The importance of being able to distinguish “talking about experience” from “talking about talk” (for therapy and lying)

In Guerin (2017), I buried a Table (3.2, see below) which I think is important—well the gist of it is.  First some foundational points:

  • All talk is about social outcomes. We do not say “cat” because there is a cat but because of what people do or have done (and therefore might do) when we say that (whether there is a cat or not)
  • We spend a huge proportion of our time in life talking rather than doing other things with the rest of the body
  • Because talk is based on social outcomes it can be perverted, imaginary, biased, obsessed, crazy sounding, dark. I might have a lovely, innocent cat but I can say “That cat is the devil incarnate”; this is because of the social outcomes for saying this and has nothing to do with the poor cat
  • A large part of our talk therefore becomes talking about other talk and this can become even way more perverted, imaginary, biased, obsessed, crazy sounding, dark
  • A lot of what we do in life is about things we say, and this can screw us up

So, it has always been important (maybe without knowing it) to learn to distinguish between talking about experiences (“Did you see what the cat just did?”) from talking about talk (“Cats are the feline species of Mammalia”).  This includes issues in therapy (“I always ruin any fun for other people I’m with”) and lying (“I did not have text with that woman”).

Both these occur because of social outcomes but they are important in life because the control over talking about talk is often difficult to observe and so very difficult to change in therapy.  This applies to both loose control (“I can be anything I want to be if I just think hard enough” “I am the King of England!”) to rigid control (“Only the Republican Party can save us” “Migrants are messing up this country!”). In so-called mental health, the first heads towards the psychoses and the second towards neuroses.  But they are both really about the social controls over language use in our social environments, not some ‘inner’ strength of ‘belief’.

There have been lots of way suggested for trying to tell these apart. A few:

  • Zen never tried to get rid of using language (it is pretty convenient stuff) but to get rid of talking about talk. Hence their nifty koans, and their sermons about people’s ‘illusions’.
  • NLP tried to deal with this by originally making the person say everything in concrete terms (grammatically correct constructions), and later by getting the person to link their talk to sensory or perceptual talk. A lot of cognitive therapies do these same tactics in other ways.
  • The CIA has a series of observational rules, and recording three or more suggests that a person is lying—that is, not talking about experience but talking about talk (Houtson, Flloyd & Carnicero, 2012); this is not foolproof, however.
  • We often talk about sensing or smelling that someone is ‘bullshitting’—that is, they are talking as if it was about experience but it is not, it is about other words only.

We need to remember, though, that what decides or controls these is the ‘power’ of the social outcomes from our audiences or language communities, not the ‘truth’ of the words or anything like that.  If I say that I ‘strongly believe’ something, that tells you about my social outcomes (maybe several and maybe contradictory outcomes). Saying I ‘believe’ something tells you that I have settled on a particular social solution to the complex social dynamics in my life.

Beliefs are said not because they are logically argued but because they have been socially negotiated, very subtly.

Finally, remember what I have called ‘strategic usurpation’. (Sneaky) people can learn all the tricks from my table and elsewhere and utilize them to make it appear as if they are talking about experience (not lying) when they are really lying.  It is very difficult to judge between these, and certainly never from a single discourse or episode.

But my main concern is not about lying but about language use with ‘mental health’ issues and the role of using abstractions too much in life.  Depressive talk is almost always talking about talk (under the guise of talking about directly experienced ‘feelings’), and likewise anxiety is talking about talk (talking about abstract ‘worries’ or future events which now seem actually real).  This does not make them any less real or painful to the recipient but their control will be from the audiences or social outcomes for talking in those ways. And that is where we must go for changing these painful conditions.  Change the social environments to change the talk.

[If you want to really judge ‘lying’ you will need more tricks (Houtson, Flloyd & Carnicero, 2012). And there is no foolproof method either, especially given strategic usurpation.]

Remember, you are not judging the truth or logic of what is said but the likely social outcomes of what is said. Who does saying this affect and how?  How have the social outcomes for talking in these ways been negotiated in this person’s life?

So, below is my Table 3.2 which could be expanded but will do for now.  Practicing the skills to recognize or differentiate between these is more important than having an exhaustive list.  Try to recognize them when you are listening to conversations.  Are they reporting their experience? Or do they just seem to be? Are they reporting words and not experiences?  Whose words might they have been which is being talked about? Where did those words come from? Who has allowed them to use those words in the past? Which of their audiences?


Table 3.2.  Tests to give you a clue that words are being used about words (behaviour which is shaped by audiences) rather than words about the real (non-word) reality (behaviour shaped by the consequences of what the world does to you, even though talking about it is not)

  • If it is abstract it is probably about a word event
  • If it is generalized it is probably about a word event
  • If it is active it is probably about a non-word event
  • If it is concrete it is probably about a non-word event but there are social strategies in which concrete verbal descriptions are used as a ploy to make it seem more real (Potter & Edwards, 1990)
  • If it is singular or specific it is probably about a non-word event
  • If you repeat the behaviour over and over, are the effects like repeatedly hitting a wall with a brick or does the repetition produce other effects, more like the effects you get from people when they are bored or exasperated?
  • There are good language methods for determining whether someone is lying (a word event) although not full-proof (Houtson, Flloyd & Carnicero, 2012)
  • If it can be easily said or can be said clearly then it is probably about a word event
  • If it makes a good story then it is probably about a word event
  • If it needs a lot of arguments rather than observations then it is probably about a word event
  • If you need to be convinced of it then it is probably about a word event
  • If the person is looking towards other people during the behaviour then it is probably about a word event; if they are looking towards the relevant environment during the behaviour then it might be about a non-word event
  • Imagine the person reporting this in front of a judge and jury; would it hold up?


A last note. Being able to talk about other words is important in life, not least for planning anything at all, humour, and imagination of all sorts. We do not want to get rid of talking about talk but track where and when it has gone wrong and when it is taking up too much of a person’s life.  More later on this.  Practice the skills and you will begin to see where and when it can be useful.


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