the meaning of the situation which alters their response.

It’s a powerful technique for changing mental maps and completely rewiring perceptions. In my case, I switched from a limiting frame “meeting someone smarter means I’m stupid so I better shut up” to a more expansive frame “meeting someone smarter means I have an opportunity to learn from them”

Another reframe happened even more subtly. I changed from wanting to impress people with my intelligence and dazzle them with my knowledge to becoming more curious about them or about how they thought. This has helped tremendously with my dating life.

So how do you do this deliberately?

It’s really hard to do this on yourself. It’s easier to do it for others which is where I would suggest you apply it.

I usually prefer to give people a different interpretation of the situation and hope they’ll use it. It requires that I notice an unhelpful generalization they’re using and giving them another way to think about the same situation.

Or you can directly question their assumptions until they realize the limitations. If you go this route, make sure you aim for laughter by exaggerating their belief because laughter helps to rewire the brain faster.

Let’s take our earlier example of the dog in the park.

Suppose the other person has told you “dogs are dangerous.” You can choose to give them another way to see it or challenge that assumption by giving them counter-examples such as:

Them: “Dogs are dangerous!”
You: “All dogs? Even puppies?”
Them: “Well, maybe not puppies but grown-up dogs”
You: “Even grown-up chihuahuas?”
Them: “Well, maybe not the small ones, but the really big ones”
You: “How big? Like over 200lb?”
Them: “Sure, maybe even 100lb”
You: “So a 99lb dog is ok?”
Them: “Haha. Ok, certain dogs are scary, not all”

I could keep going but you get the point. By changing the way someone perceives reality, their frame, you can alter their response. In the process, you’re helping them become wiser and have more choices in life.

Many thanks to Compound Writing's Sunil Suri, Matthew Vere, Art Lapinsch, Aymoide Ofulue and Grant Nice for editing early drafts of this essay.