Updated: Nov 15, 2021
The Structure of Language – Presuppositions and Mindreads
Have you ever wondered how language affects your internal mental maps? How the structure of a sentence can cause you to create certain images, sounds and feelings? Have you ever wondered why some people are able to overcome resistance (good salespeople) and others tend to create it?
To answer these questions, I think it is useful to understand the concept of “presupposition.”
A presupposition is the part of a sentence that is assumed to be true for the sentence to make sense. In any sentence there will be elements that are stated as well as elements that are assumed. You can think of these two elements as the:
1) Surface structure.
2) Deep structure.
The surface structure is what we contemplate consciously as we try to make sense of the words. The deep structure is the part that drops right into your unconscious mind and bypasses our ability to criticize the content. How can you resist something that you cannot consciously contemplate? (sneaky hypnotists)
When using presuppositions in Hypnosis the results can appear miraculous. When you understand how to separate “surface structure” from “deep structure” you can understand that the outcome a hypnotist achieves is not miraculous but expected.
Presuppositions are not only effective in the art of influencing another person. They are also especially useful to understand in relation to our self talk. The things you are saying to yourself in your head may contain presuppositions that produce unwanted behaviour.
Can you spot the presuppositions in the following sentence? What do you have to accept as truth for the sentence to make sense?
“IF THEY KNEW HOW BAD THIS MADE HIM FEEL, THEY WOULD NOT DO IT.”
1) They did something.
2) He feels bad.
3) They do not know how bad he feels.
4) Something they did made him feel bad.
5) Knowing how bad it made him feel is what is needed to change their behaviour.
6) They know it makes him feel bad, they just do not know how bad.
It is important we do not confuse presuppositions with mindreads. A mindread is when we think we know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Or, when we think we know what another person is thinking about what we are feeling or thinking.
#6 on the above list could be a mind read or a presupposition depending on what word is emphasized in the sentence. Say the sentence out loud and put the emphasis on the word “how.”
“If they knew HOW bad this made him feel, they would not do it.” This makes it a presupposition. They know it makes him feel bad, but they do not know how bad. Now, try saying it with the emphasis on the word “bad.”
“If they knew how BAD this made him feel, they would not do it.” This makes #6 a mind read. Why? Say the sentence out loud with the emphasis on the word “bad” again and pay attention to how you feel inside. Can you hear how one simple change to tone can change the deep structure meaning? When we say the sentence in this way, we can no longer presuppose that they knew their behaviour makes him feel bad. Instead, we are mind reading. The truth is, they may not even be aware that their behaviour makes him feel bad.
(More on mindreading in a future blog.)
We can distort the reality we carry around in our heads by believing our “mindreads.” We can also create ineffective internal representations by failing to pay attention to what is presupposed in our own self talk.
These are complex topics, but you can simplify them for the purpose of getting immediate benefit by doing the following exercise.
1) Write down a sentence and try to identify all the assumptions that are in it. (presuppositions can also be understood as linguistic assumptions)
2) Identify if these assumptions are presuppositions or mindreads.
Practice doing this and before long you will begin to sort information in a way that is more useful to you. A way that is likely to produce behaviour that leads to a positive outcome. You will change your self talk so you presuppose ideas that are helpful and produce behaviour that is consistent with your goals.
You will also be more open to other people’s ideas and opinions because you will have a higher level of self awareness. An ability to questions your own mind reading tendencies while engaged in a conversation that would historically have been full of one mind read after another. You will start to ask yourself things like:
“How do I know that is what he means?”
“Has anybody ever behaved like this before and it did not mean what I am currently thinking?”
” How is my emotional state affecting my ability to remain objective?”
“Am I creating this meaning based on my desire to be right?”
“Would another person in my shoes automatically draw the same conclusion I am drawing?”
Admittedly, this is not an easy concept to grasp when you are first introduced to it. The more you practice it the easier it becomes. You may be surprised to find how much mind reading you have been doing. More importantly, you will discover the detrimental effect it has been having on your communications.
You may also find that you begin to recognize presuppositions in your self talk.
“I will be able to use this information once I understand it fully.” This presupposes that you cannot benefit from this information right now. You cannot use it at all until you understand it fully.
“I will be able to use this information more effectively when I understand it fully.” This presupposes that you can start using this information right now and that a more thorough understanding will improve your ability to use it.