Understanding Distinctions 101

As a coach, I am always making distinctions that open up avenues for my clients to retrieve lost power. It’s so fun to witness their “aha moments” and feel that surge of power and motivation returning.


I love coaching my clients to make distinctions and specifically how to make them for their lives. We find that the right distinction can have a profound impact on the client's perspective, evoking clarity, while empowering new choices and transformation. Distinctions are intellectually stimulating, and they contribute to my own expanding self-awareness. The most common thread among successful businesspeople is their ability to make distinctions. I see it in all my friends who are successful coaches, consultants, and entrepreneurs.


I have a question…Why is it you, me, and everyone else, gets into a “stuck” pattern from time to time? But, before you answer that question, consider Tony Robbins' point, “Intelligence is the measure of the number and quality of distinctions you have in a given situation.”


So, the answer is amazingly simple — people often get into stuck patterns because of a lack of distinctions. Do you know this ability to make distinctions also marks our level of emotional, spiritual, conversation, adaptability, and relationship intelligence?


Professor Cabrera says, “Distinctions are not things, but negotiated boundaries between ideas/things; a boundary between the identity and another area that occurs in fractal (which means across scale but in the same pattern).”

The key skill in distinction making is to ensure that you (and others) are not calling the same thing by different terms or alternatively calling different things by the same terms. When we make an identity, we automatically create a boundary that marginalizes the other. Sometimes this marginalization is trivial, but sometimes it is egregious.


Distinction making isn't as much about labels, terminology, and semantics as it is about meaning and concepts. If we use different words to mean the same thing but are aware of it, that is not as much of a problem as using the same words and meaning different things or using different words and meaning the same thing but not knowing about it. It really is about awareness of shared meaning rather than semantics and terminology. It is also about seeing the other when making distinctions--or seeing the noise as a potential signal.


As you look at the above image, what distinctions can you make? Consider the following areas highlighted by red arrows as distinction areas.



Making distinctions is seeing the boundary difference and noise space between:

  • Acceptance vs. Forgiveness vs. Release

  • Self-Discipline vs. Self-Control vs. Self-Mastery

  • Power vs. Strength

  • Dream vs. Vision

  • Expectation vs. Demand

  • Innocence vs. Immaturity

  • Skill vs. Talent

  • Self-Worth vs. Self-Esteem

  • Kindness and Love vs. People Pleasing

  • Fact vs. Truth

So, the distinction-making rule can be complex, but the big takeaway is that we also tend to miss something else when we see something.

I hope this helped you to begin understanding distinctions on a fundamental level.

Collapsed Distinctions


If you are not familiar with the term "collapsed distinction," it refers to the confusion that happens when the boundary between two different ideas merge and are perceived to be the same thing. It is a commonplace for many people. I have indeed found "collapsed distinctions" with many of my clients up to now.

I once heard a thought leader say, "The most common trait among successful people is the ability to make distinctions." I have found this to be true. I see this among many of my coaching or consultant colleagues. Since the ability to make distinctions is a common trait among successful people, then the implication is they generally are able to avoid or minimize the instances of the boundary between two different ideas merging. With that said, when they do lose the ability to make that distinction, they encounter problems that may be harmful as a leader.

I love to make distinctions. I am not perfect at it, but I chose to be a student and teacher of it. It is a critical part of my coaching philosophy and skillset. I find that the proper distinction can profoundly impact my client's perspective, evoking clarity and empowering new choices.


It is necessary to make distinctions in all areas of life. It does not matter if we are talking professionally, personally, emotionally, spiritually, in relationships, communicating & connecting, goal setting, debates, learning/education, and even political issues. I can at once tell in any scenario if a person is experiencing "collapsed distinction."

I am making a distinction that it appears our higher education institutions are teaching students what to think rather than how to think, e.g., critically think, the art of question mastery, fallacy identification, and making distinctions.

Yost & Associates reveals an interesting learning loop in their diagram Distinctions in Thinking and Action. We see from their image that Thinking Capabilities lead to Thought Process, which leads to Thoughts which leads to Actions, and then Results. With results achieved, a person can return to any previous stage of the Learning Loop (Yost & Associates).


Image: Yost & Associates



Let me ask you three questions:


- Are you making distinctions today?

- What distinctions are you making?

- What areas of your life do you think you need to make more significant distinctions in?


Someone once challenged me on whether I could find "collapsed distinctions" in their life. Taking up the challenge, I quickly recognized a few (along with a myriad of limiting beliefs). Of course, I was much quicker to identify my own limiting beliefs.

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