This is the sixth in a series of articles on frameworks for understanding and managing diversity. Part 1 looked at different developmental stages. Part 2 looked at the huge issue of cultural diversity. Part 3 looked at the sensitive question of religious differences,  part 4 looked at the role of different values and part 5 looked at the role of personality differences.  This article looks briefly at representational systems.

For those who have studied a little about NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) one of the first things you learn is about our different representational systems.

For each of us, our experience of the reality “out there” (as opposed to “inside our heads”) is filtered through our five senses – Visual, Auditory (sound), Kinesthetic (touch), Olfactory (smell) and Gustatory (taste). Of these, the most important in communicating information between people are the first three: Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic. One of the great insights of NLP is that each person has their own unique pattern of filtering and processing information using these senses. Each person has a primary representational system – one which is preferred above the others when communicating and learning.

People whose preference is visual take in information primarily through visual images. If no external images are available, they will create a picture in their mind’s eye. If multiple sources of information are available, they will often go to the visual first and process that before taking in other sources of information.

Auditory types need to hear their information to process it. When reading, they will typically hear a voice speaking the words in their heads.

Kinesthetic types need to feel their information – either physically, by moving and doing something, or emotionally, by linking an emotional state to the information.

With practice, you can learn to identify people’s styles and patterns. Visual types will tend to talk using visual phrases such as: “I see what you mean”, “it looks good to me”, “I don’t get the full picture”, “the details are a bit foggy to me” “it’s crystal clear”, “show me what you mean”.

Auditory types will use phrases like, “I like what I’m hearing”, “How does that sound to you?” “music to my ears”, “it rings a bell”, “cut through all the noise”, “clear as a bell”, “achieve harmony”, “there was a jarring note in our conversation”, “dischord between us”.

Kinesthetic types will use phrases like, “I’m feeling good about this”, “he’s pain in the neck”, “I can’t grasp what you are saying”, “It has some rough edges” “he’s a smooth operator”, “hold that thought”, “my gut feeling is …”, “I’m warming to the idea”, “tangible benefits”, “sharp as a tack”, “concrete proposal”, “solid as a rock” “left me feeling cold”.

When you know people’s communication preferences you can communicate more effectively with them. So, for visual types it helps to use actual images such as drawings, diagrams, photos, and flow-charts. In situations where an image is not available, it helps to use words which are visual. For example, “I’d like to show you how we can help you see the wood for the trees through our top to bottom reporting system”.

Similarly, with auditory types, don’t over-rely on visual images alone. Diagrams and pictures may need to be explained by talking about what they mean.

Kinesthetic types like to have something they can physically touch – such as a brochure or document. You can then “walk them” through the points you want to communicate, and perhaps encourage them to physically tick boxes or make notes as you go.

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow


Frameworks for understanding & managing diversity – part 6 representational systems
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