Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen
NLP can be described as the structure of subjective reality. In other words, NLP focuses not on the physical phenomena themselves but rather how people perceive them and take meaning from them. The key presupposition of NLP is: The Map is Not the Territory. What is happening in the world is not the same as how people perceive it. It is useful to think of this presupposition in terms of our major senses such as seeing and hearing, what would be termed visual and auditory modalities in NLP terminology.
Like many languages, English makes a clear distinction between the map and the territory for the visual and auditory modalities. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the following definitions:
to see: to perceive by the eye
to watch: to keep someone or something under close observation
to hear: to perceive or apprehend by the ear
to listen: to pay attention to sound
Both sets of definition echo the distinction between the map and the territory, the difference between the physical and the psychological worlds. Hearing is the physical act of sound entering the ear and represents the territory, the “objective” world of sound waves travelling through the air, entering our ears, and eventually reaching our brain through a series of transformations. Listening is the much more subjective map. We listen or pay attention to a certain sound because we are looking for information or meaning within it because our map of the world suggests to us that that particular sound may provide information that is useful in some way.
When I was teaching a graduate class on the use of sound in language and society, the students came up with the following table to explain some of the differences between “hearing” and “listening.”
The students have effectively pointed out some of the important differences between hearing and listening and their examples echo the distinctions made in the definitions given above. We all know the difference between hearing and listening and we are all aware that listening is the way in which people use the sound in the environment around them to make sense of the world.
The interface between a person and the environment is of course, the ears. The human ear is truly an amazing piece of equipment, but what is surprising is how little we think about how to use it effectively. When you buy a new computer, telephone, or microwave over, you may have read the manual to find out all the functions and to learn how to use it in the most useful ways. Or perhaps you didn’t, and instead you played with the machine for a while to figure out how it worked. The world seems to be divided into the kind of people who read manuals and those who don’t. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, but it is nice to have a manual available so that we can refer to it if we can’t work out a function by playing. It would be nice if there was a manual for our ears. There isn’t, however, so we have to play, explore, and work it out ourselves. One of the first steps in exploring the functionality of the ears is what Scahfer (1969) and others have called earcleaning.
When we talk about earcleaning, we don’t just mean taking the wax out of your ears! We also mean paying more attention to the sounds that you hear so that you get more information from your environment. Below is a simple exercise that has been adapted from Schafer (1969) and other sources.
1. List all the sounds you can hear around you for 2~3 minutes.
2. Volume of Sounds
List sounds in order from loudest to most quiet
3. Length and Recurrence of sound
Is the sound …
Continuous （ C ）
Repeating （ R ）
Unique （ U ）
4. Locating Sounds
Draw a circle.
Inside the circle draw the sounds that you made.
Outside, draw other sounds in the direction and at the distance that you heard them.
5. Classifying Sounds
What is the source of the sound?
Made by yourself (X)
6. Moving Sounds
Is the sound …?
Moving towards you (M+)
Moving away from you (M-)
Submodalities of Sound
In NLP, we might refer to the process of earcleaning as an exploration of the submodalities of sound. The primary modalities that humans perceive are related to the five senses and are shown below, along with examples of the submodalities of each. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the concept of submodalities, the table below gives some examples.
|visual||see||size, colour or b/w, moving or still|
|auditory||hear||loud or soft, near or far|
|kinesthetic||feel||warm or cool, rough or smooth|
Submodalities of sound help us to focus on particular aspects of information within the sounds that we hear. The earcleaning exercise above was a good example of focusing on different submodalities in order to clean the ears or to raise our wareness of the richness of the information that is available to us in the sounds that we hear. While we cannot escape our maps of the world completely, describing the submodality in “objective” physical terms is an attempt to describe the territory, while describing it in “subjective” psychological terms is a recognition that each person’s map is different and that a sound will convey different meaning to each person. For example, a musician listening to a piece of music will probably receive different information to a non-musician because their maps are different. Another way to say this is that the musician and non-musician focus on different submodalities of the music and are able to draw different information from the submodalities.
In the earcleaning exercise above, some of the submodalities practiced were loudness, length and recurrence, location, type of sound, and movement of sound source. Below, I have given some other useful submodalities of sound that you can become aware of. Some of them are most useful when you are listening to non-verbal sounds or music. Others such as tonality are very useful when you are trying to raise your sensory acuity of the use of sound in speech.
- Source of sound
- Changes in volume, pitch, or other submodality
- Timbre of sound
- High or low pitch
- Mono or stereo
- Inflections in speech
- Pauses in stream of sound
- Source of voice (who?)
- Background sound or foreground sound
Have fun with your practice in identifying these submodalities in the sounds that you hear around you. Earcleaning is a good awareness-raising exercise to carry out, and it can be done easily wherever you are. Doing it at the train station, in a busy city street, in your bedroom, or sitting next to a mountain stream will all enrichen your awareness of the sounds around us and the information that we can perceive from them. What is important to remember is that the more that you practice making these distinctions, the more you will be able to use the submodalities of sound effectively in your own life and in your NLP processes.
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology
NLP Coaching and Training