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
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