Feb
06

NLP Representational Systems and Eye Accessing Cues

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People experience themselves and the world they live in through the five senses or modalities – seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. These senses or representational Systems are also the way that people encode, organise, store and derive the meaning of things that come into their brain from the outside world.

The brain translates these sensory inputs into the corresponding sensory representations or maps that create a likeness or a synthesis of our original perceptions. As such, they create our own personal map of reality that we store in our brain in the same way that a mapmaker creates a simplified representation of the physical territory described. As Richard Bandler says, “the map is not the territory” – one of the precepts of NLP.

In encoding this information in our brains we don’t just use the five sensory modalities or representational systems. We also break them down into smaller discreet units Bandler refers to as submodalities and we store our experiences at this more detailed level. For example, when we hear a sound, we can identify and store by the submodalities of volume, tone, tempo, pitch, pace, direction, intensity, duration, etc. Our unconscious mind uses similar submodalities for images, feelings, tastes and smells. These submodalities are very useful in many other areas of NLP, outside the scope of this document.

As we go through life, we use all our representational systems, all the time. However we do tend to have individual preferred system or modality. You will notice that some people when they talk more often use visual terms, when they are describing things, like “to see her”, “I examined it” or “I can’t quite see what you’re talking about.” Other people will prefer auditory terms like “I hear what you say” or “that sounds about right.” Others again may use kinaesthetic or feeling terms like “well I feel what you’re saying is right” or “I have a hunch that you are correct.” Less often you will find people who prefer to use terminology relating to smell and taste.

There are some other clues to representational system preference available from a person’s manner and physiology. Visual people often speak quickly and in a higher than average pitched voice. They also seem to think more quickly. They will appear neat and tidy and sit or stand erect with their eyes pointing slightly upward – see Eye Accessing Cues below. They tend to take shallow breaths from the top of their lungs.

Auditory people speak in more resonant tones at a medium pitch and their voice may sound more rhythmic or musical. They often like talking and listening to music and are easily distracted by noise. Sometimes, they will hold their head on one side in conversation, as if on the phone. They tend to move their eyes sideways when accessing their thoughts and they breathe from their diaphragm or middle of their chest.

Kinaesthetic people tend to look down to their right when accessing memories and breathe from the stomach. They often have a deep voice and talk fairly slowly with deliberate phrasing of their words. They seem to think more slowly than other people and they respond more to touch and feeling.

If you communicate with people using their preferred representational system and predicates, you will much more rapidly develop understanding with them and build rapport than if you cross communicate. Indeed, when communicating with a large group of people, such as in a presentation or report, it is better to mix up your own representational systems so as to make sure that you hit the button for all the people in your audience, rather than just the ones that are on the same wavelength as you.

It is very easy, with practice, to identify somebody’s preferred or lead representational system. Just get them talking about something that really matters to them and you’ll soon pick up the representational system predicates they use.

Eye Accessing Cues

According to Terrence McLendon, in his book The Wild Days – NLP 1972-1981, eye accessing patterns were discovered during an “open chair” Gestalt Therapy session run by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the originators of NLP. They noticed that someone was looking up when using visual predicates and then looking down to the right when using kinaesthetic ones. John and Richard explored the possibility that the person was seeing pictures in their mind in the first case and experiencing feelings in the second.

The conclusion of their further research was that when we access and process information internally, we do it in any one or more of the 5 representational systems. More importantly when we access a particular system, our eyes move automatically and systematically, if only for a fraction of a second sometimes, in a pre-determined direction according to the system used. They even found that for visual and auditory systems, we also look to one side or the other, depending on whether we are remembering or imagining a particular picture or sound.

The diagram below illustrates eye-access cues as you will see them when looking at a client. The diagram may be reversed horizontally (remembered or imagined) in a few rare cases, but it is easy to calibrate if you are unsure. Just see which way someone’s eyes move when you ask them to think of something like a cow with blue spots, assuming they have never seen one, or to remember a piano concerto played on a saxophone!

You can use eye accessing cues very effectively to determine how someone is thinking and you can use this knowledge very effectively in matching to develop understanding and rapport. You can also use them to elicit strategies when modelling how people do things. As someone talks through or thinks through the way they do something, you can see the sequence of brain processes they use by watching their eye movements. You can then ask them what they were thinking about when the accessed a particular representational system.

NLP Eye Accessing Cues

NLP Eye Accessing Cues


To expand on the labels in the diagram,

  • Visual Constructed – seeing images of things never seen before or seeing things in a different way
  • Visual Remembered – seeing images of things seen before, in the same way
  • Auditory Constructed – hearing sounds not heard before or hearing sounds differently
  • Auditory Remembered – hearing sounds as they were heard before
  • Kinaesthetic – mentally experiencing feelings, emotions, touch, muscle movement, temperature, texture, etc.
  • Auditory Digital – simply talking to oneself internally
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