Leadership & Organisation Development

The Map is not the Territory

The Map is not the Territory

I recently re-discovered my love of audiobooks. When I am driving or running they almost feel like a guilty pleasure to enjoy whilst wasting time sat in a traffic jam or slugging my guts up yet another hill. Lancashire is very hilly you know! (wipes sweated brow)… The map is not the territory!

This is one of the principles I have recently been reminded of in a current audiobook on NLP. “NLP is the study of the structure of subjective experience and the study of excellence. It is far more than a collection of techniques; it is a way of thinking and an attitude of curiosity, learning, and respect of others unique way of experiencing the world.” (Toby & Kate Mc Cartney:2014 The NLP Practitioner A Practitioner’s Toolkit)

The concept of, the map is not the territory refers to one of the pre-suppositions (assumptions/beliefs) of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). What is significant to understand, is that what individuals believe about reality and their awareness of the world (their map) are not reality itself or a complete picture of everything happening (the territory). Our subjective perception of reality is filtered many times by our brain and therefore two people can experience the same event differently – our map of the territory can be different, even though the territory itself was the same. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and felt it went really well, only to hear from a colleague the next day that the individual you chatted with thought the conversation was terrible? Same conversation, but two very different perceptions of how it went.

Alfred Korzybski (1993) and Gregory Bateson’s (1972, 1979) went as far as postulating that there is no such thing as “objective experience.” That due to the subjective nature of our experiences it is not possible to fully capture one absolute objective reality. A debate for another day…

The relevance of this simple but quite fundamental belief, for individuals and organisations is that we cannot assume that everyone sees, hears, feels and generally perceives the world as we do. In fact, categorically they don’t!

Therefore our approach towards our team members, our customers, and family & friends, needs to come from a base of understanding them and how they see, hear and feel the world around them. We need to be open to change and accept that our perception and awareness, is not always going to be fact. We need to ask and clarify with others to check that we have understood them and that they have understood us.

Stephen Covey has a lovely phrase “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Apart from the obvious pleasant feeling that this would give anyone – being listened to; this principle goes much deeper than simply letting someone else speak first. This principle requires active listening, it means putting the time and effort into understanding how the other person thinks and perceives reality and how this then leads them to behave in certain ways.

When we truly understand what beliefs, thoughts, and perception lie beneath people’s behaviour, often their behaviour will makes a whole lot more sense to us. You still might not agree with their behaviour, but it should make more sense to you and in this way, you begin to understand that, the map is not the territory.