Multiple Layers Of Communication
My new friend Dave and I were standing near a pond, on the grounds of a hotel in Sedona, Arizona. The Koi in that pond were well fed, and had no enemies. They had gotten huge. My friend saw one and exclaimed, “Holy mackerel!”
As humans, we communicate on lots of levels, all at once. When we’re talking to someone, we may focus on the words they say, but that’s just one comm channel. There are also the tone of voice, rate of speech, inflection, body language, the metaphors we relate, and a lot more.
What we communicate can reveal a lot about what’s going on in our minds — whether we want to reveal it, or not. And if we’re not congruent in all channels, it can dramatically reduce the power of our communication.
Look at it this way. Let’s look at your communication channels like a team of dogs on a dog sled. What happens if the dogs are not all going the same direction? What happens if they’re all pulling together?
In other words, if you want to be an effective communicator or therapist, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re sending the same message in as many channels as you can. How do you do that? And what do Koi have to do with it?
Congruent, Multi-Level Communication
Let’s take embedded suggestions, as an example. Embedded suggestions are suggestions that are parts of our speech that we mark out in one way or another. For instance, we might say the sentence, “If you feel you can learn this quickly, good. If not, we have methods to help you absorb the information thoroughly.”
We can emphasize certain words, in the following manner . . .
“If you feel you can learn this quickly, good. If not, we have methods to help you absorb the information thoroughly.”
If you’re like most people, italicized words sound different in the voice inside your head 🙂
We’ve marked out the words ‘learn this quickly’, and ‘absorb the information’. If we’re teaching a class when we say these things, those statements are congruent (in line) with the goals of the class. If we keep up the consistent pattern of tonality, the unconscious may pick up on it, and take those hidden messages as a separate communication. It’s kind of like a secret code.
We can use embedded suggestions in therapy, and we can also listen to other people’s embedded suggestions to learn more about the way their minds are structured. Yeah, that’s right — people embed suggestions whether they’re aware of them or not.
Tone & Congruence
Your voice tone is another way to communicate something. In general, in my culture, an upward sloping tone conveys doubt, or a question. Ask a question, out loud, and notice what your voice does at the end of the sentence. “Are you going camping this weekend?” Your voice probably slopes upward at the end of the sentence.
Now, say something factual. “The chair is sitting on the floor.” Notice how the tone is more flat, and matter-of-fact, or slopes downward.
What does it sound like when you’re doubtful? Sure? What are the qualities of your voice when you really, really believe something. It’s good to have skill in producing these tones of voice, at will.
Now, let’s mix it up. Use the belief tone while asking a question. “Can you overcome this quickly?” Now mark the words “overcome this quickly” by pausing a tiny bit before you say them, as well as using the ‘belief inflection’ just on those words. If you’re a therapist, this embedded suggestion may be in line with the client’s goals for the session.
What About Metaphor?
There is a lot to creating healing metaphors. A good start would be to have the structure of your metaphors to match what you want to have happen in a session. If you’re working with a client who you think would benefit from a different perspective on something, tell a metaphor in which a character gets a different perspective and it helps them overcome something.
Metaphors, idioms, similes, and expressions, all reveal something about the person who uses them, too. In some cases, it goes right down to what images they’re making in their heads. So, what does any of this have to do with koi?
The Mind As A Relational Database & Why Metaphor Works
Metaphor works because the mind understands things through association, and relationship. If you tell me you’re facing a difficulty, and I tell an inspirational story about someone overcoming a difficulty, you understand what it means. I mean for you to do the same.
Let’s say you tell me you want to stop biting your nails. I tell you a story about my friend Grace, who stopped biting her nails. You understand that story is to help you stop. But it might be a bit too obvious. You (or a client) might have a belief that you can’t accomplish that goal because of some inherent lack of ability, or perhaps your situation is different enough from the role model in the story that you have a ‘but’. “But Grace is younger than I am, and it’s easier to break habits when you’re younger.”
That’s what we call resistance, folks.
The way we bypass resistance is to tell a story that’s related enough to trigger the unconscious associations, but perhaps not so obvious for conscious resistance to kick in.
When Dave said “Holy mackerel”, he didn’t think anything of using that specific exclamation. But my guess is that he hadn’t used that phrase in 15 years. So, why did he use it? It was an unconscious association.
What do Koi and mackerel have in common? Obviously, they’re both fish. When he saw a fish, unconscious associations related to fish were activated. That’s why, when his mind went to grab an expression of surprise, it grabbed “Holy mackerel”.
It’s kind of like the mind is a relational database. When a subject comes up, or we sense anything, our mind comes up with similar experiences for us — things that are related. That’s how, when we walk up to a door we’ve never seen before, we know it’s a door. Our mind goes, “This looks a lot like other doors I’ve seen, I’d guess it works the same way.”
So, what unconscious associations do we want to activate with our metaphors? The ones that help us help the clients to reach their goals! So, a healing metaphor’s job is to elicit healing associations and patterns. You dig?
Just a quick Milton Erickson example. He went to see a stroke patient, and talked about all the road construction and repair he ran into on the way to the hospital. He talked about rerouting traffic, and that things were slowed down and inconvenient at the moment. People would have to learn new paths. However, the repair work was progressing rapidly. Soon many of the roads would be repaired, the traffic could flow quickly, and there might even be some new routes to enjoy.
Now, that metaphor was meant to trigger associations to re-routing, repair, and eventually, returning to full function. That’s exactly what the stroke patient needed to do internally — reroute the brain’s traffic signals, repair things, learn new routes, etc. Road rebuilding and repair was a metaphor for brain rebuilding and repair.
Wanna bet there were a few embedded suggestions in there too? “The workers are able to improve things quickly.” In other words, Erickson was communicating congruently, and all of it was pointed toward the patient’s healing. His metaphors, his body language, his tonality were all pointed the same way. That’s my guess, anyway.
Metaphor, voice tone, and embedded suggestions are just a few things to check to make sure your communication is as congruent and effective as possible. What other ways can you think of?