BIG FISH in a small pond

The importance of scale
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First published in NLP News, Number 7, March 2004

BIG FISH small pond

Do you make ‘mountains out of molehills’, or are problems just ‘a drop in the ocean’? How you proportion your perceptions is fundamental to the structure of your subjective experience. Your map may not be the territory, but if it’s to be of much use you’d better know its scale. This article is about the nature of scale, how to begin modeling it, and what happens when you change the scale of things to come.

How big is it? How long does it last? These are the most basic questions a scientist can ask about a thing. They are so basic to the way people conceptualize the world that it is not easy to see that they imply a certain bias. They suggest that size and duration, qualities that depend on scale, are qualities with meaning, qualities that can help describe an object or classify it. … Scale is important.”

James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (p. 107)

When Scale is the Problem

We first heard about the psychology of scaling several years ago during a David Grove workshop. David talked about the “inappropriate scaling” of a perception. He noticed that client’s metaphors sometimes presuppose an out-of-proportion-ness, often between the perceiver and what they are perceiving. A classic example is: “I’m overwhelmed.” When the client examines their perception they usually report that the symbol representing them is small relative to what is overwhelming. When asked “And that’s overwhelmed like what?” they reply with “a huge wave knocking me over,” or “being buried under a mass of paper,” or “thousands of arrows coming straight at my heart.” Other common examples of metaphors that imply a problem of scale are:


Over cooked

Out of proportion

Too big for his boots

Eyes too big for my belly

I bit off more then I can chew

An old head on young shoulders

Making a mountain out of a molehill

The bigger they are the harder they fall

Weight of the world on my shoulders

You’ll never amount to anything

It’s bigger than the both of us

Diminished responsibility

Big fish in a small pond

A drop in the ocean

In over her head

Under valued

Tracing the source of an inappropriately scaled perception may sometimes lead to a traumatic event. The radical psychiatrist and author of The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, described how he avoided feeling the pain of being beaten by his father by imagining his mind was a tiny point outside his body.

Scaling events in a particular way will have been useful and adaptive at the time — the system made the best choice it could — but this may result in unwanted consequences in the long term. Fortunately we can learn to re-scale our perceptions so that we more appropriately perceive our interior and exterior worlds.

David Grove says that when an inappropriately proportioned perception becomes “life-size” relative to the age/size of the client, you know a significant change has taken place.

Definitions of Scale

According to Collins Dictionary, there are several interrelated meanings for the noun ‘scale’:

A sequence of marks either at regular intervals, or representing equal steps, used as a reference in making measurements; or a measuring instrument having such a scale.

The ratio between the size of something real and that of a representation of it; or a line or number for showing this ratio (e.g. the scale on a map).

An established standard; or a relative degree or extent.

Common to these definitions is the relative or referential nature of a scale. They enable us to rank or measure things by finding a comparable attribute or characteristic. A scale can be digital (discontinuous) or analogue (continuous) and usually has ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ thresholds or boundaries.

Scales can be classified by what they measure: Time (Duration, Frequency), Space (Distance, Area, Volume) and Form (Temperature, Brightness, Loudness, Hardness, Speed) as we shall see below.

Scales of Time

One of the most ubiquitous of all scales is time scale. We mistakenly tend to view ‘clock time’ as reality independent of human perception, forgetting that it was not until November 18, 1883 that the notion of a standard time was imposed by the railway companies of the USA, and that a global, uniform method of determining and maintaining accurate time signals was not instituted until 1912. After studying The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, Stephen Kern concluded:

The introduction of World Standard Time had an enormous impact on communication, industry, war, and the everyday life of the masses; but explorations of a plurality of private times were the more historically unique contributions of the period. The affirmation of private time radically interiorized the locus of experience. (p. 313)

The malleability of personal time is the basis of many NLP ‘timeline’ therapeutic techniques.

In his study of metaphors of time scale David Grove noticed that people often have a consistent unit of time which they use to identify certain classes of events — a personal “time signature”. In other words, there is a pattern to the way a person ‘punctuates’ (or ‘segments’ or ‘chunks’) time. Examples of how these units of time are revealed linguistically are:

It came to me a flash.

It was over in an instant.

A split second later it was gone.

Everything changed in the blink of an eye.

I got angry just like that [click of fingers].

In that moment everything became clear.

Give me a tick to think about it.

It happened in a heartbeat.

My whole life changed that day.

I was born between the wars.

I’ve had this problem for donkey’s years.

I’ve wanted it for aeons.

When expressions like these are explored with Clean Language they invariably prove to be containers of great significance for the client.

Scales of Space

The notion that things are located in space is fundamental to our perception of both the material and the imagined world. Locating anything anywhere requires the measurement of both distance and direction, and hence a scale. Below are just a few of the many metaphorical expressions which presuppose that the spatial scale of a perception is having a major effect on the meaning the speaker is making:

I’m out of my depth.

It’s a long, long road.

We’re being left behind.

There’s no turning back.

He’s too close for comfort.

I need more space to think.

Nothing can come between us.

Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

This company is heading in the wrong direction.

One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

Scales of Form

As soon as we notice that an attribute or characteristic can be used to compare things, we will have (consciously or otherwise) created a scale. This is true whether we have noticed something that is easily measured like height or weight, or something less easily compared, like happiness or artistic expression. Once we perceive differences on a continuum we have scaled them.

Scientists and engineers often invent devices to measure and quantify our subjective scaling:





Wind speed

Wind gauge

Beaufort Scale (mph)

Earthquake severity


Richter Scale

Atmospheric pressure



Scales can involve multiple parameters. A ‘light year’ uses speed, distance and time. One of our favourite examples of the marriage of a quantitative and qualitative scale is the Fujita-Pearson Scale which measures tornado destructiveness (a function of maximum wind speed, path length and path width):
0 – Light 1 – Moderate 2 – Considerable 3 – Severe 4 – Devastating 5 – Incredible
If we can make distinctions we can create a scale to measure those differences. A local news reporter who was interviewing commuters going home after work asked “How tired do you feel on a scale of ‘completely knackered’ to ‘fresh as a daisy’?”. What is amazing is not that she asked such a question, but that people could answer it!

Submodalities and Scale

If you are trained in NLP, you might be wondering how ‘submodalities’ relate to the scale of a perception. Submodalities are the qualities associated with the sensations and ‘internal representations’ of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling, e.g. size of picture, volume of sound, or intensity of feeling. Many NLP change techniques involve varying one or more of these submodalities. In other words, they adjust the amount of the quality: making the picture bigger/smaller, the sound louder/quieter, or the feeling more/less intense (see Andreas & Andreas, Bandler, Dilts & Epstein, Gordon).

Not only are each of these perceptual qualities scaled, they are scaled relative to each other so that they ‘naturally’ fit together into a unified perception which makes sense to the client. Once you are aware of the notion of scaling you can facilitate your clients (preferably using Clean Language) to become aware of:

  • The scale being used and the means of measuring it.
  • Where ‘what is being measured’ is currently ‘registering’ on the scale.
  • The ‘ends’ of the scale and when they are ‘approaching a threshold’ or ‘going off the scale’; and then what happens?

Meanwhile you can consider:

  • If every internal representation is scaled to accommodate the information it includes, how does the scale affect the meaning the client gives to it?
  • How does the client’s process of scaling contribute to maintaining the current pattern of behavior?
  • How much flexibility do they have to change the scale of their perceptions – especially at times of stress (ie. near to a threshold)?

Indicators of Scaling

Once we started to look for indications of scale we saw/heard them everywhere. For example, when we reviewed one of our client transcripts we were surprised to discover that the client had indicated the importance of scale in almost half of her replies. Following are statements extracted from the beginning of the transcript which have a (more or less obvious) reference to scale. Can you identify the words in each sentence that presuppose a scale?
C1 I got in touch with an ideal being.
C1 It’s hard to bring her out.
C3 She’s a very strong presence.
C3 I’m a little bit scared.
C7 It could be so much better.
C10 It becomes safer.
C11 I become stronger.
C12 More present.
C13 I got a picture of a really strong oak tree.
C14 The big strong oak tree.
C16 It’s the best of both worlds.
C17 I can be more like her.
C17 I don’t seem so separate.
C18 I feel much more peaceful.
C27 It’s really pretty.
C31 I can almost hear her say…

You can see the full transcript where these quotes were taken from at: The Jewel of Choice [Link available soon]

In addition to words, people use repetition, intonation and especially gestures are to mark out the scale of a perception. Patterns of behavior can also reveal some rather fixed notions of the ‘proper’ scale of things. For example:

– How much time do you allow to get to a meeting, or to catch a plane?

– What do you consider ‘early’, ‘late’ or ‘on time’?

– What kind of calendar do you prefer (day/week/month at a glance)?

– How far ahead to do you plan?

– How much ‘personal space’ do you need to feel comfortable?

– How far do you need to drive for it be a ‘short’ or ‘long’ journey?

– How much food or drink do you consume before you’ve had ‘enough’?

Once we recognized the significance of scaling, we saw it as a general phenomenon of ‘the structure of subjective experience.’ Any comparison/judgement other than a simple on/off or black/white distinction presupposes a scale. Given how often we make comparisons and judgements, scale would seem to be fundamental to the way we perceive the world.

The Role of Scale in the Change Process

Perhaps the best known use of scaling in a therapeutic context is from Solution-Focused Therapy. [Link available soon] In its simplest form, you first ask the client where they currently are on a scale of 0-10 (where ten represents the client’s desired outcome and zero stands for when the problem is at its worst). You then ask the client to describe being at the next higher point on the scale and what they need to do to get there. Steve de Shazer says “Our scales are designed primarily to facilitate treatment. Our scales are used not only to measure the client’s own perception but also to motivate and encourage, and to elucidate goals [and] solutions.” (p. 92)

Solution Focus has designed a predetermined scale for the client. Its value is its simplicity and universality. However there is another way to make use of scaling. Our approach, Symbolic Modelling, facilitates clients to notice the way they unconsciously and idiosyncratically use scale to organize their perceptions. Becoming aware of how they scale gives their system an opportunity to organically adapt toward increased well-being.

Through modelling the ways clients change the scale of their perceptions, we have concluded that a translatory (first order) change occurs when there is a shift within the existing scale: something that is too big, shrinks; or too low, raises; or too close, gets further away; etc. However, a transformative (second order) change becomes possible when there is a change to the scale itself.

As James Gleick says … “Scale is important.”

© 2004, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley


Andreas Steve & Andreas Connirae (1987), Change Your Mind and keep the Change.

Bandler, Richard (1985), Using Your Brain — for a Change.

de Shazer, Steve (1994), Words Were Originally Magic.

Dilts, Robert B., Epstein, Todd & Dilts, Robert W. (1990), Tools for Dreamers.

Gleick, James (1987), Chaos: Making a New Science.

Gordon, David (1978), Therapeutic Metaphors.

Jackson, Paul Z & Mark McKergow (2002), The Solutions Focus.

Kern, Stephen (1996), The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918.

Lawley, James & Tompkins, Penny (2000), Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling.

First presented to The Developing Group, 1 December 2001

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