Navigating the Levels
Learning and understanding the levels of perception can help you reduce stress, get better results at work, create stronger relationships and become a more effective educator, mentor, parent and boss. First a few basics – the levels or perception are a collection of references you have, they are your own personal library of how you like the world. I think of the levels like the neural connections in the brain – a bunch of things all wired together. They are formed from the lowest level (most basic) to the highest level (most complex). Each higher level is developed by combining different perceptions from the levels below. For example the color red, a somewhat round shape, a stem at the top, a dimple at the bottom, may be combined to become “apple,” at a higher level.
Learning is about creating and connecting the lower levels and moving your way up. Think of learning math. You learn to understand what the symbol “5” represents - later you learn that 5+5 =10 then you are taught that 5 groups of 5 (5x5) is 25. A baby begins to build their personal hierarchy of levels pre-birth and continues to expand it throughout their life. Beginning with intensity of sensory information all the way to developing systems level concepts. As you go about your day the higher levels set the references for the lower levels. You build up and operate downward.
You control from the highest level of which you are aware at any given time. In PCT* circles we use the phrase Bump it up! to remember to shift awareness to a higher level. This is useful when someone starts to feel tension building in their body (lower levels) and you remind them to “Use your words.” Which is a higher level than the physical sensations they are experiencing. At times it can be helpful to Drop it down! when you are spewing words of anger you might want to move down to the lower levels and remember to breathe. You are probably familiar with this idea – you may find yourself thinking “Count to 10 before you say anything.”
That’s the basics- the levels grow from the lower levels to the higher levels, learning follows the same pattern from the simple to the complex from sensory/experiential to the conceptual level, your higher levels set references for you lower levels, and your awareness can be shifted from one level to another.
For you detail deva’s here’s a bit more –there are eleven levels of perception suggested by William T. Powers. The lowest six (Intensity, Sensation, Configuration, Transition, Event, Relationship) are often grouped into Sensory. These levels are the way you take the world in and might be thought of your experiences. Up next is Category – this level represents the words, symbols or labels you give to the combination of the data from the lower levels. Looking at furniture in a store when does the sensory information you see, touch and feel move from being an oversized chair, to a love seat, to a coach. Next is Sequence which represents things in a specified order, or series of events. Think of something you do in much the same way every day. Like the order you put on your clothes for example. If it always done in the same order is it at this level. The next higher level is Program – unlike sequences this level involves choice points for completing tasks. I often use the example of driving to work. Some days you may drive one route and another day a different and along the way you may need to take an unconventional road based on traffic. Because you decided amongst alternatives along the way you have been functioning at the program level. The second to the highest level is Principles. Principles are the generalization you make, what you value, your personal standards or criteria from which you function. Often these are captured in maxims – you might live by the idea “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” At this level are ideals such as being honest, being trustworthy, being a friend, etc. The highest level is Systems Concepts, what you might think of as your core beliefs. This also includes your sense of self, your personal identity. Consider this level to be - “Well that’s just the way the world works.” Your concept of family, what’s fair, good and evil reside at this level. This level is complex and hard to put into words –it’s conceptual.
How does knowing this help you? Being aware of which level you are operating from can provide you a way to reduce your stress and shift to the level that will give you the greatest return for your effort. These past few months I’ve found myself in meetings where people were focused on an unproductive level and therefore the meeting were less than beneficial. The discussion was focused on the sequence level –what to do when. If instead, the discussion would have started at the principles level –why are we gathering data- what do we hope to know about our organization that data can help us answer-what do you believe about great teachers-how would we like to be perceived by our constituents- we would have gained more with less effort.
Focusing on the lower level at the wrong time wastes energy, depletes precious time and generates back channel conversations. This is one way to tell if you need to shift. Ask yourself are people carrying on water cooler conversations, reading emails, checking texts, having multiple side-bar conversations, frustrated, arguing terminology, feeling picked-on, demoralized or generally disengaged? If so you are probably at a lower level than where you need to be. Simon Sinek describes this as the importance of the “Why.” Why are we even having this discussion – why is it important to us- what about this issue is important-who do we/you want to be? The answers to the why questions, are at a higher level than the answers to what and the how. Without knowing PCT Sinek, by understanding how the brain works, understands that higher level perception set the references for lower levels. This is the reason that being at the highest level possible reduces stress and generates more effective actions.
When you find yourself or a group stuck on a level pull the curtain to find out what’s hidden behind the scenes. If you are trying to move up the levels in general that means finding out why. However, asking the question “Why?” without a strong relationship or with a condescending tone, can have disastrous consequences. Rephrasing the why by saying “Tell me more.” “What leads you to say that?” “Because?” “How come?” “How will this help us get more of what we want?” are all ways to ask, why without using the word. Embrace the principle that whatever is being said is the first rung on the ladder. Keep climbing. You want to keep going up the levels until there is nowhere left to go.
Should you always strive to go up the levels – No! There are situations when you want to move down the levels. Think of those times when you need to focus or are experiencing a strong physical message. Your muscles are tense, your fists may be clenched, or the conversation is in hyper drive. Your thoughts are a whirlpool spinning around and around. Take yourself down by reminding yourself to breathe. In a group Drop it down, when it is time to take action. If you are stuck in a philosophical discussion and it’s time to move on – ask a “How” question. “How”, is the general way you move down the levels of perception. “How are we going to make this happen?” “How will we accomplish our goal?” “What’s the next step you will take?” “What’s one way you can do that?” “How/” takes you down and “Why?” takes you up.
For the next few days try and identify the levels. At any given moment as “What level am I aware of right now?” In a group setting see if you can notice the level at which the discussion is being held. Are you talking about beliefs, principles, programs, sequences, or categories? Do you need to Bump it Up or Drop it Down? All the levels have value - being on the wrong level at the wrong time is the problem.
*Perceptual Control Theory is the scientific theory of living systems developed and tested by William T. Powers. See A People Primer: The Nature of Living Systems by Shelley Roy for more information.