The Map is not the Territory – How not to give advice


If you’ve ever taken any sort of workshop with me around communication, you’ll know of a little exercise I like to do in which I ask everyone in the group to close their eyes and think of the word “HORSE”.

In fact, do that right now. Close your eyes and answer the following three questions while thinking of “HORSE”:
1. What do you see?
2. What do you hear?
3. What do you feel?

Leave a comment below with your answers. It’s a fun little exercise 🙂

I’m sure it won’t surprise you that people will have difference answers. I’ve received varied responses including:

– a beautiful white horse, galloping freely across a beach next to calm blue waters, giving a sense of confident peace…

-a black horse, in full war armour, facing an army, with feelings of anxiety of the unknown outcome…

-a simple brown horse, not moving, no sound, no feelings associated with the picture, just floating in the mind…

Now think about this, if we can’t absolutely agree on the word “HORSE”, then how can we agree on words like “happiness”, “love”, “respect”, or “success”?

Reflect on this for a moment… now let’s continue.

The reality of our own realities of life is that each and everyone of us experiences the world through a set of perceptual filters, which is based upon life experiences that have formed our unique beliefs and values. And these beliefs and values directly dictate our behaviours. In other words, our own personal realities, or how we perceive the world is a unique creation that is different from everyone else.

This is what it means when us NLP Practitioners say: “The Map is Not the Territory”.

Once you understand this model of the world, you can now begin to understand why two people may be in an intense argument even though they are making the same point and are trying to achieve the same objective. They may have the same objective but their unique approach to the issue is so different that they can’t come to terms. They are busy on arguing about the resulting behaviour without any communication of their beliefs and values that creates that behaviour, and that is wherein the problem lies and the root cause of the argument.

In order to find resolution, understanding of the others’ beliefs and values must first occur. From there on you can speak to the behaviour and perhaps offer alternative, more positive behaviours that honour the existing beliefs and values. If you can understand their beliefs and values you can now operate in their model of their world.

This is, sometimes, a very difficult thing as most people aren’t consciously aware that they are actually stuck in their own model of the world, in their own maps. They keep applying their map of the world to everything and everyone around them and so when they are asked for advice, they simply respond from the context of their own maps instead of stepping out and operating in the map of the one asking for advice. And yes, it is possible to step out of your map and into someone else’s map. It’s a skill, it takes practice for most, while some people are born with it.  Either way, it really is essential for proper communication.

Let’s apply this knowledge to real life, every day scenarios of giving advice. I belong to a number of resource groups and I always cringe when someone sends out an email to the effect of “I am challenged with such and such, and so and so is saying this and this… What should I do?”

I cringe because I know what is going to follow is a flurry of replies from individuals offering their “sincere advice” on what actions to take and how to rectify the situation. I cringe because that the advice that is going to be given is from each individuals’ own model of the world, their own experiences, and their own beliefs and values.

It’s a huge gamble because what worked for the one giving the advice may not be applicable to the person asking for advice. Perhaps, it may even cause the situation to become worse. The advice that is given is from a different map and the one giving the advice does not understand the map of the one asking for advice.

Think of your own example of a time where you were given advice and while it was solid content, it didn’t help much. I can guarantee what was missing was the lack of understanding of your unique map. That person who offered you advice was operating from their own map and asking you to apply their solutions into your map. And however sincere they may be, at the end their advice wasn’t much help. Good intentions doesn’t equal good results.

On the flip side, think of a time when you gave advice and while the same advice helped you in a similar scenario, it didn’t offer much benefit to the other person. Break it down now. Did you fully understand their map? Did you fully understand their beliefs and values? Did you fully understand the thing that was driving that behaviour or situation that needed change?

Here’s a case study for all of us. A true story that happened a few months back on a Facebook group my wife belongs to. The context is not of giving advice, but notice the cause and effect of what happens when the map isn’t understood.  And in this case not understood by both parties.

On a Facebook group for only women, a man used his wife’s Facebook account to post a message to the group. The husband was having some issues that he wanted to sort out and was looking for advice. He did not pretend he was his wife, and actually did identify himself as the husband, spoke of his problems and also commented that the reason he is using his wife’s account and posting on this private group is because his wife is always telling him what an amazing resource the group is for all its members. The result was that he received no advice at all. Instead what he received was harsh admonishment for using his wife’s account. Here was a man looking for advice and to make positive changes, but those he was seeking help from could not see past the ‘behaviour’ of using his wife’s account and posting to an all female group.  They didn’t bother to understand the beliefs which lead him to do what he did, and instead insulted him further.  At the same time, the man’s map did not incorporate the level of privacy that belongs to an all women’s resource group.  In his map, doing what he did, was not such a big deal.

I do not know the extent of damage that was done in this case.

How would you handle the situation? If the members of the group were able to step out of their own maps and into his map, would the outcome have been different?

The question you should all be now interested in is how do we effectively give advice then? Well, simply apply Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit (7 Habits of Highly successful people).

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Stop trying to offer a solution that is really meant for yourself, i.e. if you were in that situation, because it’s not about you, it’s about them. And really you will be far more effective in creating positive change if you actually do not offer a single piece of advice. Instead focus on asking better questions. Questions that allow the person asking for advice to understand the map that they are operating from within. Questions that allow them to consciously understand the beliefs and values driving the resulting behaviour. Questions that allow them to understand what is really going on. Questions that speak more to the desired result and what they must do to achieve the result.

One of my mentors, Dr. Mike Mandel, often says:

“Not only are you your own therapist, you are your best therapist”

And so the best advice you can give is really no advice but rather to ask questions that empowers the individual to self direct themselves to positive change.

For further reading and suggestions of good questions, I highly suggest the NLP Coaching Cards by Salad Seminars.

I personally use these NLP Language patterns in my one on one sessions all the time and they are beneficial for self work as well. You can get them much cheaper from Amazon here: NLP Coaching Cards

More information can be found here:

One of my favourite “NLP stories” that wonderfully showcases application of operating within the map of the person needing help is the account of the man who believed that he heard voices from electrical outlets. If that wasn’t crazy enough, he also believed that he must obey the instructions that he heard.

After many failed interventions with therapists he was eventually handed over to Bandler and Grinder (2 of the 3 founders of NLP). In their first appointment Bandler and Grinder effectively extracted the man’s map of the world and understood the two directives that drove his behaviour which simply put were:
1. Electrical outlets speak to him
2. He must obey what he hears

After the initial consultation they asked him to return the following week. When he returned they purposefully had him be the last appointment and had him wait in the empty waiting room pretending that they were running late with the previous session. Bandler and Grinder had actually set up a speaker behind an electrical outlet and using a microphone in the other room gave the following instructions:.

1. What you are hearing right now is the real voice of the electrical outlets.
2. All other voices are fake and can not be trusted.
3. This is your last communication.

Their intervention was pure genius. Where all other therapists failed they succeeded. Other therapists challenged the man’s map and tried to prove what he believes to be incorrect, false and not real. Bandler and Grinder instead operated within the man’s map, honoured his beliefs and used the rules of his own map and his own beliefs to accomplish instant and everlasting change.

This also brings up an interesting point.  It really doesn’t matter WHY we do things that we want to change, what matters is HOW we are going to do those things that we want.  But that’s another blog post for a different day 😉

I really look forward to your feedback on this post and I welcome your questions, comments and stories.

Please comment below.


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    Mohammed Sheikh

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