The Psycholinguistics of Success

Written by Ralph Watson.

Twenty-five years in a corporate career, followed by twenty years of running my own business as a professional coach, speaker and NLP trainer have taught me a great many lessons. Chief among those lessons, and one that has hit home more and more on my journey from NLP newbie to Master Trainer, is the power of language; power to do great good and, of course, not-so-good.

Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics are both branches of the study of language, how we create it and how it affects us at a psychological level. I’ve been fascinated by this, initially from a business perspective – negotiating, coaching, training and speaking – and then, of course, at a holistic level.

Language, both verbal and non-verbal, are critical if we wish to achieve positive outcomes at any level, whether in a business or personal setting. In this short piece, I’d like to share some thoughts on verbal communication. Let’s begin by looking at the communication process from the “inside.”

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a meeting. It could be a business, social or even family setting. Presupposing that all those sitting around you are in full possession of all their physical faculties (sight, hearing, speech), there is an unconscious process running in the mind of each person. That process goes something like this:

All of the senses are used to take in everything that’s going on – speech, gestures, movements, expressions, surrounding ambient sounds, temperature, sights etc. So, five senses on full alert and taking in (according to many specialists) over two million bits of information in every second. Yes, I said TWO MILLION. That is far too much for us to process at a conscious level. In fact, we can consciously only process less than TEN bits so the vast majority of the communication AND everything else is being “filtered” at an unconscious level. And that, right there, is where things can go awry.

The first filter to impact is “Words and Language.” The words that we use have meaning specific to US and not necessarily the same meaning to others. For example, take the word “education.” When I recently asked a group of ten people to write down the three things that this simple everyday word meant to them, I got a range of answers and no one answer common to all ten. So many misunderstandings and even confrontations are caused by individual interpretation.

Our second filter is created by our beliefs. These are things we hold to be true about ourselves, others or the world in general and often based on personal experience or what I call “third party experience” – media reports, word of mouth etc. They are, all too often, gross generalisations and we all have the capacity to do it. I used to hear comments like, “Well, you would say that; you’re a salesman and all salesmen lie.” A belief that filters communication and causes the listener to make an unuseful assumption.

Next comes the deeper filter of our personal Values. Since our Values drive pretty much all of our behaviour, they are often “languaged” in our communication and will also filter what we see and hear. Have you ever had a conversation with somebody and felt uncomfortable because of something they’ve said, or the way in which they’ve said it? That is often because they’ve said something that has conflicted with one of our Values – often at a very subtle level.

Add to this cocktail our individual “perception filters” (referred to in the world of NLP as Meta Programmes) of which there are many, and you can see that a simple conversation can be a real minefield.

So, how do we navigate our way through that minefield? Here are a few tips that may be helpful:

  1. People are different. That’s a fact. They have different beliefs, experiences, opinions, hopes and fears. They have their own “model of the world” and respecting that fact, accepting them for what they are, is a big step in the right direction. My favourite saying there is, “he’s not mad, sad, bad or broken. He’s just different to me.”
  2. Listen with the intention of understanding and not simply so you can respond. If necessary, ask questions in order to ensure clarity.
  3. Accept responsibility for your communication and their understanding. It’s YOUR job to help them understand what you mean and not to simply throw it out there and make it their responsibility to unpick your meaning.
  4. People are who they are in the moment and so current personal experiences may impact on their behaviour and their filters. In other words, a bad experience may cause them to filter your words in an unuseful way. So, be doubly watchful.
  5. There is no substitute for “clean” language. By this I mean self-editing your own language. Use words like BUT, TRY and DON’T only as appropriate because they have a very real impact on the listener at an unconscious level:
    – “BUT” is deletive and will very effectively erase anything that comes before it. How many times have you heard a person say something like, “well, that’s a good idea BUT . . . . . .”?
    – “TRY” carries a presupposition of failure. Ask somebody to “try” and you give them permission not to succeed. Say what you want to happen.
    – “DON’T” is a command that the mind cannot process. Ever heard that old chestnut, “Don’t look now . . . .”? What happens? The temptation to look becomes almost overwhelming. That’s because our brain has to process the command and not the negative.

So, something you can begin right now is to listen to yourself and edit your own language.

Relationships are about communication. Business is about communication. LIFE is about communication. Communication is about language and its interpretation.

I wish you joy with yours.

Ralph Watson is an international coach and Master Trainer of NLP with a fascination for communication excellence. This comes through in his keynote talks, trainings and, of course, his NLP training programmes. You can learn more about Ralph and his work at