Deletions and Distortions

When people talk, they delete a great amount of material. It is the nature of language that not everything is said. Words and sentences emphasize certain frozen symbols related to what is being talked about. That provides ways of understanding what another person means, but it is never in itself the full story.

What is explicitly being said is the surface structure of the matter. It is what the person is most consciously aware of. There is a deeper structure that more correctly represents what is really going on. The deeper structure is probably not a set of words. It more likely consists of a set of perceptions, feelings, ideas, etc.

When the person talks, she deletes certain portions of the deeper structure. The way she deletes information tells us a great deal about what is going on in her mind. Recovering the deleted material will provide us with important keys to optimizing her situation.

A complete and well-formed description of something will include exactly what is going on, who is doing it, when and how. It will correctly identify who is cause and what exactly the circumstances are. It can often be very fruitful to challenge or inquire about the parts of the person's statements that deviate from a complete description.

These are the main categories of deletions and distortions encountered in human communication. For each deletion or distortion there is a way a facilitator can respond to recover the missing information.

1. Simple Deletion: Specifics have been omitted. The active agent or the object of the activity has been left out.

C: "I am angry"
F: "What are you angry about?", "Who are you angry at?"

C: "My business was bankrupted"
F: "Who bankrupted it?"

2. Generalized Reference: People, things, and events are generalized. No mention of what specifically it is.

C: "They don't listen to me"
F: "Who, specifically, doesn't listen?"

C: "That doesn't matter"
F: "What, specifically, is it that doesn't matter?"

3. Comparative Deletion: Giving an apparent comparison without giving the standard that is being compared to.

C: "It's better to leave"
F: "Better than what?"

C: "That is just the worst"
F: "What is it worse than?"

4. Lost Performative: The authority, source, or performer has been omitted. Value judgments without a source.

C: "It's good to be polite"
F: "Good according to who?", "Who is it good for?"

C: "It is not OK to talk back"
F: "Says who?", "Who is it not OK for?"

5. Modal Operator of Necessity: Something one should/shouldn't or must/mustn't do, that is necessary, or that one needs to do. The consequences and the exact cause and effect have been omitted.

C: "I have to take care of her"
F: "What would happen if you did?"
"What would happen if you didn't?"
"What wouldn't happen if you did?"
"What wouldn't happen if you didn't?"

6. Modal Operator of Possibility: Something that one can/can't, will/won't, could/couldn't, may/may not do. It is possible or impossible. The causation is left out.

C: "I can't get better"
F: "What stops you?"

C: "I might fail"
F: "What would cause you to fail?"

7. Cause and Effect: It is presented as if one person causes another person's condition, without specifics on how, and without anything the person can do about it. One's own causation is left out.

C: "She made me sad"
F: "How specifically did she make you sad?"
"What would happen if you didn't get sad?"
"Are there times when you don't get sad in that situation?"

C: "She has kept me from doing what I want"
F: "What specifically did she do?"
"What would happen if you did what you wanted anyway?"
"Have you ever done something you wanted?"
"You didn't do what you want because of her?"

8. Universal Quantifier: Something is generalized to being going on all the time or none of the time. Words like all, every, always, all the time, none, each, noone, just, only. The specifics and the exceptions are omitted. Counter-examples are missing.

C: "Noone ever listens to me"
F: "Noone has ever listened to you?"
"Can you think of a time when somebody did?"
"What would happen if somebody did listen to you?"

C: "Every man I have met has treated me bad"
F: "No man has ever treated you well?"
"Can you remember a time when you were treated well by a man?"

9. Unspecified Verb: general verb that doesn't say what is actually going on. Trust, love, like, support, help. The specific actions that happened or that are desired have been omitted.

C: "She doesn't like me"
F: "What does she do that tells you that?"
"How, specifically, doesn't she like you?"

C: "I need her to help me"
F: "What, specifically, do you want her to do"
"In what ways do you need help?"

10. Mind Reading: Claiming knowledge of somebody else's internal state of consciousness, or expecting somebody else to know one's own state. It is likely to be a distorted guess, or at least the specifics on how one knows have been omitted.

C: "She doesn't care about me"
F: "How do you know that?"
"What, specifically, did she do that told you that?"

C: "She knows how I feel"
F: "What did you do to tell her how you feel"
"What would tell her how you feel?"
"How do you know she knows what you feel?"

11. Nominalization: Process words (verbs) have been transformed into things (nouns). Thinking about something as a frozen thing, when really it is an ongoing action.

C: "There is not enough trust in our relationship"
F: "Who doesn't trust whom, about what, and how?"
"How would you like you to trust each other when you are relating?"

C: "I don't have enough commitment"
F: "What is it that you should be committing to that you aren't?"

The response is generally to challenge the client's incomplete communication. Not challenge in any antagonistic way, the facilitator will maintain full rapport and the best of intentions. But an alarm bell should go off in the facilitator's mind when something is deleted or distorted. She should know that something is missing and she will insist on getting it recovered if it is useful.

There is no point in challenging all deletions and distortions. They are being used all the time and it isn't necessarily important. The facilitator must be aware of what we are trying to accomplish with the current process or session. If the specific missing material is needed to complete the process successfully, it should be recovered. If it is irrelevant there is no point in challenging the omission. If the client comes in and says "It was a great week", you don't say "Great for whom? How specifically was it great? And who says that it was great?" That would serve no purpose. But if she says: "My relationship issues have broken down" then you can be confident that you will get useful material my finding out what she is referring to.

Recovering deleted material is a particularly useful technique in the beginning of a session. We need to find out what she is talking about and what is really going on. That might uncover something that tells us which technique to continue with. Or, the uncovering of deleted material might in itself be a complete process that resolves the issue.


- Recognizing and responding to each different kind of deletion or distortion

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