It was Alford Korzybski that stated, “A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” What this means is that our perception of reality is not reality itself but our own version of it, or our “map”.
Every second of the day, we receive millions of bits of information, but only 7 plus or minus 2 bits gets consciously registered. We all have a different perception of reality, everything that happens; every encounter, every conversation. However, not only is our conscious awareness limited, but we filter every experience through our own learned behaviours, experiences, beliefs, values, interests and states.
A good example of this would be the extremely different evaluation by people of political events. We are mostly receiving the same information, but we all have our own agenda and views (or perceptions) of the reality.
Left to their own devices, our brains will accept whatever maps we give them and will use them again and again. However, the brain can be fairly lazy organ, preferring to use the same old maps, regardless of the territory. As a result, people sometimes get turned around, don’t recognise the barriers, become lost, and become unhappy. No map is ever completely true. Maps can become outdated so, although resourceful at one stage in our lives, they can become limiting at another stage.
It is the same as if your Sat Nav never updated itself – you’d sort of muddle along, but it would be infuriating/embarrassing at times as you went the wrong way down one way streets, drove into cul de sacs and found your way barred by roadworks or new buildings.
So often issues arise when people assume that the person/people they have been talking to or working with are working to the same map – and often issues will arise because we overlay our map onto those in the same territory. How often have heard (or had a story retold to you where someone has said) “why didn’t they realise that? But surely you knew that from our conversation?!” Or from someone who didn’t recognise your map: “why would you DO that?!” from people who have been making assumptions about your thinking, based on their OWN understanding.
What is your map of leadership? teamwork? parenthood? Europe? You can guarantee that it’s not the same as the next person’s. And people act differently when put in new circumstances. Nothing exists in isolation; everything we do and think is affected by our surrounding conditions. You might appear ignorant when discussing neuroscience with a neurologist, but seem like a genius when discussing it with your friends who know nothing about it.
A real example of this is when recently coached a manager who has been managed out of previous jobs, without understanding either why that was or what their role had been in that. It soon became apparent in the coaching that she was using the same road map and looked to be heading for another collision. We did some work so that she came to understand her colleagues’ perceptual positions. As her confusion between her map and other people’s realities began to lift, she started to make significant changes to her direction of travel. This enabled her to continue her journey safely, avoiding the same obstacles, and to make great strides in self-confidence.
So, remember when you are reading a map:
- No map is 100% accurate.
- No two maps are the same. Everyone creates their own maps, each is unique and no two are the same. (One politician is not the same as another politician, just because they are politicians.)
- We react to our own map, not reality. Our maps are affected by our own interpretation about what is happening – one person’s truth can be another person’s treachery
- Our territory is constantly changing, so don’t overlay what is happening today with what happened yesterday. After all, the surroundings were different and everyone else was using different maps. Just because your confidence was knocked yesterday, doesn’t mean that you’re not going to achieve great things today.
- Life will be easier if you try to understand other people’s maps. Try to put yourself in their shoes – what’s going on for them? What do they know that you don’t? And, my favourite, what is their positive intent?
I have an existential map, it has ‘you are here’ written all over it – Steven Wright