The Structure of Meaning

Meaning has to do with the intention or significance of a message or experience. The term, from the Middle English menen (Old English maenan), is akin to Old High German meinen, which meant "to have in mind." Thus, meaning relates to the inner representations or experiences that are associated with external cues and events.

NLP processes and models, such as those characterized by Sleight of Mouth, were developed to explore and discover "how" we symbolize, signify or represent experiential data, and how we interpret or give that data inner significance in our maps of the world—in other words, how we make "meaning." From the NLP perspective, meaning is a function of the relationship between "map and territory." Different maps of the world will produce different inner meanings for the same experiential territory. The same incident or experience in the external world will take on different meanings or significance to different individuals, or different cultures, depending on their internal maps. Having a lot of money, for instance, may be looked upon as "success" for some people, but a "risk" or a "burden" by others. As another example, belching, in an Arabic culture, typically signifies, "thanks for the satisfying meal." In other cultures, however, it may mean that the person is suffering from indigestion, is unmannered, or rude.

All animals have the ability to create codes and maps of the world and to give meaning to their experience of these maps. Meaning is the natural consequence of interpreting our experience. What meaning we make and how we make it is connected with the richness and flexibility of our internal representations of the world. A limited map of an experience will most likely produce a limited meaning. NLP emphasizes the importance of exploring different perspectives and levels of experience in order to create the possibility of discovering different potential meanings with respect to a situation or experience.

Because meaning is a function of our internal representations of our experience, altering those internal representations can alter the meaning an experience has for us. Sensory representations constitute the 'deep structure' of our language. Feeling "success" is a different experience than visualizing it or talking about it. Shifting the color, tone, intensity, amount of movement, etc., (the "submodality" qualities) of internal representations can also alter the meaning and impact of a particular experience.

Meaning is also greatly influenced by context. The same communication or behavior will take on different meanings in different contexts. We will respond differently if we see someone apparently shot or stabbed on the stage of a theater, than if we see the same behavior in the alley behind the theater. Thus, perception of context and contextual cues is an important aspect of the ability to make meaning of a message or event.

The mental frames we place around our perception of a situation, message, or event serves as a type of internally generated context for our experience. Perceiving a situation from a "problem frame," will focus our attention on certain aspects of that situation, and attach different meanings to events, than if we perceive the same situation from an "outcome frame" or a "feedback versus failure frame." Assumptions about the intent behind a behavior or communication also create a type of frame that influences the way in which they are interpreted. This is what makes the NLP processes of Framing and Reframing such powerful tools with which to transform the meaning of a situation or experience.

Another influence on meaning is the medium or channel through which a message or experience is received or perceived. A spoken word will trigger different types of meaning than a visual symbol, a touch or a smell. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan claimed that the medium through which a particular message was transmitted had more impact on how that message was received and interpreted than the message itself.

Thus, the way a person makes meaning of a communication is largely determined by the para-messages and meta messages that accompany that communication. Non verbal "meta messages" are like guides and markers on transmitted messages which tell us how to interpret a message in order to give it the appropriate meaning. The same words, said with different intonation and voice stress patterns, will take on different meaning (i.e., there is a difference between "No?", "No.", and "No!").

One of the fundamental principles of NLP is that the meaning of a communication, to the receiver, is the response it elicits in that receiver, regardless of the intention of the communicator. There is a classic example of a medieval castle that was under siege by foreign troops. As the siege went on, the people within the castle began to run out of food. Determined not to give up, they decided to show their defiance by putting every last bit of their food in a basket and catapulting it over the wall at troops outside. When the foreign soldiers, who were also getting low on supplies, saw the food, they interpreted it to mean that the people in the castle had so much food that they were throwing it at the soldiers to taunt them. To the surprise of the people in the castle, the troops, who had become disheartened by their interpretation of the message, abruptly abandoned the siege and left.

Fundamentally, meaning is a product of our values and beliefs. It relates to the question, "Why?" The messages, events and experiences that we find most "meaningful" are those which are most connected to our core values (safety, survival, growth, etc.). Beliefs relating to cause-and-effect and the connection between perceived events and our values largely determine the meaning we give to those perceived events. Altering beliefs and values can immediately change the meaning of our life experiences. Sleight of Mouth Patterns operate to shift the meaning of events and experiences by updating or altering the values and beliefs associated with them.

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