Meaning : Context and Content


After the first two NLP premises (presuppositions) is the third one—Meaning is context dependent. This is another very basic NLP Concept. Because “The map is not the territory” and because “People respond according to their internal maps, not according to reality,” if we are to understand ourselves or others, we have to look at how the person constructs meaning and the contextual frames that they use.

Meaning is Context Dependent

This presupposition asserts that meaning both involves contexts and depends upon contexts. Conversely, meaning does not and cannot exist apart from contexts. What are these contexts? First and foremost is language. What we call a “word” or a “sentence” only makes sense when understood in its language context. For example, these words make sense within the English language context.

Then there are other contexts: interpersonal, business, religious, political, ethical, cultural, etc. Each of these contexts determines and governs the specific words, gestures, movements, behaviors, interactions, etc. that occur within them. It is the context that frames how to understand and interpret what they mean. A statement or an action in one context may mean entirely something very different in another context.

Saying "I love you!" to your father does not mean the same when saying it to your wife.

Saying, “How are you?” means something different at work, at home, in the therapy room, and at hospital’s emergency room.

For any word or action a context is require to make meaning of it. By themselves, words and actions have no meaning. The context determines how you and I frame the meaning. O'Connor and Seymour (1990), write:

"Events happen, but until we give them meaning, relate them to the rest of life, and evaluate the possible consequences, they are not important. We learn what things mean from our culture and individual upbringing." (p. 131)

Similarly, this is the point of the biblical Proverb, "As a person thinks (literally, appraises, calculates, reckons) in his soul, so he is." (Proverbs 23:7). We are meaning makers. When it comes to meaning, we invent it. We construct it. We construct it through our thinking, appraising, calcutating, reasoning, etc. It is a personal construct. And until we do this, meaning does not exist.

To say that meaning is context dependent is to say that context (the contextual frame) controls or governs meaning. That is, the context we accept determines the meaning that we attribute to something. Fundamental to NLP is the principle that we construct our internal experiences through how we use our mental processes to code and re-codeour thoughts. That’s why when you change the internal structure, you change the experience itself. This structural point of view both defines and identifies the heart of NLP. While content is important, it is secondary to the contextual framing. The contextual framing determines the meaning of the content. So when you rise above your content mapping, you begin to understand how you have structured your understandings and what’s running the show.

This explains the importance of the how question rather than the why question. When a person says, "I am depressed," we never ask why in NLP. "Why are you depressed? What is causing your depression?" Asking why will garner explanations and justifications. He will give you reasons to explain and justify the depression! That’s not a wise choice. If that experience exists, it does so due to its structure. So we ask the modeling question of how, "How do you do that?"

By asking how, you move from the content of the depression to the structural level. How are you creating the depression state? What are you picturing inside your mind? What are you saying to yourself? Asking these questions enables you to search for the process that explain the depression code. Then, once you discover the structure, you can change it.

Now while we construct meaning by framing a context (which then becomes the hidden structure behind the meaning), our meanings are not necessarily true, accurate, or even useful. We can (and do) construct stupid, irrational, and useless meanings just as readily as we create meanings that are intelligent, rational, and useful. Just because we attribute meaning to something, or create a meaningful understanding of something, does not make it so. We can be completely wrong. Further, meaning can be not only dysfunctional, but destructive.

This explains why perception is not reality. Your perception is a function of your thinking, framing, and meaning-making. It is something you have learned and just because your inner mental mapping sees something in a particular way does not make it real. Nor does it mean that it is possible to make it real. Just because you believe in some imagined fantasy does not “actualize” it. Reality is reality. Perception is our human effort to try to understand reality. And when we do there are two parts— the content of our thoughts and the framing of that content.

Content is your story, the details of what happened. Framing is how you think, your style of reasoning, and the categories you use to classify the content. Framing structures your content. The content could be my thinking about starting my business and the ups-and-downs in the early years, some of the things I tried that didn’t work, the things that did, and so on. But how do I frame it? Do I frame it as a story of upward success, every step leading to the next level of success? Do I frame it as learning to succeed through failure? Do I frame it as a struggle because it didn’t happen quickly? Do I frame it as unmitigated success because even failures led to new discoveries? Do I frame it in terms of the overall story (the big picture)? Do I frame it in terms of the many details? Do I frame it by matching what I expected? Do I frame it by mismatching and identifying everything that didn’t fit my understanding?

What NLP began with this premise, Neuro-Semantics has expanded and developed with the Meta-States model which gives us multiple ways to getting to the internal context of experiences.


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