The NLP Eye Accessing Cues (1)nlp eye directions

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When people think – they move their eyes

The relationship between thinking and eye movements was one of the first observations made when NLP began around in the early 1970’s. This relationship can provide valuable information on how best to communicate with someone.

(Note: Many of the claims, studies and articles, about how the NLP Eye Movements are supposed to work, are flawed and untrustworthy so do take the time to read how they work – and the skills needed to use them reliably.)

What they show us

Developing skill in using the NLP Eye Movements will enable you to recognise how a person may be thinking – though not what they are thinking about!

Some people think mainly in images.

Others in self talk.

Others in feelings.

And still others, though a minority, in sounds.

The ‘Standard’ Eye Directions

The ‘standard’ eye movement directions as mapped out by NLP co-developers John Grinder, Frank Pucelik and Richard Bandler are shown in the diagram.

(Imagine this diagram superimposed on the person’s face. So that as you face them their Kinaesthetic direction is to YOUR left.)

Even the ‘official’ NLP eye directions are not true!

These standard NLP eye directions are simply not ‘true’.

They are not true because

  1. Not everyone follows ‘the rules’ i.e. looks up and to the left or right to visualise or down to their right when thinking in feelings. Many do…. And many do not.
  2. When people are thinking about recent events or information with which they are very familiar they may not move their eyes at all.

That’s why ‘scientific’ studies going back to the late 70’s have been able to prove that NLP ‘does not work’ or that is scientifically unsound.  It’s also why the original developers of NLP have been warning that these standard directions are unreliable.

They simply offer a starting point – a hypothesis-to-be-checked.

And reputable NLP professionals have been telling people about this since the early 70’s – over 50 years ago.

Why pay attention to the NLP eye movements?

So if they are not ‘true’ why pay attention to them?

Well, being able to notice a person’s eye direction movements – and to recognise what these coudl be indicating, provides useful information about how they are thinking.

Let’s say, you are explaining to a colleague how to do something and they say they cannot follow your description. And, as they say this, they are looking UP to either the left or the right (indicating that they may be visualising or trying to visualise).

This can indicate that they need you to demonstrate, rather than verbally explain, so they will be able to see how to do it.

Let’s say, on the other hand, the person is looking down and to their right. This can indicate they are thinking in feelings. In this case it’s better for them if you get them actively doing it rather than passively listening or imagining.

Incidentally the person will rarely be consciously aware of how they are thinking – yet this information is available for the sharp-eyed and skilled observer.

Treat the Eye Patterns as a beginning – only!

These standard eye directions are likely to apply in a majority of people. (Note the word ‘likely’.)  But, as we explain in our own NLP training courses it is important to treat this above diagram only as a starting point. It would be great and much more simple if we could take this map and know instantly what a person is doing internally – but in real life things are a little more complicated.

People differ and not everyone will have the same pattern. We recommend that you treat this diagram as an educated guess – and then use your NLP observation skills to establish how the person in front of you does it.

So when your friend looks up to their left or to their right this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are thinking in pictures – it simply means they are looking in this direction and doing something internally.

You have to establish what they mean using your ‘sensory acuity and calibration skills’. (Another Practitioner skill – it is the highly developed ability to recognise these very subtle behaviours and to ‘calibrate’ or recognise what they indicate for the particular individual with whom we are communicating.) In other words when they look in this direction do they make pictures or do they do something else?

Left or right?

So does it make a difference whether they look up to their left or up to their right?

Not for practical purposes. Yes, most NLP courses do teach that when a person looks up to their left they are remembering pictures and when they look up to their right they are ‘constructing’ pictures.

Now while this could be true for some or even many people, it’s a highly unreliable process. And this is why we don’t bother with this distinction in our own courses – if you want to know whether they are making up an image or remembering one it’s easier just to ask the person…

Better to keep things simple, recognise they are looking in one of the likely Visual Thinking directions, and then use the content of what they are saying and how they are saying it to gauge whether they are making up pictures are actually remember them.

The Great NLP Lie Detection myth

This distinction between whether a person is looking up to the left and up to the right has given rise to the Great NLP Lie Detector myth.  In this myth people claim NLP enables you to tell if a person is lying merely by watching their eyes…

This claim is untrue.

And was first refuted by two or the originators of NLP in the book Frogs into Princes (1979). In it Bandler and Grinder said that in the case of some people their eyes could indicate whether or not they might be lying – but that this was not reliable.

Since the mid 90’s we have been passing along this message in our own Pegasus NLP courses – and providing a more measured and considered style of NLP.

One final tip…

The eye movements – when used with skill – are a great addition to your toolkit for communicating effectively with others.   This skill is best learned on a live workshop where you are coached in the subtleties of observing and understanding eye movements.

However, there is a especially valuable tip which everyone can use without attending a training programme: if a person’s eyes are moving it indicates they are thinking – so you need to remain quiet until the eyes stop moving and look at you once again.


You’ll find more articles on Rep Systems here:

NLP, eyes and lying – Q&A – published Summer 2000  (from Q&A published Summer 2000)
NLP Representational Systems: Predicates  (September 2001)
Using the famous NLP Eye Accessing Cues  (January 2002)
‘Gimme time to think!’  (January 2006)
The NLP Eye Accessing Cues  (January 2007)
NLP & Representational Systems  (February 2007)
The ‘NLP Lie Detector Technique’  (February 2008)
Trivialising NLP (again…)  (February 2010)
The NLP Lie-Detector Myth (yet again…)  (August 2010)
How to use the NLP ‘Rep Systems’ (March 2012)
‘The Eyes Don’t Have It’ – NLP scientifically disproved?  (July 2012)
Using the NLP Eye Movements  (April 2013)

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More information about NLP

NLP – what’s in it for me?

How to learn NLP

7 tips for choosing an NLP training provider

NLP Core Skills – our course in the New Forest

What people have said about our courses

By Reg Connolly, Director of Training, Pegasus NLP

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