The NLP Predicates

'You Kinaesthetic - Me Visual'

It does make a change from “I'd say you're a Sagittarian... or maybe a Leo” but it is a pity they miss the point. You've probably met one or two of them or, like me, been there yourself.

They've done an entry-level NLP course or read a book or two on NLP and now, at every opportunity, they're putting people into boxes

  • You're a Visual
  • He's a Kinaesthetic
  • She's an Auditory

In their enthusiasm to try out or show off their new skills they completely miss two important points.

  1. No-one 'is' a visual, an auditory or a kinaesthetic even if most of us do have preferences and prejudices in our use of representational systems.
  2. We all use all of our rep systems all of the time. And, yes, people often tend to favour one system more than the others - in particular situations.


For those who have never read an NLP book or been to a workshop this might be a good point to put one or things into plain English - that's one of our missions in Pegasus NLP, to make NLP accessible by removing or explaining the strange and arcane jargon!

As we discover in our NLP Core Skills course we have five senses and in NLP these are called representational systems or, more usually, rep systems. The term refers to which of our senses we are paying attention to. Are we more aware of what we are seeing (visual), or what we are hearing (auditory), or what we are physically sensing or feeling (kinaesthetic), or smelling (olfactory), or tasting (gustatory)?

We pay attention to what is going on inside and outside – the internal (thinking/feeling) and the external world. So in my auditory sense I can hear sounds outside me and I can also hear my internal chatter or self-talk. Using my kinaesthetic system I can pay attention to the external feeling of the wind on my face and the sensations of hunger or fullness. Visually I can see what's going on around me or I can pay attention to my mental images.

And my attention, at any one moment, will generally be a blend of all of my senses – with some having greater dominance than others depending on the current circumstances and on which sense I habitually give greatest attention to.

Recognising Rep Systems

One of the first skills we develop when learning NLP is to recognise how a person is using their senses or 'representational systems' or rep systems. We do this through listening to clue words and phrases called predicates and to watching the directions in which a person's eyes move when they are thinking – their 'eye accessing cues'. This article is about the predicates.

Listening for Predicates Literally

Predicates are words and phrases which suggest the activity of seeing, hearing, etc. such as 'I see what you mean', 'that doesn't add up' or 'I need to get a handle on what you are saying'. A person's use of predicates provides important information about how they are currently thinking and to which of their five senses they are giving greatest attention.

Predicates in effective communicating

In NLP we tend to listen very attentively - and quite literally - to what a person says.

If the person with whom I am communicating says 'I can't imagine it' then, as a NLPer, I take this literally and I act as if they need me to provide more or better quality information so that they 'can' imagine it – so they are able to visualise it.

If I selling them something and the person says 'I can't quite get a handle on this' I may take this as a clue that they need to be physically engaged in my description in order to be convinced. So I will aim to get them involved in a hands-on manner by giving it to them to use or offering them a week's free trial.

If the person responds to my great plan with a 'that doesn't add up' I can take this as a clue that they are evaluating it through inner self talk and, perhaps, through verbally listing the pros and cons. Their comment suggests that they need more factual data (that does add up) and less emotional hype.

Speaking their language

Knowing a person's favourite thinking system enables you to literally 'speak their language' which, in turn, enhances rapport and makes what you are saying easier to understand and more appealing to them.

Let's say you and I are having a business meeting. You speak good English but your native language is Swahili. Now, although you can understand my English, if I begin speaking excellent Swahili it will significantly change the dynamics of the conversation and of the relationship. You will find it easier to understand the subtleties and nuances of what I am saying and are also likely to unconsciously feel better disposed towards me.

In the same way if you are more at home with your kinaesthetic sense and I am more at ease with my auditory sense we can still converse easily. However if I switch to discussing and describing in a more kinaesthetic manner the dynamics of our interaction will improve.

Avoid putting people into boxes

Humans are innately lazy and we constantly seek ways of making things easy for ourselves. This accounts for our tendency to put others into 'boxes' or categories. It saves the 'trouble' of having to learn about the person or of treating them as living, changing, evolving individuals…

So we put people into 'boxes' according to race, religion, sex, sexual preferences, accent, dress, type of car, physical appearance, etc. and, if we attend an NLP course, rep systems!

Predicates are very useful. But they are not like astrology signs. So ensure you avoid the tendency to decide, based on a single conversation, that someone 'is' a visual, an auditory, or a kinaesthetic.

What are they doing - right now?

Remember we use all of our available senses all of our waking hours.

It is true that we pay more attention to some rep systems than others – and in certain situations this choice can narrow down to mainly one sense. However it is wise to avoid the assumption that because someone uses lots of visual predicates today that they are a 'visual' or that they will be the same next time you meet.

I've come across sales people who, after an NLP course, put a place on their customer records for which rep system as customer 'is'. These salespeople missed a few key points: most people switch favoured rep systems from time to time, from situation to situation and, in particular, depending on stressed or at ease they are.

Rather than use their boxes it would be easier and safer for these sales people to simply listen to the customer in the first few moments of the conversation and adapt to the customer's *current* favoured system.

Be prepared to re-check each time you communicate with someone to verify what they are 'doing' today, here and now, rather than expect them to fit into a pigeon hole.

It's what they are doing right now – not what they 'are'. This is no big chore, by the way and takes a few minutes of close attention at the beginning of a conversation.

The key is to be alert and flexible. Alert to which system a person is favouring right now. And flexible enough to be able to easily match that system and 'speak their language'.

How to become flexible with your senses

Speaking the other person's language is both a gift to them and a valuable influencing tool for you. Really good communicators can interact with ease whatever the other person's favoured system.

For most purposes you can ignore the senses of smell and taste – leaving you just three to become more flexible with. And as one of There is likely to be your own favourite this cuts the list down to two!

Choose your “sense-of-the-day” for 2 consecutive days. Day 1 is the (mainly) listening day and Day 2 is the (mainly) transmitting day.

In Day 1 keep a list all of the predicates for that rep system that you come across in conversation, in newspapers, on the radio or TV, etc.

Continue with this list on Day 2 and, additionally, aim to use mainly/only the predicates for the rep system that you are studying.

In this way you immerse yourself for two days in a particular rep system. After a few weeks you'll find yourself hearing and using the predicates automatically – and, more importantly, using them to adapt how you communicate to suit the other person's favoured thinking style.

(Note: representational systems is a big and important topic. This issue of the newsletter dealt only with the predicates. We'll deal with the famous NLP eye accessing cues in a (near) future issue and return to the topic again from time to time. Check out this article, too.

Both of these skills are included in our 4-day NLP Core Skills in the New Forest.

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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