Representational systems – White Paper
Representational systems, also known as sensory modalities, are a model from neuro-linguistic programming that examines how the human mind both takes in data and then processes and stores information.
Information is categorized as if it is processed through the five senses when taken in and then internally analyzed, coded and stored as a sensory representation. Clearly there are five possible sensory modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustative. Considering that inside their minds people may also ‘talk to themselves’, another category that can be added to the way information is processed and stored is self-talk, also referred to as rational, due to the fact that it is frequently used to interpret from a rational and logical standpoint.
According to the creators of the field of neuro-linguistic programming, Richard Bandler, Ph.D and John Grinder, Ph.D, the words, phrases and sentences we use are indicative of our referencing of each of the sensory modalities. As mentioned in their book ‘The structure of magic vol.2’ (1976), for example the words “clear”, “spiral” and “image” reference the visual representation system; similarly the words “tinkling”, “silent”, “squeal” and “blast” reference the auditory representation system. They also propose that metaphorical or figurative language can indicate a reference to a representational system such that it is actually literal. For example, the comment “I see what you’re saying” is taken to indicate a visual representation.
Furthermore, R. Bandler and J. Grinder also state in ‘The structure of magic vol.2’ that each person has a “most highly valued” or preferred representational system. This means that a person is more able to vividly create an experience inside their mind when it makes use of their preferred representational system. R. Bandler and J. Grinder go on to mention that people tend to use that representational system more often than others, and have more distinctions available in that representation system than others.
For example, a person who most highly values their visual sensory modality is able to vividly visualize things with ease and has a tendency to do so, instead of recreating an experience primarily in terms of other sensory modalities.
Using representational systems for effective communication
An awareness of representation systems can be used to build rapport and improve communication with others. It can be especially important to make good use of preferred representation systems for taking in data, in order to communicate effectively.
For example you may hear someone say “show me how it works” (visual) or, alternatively ‘tell me how it works” (auditory), or even “walk me through it” (kinesthetic). It is important for effective communication and understanding to adapt the presentation of information to match an individual’s preferred way of receiving data.
Visual System Processing
A person with a preference for visual system processing will tend to use their vision for memory and decision making more often than others. His or her main contact with the world will be through the eyes.
Visual processing can take in a lot of information because an image can carry more data than sounds or feelings. This means they are often adept at seeing the big picture and long-range planning.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Walt Disney and Albert Einstein were all accomplished visualizers. Mozart also saw his musical compositions entirely and then wrote them down.
People who have a preference for the visual representational system often use words such as: see, view, visualizing, look, picture, illustrate, observe, notice, vision, outlook, image.
Auditory System Processing
While visual system processing handles much information at once, auditory system processing is linear and sequential. It is like a message on a tape compared to a picture. People who have a preference for the auditory representational system often rely on things not sounding right.
When people are processing with their auditory system, they often talk about their experience using words such as: hear, listen, ask yourself, noisy, rings a bell, deaf, quiet, silence, noise, hush, mute, voice, sound, echo, volume, hum, loud, tune in.
Kinesthetic System Processing
The kinesthetic system refers to bodily sensations and feelings. This kind of processing is much slower than visual system processing where a lot of information is available all at once and it is also slower than auditory system processing, where information is sequential.
Generally, it is one of our primitive ways of processing information, and can be simultaneous and conflicting. However, it can become very fast, for instance in emergencies or dangerous situations.
When people are processing information using the kinesthetic representational system, they use words such as: feel, touch, handle, texture, feeling, hold, grip, hug, rub, weight, heavy, burden, oppressive, stifling, sticky, uncomfortable, pressure.
Rational processing, although not strictly a representational system, is all about the language and actual words that people use when describing what is going on in their other senses. This type of processing involves not just self-talk, but also a way of thinking that is sensory detached and enables people to think from a logical standpoint and interpret the information obtained through the other senses.
Someone processing information using this system is converting the information from his or her senses into language. There is clearly a sensory experience underneath what they talk about, but they are not re-experiencing it.
This representational system is quite different from auditory system processing even though both involve sound. The auditory representational system represents the actual sounds while the rational way of thinking involves the meaning of words and symbols.
Processing information through language and symbols can disconnect us from our senses. Western cultures value this kind of processing over sensory-based data. Educational institutions and corporations tend to write about their research and create reports using words stripped of all sensory and emotional meaning in order to eliminate the bias of “colorful” language.
While thinking rationally is a very important form of processing information for analysis, planning and organizing, it is not useful at other times such as in performance situations.
When people are processing information rationally, they use words and phrases that don’t indicate any particular representational system. These are words and phrases that NLP refers to as “unspecified”, such as: makes sense, logical, understanding, criteria, appreciate, aware, analyze, believe, comprehend, choose, decide, reason, system, experience, integrate, learn, consider, process, realize, remember, sense, think, vague, wonder
Examples of IntenCheck text analysis results for communication style
Analysis results showing that the text is predominantly visual:
“The way I see it I am going to have to look into various possibilities and clarify which ones appear most relevant.”
Visual Channel: 18.18%, 4
appear, clarify, look, see
Kinesthetic Channel: 4.55%, 1
Rational Channel: 4.55%, 1
Analysis results showing that the text is predominantly kinesthetic:
“I feel a lot of pressure lately and I don’t seem to know how to handle it.”
Visual Channel: 5.88%, 1
Kinesthetic Channel: 17.65%, 3
feel, handle, pressure
Rational Channel: 5.88%, 1
Analysis results showing that the text is predominantly auditory:
“I hear what you’re saying and it sounds interesting. Perhaps we can discuss it more tomorrow.”
Rational Channel: 6.25%, 1
Audial Channel: 25.00%, 4
discuss, hear, saying, sound
Analysis results showing that the text is predominantly rational:
“I don’t really know what the best solution is. I need to think it over some more and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of the possibilities.”
Visual Channel: 3.57%, 1
Rational Channel: 25.00%, 7
advantage, consider, know, possibilities, really, solution, think
Analysis results showing representational systems mismatch in a conversation:
Consultant: Well first I feel I need to say thanks for inviting me. Now I understand the business has hit a sticky patch – maybe you can lay out for me what the problems are?
Client: Yes, we’re hoping you can shed some light on it for us. We’re seeing storm clouds gathering on the horizon and we can’t see our way past them at the moment.
Consultant: Well, as soon as I can get a grasp of the situation, we’ll knock together some plans that you can carry out as soon as we get them to where they feel workable.
Client: Let me outline it for you – we just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Consultant: Yes, that must be very stressful for you. I’ll feel a lot better if you just help me get a handle on it.
Client: (impatient) I’m trying to show you the big picture here…
(The client is thinking: I thought consultants were supposed to be bright, but this one seems really dim. What do I have to do, draw him a diagram?)
(The consultant is thinking: Hmm, the client is resistant. Tough sell…)
~Note: The texts between brackets have not been included in the text analysis.
Explanation: The client is communicating using many words that refer to images, words such as: ‘big’, ‘outline’, ‘picture’, ‘see’, ‘show’, ‘shed’. The consultant is mismatching entirely the communication style used by his client by avoiding the use of such words. Instead he uses more the other sensory modalities in order to communicate (auditory, kinesthetic).
Explanation: To show further the discrepancy between the communication style of the client and of the consultant, the values above demonstrate that the consultant was responding by using mostly words that refer to sounds. A few examples of such words are: ‘knock’, ‘say’.
Explanation: The mismatch in communication style continues also on the kinesthetic level. The consultant uses a lot of words that refer to feelings, words such as: ‘feel’, ‘handle’, ‘grasp’, ‘lay’, ‘sticky’, ‘stressful’, etc. The client, on the other hand, only uses a few such words (‘gather’, ‘try’).
Explanation: There is also a mismatch in the communication process when it comes to the use of rational words as well. The consultant uses some words (such as ‘plan’, ‘problem’, ‘understand’) that refer to thoughts and logic, while the client avoids using such language when communicating.
- Bandler, Richard; Grinder, John (1976). The Structure of Magic II. Science and behavior Books Inc.
- Grinder, John & Carmen Bostic St Clair (2001.). Whispering in the Wind. CA: J & C Enterprises.
- Bandler, Richard & John Grinder (1979). Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Moab, UT: Real People Press.
- Dilts, Robert B, Grinder, John, Bandler, Richard & DeLozier, Judith A. (1980). Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Volume I – The Study of the Structure of Subjective Experience. Meta Publications, 1980.