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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group 28 February 2009

Attending to Salience

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

For awhile now we have been self-modelling what we pay attention to in a client session that: (1) guides our line of questioning, and (2) gives the session its sense of directional flow. We call this process:

Attending to / selecting for / sorting for
salience /significance / importance / relevance / what is fundamental.

Before reading our thoughts, we ask you to consider:

What are you calibrating in your client's response to:
- Your question and behaviour
- Their interior world
- External in-the-moment events
that guides where you direct their attention?

Below we have provided a few definitions and ideas about salience and how it relates to facilitation.

Definitions of Salience

The Oxford American Dictionary gives the following definitions:

Salient (from Latin salire, 'leaping')
- most noticeable or important
- jutting or pointing outward

Significant (from Latin significare, 'indicate, portend')
- the quality of being worthy of attention; importance

Important (from Latin important, 'being of consequence')
- the state or fact of being of great significance or value

Relevant (from Latin relevare, 'raising up')
- closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand

Fundamental (from Latin fundare, 'to found')
- forming a necessary base or core; of central importance
- affecting or relating to the essential nature of something
- the crucial point about an issue

Other words which have a similar meaning:

import, consequence, gravity, weight, magnitude, momentousness

meaning, sense, signification, thrust, drift, gist, message, essence, substance

pertinent, applicable, apposite, material, apropos, to the point, germane; connected, linked

basic, underlying, core, foundational, rudimentary, elemental, elementary, basal, root; primary, prime, cardinal, first, principal, chief, key, central, vital, essential, important, indispensable, necessary, crucial, pivotal, critical; structural, organic, constitutional, inherent, intrinsic.

Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality uses levels to distinguish between 'significant' and 'fundamental': the higher the level the more significant; the lower the level, the more fundamental: "More significant ... because more of the universe is reflected or embraced in that particular wholeness ... More fundamental, because everything above it depends upon it for its existence" (p. 63).

While we like this distinction, in this context it is not the differences between the definitions that matter, but what they are all pointing to. They all say that some aspects of an event, interaction or conversation stand out as worthy of attention because they have more meaning, consequence or significance. 'Attending to salience' is our catch-all phrase for a variety of processes that enable someone to recognise significance, importance, relevance and what is fundamental in themselves or others. We chose 'salience' since it has an equivalent meaning in studies of perception and neurology, and because it is less commonly used than the other words; and 'attending to' because it captures the relational nature of the perceiver and perceived in the process of becoming aware.

Signal-to-noise ratio

A related concept is the signal-to-noise ratio. This is an electrical engineering term which compares the level of a desired signal (such as music) to the level of background noise (such as hiss). The higher the ratio, the less obtrusive is the background noise. Informally, 'signal-to-noise ratio' refers to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data. Wikipedia, for example, recognised that its signal (useful information) can get lost in the noise (tittle-tattle, misinformation) so it now permits particular users to 'moderate' some content as a way of amplifying the signal and removing noise.

Neurological signals of salience

In In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2007) Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist Eric R. Kandel explains that neurological "signals of salience" are required for the brain to function and are intimately connected to "attention" - but in two different ways. Because signals of salience do not exist 'out there' independent of our mind, we need our memory to tell us what is salient and therefore what to pay attention to. And, a key factor in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory is whether a signal of salience is perceived consciously or not. (For more on this topic see our article The Neurobiology of Space.)

There is a systemic chicken and egg loop operating here. Signals of salience get our attention and are needed in the conversion to long-term memory. But how did we know something was salient? Because it was already in our memory! This is typical of the bottom-up emergent way the brain learns and operates.

How do clients signal salience?

To indicate the extraordinary, a client has to make it stand out from the mundane. This is usually done at varying degrees below awareness. Clients commonly do this by:

Establishing a signal through:

Shifting from an established pattern, e.g. they:
  • Show unusual affect (external signs of emotion)
  • Suddenly become very still - or vice versa
  • Switch from regularly using one representational system (what we call a metaphor for a means of perceiving)
  • Switch to a new type of language: sensory, conceptual, symbolic
  • Shift to a different level (e.g. go meta, or move to a pattern level after lots of detail - or vice versa )
  • Shift to an apparent irrelevance. This can suggest that what happened just before was very relevant!

Logical inference:
  • Related to their desired outcome
  • A gap in the logic (e.g. in a sequence)
  • Strange or ill-defined causal relationships between things ('illogical' logic)
  • Multiple indirect pointing to something
  • Logical consequence

The presence of salience is a higher-level form of what Gregory Bateson called "news of difference". Last year we examined Maximising Serendipity and 'signals for potential'. To our mind these signals are one way the facilitator knows what is potentially salient and therefore where to direct the client's attention.

Kandel suggests attending to salient features is "a determining factor in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory." From this we infer that inviting clients to voluntarily attend to, and maintain attention on salient features is a determining factor in encouraging changes that happen in the session to become long-term memories which are then involuntarily (i.e. unconsciously) "recruited" when needed in the future.

Different therapies have different ideas about what constitutes 'salience'. In almost all cases these are pre-determined from the therapist viewpoint. TA has ego states, games and drivers. NLP plumps for internal representations, strategies, linguistic patterns and Well-formed Outcomes. Symbolic Modelling values metaphors, binding patterns and idiosyncrasies. However, in the noise generated by the therapist's own model of the world, salience - from the viewpoint of client's whole system - can be undervalued.

Non-recognition of salience

Kandel points out that some important stimuli are not automatically perceived as salient. We have noticed that, commonly, the following events and processes do not automatically recruit voluntary attention:

In the beginning many clients (and groups) are unable to distinguish salient signals from the noise of their story for a number of reasons:
  • Unwittingly they are continually creating so much noise (feelings, sounds, words, images, and thoughts) that these 'mask' other signals
  • They are captivated by the detail and so can't see the patterns
  • They don't know what to look for or how to go about it finding it
  • They mislabel the subtle signals of salience
  • Their internal signals are often drowned out by their perception of the scale of external dramas or to more pressing internal signals (e.g. strong emotions and urges, big bright fast moving images, loud internal dialogue, etc.)

This suggests another role for us as Symbolic Modelling facilitators. We can pay attention to what the client finds salient and honour or "bless" that, and at the same time we can direct attention to salience that the client pays scant attention to. However to stay clean our judgement needs to be sourced in, or on behalf of, the client's whole system. To do so we must first recognise the patterns of what the client does pay attention to (see PPRC: Paying attention to what they're paying attention to).

Then what?

There is (in the Western cultures, at least) what David Grove called "a forward motif" to our language, storytelling and the way we perceive events. This in itself can prevent us from perceiving salience because we do not dwell on anything long enough to get to more than the surface meaning. From David Grove we learned that, as facilitators, one of our most important 'tools' is to be able to “hold time still” and so increase the "dwell time". That is, to identify something salient in the client’s information and to stay put long enough for some deeper import to emerge. (See Vectoring and Systemic Outcome Orientation.)

It is like facilitating the client to snorkel across interior time and space until something potentially salient emerges - then to scuba dive to that place, attend to what is salient, and find out ... what happens next.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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