NLP Practitioner – Hierarchy of ideas – Language for change

Written by Adam Sprackling

The Hierarchy of Ideas

The Hierarchy of ideas. A linguistic tool that allows the speaker to traverse the realms of abstract to specific easily and effortlessly.

Let’s get the ideas of Richard P. Feynman before we move into the NLP use of the Hierarchy of ideas.

From Richard P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, quoted in God and the New Physics, p224:

Richard Feynman

We have a way of discussing the world . . . at various hierarchies, or levels. Now I do not mean to be very precise, dividing the world into definite levels, but I will indicate, by describing a set of ideas, what I mean by hierarchies of ideas. For example, at one end we have the fundamental laws of physics. Then we invent other terms for concepts which are approximate, which have, we believe, their ultimate explanation in terms of the fundamental laws. For instance, “heat”. Heat is supposed to be jiggling, and the word for a hot thing is just the word for a mass of atoms which are jiggling. But for a while, if we are talking about heat, we sometimes forget about the atoms jiggling — just as when we talk about the glacier we do not always think of the hexagonal ice and the snowflakes which originally fell. Another example of the same thing is a salt crystal. Looked at fundamentally it is a lot of protons, neutrons, and electrons; but we have this concept “salt crystal”, which carries a whole pattern already of fundamental interactions. An idea like pressure is the same. Now if we go higher up from this, in another level we have properties of substances — like “refractive index”, how light is bent when it goes through something; or “surface tension”, the fact that water tends to pull itself together, both of which are described by numbers. I remind you that we have got to go through several laws down to find out that it is the pull of the atoms, and so on. But we still say “surface tension”, and do not always worry, when discussing surface tension, about the inner workings. On, up in the hierarchy. With the water we have waves, and we have a thing like a storm, the word “storm” which represents an enormous mass of phenomena, or a “sun spot”, or “star”, which is an accumulation of things. And it is not worth while always to think of it way back. In fact we cannot, because the higher up we go the more steps we have in between, each one of which is a little weak. We have not thought them all through yet. As we go up in this hierarchy of complexity, we get to things like muscle twitch, or nerve impulse, which is an enormously complicated thing in the physical world, involving an organization of matter in a very elaborate complexity. Then come things like “frog”. And then we go on, and we come to words and concepts like “man” and “history”, or “political expediency”, and so forth, a series of concepts which we use to understand things at an ever higher level. And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope…Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that this is a relative hierarchy. And I do not think that either end is closer to God.

And then we go on, and we come to words and concepts like “man” and “history”, or “political expediency”, and so forth, a series of concepts which we use to understand things at an ever higher level.

And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope…

Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that this is a relative hierarchy.

And I do not think that either end is closer to God.

Thank you Richard

Now let’s take more of a business angle…..

Programmers are used to moving easily up and down levels of abstraction. A directory is made up of files. Each file may have many records, each record many fields, each field many bytes. Expressions give rise to statements, grouped into functions, libraries, and then applications. The ability to operate over so many levels of abstraction is arguably one of the traits that makes us human.

Managers who can move up and down levels of abstraction will be able to use this skill easily and effectively in dealing with people, even those who are not programmers, provided they understand some simple principles. But first some terminology.

As we get more and more abstract, we deal with larger and larger chunks of data. As we get more concrete, we deal with smaller and smaller chunks of data. Imagine a hierarchy of ideas or concepts with the most abstract and all-embracing at the top and the most concrete at the bottom. When we “chunk up,” we move up the hierarchy of ideas. When we “chunk down,” we get more and more concrete.

So, starting with a person John, we might chunk up to see John as a male New Yorker, then as a New Yorker, then as an American, then as human, then as a living entity. Or we might chunk down from John and examine his face, and then his eyes, and then his left retina, then a single cell in the retina, and so on.

Chunking is a good concept for a manager to understand, because many communication difficulties involve mismatched chunk sizes. John may use smaller chunks than Adam and see Adam as vague and kind of sleep-inducing when he talks. Adam may see John as terribly boring and “caught up in detail.” In meetings, Joe may get “picky” and slow the meeting down.

As a manager, you probably need to process bigger chunks than your employees and smaller chunks than your manager. Ideally, your employees will learn that you don’t want to hear all the details of their jobs, and you will learn the same about your manager.

It is useful to be able to “chunk up” and “chunk down” when you need to improve communication. When talking to someone using bigger chunks, you can ask the question, “What, specifically?” to get more details. When talking to someone using smaller chunks, you can ask, “What is the intention of this?” or “What is this an instance of?” to encourage larger chunks.

There are many ways to chunk up and chunk down. Frequently, you can get a meeting or discussion back on track by chunking up and then chunking down a different way. We tend to differ less on the bigger-chunk items. Most people in a meeting could agree on such sweeping statements as “We want the company to succeed.” So when there is disagreement, chunking up to a place where people agree can help to defuse the tension and give everyone more context. You can then carefully chunk down, preserving agreement, to develop the details that you need to.

There are two very useful ways a manager can “chunk up” an employee. The employee’s job can be seen in the context of the team and the entire company. Something that may be undesirable or unpleasant to the employee may appear more tolerable when the employee understands its importance in the workings of the entire company. Another way of chunking up a job is to see it in the context of the employee’s career. Ask the employee where she wants to be in five or ten years. Sometimes a job that doesn’t hold a lot of attraction to an employee is a logical step on the path he really needs to travel to reach his career goals. By seeing the job that way, both you and the employee can change your attitudes toward it.

OK back to the NLP version of using the Hierarchy.

You may have heard that language can be, at one extreme, vague and general and, at the other, very specific. Language is the best way we have to communicate, but it is often extremely limited.

By understanding the limitations of language you can get a great deal more from it than by remaining in ignorance.

Between the general and the vague, and the detailed and specific, there are a number of gradations expressing things more less generally or specifically.

Just think about the statement, John is intelligent

You can wonder just what this means because when you turn to the dictionary you are referred to intelligence, where you find words like understanding and comprehension. By following understanding you find yourself back at intelligence!

Big words have a hypnotic effect because the cause us to search around in our minds trying to find some meaning, which is often difficult or impossible.

The More Abstract, the More Trancey

To start with it is better to take an example of a word such as furniture. With a great deal of agreement, we can show the levels of generality in the example below.I

{Intuitor Big Picture, Abstract—Milton Model}

The Structure of Overwhelm: Too Big Chunks

Existence

Movement

Transportation

Buses — Boats — Cars — Planes – Trains

Classes & Categories Parts

Ford Wheels — Doors

Capri Hub Caps

GT Wheel Nuts

The Structure of Nit-Picking: Chunking Down and Mismatching
Specific — Meta Model
Details
Sensor

The more Specific, the more out of Trance

The word furniture is a general word (see the diagram above). An armchair is also a general word, but it is more specific than furniture. On this continuum form general to specific, there are seats and chairs which come in the middle – they are more specific than furniture and more general than armchair.

Under seats we have chairs, settees and stools as examples of seats. These items are on the same level and additional examples of seats. Also, under chairs we have armchair and dining chair which are examples of chairs and are on the same level of general – specific.
Chunking up, chunking down and chunking across

We can take in information in chunks (often 5 to 9 chunks). A general idea is a bit chunk because it contains a lot of information and refers to many items. And a more specific word is a smaller chunk because it contains fewer examples.

When we chunk up we become more general. When we chunk down we become more specific. And when we chunk across, we keep at the same level of generality.

So from a chair, we can chunk up to a seat. And from a chair we can chunk down to armchairs. We can chunk across from a chair to a stool.

Chunking up

We can chunk up by asking:

What is a chair an example of?

What sort of thing is (a chair)?

Chunking down

We can chunk down by asking:

What is an example of (a chair)?

For instance?

Chunking across

We can chunk across by asking:

What’s is another example of (a chair)?

Illustrative conversation

She: What shall we do tonight?

He: What about going to the cinema? (This is an example of doing things, chunking down)

She: I’d rather go to the opera. (This is another example of doing things, chunking across)

He: You prefer something arty? (Chunks up to arty, which is one example of something more general than opera).

She: Yes.

He: What about the ballet? (Chunks down from arty to ballet, which is an example of arty).

Back to intelligent

You have read above about our saying that intelligent is an abstract word and very hard to experience. We then moved to examine the word furniture, because we claimed it was easier to understand. Having explained the ideas of chunking up, down and across, we now return to intelligence.

In our normal lives, we use the word intelligent, but its specific meaning depends on the speaker.Unlike the word furniture, we cannot give it a hierarchy that has a high degree of agreement.

By chunking down, we might interpret the statement John is intelligent to mean that, among other things, Bob has a good memory and John is good at reasoning.

However, we are still at a high degree of generality, even at the bottom of this diagram, so we could search for more specific examples. To understand what the speaker really means by John is intelligent, we would need to ask the speaker to supply us with some of the speaker’s examples.

So we can see that just in the use of simple linguistics, we can move/traverse from the very abstract to the ultra specific to gain rapport with as many other “universes” out there called people!

We also use this model in relationship counselling and negotiating skills on our NLP Master Practitioner Program