Are We There Yet? Maps aren’t just for road trips

NLP speaks about maps of the world, a robust collection of perceptions, beliefs, values and experiences that determine how we will perceive the world around us. Think of it this way, you have some desirable destination in mind, and you know which means of transit can get you there best. Most likely you’re not, for instance, going to San Diego from Washington D.C. (or vice versa) in your car. On the other hand, if you live in San Diego and want to visit the San Diego Zoo (a commendable choice, by the way), you wouldn’t choose an airline.

Next, you will need a map, directions to tell you how get from your house to your destination. The map is necessarily less detailed than the actual route you’ll follow. If it were an exact representation, it would be the same size as the actual path, with all the details precisely represented. That wouldn’t be very useful, now would it? I doubt it would fit in the glove box, no matter how well you folded it. And if it were one of the awesome and infinitely useful map/navigation applications, whether a dedicated device like a Garmin or an app on your smart phone, it would cease being useful almost immediately. It’s fun to scroll around on Google Street View or a like application, but imagine taking an entire trip that way. You couldn’t take your eyes off the road to see your device, and more worrisome, the inverse is also true!

Instead of a life-sized, photographic representation of the exact path, including every pebble, park bench, and gas station, you would prefer a simpler representation, wouldn’t you? An actual map has colored lines to represent streets and highways, nice little icons to represent landmarks. But looking at it, you get it, you understand what everything means, and can follow that map. That’s the point of the map, not to be reality itself, but rather a simplified, though understandable representation of it.

By the way, this is exactly what Gregory Bateson was referring to when he famously stated, “the map is not the territory”. The map is more useful to us for daily use. But it would be dangerous to believe that the map is in fact reality. There’s necessarily much more to “real life” than the bits we incorporate into our maps.

Maps aren’t just for travel. We use them all the time, and they are a great way to explain how we get from point A to B in our everyday lives. When you understand how someone constructs their mental maps, you will begin to understand them much more profoundly than you do now. By learning their maps, you subsequently learn all about their “territory”, every gas station, park bench, every pebble.

But maps go further. When you are learning about an individual, you by definition are learning about their individual maps. What happens, though, when a relationship begins? Do two people attempt to become a couple and maintain individual maps?

The short answer is yes. However think of it this way: you remain individuals, yes, but you also take on a new, shared identity. This is what we call a “Relationship Map”. Mathematically put, it means “x+y=z”, and simply put, “Two people bring one map of the world each into the relationship. While they continue to maintain those, and continue to be themselves, they also develop a new, additional identity as part of a couple. Sociologists call this an “in-group”, a shared identity between more than one person, by which we see ourselves as an “us” (as opposed to “them”, those outside our group.) I personally prefer the term, “we”, as in , “you remain ‘you’, I remain ‘me’, but in addition to that, you and I become a ‘we’.

It might sound complicated, as now there are three maps to follow. Not so. We each have our own, and we have the shared “Relationship Map”. So each person has two maps of which to be aware. And they are unlikely to be vastly different. Consider that the shared “Relationship Map” is a combination of, and in some cases a compromise between, your two individual Maps of the World. As you review your Relationship Map, you should see a lot of familiar friends there. You were a consistent contributor after all. Recall as well that we typically create these Maps of the World unconsciously. We seldom notice the various components as we add them. That’s why shared maps, while partly organic, as a couple or group becomes acquainted and navigates differences, is generally the first time notice our map-making. It can seem awkward because we’re often unaware that we’ve been doing it all our lives.

As one couple said to me not long ago, “It just shouldn’t be this hard! Isn’t this a sign that we’re not meant to be together?”They were just noticing the process of creating a shared map, and the map-making process itself seemed somehow contrived or artificial to them. Once they learned about how humans create these maps and always do, they began to appreciate that their relationship was structurally similar to their friendships. No two people can escape some kind of negotiation of a shared map if they are to be close.

True, you may have a friend and the two of you pride yourself on, as one client said, “Not giving a damn.” They were proud that they didn’t bother to negotiate differences–they just accepted one another as they are. Do you see how that itself is a map? They’ve simply not labeled the streets or the landmarks along the path. But they absolutely have a map. But I’ll wager that’s not what you’d like your marriage to be like. Or your business partnership. In both cases, I’ll bet you very much gave a damn about how you’d do things together, how you’d function, talk, do all the things you wish. Your shared map is how you will filter your environment and shared experiences and decide how to proceed. In fact, what things mean. So fear not, fellow map-maker. In fact, as you take some conscious control of what goes into your map, you ensure a much higher level of success and satisfaction.

Or you could just wing it with no plan…

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