Behavior: What Do You Presuppose?

By Larry Wells

A branch director once lamented that her group was not doing very well and that she spent most of her time addressing problems and “putting out fires”.  Shebehavior explained that this was “Because those people (her team) are lazy!” (Note: this is called a Fundamental Attribution Error.) I suspect that the employees were not lazy but insufficiently motivated.  This leader, like many others, sometimes forgets that in business/work environments one must attend to two arenas: Task and Relationship. The first relates to activity and the second impacts motivation; the first to “what” and the second to “why”.

In days gone by, management meant getting things done through other people. In today’s world one manages projects but leads people. The bygone system created an “us vs them” atmosphere whereas today the goal is to create only a “we” atmosphere. There is only “us”. Both task and relationship matter.

This concept has been around for a while but is not always implemented, perhaps because leaders are trained only to be managers.  Promoting excellent frontline workers to supervisory positions without providing adequate training may be one of greatest problem creators of any business. The distinction between managing and leading became much clearer to me when I began training in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). When I understood and began to incorporate some of the basic presuppositions of NLP, the way I functioned in the world changed.

Presuppositions and Truth

Presuppositions do not claim to be true. They are useful and effective. There may be exceptions to their validity, but it is much more beneficial to assume from the beginning that they are true than to not do so. What follows are a few presuppositions that have proved to be very useful, effective and beneficial in interacting with others.

  • The map is not the territory. I have an internal map of reality, but it is not reality. For example: My map says that the chair in which I am sitting is solid, yet an electron microscope will show that there is more empty space in the chair than there are particles. My map has been shaped by my history and my culture and experience. It is different from yours, especially if you have come from a different culture. One is no more correct than the other. One is more useful in a particular setting than in others.
  • People act in compliance with their own internal map of reality. Another way of saying this is that people’s behavior makes sense in their map of reality. Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday could not hear God’s voice in the Bible (the word of God) but could hear messages in trees and stones. When someone behaves in what I consider to be an unusual way, I suspect they have a different internal map than I do.
  • Every behavior is appropriate in some context. This really is another way of saying the previous presupposition. However, I make this distinction: A person may have learned a behavior that worked in a specific context but is no longer useful because the context has changed. We might expect a three-year-old to throw temper tantrums. Three-year-olds do that. But it is inappropriate for a 33-year-old to throw a temper tantrum. It may not be useful or advisable to angrily respond to one’s boss or, perhaps, even to a stranger.  Of course, anti-social or psychotic behavior may be “appropriate” for some people’s map, however, the destructive nature of such behavior renders the positive intent that may be there null.
  • People tend to make the best choice available to them at the time. Not every behavioral choice is the best. But sometimes the best choice is not available. Something gets in the way of my making that choice. It may be that I don’t even know about that choice or it requires skills I do not have. Sometimes the potential consequences of the best choice seem to be more threatening than those of the second-best choice (peer pressure is an example).
  • Every behavior has some positive intent in its origin. Frequently clients come to see me to get help in changing or eliminating an unwanted or no longer useful behavior. During those sessions, they discover that the current behavior has served a once upon a time useful purpose. Often, they discover that the behavior has protected them from something. If they find a new way of being protected, giving up the unwanted behavior becomes very easy. A common experience is that many people began smoking in order to fit in with the crowd. Twenty-years later, when they no longer need to smoke to fit in, they are still smoking. By finding a more appropriate behavior for fitting in, they can much more easily become a non-smoker.
  • There are no failures, only feedback. If my behavior does not achieve the outcome I had desired, I at least discovered what that behavior did achieve. And I know that I need to try a different behavior to accomplish the desired outcome. If those I am leading are not producing the desired outcome, it may very well be that I need to change my behavior, give clearer instructions, and demonstrate the behavior. Before I learned this, if my children didn’t follow directions, I assumed they had suddenly developed a hearing problem so I said the same thing only much louder, often to no avail!

These presuppositions have proven to be exceedingly useful and effective in professional and personal relationships. I have learned that so long as “you/they” are my problem, I don’t have a solution. They have helped me to be more of a leader and less of a driver, which, in the long run is much more efficient and effective. There is much less time spent on dealing with problems and putting out fires.

About the Author

Larry Wells

Larry Wells has Master Degrees in Divinity and Social work and is a Certified Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Master Practitioner and Consultant. He is part of the part time faculty at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work, and the Northern Kentucky Social Work department. People have life difficulties because of histories, circumstances, and the fact of having to live with people. NLP has proved to be very effective in helping to positively change the way people experience those histories, circumstances and people, as well as finding more peace and joy in life.

Comments 2

  1. Great post esp. because I just had a overeat ion with my son about the phrase, “She MADE me angry.” I was trying to explain to him the wide space between her action and his reaction, which may be populated by old triggers and suppositions about her motivations.

  2. Post

    Thanks, Rachel. Anger is a secondary emotion that is in response to another emotion (frequently fear) and is always a choice (though a split-second and perhaps unconscious choice). So long as SHE can MAKE me MAD, she’s in charge and can push my buttons anytime she likes. I don’t like giving other people that power over me. I don’t know how old you son is but perhaps he can understand this concept. It might save him a lot of grief. I’m not saying anger is never a right choice. Just know that it is a choice. I’m in control of my emotions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.