• Posted: December 2011
  • By: Michael Carroll

Making Sense of the World - NLP

How we know what we know

When I first learned about NLP representational systems, a whole new world opened up to me. The question I asked myself was ‘how could I have not made these distinctions before?’ The tools of NLP enabled me to significantly improve my communication skills and success in business and social activities. This article is centred on how we as individuals make sense of the world through our internal maps and how you can improve the way you interact with others by stepping into their map of the world.

Each one of us lives in a very different reality, based on the filtering systems we have unconsciously established to make sense of the world. In any given moment an extraordinary amount of data is being absorbed through the five senses. The human sensory system is far too limited to detect small particles in the external world. Most people tend to think we operate in the ‘real world’ when in fact we operate in a heavily filtered ‘map of the world’.

If you take a look around your present environment everything that you are seeing, hearing and touching at this moment is an internal representation or map of the outside world. Your nervous system is capable of converting enormous amounts of external data to internal images, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells. Your map of the world is created in part by neurological filters and partly by filters you have created through life experience. A phobia or extreme fear is a filter whereby the moment the eyes see the phobic stimuli a strong fear response is experienced before any language is attached to the representation. You unconsciously trained your nervous system to respond in this way. The same process occurs with someone you love deeply, so that when you see their face or hear their voice (sensory information) a strong feeling is evoked before you have added any language.

The sensory map, your first access to the outside world

Every second you are absorbing millions of bits of data through your five senses which is transformed to an internal sensory-based map that somehow reflects the outside world. Sensory filters (neurological processes) convert the information from the outside world to our sensory representation. The sensory map is what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell before you have added any meaning or language. In the case of the phobia the sensory map is the strong feelings and visual representation of the phobic stimuli. This occurs prior to labelling the situation with language.

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Making sense of the world through language

As you look around the room, make a mental note of what you are seeing and hearing. To do this you apply the ‘filter’ of language to your sensory map. Language is a part of a second set of filters that enable you to create meaning of the sensory experience. To label an object you unconsciously compare data in your sensory map with some ‘internal representation’ of that object. For example, to label an object a chair, you will have an internal visual representations in your mind for chairs. In addition you will have internal representations for different categories of chairs e.g. arm chairs, office chairs, stools, dining chairs etc. You will also have a kinesthetic (tactile) internal representation for what it feels like to sit in different types of chair. For sound, you have internal auditory representations to recognise what you are hearing. The same is true for olfactory and gustatory representations (tastes and smells). We build these internal representations based on our past experiences. To make sense of the world we categorise and label it e.g. “That armchair looks very comfortable to sit in” . Note, that most speakers of English would loosely agree on what an armchair is. However, what ‘looks comfortable’ is a statement based on personal criteria for comfort based on past experience. The person has a visual representation they link to their own construct for feeling comfortable (kinesthetic).

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Representational systems

We construct our mental maps through representational systems also known in NLP as sensory channels. The three main representational systems are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. The olfactory and gustatory systems feature to a lesser extent in experience. While all three systems are present in your map at any given time, one is usually more dominant, although this is not a rule. Over time we ‘may’ tend to use more of one system than another in certain contexts. Different verbal and non-verbal behaviours are present in different representational systems. By learning how to detect representational systems you can maintain rapport with people and be more and be more influential with your communication. You learn to use language and styles of speech that match sensory processes that are occurring in the client’s mind. 

Representational system characteristics

The descriptions below are characteristics of each system. Consider the descriptions as generalisations of how people process and respond when in a particular representational system mode. Some people will be highly dominant in one system and hardly use another system. Others are more balanced and will respond in different systems depending on context. Remember it is important to constantly calibrate which system a person is using from moment to moment rather than make a generalised assumption.

Visual
When in visual mode, a person is paying attention to their visual experience in the sensory map and predominantly mapping through internal images. A lot of visual language will be used e.g. “You have a bright future” and “The idea is hazy”.  Breathing is from the top of the chest and their voice is higher pitched than the other two systems. The head is up with eyes often going upwards as they access visual information. Speech is quick to describe ongoing images or movies.  In visual mode people will be less aware of the other systems and may even delete from awareness immediate sounds or body sensations. Gestures and pointing are used in communication to emphasise key elements as well as to keep track of the mental images being created. Visually orientated people will remember through internal images, which is generally a good strategy for memory and spelling. They talk in pictures often drawing diagrams to ‘illustrate’ their point. Some people will make visual based value judgements on how a person looks, tidiness, clothes etc.

Auditory
When in auditory mode, a person is mapping predominantly in sounds and internal dialogue (auditory digital) and will use language that denote sound such as “tune into’” and “sound out”. Some people who process a lot in auditory value logic and make sense of the world through inner dialogue. Auditory mode promotes linear style thinking through inner dialogue, memorising in steps, procedures and sequences. In auditory mode breathing is from the middle of the chest and speech is pronounced and deliberate (rather than very quickly when in visual). In auditory a person will tend to move their eyes side ways and down to their left”. When accessing in the auditory channel a person is more likely to be distracted by noise as they have a higher auditory awareness. Auditory learners enjoy learning by listening, talking and repeating to themselves. Auditory spellers spell a word as it sounds, which while effective in a phonetic based language like Spanish, is not effective in English. A person who processes a lot in auditory tends to value verbal feedback, likes to talk things over, and remembers verbal instructions quite easily. They will also respond to a certain tone of voice or set of words. Some people will make auditory based value judgements on auditory information e.g. how a person sounds. When communicating, they will tonally emphasise key points.
Kinaesthetic
When in kinaesthetic mode people are mapping predominantly in feelings and therefore have high body awareness. When in kinaesthetic mode a person will use language that correlate to feelings “get a grip” and “I have a gut feeling” In kinaesthetic mode individuals are more connected with body sensations, touch and the feeling of clothes on their body. Breathing is from their lower stomach and speech is slower because the words used are describing feelings and feelings are slower to access than images and sounds. In kinaesthetic mode a person is more likely to use specific types of feelings to gauge decisions. When communicating, touch is often used to emphasise key points. People who have a high kinaesthetic orientation enjoy movement and hands on activities. A kinaesthetic learner learns through hands on activities. They will enjoy physical experience such as sport, bodywork, massage etc.

Representational systems and value judgements

The above descriptions of representational systems are not archetypes but generalisations. You will probably recognise all three systems in your own behaviour across the different areas of your life, this generally is healthy. You may comment that certain systems are more pronounced in different areas of your life than others e.g. more auditory at work, (particularly if you are in an auditory orientated job) and perhaps you feel more kinaesthetic at home. This is not to say the other systems do not feature in your work or home life. You may feel that you are dominant in one system and you see yourself using that system more than others in all areas of your life. Perhaps you have unwittingly reduced your experience of one system and until now have not been aware of the bias. It would be a good idea to increase your flexibility in representational systems to make it easier to connect with others. By establishing the system another person prefers to use in a given context you can communicate with them in that system, saying it another way – talk in their language.
We do not always map the inputted data in the corresponding system.  For example a person listening to loud rock music may have the dominant input channel as auditory, yet their internal representations could be an infusion of colours and vivid imagery. They may describe their auditory experience as a psychedelic rainbow. They have overlapping representational systems. In NLP this is called synesthesia.  You may have heard the people say, “I see what you are saying”, this is where an individual is using the visual system to make sense of the words someone has said. When NLP was first created it was said that people had a ‘primary representational system’ either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic and that each system carried with it a set of behavioural traits. In present times we are more flexible with representational system diagnosis, while some people may be dominant in one system across contexts, other people switch systems.

Representational systems and different activities

Representational systems best map the ‘system’ they correlate to. Problems can occur when a different representational system to the natural one associated to a particular task is used. For example, spelling in the English language is a visual task. People will have problems spelling when they ‘sound a word’ out using the auditory system. English, unlike Spanish, is not a phonetic language. People will be even more challenged when spelling words using their feelings as the dominant system. Good spellers have an internal visual representation of the word they are spelling.  Good spellers have built a visual mental library of words. You will see people looking up when they spell; this is an indication that in that moment they are accessing the visual system. NLP provides people with effective spelling and memory strategies.

Here are some examples of the tasks that the individual systems best perform. Note the lists are by no means exclusive, can you think of more?

Visual system

Useful for Spelling, memory, and visual creativity e.g. architect design, graphic design, interior design, making fine visual distinctions

Auditory system

Useful for constructive internal dialogue, logical and linear thinking, creating quality verbal communication, composing poetry, composing music, making fine auditory distinctions

Kinaesthetic system
Useful for body awareness, hunches and intuitions, sports, hands on activities such as gardening, mechanical tasks like pottery, dancing etc
The language we use says a lot about what’s happening in our minds

The NLP co-creators initially discovered representational systems by listening to the words people used. They discovered some people in their natural language used more visual words e.g. bright, colourful, and hazy to describe their experience. Others used more auditory words e.g. tune into, sound out and others more kinaesthetic words e.g. touch, feel, and get a handle on. It seems people unconsciously select sensory words that correlate with their internal experience. This discovery was a major breakthrough in the field of communication. For example, if a client when working with a coach states “my future is hazy” and the coach replies with “can you get a feel that things could change?” The coach is not talking the same language as the client. He has replied to a visual statement using kinaesthetic language. A reply using visual language would be more effective for example, “if you cleared the haze, could you see things changing?” If you listen carefully to peoples’ language you will hear the different representational systems communicated in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic words. 
To summarise we bring the information into our world through the senses (VAKOG) and each sense has a set of sensory filters that transform the inputted data to sensory representation. We then compare the sensory data with internal representations (images, sounds and feelings) and label our experience through language. The modality that is dominant at any time will impact language and behaviour. NLP enables people to be more effective communicators by matching systems and talking the same language as another.

About The Author

Michael Carroll is the founder and course director of the NLP Academy and co-founder with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair of the International Trainers Academy of NLP. He is the only NLP Master Trainer in the world certified by John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair and he works closely with them in developing and delivering high quality NLP training.

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