The Ambiguity Myth

Ambiguity, Interpretation and Context in NLP

Look at this:

What does it mean to you?

You probably had an idea or maybe even several ideas ready. When I ask my students this question, I get a variety of responses. There are many meanings it could have – it’s ambiguous.

There are several things to consider about ambiguity.

I’ve heard a lot of people within the NLP community dogmatically repeat the statement “the unconscious mind processes every interpretation of an ambiguity.”

This is clearly nonsense. Let’s look at an everyday example to clarify this claim. You’ve all seen a sign like this at some point in your life:

'wet paint' sign

I ask you: Have you ever thought this was an instruction to wet the paint? Probably not. However, this is one of the ‘ambiguous interpretations’ I’m told that we’re supposed to process unconsciously.

Since the supposition that we process every interpretation of an ambiguous statement is patently false, I would suggest a modification:

We process every statement for the meaning it has within the context or contexts provided.

No statement or sentence exists in isolation. It’s an over-simplification to suggest an individual word must be processed in every possible way. We derive meaning from the context, the meaning presented by the surrounding language.

The true artistry in NLP-based language is to create contexts and sub-contexts for interpretation. This is how we can train people with different needs at different levels of experience within one highly structured piece of communication.

Each person will interpret the suggestions in the context they have been led to or the context most appropriate to their current frame of reference and needs.

How do you set a context? There are many ways to do this. From a purely linguistic perspective, the surrounding information creates a congruent environment or context. The sub-context can be delivered simultaneously in the form of several complementary embedded suggestions.

Getting back to our initial example:

What does it mean?

Possibly a great many things.

How about this now?

VCR symbols

It’s now easy to interpret the symbol as meaning “play” if you’re one of those who were led by the context.

It’s no longer ambiguous either. Context tends to help us resolve any ambiguity, so there is a definite skill in managing the context of your communication.

This may seem like a trivial thing to some of you, until you experience someone who presents multiple contexts masterfully within one piece of communication. At that point, ambiguity becomes useful because it is no longer a confusing barrier to understanding. It reveals multiple simultaneous messages instead.

When I train NLP, this is exactly how my communication is structured. Everyone gets the learning at different levels and in relevant contexts.

If you ever get the opportunity (as you could on our NLP Master Practitioner training) to study a well formed piece of deliberate multi-level communication, you will notice the difference between that communication and set of explicit or implicit instructions.

Bear in mind that there are more layers of complexity that permeate the communication used in NLP training and further distinctions that mark the style of training by Resourceful Change.

Experience will tell.

The Ambiguity Myth by

6 Replies to “The Ambiguity Myth”

  1. Wayne Buckhanan

    Hi Phil,

    I agree that the context sets a heavy predisposition for a certain interpretation and kudos for structuring your trainings to provide multiple levels of context at once.

    I disagree that we don’t process multiple meanings. I had never fully unpacked that presupposition, but I still agree with the original intent with some clarifications. Context definitely narrows down the transderivational search and since we are primarily lazy beings we typically take the first reasonable interpetation we become conscious of and treat that one as *the* one. That does not mean the subconscious is not running other interpretations below consciousness — for example Malcolm Gladwell’s thin slicing metaphor in Blink.

    Let me be the first to admit that we do *not* accurately know how the subconscious truly processes. We do have some working models that help set a useful context for our communications. I suspect that I am arguing this from a feeling that stealing that part of the model from those who are not at our level of expertise is unfair to them.

    How do you feel about modifying the original presupposition to:
    The subconscious processes many interpretations. Which meaning a person responds to consciously is determined almost entirely by the context of the communication and their personal history.

    P.S. Yes, I do read the ”wet paint” sign as a command — even before my NLP training. The smart arse part of me responds with ”okay, but I don’t really have to go.”

  2. docphil

    Hi Wayne,

    We may or may not process multiple meanings. One of the purposes behind this post was to clear some of the NLP dogma I hear from time to time – that we _must_ process _all_ the interpretations.

    The main point was that we rarely have any reason to run other interpretations (I suspect that context sets the parameters for sampling) and that the ‘thin slicing’ Gladwell talks about only works well when there is adequate pre-existing structure for comparison (previous experience/distinctions) i.e. a pre-existing context.

    On the other hand, ambiguity works well as a tool for setting sub-contexts in communication if there are _several_ mutually consistent instances that support the secondary meaning – a parallel context.

    So the model is intact – it’s just a more precise tool than the dogma allows for.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking comment.

    P.S. Did you ever actually go so far as to wet the paint? 🙂

  3. James Tsakalos

    Very nice piece of work there, Phil!

    I’m a big believer in not reinventing the wheel, so when I find something potentially useful for my students that has already been done quite nicely by somebody else, I like to spread the love.

    Given this, would you mind if I ever reproduced this piece as a handout? It would of course be appropriately referenced – and I may never use it, but if I did it would only be with your consent.


    James T

    • docphil

      Thanks James,

      I’ve no problem with any of this being reproduced intact with appropriate reference, so do go ahead if you want. If it helps people to better understand how their minds work (and also helps de-mystify what we do) I’m all for it.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  4. meow


    thanks for the great quality of your blog, each time i come here, i’m amazed.

  5. nursing schools

    My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.