Using the Power of Language to Probe Into & Build Relationships

Language and its impact

This article explores the power language holds not only in one’s life but also in the universe. It is an in-depth analysis of the use of language and the impact it has on therapy. Communication though takes forms of verbal and non-verbal communication sees humans be so helplessly reliant on words. The article looks at how reality is perceived and taken in through deep structures and surface structures. A guide on how to approach a client through the basics of NLP is also discussed with various narrowed examples

The ability of humans to communicate fundamentally occurs in two modes: verbal and nonverbal. While the languages spoken in the 21st-century world form the backbone of verbal communication, nonverbal communication involves facial expressions, pitch, tone, the loudness of voice, body language, eye movements, and appearance (Cherry, 2020). Though the ability to communicate through language is only about five thousand years old and the oldest languages include (but are not limited to) Egyptian, Tamil, Chinese and Sanskrit (Jain, 2020). With the passage of time, some languages such as Sanskrit and Hebrew have lost their common usage and now are predominantly used as liturgical languages. The original versions of scriptures belonging to Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, to name a few can be found in these liturgical languages. To contrast, the languages which stood the test of time as commonly used ones have found their way to be official languages in places far from their roots. Technology too has elevated the range and rate at which these languages are used. Now, something which was previously considered the biggest barrier in communication does not seem to be one primarily due to the rapid advancement of technology.

The role language plays today is profound. It has contributions in even the most unexpected realms of an individual’s life such as in their personality and identity development. The life experiences and memories of an individual too are closely connected with the role of language in their life. One person can have numerous identities: personal identity, religious identity, social identity, racial identity, economic identity, sexual identities, and the identity that is shaped by one’s experiences. At the centre of all therapies lies language and linguistics. Its position in therapeutic work is often one that is not given its due credit for the kind of significance it has. The role of language in therapeutic work is numerous. Building rapport is one of the most important pillars upon which successful therapy rests. This is established through the power of language. The concept of map and territory is something extremely familiar to those in the field of psychology and counselling (Rosenblum, 2011). The exploration of oneself and others is fuelled by the role communication plays in sessions. The language we use helps to communicate ideas about ourselves and the world around us through the lens with which we see.

The Power and Role of Language

During therapy sessions with clients, inducing a trance state is done with the power of language and linguistic heuristics. Permutations and combinations of the right words have the ability to induce a state of receptivity in the client. This state wherein the therapist is able to elicit involuntary responses from the client is known as a trance state. In this trance state, the subconscious mind is more active and open to stimuli from the outside world. Simply put, the trance state is one wherein the client altered states of consciousness. Other states that catalyse the receptive state and thereby the effectiveness of therapy include the attention and attention span and the ability to retain information. The changes in the receptive state are brought about involuntarily or subconsciously/unconsciously (Kumar, 2016). Language forms the crux of hypnosis or the process of the induction of a trance state.

Each language opens the portal to a separate cognitive universe. Interesting studies have been conducted on the role of language in therapy. To narrow in, a study by Rosenblum in 2011 looks into the experience of bilingual/multilingual therapists and their therapy sessions with clients who were of the same linguistic capacity. The study looked at situations where linguistic diversity was a common theme and delved deeper into such experiences. The focus of this study was on four main pillars. Firstly, it looked at the ability of the client and therapist to communicate in more than one language. This involved them having the liberty to switch languages during the course of the sessions and having no difficulty in comprehending and communicating. Secondly, it surveyed the topic of countertransference experience and the effect shared and different languages have on it. It then looked at the identity developed by the client from a tangential perspective that stems from their linguistic capabilities. The study tried to understand the relationship between language and one’s personal and professional identities. Lastly, it studied the impact of language on different aspects of training in the field of mental health practitioners. The study showed that in reality, clients and therapists who were bilingual or multilingual did engage in language switching over the course of their sessions. Experiences that stem from the essence of countertransference too surfaced in the context of multiple languages. These experiences of countertransference included numerous feelings such as that of closeness, and intimacy. Even the contrasting emotion of feeling distant was given rise to in this context. The study also found that in this context, clients were able to reflect and understand how their identity came to be, from the lens of self-experiences that pertained to their languages. Light has also been shed on how language can be used to enhance therapy sessions through integrative approaches (Rosenblum, 2011).

Forms of Communication

It is a human tendency to associate communication or language almost instantaneously with verbal forms of communication. A significant portion of our mode of communication is non-verbal but we often are not consciously aware of this fact. According to experts, on a daily basis, humans do respond to numerous non-verbal cues such as gazes, eye movements, postures, pitch, tone, and loudness of voice. Even factors like how we dress, smell, tie our hair, and in general how we present ourselves has a huge impact on the image of oneself one sends out. This, therefore, explains how significant nonverbal communication is in the several forms that it assumes despite its significance be underestimated. Despite this, we so often tend to rely on words to communicate. In reality, words only take up seven per cent of all the communication we do (Yaffe, 2011). But, we are so reliant on words as though it is the only hundred per cent available to us. This makes us take a stand so as to accept communication through words or verbal communication to be the poorest form of communication. This can be considered irony at its finest.

Reality is an intangible reality, which might seem objective but is rather subjective. How an individual interprets his/her reality is heavily influenced by the lens through which they look at it. A common example that must be familiar to all is the example of a glass being “half-full” to a certain individual and it being “half-empty” to another. This proves how the same stimulus can be viewed in ways that are diametrically opposite by different individuals. Psychologists say that how this reality is perceived is shaped by numerous factors. These factors include but are not limited to the experiences, situations, and relationships one has been through in their life leading up to the point of this perception of reality. Estrada (2020) explains how one might experience their reality to be extremely real when viewed through their perceptions. However, they may not or are not usually the most factual outlooks due to it being jaded. A negative outlook or an outlook guided by fear does in no way suggest such permanence. Estrada (2020) also suggests several ways in which one can train themselves to adopt the “half-full” approach, the perception that views life more positively. Taking personal responsibility is unavoidable in the journey. Only if there is an attempt to do so, will one be able to accept themselves and not tend to blame people and circumstances for the life they manifest. Being kind and compassionate to oneself and in turn, others is also an essential step in developing a positive outlook, for it is fundamentally accepting in nature. Change is something humans as a race are resistant to. Changing this outlook towards change can be imperative in that it helps us accommodate new perspectives and possibilities, thereby opening one’s eyes to more positive possibilities. Reacting and being insensitive towards one’s own feelings and towards that of others is seemingly the easiest way to handle a situation. On the contrary, what is more, empowering is when one has the ability to ground themselves in such situations and pausing and breathing. Relating back to the lens through which individuals view themselves and their reality, gaining new perspectives and insights is often a novel yet eye-opening experience. This is where garnering any form of support or help available can prove to be useful. Discussing one’s feelings with a professional or other trusted individuals can often help one to look at the same situation from different perspectives. This can reveal vantage points that were out of one’s scope of vision and thereby make individuals more tolerant. Lastly, what can be done is to keep a lookout for trends or patterns. While the protagonist may not be able to put a finger on this trend, others can since the lens through which they are looking at the problem is not the same. In their eyes, it may not even seem like a problem. This can help people think critically since more often than not when overwhelmed, one thinks more emotionally (Estrada, 2020).

Deep Structure and Surface Structure

When a client arrives for therapy, how are they most likely to convey their situation or emotions to the psychologist? Words and verbal communication is what they would tend to rely on. However, language too has its limitations and it may not be humanly possible for an individual to make such efficient use of language so as to share their entire map with the psychologist. These very same limitations that language has could cause the information to be lost in the process of relaying it. The loss of information can take various forms such as deletions, generalisations, and distortions. Therefore a gap or rift is brought about while trying to help the psychologist attain a sense of their map. Deep structure can be understood as the map that they intend to convey to the psychologist. On the flip side, surface structure can be understood as to how the client actually ends up expressing their map to others (Shah, 2019). In simple words, it’s what is intended to be conveyed vs what is actually conveyed.

What is required in order to communicate effectively? It can therefore be inferred that loss of information can be prevented by bridging the gap between three entities: the representation of the map, the map itself, and reality. Noam Chomsky, an American linguist was the first to introduce the concept of deep structure and surface structure. He explained deep structure simply as the thought processes, ideologies, emotions, concepts and feelings that one has. Surface structure on the other hand refers to the method through which the deep structures are conveyed or represented. Surface structures primarily take the form of their choice of words and linguistic structures that they use to relay information.

As humans, on more than one occasion, one must have felt that they are not able to use the correct words to express their thoughts and feelings. Words fall short. This is an apt personal experience of deep structures and surface structures wherein the former is the thoughts and feelings to be conveyed and the latter is the words and sentences through which it is conveyed. Let us consider a simple example that can be related back to a layman’s day-to-day life. Consider the following statement: “I bought a house.” This seemingly simple statement can give rise to numerous questions that can take several forms. Some of these questions may include the following:

  1. How big is the house?

  2. Where is the house located?

  3. How much did it cost?

  4. Did you get it renovated?

  5. How are you able to afford it?

  6. Had you been planning on buying a house?

  7. What did you feel when buying the house?

  8. Are you going to be staying alone in the house?

  9. What are you going to do with the house you are currently living in? (Shah, 2019)

The possibilities of such questions are endless and these give an insight into the depth of information that may be missed out when relaying. This is where the significance of neuro-linguistic programming’s meta-model comes in. How does the meta-model work and help tide through this situation? It works by tackling the gap or rift that was discussed earlier. It works on the various forms through which information relayed is lost. It tries to bridge the gap caused by the numerous deletions, omissions, generalisations, and distortions. It helps to challenge, correct, and recover these voids that cause a dent in the process of effective communication.

NLP Communication Model

When a client comes to therapy, in some cases they are able to put a finger on the problem they are facing, what is causing it, if anyone has a role in catalysing the problem. They are even able to articulate all aspects of the issue at hand in great detail. All they might need assistance with is the technicalities on how to combat the issue. In some other cases, the client might be able to qualify and quantify their emotions but not be able to put a finger on the exact causes. For example, “I do not feel secure in the relationship I have with my boyfriend. He is extremely close to so many people and particularly girls. Whenever I ask him about it he says they’re just friends and that I am just being possessive and overprotective. I don’t know what to do. I don’t like having to doubt him either but I cannot help it. I feel helpless. I have been cheated on in the past too so this baggage does not make letting go of my current doubts easy for me. This is what I need help with.” This is an example of a client who might have a considerable amount of knowledge about their emotions, the cause, the baggage and the insecurities. To work ahead in this situation is more about equipping the client with the necessary skill set to overcome whatever is holding them back and reach their ideal reality. This might not be the case with every client. Let us consider another situation wherein all the client says is “I feel so low all the time. I feel like nobody likes me. I don’t have the motivation to get out of bed every morning.” There are no further explanations offered. The power and effectiveness of a therapy session and a psychologist lies in working with what one has.

Curiosity and the art of probing in neuro-linguistic programming or like Judy would say “curiosity is an asset”

Neuro-linguistic programming and more specifically the meta-model itself came to life as a result of curiosity of the right thinking people. The curiosity to know and understand the various possibilities, the different emotions, types of options, choices and solutions. Curiosity gave rise to NLP and therefore is at the heart of it. The state of curiosity places the psychologist in a place where a lot of questions can be asked. This helps gather as much information possible so as to understand the client’s map with minimal loss of information during relay. The state of curiosity is an extremely resourceful state and one that helps to view and look at situations through a lens that is free of judgement (Schneider, 2018). This open-mindedness is essential and extremely beneficial.

Something that must be noted at this point is that while practising curiosity, the objective must be to understand and familiarize oneself with the processes of the client. The objective must not be limited to merely gathering information or content. An attempt must be made to try and understand the thought process of the client, to understand the beliefs they hold, to understand the situations and circumstances that have resulted in them adopting such beliefs. This curiosity will also be instrumental in gaining an understanding of the client’s map. This is extremely important to take the therapy sessions forward. Understanding the map and gauging how rich or poor helps the therapist understand what they are working with and how to most effectively help their client.

Challenging limiting beliefs and opening the door to choices

What exactly is a limiting belief? NLP considers a limiting belief to be any belief or decision made about oneself or one’s model of the world. This belief as the term suggests is limiting in nature in that it holds back or limits individuals from being able to live their lives to the fullest or in the way they desire. These limiting beliefs are a reflection of the client’s inside world or map. They play an integral role in the client’s perception of the outside world and thereafter the decisions they make in any given situation. NLP believes that language and linguistic abilities provide a considerable amount of insight into one's limiting beliefs. It attributes the usage of cause and effect statements in the analysis of the presence of limiting beliefs in a client. The following cause and effect statements that one might incorporate into their language is an example of the limiting beliefs that they have:

  1. Because I am a girl, my parents don’t love me enough.

  2. Because I am not tall enough, I can never be a model.

  3. Because I don’t drink, I can never meet new people.

  4. Because I am not rich, I cannot send my kids to the best schools and colleges.

  5. Because I am not cool enough, nobody wants to be my friend .

The role of an NLP practitioner is to keep an eye out for limiting beliefs. Using the power of language, the therapist can dig deeper into the client's model of the world. With the help of various techniques used in NLP, this model can be altered to achieve the reality the clients aspires to. These techniques can also help take apart the limiting beliefs that are formed by certain causes and effects experienced in the past.

How can a therapist find and identify these limiting beliefs? This is where the NLP meta-model proves invaluable. These in-depth lists of questions can be used to gain close access to the belief system of the client. After successfully identifying the limiting beliefs, the therapist can utilise NLP’s reframing techniques to work with these beliefs (Nlp limiting belief 2018).

(Fitzpatrick, 2021) has suggested that there are certain questions that can be asked. These questions have the potential to challenge these limitations and limiting beliefs that clients face. The author encourages the reader to be more conscious about what one lets themself believe to be true. This is not just in terms of ideas relating to themselves but also pertaining to others and the world around them. Attention can be directed towards how individuals tend to describe and think about these beliefs. Some questions that can be asked to challenge these beliefs may take the form of the following:

  1. What causes this belief?

  2. What backs this belief?

  3. How does this backing substantiate the belief?

  4. Is this belief situation-specific?

  5. Is there a more constructive way to think about it?

  6. What actions need to be taken regarding this?

While challenging limiting beliefs in itself can be empowering, what is more, liberating is coming to terms with the fact that there is usually always a choice. While the options one has may not necessarily seem like an ideal choice, it still is one. Coming to terms with this idea can help the client recognise that even in situations where they feel like they only have one way out, that may not be the case in reality. Even after successfully challenging the limiting beliefs the client is facing, they might feel limited in terms of the choices they have. It is here that the therapist must help take them to the boundaries of what they believe is the truth and help them have a vision of what lies beyond. This could serve as a thrust in the right direction and could prove invaluable to the effectiveness of therapy sessions.

Working with limiting beliefs

Nikhil from Kolkata once told me, “I can never be a successful businessman. I don’t even know why I try.” Such statements only reveal the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more that is responsible for fueling such a belief. A great way to approach this is to ask, “What is that so?” This can help the client themselves think about why they hold such a belief and what serves as a basis for it. When I posed this question to him, his response was that in college, a professor of his told him that he didn’t have what it takes to be successful in the field of business. He had internalised this belief so much that it dictated his life. After the belief has been laid out, the validity of this belief can be probed. I asked him, “How does your professor saying you do not have what it takes in any way mean that you actually don’t have what it takes to be a successful businessman?”

Working with self-imposed limitations

Phrases such as “I can’t” are often an indication of a self-imposed limiting belief that might be lurking nearby. More about this limitation can be found by posing the following question: “What stops you?” Prior to answering this question the client can be seen communicating unknowingly with their non-verbal modes of communication. For example, if a client makes a statement saying that they can’t lose weight, this question can be asked. “What stops you?” This will give the client the opportunity to think about the reality of their situation and maybe even come to terms with some facts that are no so comfortable to confront.

Working with the need to adhere to rules and expectations

Claire was a young girl from Manhattan, New York. She once said to me that she felt she was a failure. When I asked her why she revealed that it was because she had a desire to chase her dreams. She explained to me how from generations, her family had been educated at Yale. She, however, had no desire to go to Yale and join the multi-million dollar family business. Her passion lay in music and that was where she personally wished to invest time and money into it. She felt that she was an anomaly for doing this. She felt a need to adhere to these dynastic rules and expectations though her heart was set on another path. That is when I asked her, “Who sets these rules? What makes you feel so compelled to follow these so-called rules?”

Working with overgeneralizations

Twenty-year-old Sarah from Delhi once came to me. “Nobody loves me”, this is what she said. This is a prime example of overgeneralization in most cases. Clients believe in something that happened in one aspect of their life with such conviction that they subconsciously make it the underlying theme of their life. I gently asked her, “Really? No one?” She thought for a moment and replied, “No I mean not no one literally, but” This moment of thought itself is so powerful as it gives the client a moment to reflect on the statement they just made. It makes them realise that sometimes overgeneralizations are more powerful than they think.

Working with goal-setting

Nineteen-year-old Dimitri from Russia was an undergraduate student. While he knew that he wanted to go to graduate school soon after graduating, the steps that he would have to take scared him. This fear caused him to procrastinate each day. The fear of having so much work to do made him do nothing at all. The first step is for the client to evaluate if they intrinsically want the said goal. If they do, the client can be asked their motivation for achieving the goal, what achieving it would bring to them, and to what extent they would go to achieve this goal. Questions can also be asked to find out if achieving this goal might cause them to lose things. This angle could potentially shine some light on why they are not being able to attempt to actualise their goal. After this step-by-step path, the client can be helped by breaking down this big goal into smaller bitesize steps so that it does not seem all so overwhelming to them.

Working with relationships

“I do so much for him/her yet they don’t seem to appreciate it.” Ever considered the possibility that this might be even remotely related to languages? More specifically, love languages. As mentioned earlier in this article, communication occurs in several forms out of which the use of words only comprises one. A fundamental problem many face in relationships is how the intention with which an action starts is not obtained in its true meaning by the recipient. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a book that discusses this in great detail. The book elaborates how love is usually expressed in one of the five following ways:

  1. Quality time

  2. Gifts

  3. Physical touch

  4. Words of affirmation

  5. Words of wisdom

The love languages each individual in the relationship understand might be different from that of their partner’s and this is usually the case. No matter how much you try in a relationship if you aren’t making an effort to “speak” your partner’s love languages, things may not improve. Incorporating this knowledge in relationships, be it romantic or not can make a world of a difference.

This article shines light on the wonder of NLP and the power of language. Having a strong foundation and grasp on linguistics, linguistic patterns and heuristics can significantly change the lens through which one communicates and perceives communicated information. The power of language is revealed through not only the way one uses it in their everyday life, but also in how one perceives it from another person. How helplessly reliant mankind is on words and language is also expressed through this article. NLP and language has it’s scope far and wide as encapsulated through the different ways in which language helps to work with different aspects of one’s life.

This article on 'Using the Power of Language to Probe Into & Build Relationships' has been contributed by Alita Maria Stephen, who is a Psychology student from State University of New York at Buffalo. She is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is under the leadership and guidance of Anil Thomas. GIRP is an Umang Foundation Trust initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

She has a passion for forensic psychology and criminal justice. She takes a keen interest in politics and international relations too. She is an avid reader who loves to travel. New knowledge is something she’s always on a constant lookout for.

Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification