What are NLP ‘Representational Systems’?

‘Rep Systems’  as we use them in NLP

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In NLP we use the term Representations Systems, or Rep Systems, rather than the ‘five senses’ because this emphasises the fact that we are using our senses to process and to represent information i.e. to think.

So we think in a blend of self-talk, sounds, images, and feelings – plus, to a limited degree, smells and tastes.

We each use a different blend and most of us will favour one of these of the systems more than the other.

Clues to a person’s inner activity

NLP is renowned for the attention we give to how a person demonstrates their use of their five senses – their representational systems. This is because everything we experience is ‘represented’ internally in our nervous system. Without our being consciously aware of it our five senses are constantly receiving and processing information about the world about and within us.

And, since the mind and body are part of an interactive system, anything that happens in one part of the system affects all parts of the system. We cannot, for example, have a thought without having a physical response to that thought.

For example, iIf I remember a feeling, or talk to myself about something or imagine a forthcoming event I will use my senses – or representational systems – and a skilled NLP-er will be able to recognise which of these senses I am using and in which sequence I am using them.

The NLP-er will recognise this from external cues such as the words I use or the way my eyes move or even by the =sounds of my voice. or how I am breathing.

In NLP we recognise that people are continuously communicating information such as this about what they are doing internally – their inner processing. And this information is available for those who have spent time developing this skill.

The types of cue/clue

As mentioned above, there are a range of external ‘cues’ which we can pay attention to to identify how a person is thinking i.e. whether they are remembering mental images or mental images, talking to themselves, remembering or making sounds, or attending to their feelings.

The two most commonly used indicators are

1. The Predicates

The give-away words and phrases which they use most. 

These the adverbs, verbs, and adjectives which they use and which indicate which of their representational systems they are more consciously aware of utilising at that moment. Words include see, hear feel, sound it out, get a grip on things, talk things over, add things up, get the picture, and so on.

2. The NLP eye accessing cues

How a person’s eyes move when they are thinking

These eye accessing cues are the directions in which they habitually look when they are thinking – or ‘processing’ information.

Non-verbal accessing – other

The eye movements patterns are the easiest accessing cues to observe. However you can also gain information about a person’s inner processing from their voice rate and tempo and tone, breathing patterns, and even gestures.

Knowing about these cues is interesting.  But to be able to use them in everyday conversation, or in coaching or appraisal sessions, does require skill.  And this skill needs to be practised so it is automatic or unconscious.  In this way we can recognise the representational systems a person ‘naturally’ and this doesn’t intrude into the other person’s awareness nor get in the way of our conversing easily with them. (These skills are included in our NLP Core Skills course.)




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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