House of Communication

You want to influence someone. What should you focus on? Should you focus on making your case, on the data that support your position, on laying out an airtight argument?

You do need to know your stuff, sure, but this isn’t enough. A good lens for answering this question is Michael Grinder’s House of Communication. In this post we’ll look at a simplified version of this model.

On the first floor are your “verbals”. This is WHAT you say. This is your content. This includes any arguments you make, the data you present, and whatever you may consider to be “the facts”. One of the points of this model is that all of this is just the ground floor. As body language experts Scott Rouse and Greg Hartley point out, you probably already know the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s…”.

So…what about the HOW? This gets to things like your pitch, tone, speaking speed and volume, your facial expressions, and gestures. Even your breathing is part of your body language. All of these are your “non-verbals”. These take you up to the second floor of the house. Grinder summarizes this with the acronym “VAKB”.  

Combining the first two floors, how are you “showing up”? Do your verbals and non-verbals reinforce each other? Or do they contradict each other? When what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and what you’re doing don’t seem to line up, you are “incongruent”. People will pick up on this. You won’t seem to be on the same page with yourself. What you’re showing the other person is probably a mask, and this will block real connection.

Adding the third floor, this pulls in your assumptions about what the other person thinks and believes. (Note: In Grinder’s model, which is more complex than what is presented here, this is just the “North wall” of the third floor.) Here, this is the WHY, as in why you think the other person is reacting the way she is. What do you see as her motivations and beliefs? How is she likely to filter what you say? What does she think about what you’re saying? And how do you know? After all, to the extent that you’re wrong, you’ll again be less likely to connect.

If you don’t know someone well, then you’re basing such inferences on outward appearance and some sampling of the behavior you happen to see. You then “hallucinate” the rest to fill in the gaps in your mental model. This is “mindreading”, acting like you know someone else’s thoughts and opinions. Looking at Grinder’s Circles of Humanness (below), the more you can learn about someone and approach his core, or “identity”, the more you can replace said mindreading with validated information, and the stronger you can connect.

Moving up to the fourth floor adds the concept of permission. As Grinder puts it, “Permission is who gets to talk about what, and when do they get to talk about it”. Permission can be thought of as the other person’s receptivity given: A) the content you are delivering; B) how you are delivering it; C) when you are delivering it; and D) the fact that it’s coming from you. In this way then, the fourth floor is your WHETHER, as in whether you should even try to directly influence…or find another way.

Let’s say the person you’re trying to influence is Fred, a Sales Executive about to make a funding decision related to something you’ve been researching. Should you just grab some time with Fred and lay out your case? Maybe…or maybe the two of you clashed on a previous project. Maybe you have very different roles or levels of seniority. Returning to the Circles of Humanness, maybe there is some disconnect in your styles, and the message would be better received from someone more similar to Fred.

The point is, regardless of your skill, you are not always the best person to do the influencing you would like to have happen. If Fred is going to discount whatever you say on a topic, then the soundness of your arguments is a moot point. To borrow a concept from hypnotist Igor Ledochowsky, there are two rooms on this floor. Fred is in the “No Room”. He’s not amenable to your arguments while in this room, which means you can’t argue him out of it. Facts, after all, do not influence beyond how they are emotionally tagged.

When people are in the No Room, it is a tactical error to focus on content. (You don’t have permission, remember!) If you ignore this and plow ahead, piling on more arguments, providing more reasons why your way is right, then people will only become more entrenched in the No Room. They’ll dig in. Instead, you need to focus on underlying feelings, not content. Stop asking direct questions. Use your active listening skills and pay attention to VAKB baselines (see below). Sometimes you can change people’s states. If they then move to the Yes Room, then you can focus on content again.

But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’re just not a good fit and you need to be more flexible and strategic. Then you might consider, who could be a liaison to influence on your behalf? Form a “coalition of influence” and start enlisting people. Meet with them instead. Invite them to add to your idea, bake in their concerns and contributions, and give them shared credit for the final thought product. As Joel DeLuca would put it, you should want people advocating for your position for their own reasons. Such “away-from-the-table” moves can still influence where you personally lack the permission to do so.

Of course, much of this begs the question: How can you tell if you have permission or not? The answer Grinder teaches is twofold. First, going back to the acronym “VAKB” from above, what is the normal range of the other person’s non-verbals? What are her normal expressions, vocal qualities, gestures, and breathing? And then second, notice when her non-verbals deviate from this baseline. Such deviations should flag content as important.

As Grinder notes, though, no one can pay attention to this nonstop, so you need reminders. A natural reminder is his “PT” concept, which stands for “pauses and transitions”. Learn to notice when the other person pauses and then transitions out of those pauses. At these times, when does he shift out of his baseline, talking louder, softer, blinking more, less, using bigger gestures, smaller gestures, breathing higher in his chest, etc.? That’s the cue to pay attention. You can then use your active listening skills to unpack flagged content.

In terms of the B, breathing, Grinder offers the acronym “BLIP”. This stands for “breathing level indicates permission”. If the other person is breathing high in the chest, taking short, shallow breaths, then he is likely more in fight or flight and your level of permission is lower. If breathing is low and slow, if the other person is taking longer, fuller breaths (sometimes called “belly breathing”), then he is calmer, and your level of permission is likely higher.

As always, thank you dear reader. You can read more about BLIP and permission here. You can read about using active listening skills in this post. You can learn more about focusing on feeling and not content here. And in a future post we’ll discuss the ROOF of the House of Communication as well as contrast the concepts of permission and rapport.

5 thoughts on “House of Communication

  1. As always great stuff. I feel like I got a little homework at the end there, jk. I am curious if someone will do this analysis in the age of virtual/zoom meetings. Without cameras on it is really hard to read the listener. I am wondering if there are more active ways to gauge permission. Questions that could be asked, for example.


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