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Keep it Happy – What’s going on?

Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee, highlights that 'what’s going on isn’t always what’s going on'. Due to our own experiences our brains fill in the gaps, making assumptions and interpretations, creating our own “map” to make sense of our world.

“Your perception may not be my reality” – Aporva Kala

I saw a woman kick her dog this week… awful, I know! I was upset and outraged (as you probably are too on reading this). I happened to be looking out of our upstairs window across the field where lots of people walk their dogs. On this particular chilly morning I could see a large sandy coloured dog, like a spaniel or similar (I was too far away to see exactly), and it seemed to belong to a woman hunched in a dark overcoat. The dog scampered around and crouched at her feet.

Then it happened… she kicked him! In the face… just like that!

The dog turned sharply and ran away across the field. I was horrified. I wanted to do something… but what? Should I go out? What would I say? What would she say? How might she react?

The dog was coming back. I stayed at the window. The woman was quite still, hands in pockets. After circling her carefully, the dog cowered by her feet and looked up. For a moment everything was still… then she did it again. Kicked… right at the dog’s face! My heart pounded with anger…

…and then I saw the ball, flying up into the air. Off scampered the dog across the field to fetch it.

In an instant my mind reshuffled the images and reassembled the story. My outrage did a quick swap with relief. The woman hadn’t kicked the dog at all, she had kicked a small ball down by her feet which I completely missed at first because I was too far away!

The dog was back again circling excitedly. This time the woman picked up the ball, touched its head and they moved off together.

“Well there’s a lesson!” I thought as I hurried downstairs for breakfast.

What’s going on isn’t always what’s going on, and I should know this, because one of the core understandings in Neural Linguistic Programming is exactly that… “The map is not the territory”.

Our brains have evolved to take shortcuts, make instant interpretations, and fill in the gaps to make sense of the world around us. If we didn’t do that, we would be constantly overwhelmed by the amount of information we had to process. The assumptions and interpretations we make create our own “map” of what’s going on.

A map is useful, but no map can hold every detail. It isn’t the reality, it’s our own individual interpretation and perspective, drawn from our experiences, beliefs and attitudes to life. The problem with interpretation and perception is that we can misread situations, misunderstand people and make mistakes.

Research has shown that even something as important as an eye witness statement of a crime is not always reliable even if the witness believes what they are saying is true. In most cases they’re not deliberately misleading or lying, but their description of events is affected by their interpretation of the experience, and each view point will be unique.

Our brains work with the map that appears. A person kicking a dog in public is unusual, but having missed a vital piece of the territory (the ball), the only map that made sense to me in that moment was that the woman kicked the dog. It went further than that too, in misreading the situation, I also imagined the dog was cowering in fear (because that’s what I believe a dog would do if it was kicked), when actually it was crouched excitedly waiting to chase the ball.

I wonder how your mind worked when you read about it? It’s likely, because of the nature of these blogs, that you believed my initial statement that “I saw a woman kick her dog”. It actually wasn’t a lie because that’s what I believed I saw at first, but it wasn’t the reality. Just as my first map of the situation was incomplete, the map I drew for you also left things out. I expect, like me, you made your judgement on the knowledge you thought you had, but when you knew more, it probably changed.

We’ve all had those moments haven’t we where we’ve gone on happily thinking something is ok when it’s not, or we’ve assumed something terrible, and felt bad, guilty or worried, only to discover later that everything was fine. Sometimes we think we know how someone will feel because that’s how we would feel in that situation, only to find they feel something quite different. Sometimes we are just too distant to pick up the small but important detail… “missing the ball” and arriving at the wrong conclusion.

Noticing when we make these assumptions can help us to stop, think, and explore further before we misread, mistake, or misunderstand. See things from other points of view, discover more. When early explorers of the world added mountains, islands and seas to maps they were able to navigate the world more easily, and when we gain better insight into what lies behind a person’s thoughts or behaviour, the easier it is to navigate their world too.We may not always agree but it helps us to be understanding, tolerant and caring.

Take the time to understand, and don’t miss the ball!

And there’s something else too…

 The territory is not fixed… and a map can be changed.

Have you ever looked at a satellite map of where you live? If you looked at the one of our back garden and then came to visit, you would expect to find a large patch of earth near the back and a tent in the middle, but the patch is now grass and the tent was only up for a week!

The map is a snapshot in time.

You are the cartographer so make the changes as they happen … but remember that drawing on the map won’t change the territory, adding a swimming pool won’t make it magically appear in your garden, but you can change the terrain. Dig up what you don’t like, change it for something that works better.

Every day we add to our experiences as we learn and discover new things. Keep exploring, challenging your perceptions and interpretations, and update your map accordingly. 

Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee

I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far. 

To get in contact with Deborah, email

To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to

Caroline Chipper

Caroline Chipper


Co founder of Subconquest Ltd, that trades as Ollie and his Super Powers. My many years of commercial experience is being put to good use managing the business side of Ollie, including working with our Ollie Coaches, and managing our contracts. In everything we do its about making a difference to those we work with. To find out more go to

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