Change Work August 2007

I see what you're saying

In past articles I've looked at some of the thinking styles - "meta-programs" - that we habitually use.  For example, whether you tend to "chunk up" to a wider perspective or "chunk down" to the detail.  Or whether you are usually motivated towards the achievement of goals or away from discomfort.

These are called "programs" because they involve sequences, or patterns, of thoughts. They each come into play as part of a mental process.

Now, as well as these processing preferences, there are also important distinctions in the way we store information. In the way we represent the world in our minds.

In creating this representation, we tend to favour particular channels that correspond to our senses: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory.  Some people prefer (unconsciously) the visual "representational system".  So, they mostly think of the world in terms of pictures and they usually need to see something to understand it and to remember it.

Similarly, someone with an auditory preference may "hear" sounds in their head when they recall something.  They may be very aware of the quality of sounds and, for example, be able to detect someone's emotional state just from the tone of their voice.  (We can probably all do this to some extent, but we don't usually notice these clues unless we share the auditory preference.)

If you have a strong kinaesthetic sense, then you will notice the tactile characteristics of things.  You'll also be very aware of "feelings", i.e. the physical sensations associated with your emotional state.  ("I feel everything," said a friend when describing what it's like to have the a strong "K" representation.)

The other two senses, smell and taste, are part of our internal worlds but are usually given far less prominence than the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. I suppose that's because we receive less information through these channels.  But there's probably a cultural effect here as well: we usually pretend we can't smell anything and we don't often taste things that aren't food.

All of these representational systems, including the last two, are reflected in our language.  Certain words, or predicates, that we use to describe things reveal our internal representations:

Visual: "I see what you mean"

Auditory: "We're on the same wavelength"

Kinesthetic: "I feel it in my bones"

Olfactory: "I smell a rat"

Gustatory: "That's a bitter pill"

(The last two sentences preceding these examples contained the words "reflected" and "reveal". So, my preferred representational system is clear - whoops, there's another one!)

Sometimes, our preferences come through so strongly that we use a "wrong" word or phrase.  The title of this article is common example of this, "I see what you're saying", suggests that a visual representation of the other's words has immediately been formed, even thought the input was auditory. (It's interesting that, "I hear what you're saying", has come to imply the unspoken rider, "... but I don't agree.")

Finally, there's another class of representations that are not related to sensory experience at all.  Often referred to as "digital", they describe abstract concepts and tend to be associated with academic or technical communication. My favourite (real) example came from a technical report:

"The data suggest the existence of a causative mechanism acting in the opposite sense to that originally postulated."

I've included a more extensive list of examples at the end of the article.

So, what can you do with all this?

First of all, check your own internal representations: does a particular memory or imagined, future event involve pictures, sounds, physical sensation, smell or taste? Then, notice the predicates that you use. It will probably be easy to identify your own preference.

There may well be two systems that are much stronger than the others.  For instance, I've noticed that many scientists strongly favour visual and digital - although this is by no means universal.

Notice other peoples' language and, if it's different from yours, experiment with matching it.  This makes what you're saying easier for them to understand.  It's also a strong element of building rapport and so makes what you're saying easier for them to accept.

In writing for a wide readership, it's useful to mix the representational systems so that everyone can see your point, harmonise with it, get hold of it or understand it in context. According to their taste!

This is one of the characteristics of great literature - that everyone can get something from it because it uses all of the systems.

Now, you may not aspire to literary heights in your business communications, but you do want to be effective.  So look, listen and feel for opportunities to paint pictures, resonate and hit home!

Dave Rawlings


Visual Predicates and Phrases

Look, picture, focus, imagination, insight, scene, blank, visualize, perspective, shine, reflect, clarify, examine, eye, focus, foresee, illusion, illustrate, notice, outlook, reveal, preview, see, show, survey, vision, watch, reveal, hazy, dark, appearance, brilliant, colourful, dim, focus, glimpse, highlight, illusion, illustrate, insight, obscure, overshadow, overview, sparkle, spotlight, watch, vivid, mirror...

I see what you mean.
I am looking closely at the idea.
We see eye to eye.
I have a hazy notion.
He has a blind spot.
Show me what you mean.
You'll look back on this and laugh.

Auditory Predicates and Phrases

Say, accent, rhythm, loud, tone, resonate, sound, monotonous, deaf, ask, accent, audible, pitch, clear, discuss, proclaim, cry, remark, listen, ring, shout, sigh, squeak, speechless, audible, click, croak, vocal, whisper, tell, silence, dissonant, hum, hush, mute, harmonious, shrill, quiet, dumb, question, rhythm, rumble, comment, call, melodious, the tone, whine, harmony, tune, sound, musical, acoustic, buzz, cackle, dialogue, echo, growl...

We're on the same wavelength.
They were living in harmony.
The place was humming with activity.
That's all Greek to me.
Turn a deaf ear.
That rings a bell!
It's music to my ears.
It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Kinaesthetic Predicates and Phrases

Touch, handle, balance, break, cold, feel, firm, grab, contact, grasp, push, rub, hard, hit, tickle, tight, solid, hot, jump, pressure, run, warm, rough, tackle, seize, push, sharp, pressure, sensitive, stress, soft, sticky; stuck, tap, tangible, tension, vibrate, touch, walk, concrete, gentle, grasp, hold, scrape, solid, suffer, heavy; smooth,..

I will get in touch with you.
He got the sharp end of her tongue
I'm surfing the Internet.
I feel it in my bones.
There was tension in the air.
He is a warm-hearted man.
The pressure was tremendous.
The project is up and running.

Olfactory Predicates and Phrases

Scented, smelly, stale, fishy, nosy, fragrant, smoky; fresh, musky...

I smell a rat.
It was a fishy situation.
He had a nose for the business.

Gustatory Predicates and Phrases

Sour, bitter, salty, juicy, sweet, spicy, toothsome, mouthwatering, minty, nausea, sugary,gall, succulent, chewy...

That's a bitter pill.
She is a sweet person.
He made an acid comment.

Non Sensory-Specific Words and Phrases

Decide, think, remember, know, meditate, recognize, attend, understand, evaluate, process, decide, learn, motivate, change, conscious, consider, assume, choose, outcome, goal, model, programme, resource, thing, theory, idea, representation, sequence, result, logic, memory; future, past, present, condition, connection, competence, consequence...

(Source: "NLP Workbook", Joseph O'Connor)