What is 'Attaching Meaning'?

‘Attaching meaning’ or in strict NLP circles ‘complex equivalence’ is a common thinking pattern a lot of us fall into. In essence it is ‘this means that’ for example ‘he crossed his arms -that means he doesn’t like me’ or ‘she texted back immediately - that means she’s super keen” etc.

OK…and what’s wrong with doing that?!

Well…if you fall into a pattern of it, it can lead to confusion and disappointment. You’re not always going to be right – folding arms can be because someone is cold, and texting back might just spell efficiency…or a hundred other things. Imagine how many conversations have gone on in order to attach meaning to the frequency or speed of return texts?!

For performers this attached meaning is a common trap. They are regularly put up against a panel from whom they get no verbal feedback – only the twitch of a pencil or the raising of an eyebrow. What does this mean?! Have I got the job?

This week we ran a competition for our audition workshop and the entrants were requested to send us their worst audition ever story. The results were astonishing – we had casting directors asking their dogs what they thought, co-performers who brought their own whips(!) and a lot of performers who had all but been given the job by casting directors only to hear nothing. Imagine attaching a meaning to all of that – ‘the dog didn’t seem to like me, I’ll probably never work again’, ‘I really thought the whipping worked in my favour, the casting director was scribbling away’ etc.! This searching for meaning can either end in disappointment, a knock to the confidence or at best a wasted week of worrying. 

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Oh dear…I attach meaning all the time….what should I do?
  • The first step is to notice it – and having read this, you probably will.
  • Then question it – does this really mean that? Or am I guessing? What else could be? And how valuable is guessing?
  • Then forget it. Find something else to do that isn’t deciding what things mean. 
  • There is one alternative…and this might be dangerous (but can definitely highlight how wrong you might have got your attached meaning)…ask them! Can I have some feedback (because I really thought it was in the bag because you smiled at me when I came in and when I left?). 
  • There can be a hundred reasons for not getting a job, and many of them are completely out of your control. What’s great is when you know you’ve done a good job, and that’s all that matters.

If you'd like to find out more, I am running a one day workshop for performers called 'SMASH IT" with another Canary Coach and Director, Tim O'Hara.

For more details see:

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 “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (possibly Einstein, definitely someone sensible).

When I see parents and children and teenagers, we often discover that their relationships contain several loops – behavioural and verbal patterns that play out the same way every time the ‘triggering’ behaviour starts. These loops can escalate and become worse each time they happen, due to the frustration of each party at not getting what they want. 

This is compounded by the fact that parents (often without knowing it) are repeating the parenting patterns of their own parents – so aren’t in fact acting out of choice, but more automatically going down the path that comes most naturally. 

In addition, as the parent, you may believe that you are absolutely in the right, and that it’s the child who should change. You might be waiting a long time. For a happier family life, if you are stuck in some behavioural loops, it is up to you to be the bigger person (not just in terms of size!), and use some other options. 

What does a loop look like?

An example I’ve looked at with an 8 year old boy recently:

Parent: (Standing in the doorway) It’s time to do your homework. 
Child: No. Don’t want to. 
Parent: DO YOUR HOMEWORK NOW!
Child: (silence, carries on playing with his computer game)
Parent: (grabs child) LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU. IF YOU DON’T DO YOUR HOMEWORK, THEN YOU’RE GROUNDED – NO PLAY TIME THIS WEEK. 
Child: (starts to cry, upset by the shouting) 
Parent: (feeling guilty because the child is crying, is at a loss, forgets about original aim and attempts to stop the crying) Look how about we get some squash and a biscuit and see what daddy’s doing?

The structure of the above is as follows: 

1.       Parent tells child to do behaviour
2.       Child refuses
3.       Parent shouts
4.       Child cries
5.       Parent feels guilty and gives up 


NLP is all about creating options and choices where you might not originally see any. What options does the parent have in this scenario and where do they come? Here are a few for starters – I’m sure there are many more...
  • Get down on a level with the child and talk to him rather than at him.
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  • Give the child an ‘option’  - “do you want to play for five more minutes and then do your homework, or would you rather do your homework now and play again before bed”.
  • Engage the child in a discussion and build rapport before asking them to do something – chat about their day...then lead on to ‘what homework have you got’...’oh, right, and when do you want to do that?’
  • The child is clearly in the middle of something. Find out what it is and how long it takes - get involved, then you'll be more informed as to when a good 'homework break' would be.
  • Avoid shouting, level with the child...’ok, so if you don’t do it what will happen?’
Using one or more of these options would likely break the loop and elicit a different behaviour. You might find that the young person is so used to the loop behaviour, he’s stunned into doing what you want!

Top Tips
  •  Keep a diary of the ‘regular’ arguments or difficulties you have with your child. Take some time out to reflect on how each scenario plays out. How could you react differently to achieve a different result. 
  • If you can’t think of any other ways of behaving, imagine how someone you admire would handle it – perhaps even a favourite comedian! Often bringing humour or something unexpected into these loops can completely diffuse a situation.
  • Give the child a choice which presumes that the behaviour that you need to happen will happen. “Do you want to get dressed first, or have your breakfast first?” “Would you like to sit next to me at the table, or your father?” This takes the wind out of a direct order and enables the child to feel like part of the decision making process. 
  • Get on the same level as the child when interacting with them. 
  • Focus on the behaviour you do want, rather than what you don’t. 

NLP coaching can help both parents and children cope with unhelpful loops.


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