Stupid question because I already know the answer, but have you ever sat there looking at someone thinking, “Why?”

You’re walking down the street where a mutton-dressed-as-lamb figure passes by, causing you to question, “Why did they wear that?” You’re sitting in a meeting where someone makes a moronic suggestion and you mentally roll your eyes thinking, “Why would they say that?”

Your experience has a structure. Once you understand how information is processed and where perceptual filters come from (spoiler alert: blame the parents), you’ll recognise why no two people experience the same thing in the same way.

What you see and think as being ridiculous, inappropriate and downright ‘wrong’, is the result of how you’ve experienced the world around you up to that point and not how things actually are. In essence, you’re probably as nuts as the people around you, and chances are they’re thinking something else about you as you’re smack bang in the middle of judging them. By becoming aware of how different people see the same thing, you’ll stop driving yourself crazy trying to figure out why more people aren’t like you.

Alfred Korzybski , the father of general semantics, coined my favourite psychology-based saying – ‘the map is not the territory’. It explains why the world is so messed up – why there’s so much conflict in the world, why we can’t bear most of our work colleagues and why the biggest pains in our butt are usually loved ones (read that as it’s meant!).

Our ‘map’ of the world is defined by how we absorb information through our perceptual filters (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory). We’re assaulted with an extraordinary amount of information on a daily basis. In order to not drive ourselves insane, we ‘delete, distort and generalise’ the information and that causes problems. What you choose to take out of the story, change to suit yourself and round up for the sake of time is pretty important. It creates our map of the world and it’s unique to us.

Maps are based on our family upbringing, socio-economic backgrounds, external environments and friends. We’re formed in much of our thinking patterns by age seven, imprinted by our parents, teachers and other influencers in the early developmental stages of childhood. Parents taught you money doesn’t grow on trees? You’ll always have a scarcity mentality around never having enough money. Early childhood friends called you ‘fat’? You’re in for a rough ride with the scales, convinced you’re never thin enough to succeed or be healthy. They shape our thoughts and feelings towards what we experience in life and as no two childhoods are the same, you can expect no product of those environments share exactly the same thinking.

When we talk about the ‘territory’, we speak of reality itself. The saying refers to the idea that because we’ve formed our own outlook and views of the world, they won’t match others and none of them is reality itself – they are just our version of reality. When people tell you to “get real”, they are projecting their map of the world onto yours, trying to create change that can’t happen because you’re not them. Simple as.

When you interact with others through your map of the world, you’re not taking the time to seek clarification about their current mindset, expectations, values and beliefs. By not “seeing the world through their eyes”, your efforts as a leader, manager, colleague or partner will only get limited, and short-term results.

Instead of adopting a remedial ‘just do it’ attitude with those around you, it’s a good idea to keep in mind:

  • when we use motivational mantras and slogans on our work teams or clients, we’re only doing what works for us (barely) and not them – are their motivators the same as ours?
  • giving guidance and advice is falling on deaf ears if the person is not in a growth mindset, ready to receive advice – are they ready to change? Remember, most people don’t care what you have to say, so you’ll need to tap into their thinking.
  • although we share the same language, we don’t necessarily share the same experience – what might seem positive action to us may have negative emotions for them.
  • if we’re thinking they’re not on our wavelength, maybe we haven’t asked the right questions to approach what works best for them as individuals – are we trying to make our map fit theirs?

Whether it’s at work, in a relationship, or training clients, remembering that the map is not the territory is a skill that brings greater awareness to your interactions. It leads you to being more mindful of other’s experience and allows greater tailoring of your expertise.

If you want greater empathy or feel staff morale could be boosted, get in touch to have Greg come and deliver a workshop or speak in your workplace.