MINDSET COACHING: The map is not the territory

If you train clients using what motivates you, rather than what motivates them, the results you achieve will be limited and short-lived.

Have you ever looked at someone and thought ‘Why?’ ‘Why did they wear that?’, or ‘Why would they say that?’ With training clients, it’s often ‘Why are they sabotaging themselves by not doing what I tell them?’

Your experience has a structure, and once you understand how you take in information, you can more easily recognise why no two people experience the same thing in the same way.

Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, coined my favourite psychology-based saying that 'the map is not the territory’. It explains why we get so much conflict in the world, why we may disagree with loved ones and why our clients sometimes don’t experience the levels of success we hope for.

Our ‘map’ of the world is defined by how we take in information through our perceptual filters (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory). We absorb an extraordinary amount of information on a daily basis. Most of us will have close to 60,000 thoughts each day, and of those around 70 to 80 per cent are negative. In order to not drive ourselves crazy, we delete, distort and generalise (DDG) the information, and here is where much of the problem lies.

What information we choose to ‘DDG’ forms how we see the world. It’s our map and it’s unique to us. Maps are also based on our family upbringing, socio-economic backgrounds, external environments and friends. We’re formed in our thinking patterns by age seven, imprinted by our parents, teachers and other influencers in the early developmental stages of childhood. They will have shaped our thoughts and feelings towards much of what we experience in life, and as no two childhoods are the same, you can reasonably expect that no product of those environments will share exactly the same thinking.

When we talk about the ‘territory’, we speak of reality itself. The saying refers to the idea that because we’ve formed our own outlook and views of the world, they won’t necessarily match others and none of them is reality itself – they are just our version of reality.

When you train clients through your map of the world, you’re not taking the time to seek clarification about their current mindset, expectations, values and beliefs. By not ‘seeing the world through their eyes’, your efforts as a trainer will only get limited, and probably short-term, results.

Instead of adopting a ‘just do it’ attitude with clients, it’s a good idea to keep the following in mind:

  • When you use motivational mantras and slogans, you may only be doing what works for you and not them – are their motivators the same as yours?
  • Guidance and advice falls on deaf ears if the person is not in a fit mindset to be receiving it – are they ready to change?
  • Although you may share the same language, you don’t necessarily share the same experience – what might seem a positive action to you may have negative connotations for them
  • If you think they’re ‘lazy’, maybe you haven’t asked the right questions to uncover what approach works best for them as individuals – are you trying to make your map fit theirs?

Whether it’s at work, in a relationship, or training clients, remembering that the map is not the territory is a skill that brings greater awareness to your interactions. It leads you to being more mindful of other’s experience and allows greater tailoring of your expertise.


Greg Sellar is a performance coach and serial ‘life hacker’, challenging people to change the way they think and act. With a degree in Sports Science and a Diploma in Coaching, Mentoring and Leadership, he has worked with some of the biggest names in global fitness. gregsellar.com