In NLP we act as if we have six main ways of thinking, or ‘representing’ or processing information i.e. our five senses + our ability to think through self talk and analysis. We call these representational systems, or rep systems. And, of these six, the most commonly used thinking systems are seeing, hearing, feeling and self talk – since few people use the smell and taste senses as a means of thinking.
When you walk into a room full of people what do you first become aware of…
Visual: What you see. Is your attention first drawn to the people, the colours, the movements, individual faces?
Auditory: What you hear. Are you first drawn to the sounds or conversation, the high and low voices, laughs, tinkle of glasses or cutlery?
Kinaesthetic: What you feel – physically and emotionally. Do you first pay attention to the temperature of the room, the feeling of the flooring and furniture – or are you attending to feelings such as the mood in the room or your own feelings?
Auditory Digital: Your inner self talk. I like this. I don’t like that. Do I know anyone here? What an opportunity to meet people! I want to be out of here!
Although we use all four systems most of the time we tend to have a ‘favourite’ system which we use most i.e. we will specialise in this system. And this partly explains why different people can have quite different memories of the same event.
Let’s say you ‘specialise’ in the Visual rep system and pay a lot of attention to what you see in a situation. And I specialise in the Kinaesthetic system and pay a lot of attention to feelings. And we go together to a party. And let’s say it’s a month later and we are describing the party to a friend – the friend will get very different versions of the party from each of us!
Watch their eyes:
When visualising people tend to looking up to either the left or right – or stare ahead in s defocussed manner When thinking in sounds people tend to look to either the left or the right When paying attention to their feelings people tend to look diagonally down to their right When thinking in words people tend to look diagonally down and to their left
Listen to what they say: pay attention to the ‘sense’ words & phrases which a person uses such as
I can’t SEE the point of this No one LISTENS to me If just FEELS like the right thing to do Let’s DISCUSS the pros and cons of the situation.
Knowing a person’s favourite rep system provides useful insight into how they think and how they experience events and situations. And this, in turn, enables us to improve how we communicate with them. For example, if I recognise that you are thinking mainly in pictures I can talk about visual images, speak more quickly, tell you stories (which evoke images), show you pictures, ask you questions about your “views” on the situation, etc. And, if I recognise that a person is mainly processing kinaesthetically, I can talk about feelings, chat with them while walking or moving around, and speak more slowly to allow you to check your feelings about the subject.
Remember nobody is ‘a visual person’ nor an auditory etc. Yes, they may favour a particular rep system and use that a lot. But this can vary from situation to situation. It’s not uncommon for someone to specialise in one rep system at work and another one at home or when socialising. When they first learn about NLP rep systems some people set out to ‘analyse’ everyone they know and to label them as auditories or visuals etc. So if they notice that your eyes move in the visual direction you’ve had it. You’ve suddenly become “a visual” – and will forever remain so!
Rep system use is not clearly defined. It’s a little more complex that I have described – but this article is a start. Most of the time we ‘translate’ between systems effortlessly. For example, we can be chatting easily even if I am specialising in, say, the auditory system and you are specialising in the visual system. This is usually we all use all four systems without being aware of this. However when life becomes stressful people tend to retreat into their comfort zone and expect others to adapt to them. They stop automatically translating and will stick to their favourite rep system almost to the exclusion of the others. For example, if I specialise in the kinaesthetic (feelings) system I’ll become quite wrapped up in my feelings and sensations and won’t be prepared to discuss things rationally (auditory digital), listen to what you have to say (auditory), or even pay attention to what’s happening around them (visual). So in times of stress expect more misunderstandings and less patience – and adapt your behaviour accordingly. It’s not personal – it’s just the way stress affects our thinking!
(This is our most-read article of 2013. Originally published in March 2012 it was edited in December 2013. There’s a link at the top of this page to our most-read and least-read articles.)
NLP, eyes and lying – Q&A – published Summer 2000 (from Q&A published Summer 2000)
NLP Representational Systems: Predicates (September 2001)
Using the famous NLP Eye Accessing Cues (January 2002)
‘Gimme time to think!’ (January 2006)
The NLP Eye Accessing Cues (January 2007)
NLP & Representational Systems (February 2007)
The ‘NLP Lie Detector Technique’ (February 2008)
Trivialising NLP (again…) (February 2010)
The NLP Lie-Detector Myth (yet again…) (August 2010)
How to use the NLP ’Rep Systems’ (March 2012)
‘The Eyes Don’t Have It’ – NLP scientifically disproved? (July 2012)
Using the NLP Eye Movements (April 2013)