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First Published in Personal Success Magazine, March 1994

I See, Hear and Feel What You Mean:
Representational Systems

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
NLP Consultants to Business and Individuals

"When you're learning about people's strategies to understand how they make a decision,
 you also need to know their main representational system so you can present
 your message in a way that gets through"
Anthony Robbins

On our recent visit to the States over the Christmas Holidays I discovered my sister and her husband were involved in Network Marketing. We had an opportunity to meet their colleagues, to attend seminars and rallies and learn first-hand how Network Marketing works.

Because of our NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and communication expertise, we were asked to be guinea pigs and listened to their presentation of 'The Plan' so we could offer comments and suggestions on their one-to-one approach with prospects.

We began by teaching them the same Rapport skills that we have passed on to you in our "NLP Tip of The Month" Series (Rapport Part 1 and Rapport Part 2), and followed by explaining how they could 'read' other people's ways of thinking. This enabled them to tailor the way they sold their 'product' to each prospect in order to cultivate a more amenable reception.

We taught them why people use the words they do, and gave them new ways to listen and respond. Instantly they increased their success rate in motivating friends and acquaintances into joining their network "family."

The 'HOW' of our Thinking

Everyone structures their experience of the world through the five senses -- seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. (For our purposes tasting and smelling will be classified under the feeling, or kinesthetic category.) Whilst you are aware of your External senses, did you know you had a matching set of "internal senses" or that they are called Representational Systems?

When you say:

    Visually - "I see this magazine in front of me."
    Auditorily - "I hear the sounds and noises around me."
    Kinesthetically - "I feel this magazine in my hands."

you are describing your External senses. But what about your internal world? We use the same five senses to represent what we are thinking about internally -- or subjectively.

When you think:

    Visually - Imagine a picture of your mother's face.
    Auditorily - Recall a conversation you had yesterday.
    Kinesthetically - Remember a time you felt powerful and motivated.

you are using your internal Representational Systems. It is this internal world, through our Representational Systems, that creates our "mind's eye," the words (empowering or disempowering!) we say to ourselves, the feelings such as joy or despair that prompt our behaviour and originate our moods.


Do you realise every action you take, or sentence you say, is preceded by one or more of these internal representations? You're not alone ... this is outside of most people's awareness!

The words someone uses reflects whether they are thinking using their Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic systems, and this gives us an insight into how their brain is sorting information at the time. You can't tell what a person is thinking but you can have a good idea how they are thinking! Some of the words we use which indicate the different Representation Systems are as follows:





    talk over
    tune in
    walk through
    pass over
    touch upon
    get a hold of
    touch upon

...and there are many, many more.

"So how do I use this?" you may ask.

When you know to listen for the types of words people are using, you know what 'sense' they are using in their thinking. And knowing this is a direct link to translating your language to their representational system, which creates a very deep rapport, and influences at an unconscious level.

Everyone uses all of the internal representation systems all of the time; but one or two are likely to predominate. For instance a very 'visual' person will see a lot of pictures in their mind's eye and will use words like those in the visual column above -- see, look, view. A mostly 'auditory' person will make use of internal dialogue and will use words such as --hear, listen, speak.


So, if you keep using auditory words to a visual person, they will unconsciously have to translate internally to their own system. This takes time, can be difficult for some people, and does not build rapport.

Many relationships have been affected as a result. I know a woman who said "My husband doesn't love me. He never brings me flowers, takes me to movies, or looks at me in that special way." Her husband replied, "What do you mean, not love her...Of course I do. I tell her I love her three or four times a day!"

She felt loved when she was shown visually. He thought he was loving when he told her so auditorially. He was satisfied by hearing the words "I love you," and as we all do, assumed she did too.

If he had listened to the words she used to determine which Representation System she was thinking in, he would have heard the visual words and realised his declarations of love were 'falling on deaf ears.' Then he could have adapted his language and behaviour to show her he loved her, and they both would have been satisfied.

It is that simple -- to listen for the Representational words which indicate in what sense the person is thinking, and to adjust your communication style to match.

As you begin to notice what people say, you will note they are revealing their Representational System preference all the time, as these common phrases show:




    I see what you mean
    Looks good to me.
    I get the picture.

    I hear you.
    It rings a bell.
    That clicks.

    It feels right to me.
    I can't grasp the point.
    I catch your drift.


Your exercise this month is to pick a significant person in your life and listen to the types of words they use. You will notice they will probably use all types of the visual, auditory and kinesthetic words...but one type will usually predominate. Then practice translating your language to their system.

If they say "I don't see your point," don't say "Let me repeat it," instead say "Let me show you what I mean."

If they say "What you're suggesting doesn't feel right to me," don't say "Take a different view," instead say "Let's touch upon the points another way."

If they say "I've tuned you out," don't say "You're insensitive," instead say "Lets talk it over."

Then practice with other people you know, and listen to conversations on radio or television to develop your skills. Eventually you will find yourself doing it automatically.

Become aware of how other people think, become flexible in how you respond, and develop excellent communication skills.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – first registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy in 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. James has also written (with Marian Way) the first book dedicated to Clean Space: Insights in Space. Between them Penny and James have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
Article Series
This article is part 4 of a 4 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
  1. What is NLP?
  2. Change Your Thinking - Change Your Life
  3. Rapport: The Magic Ingredient
  4. I See, Hear, and Feel What You Mean
 »  Home  »  NLP  »  Introductory NLP  »  I See, Hear, and Feel What You Mean
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