Communication 7: Representational Systems

Communication 7: Representational Systems

Date: 4/1/2001

Visual Auditory Kinesthetic Auditory Digital
Take a look at this Tell you loud & clear Get a grasp on what I am saying I want to communicate this idea to you
It is unclear Does not ring a bell I don't follow you I am not sure
I see your point I hear what you're saying I'm in touch with your idea I understand
See you soon! Speak to you soon! Keep in touch! Good bye! 

We are created with five senses through which we experience the world: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Unless you are a florist or a professional chef, taste and smell are going to be less important than the three others. For most people sight, hearing, and touch are their primary sources of experience.

What does this have to do with communication? Actually, a lot. Look at the chart above and notice how the same message can be said using expressions that relate to the different senses. Auditory Digital is the exception as it is neutral and does not relate to any of the senses.

What difference does it make? Usually the wording a person chooses reveals something about the way he represents the idea to himself. Hence the name "representational systems" ("rep systems" for short). And this can have ramifications in making yourself understood and in relating to people. When you use the same rep system as your listener he will feel that you really understand his situation.

By the way, the above list is far from exhaustive. See if you can identify which rep system the following words belong to: dim, remark, inquire, amplify, solid, tremble, rough, warm, shiver, foresee, imagine, articulate, absorb, comprehend, want, can, know, think, glance, attuned, glow. How about: it smells fishy, bland taste in clothes, a sour face, a bitter Winter, a sweet year...

While everyone makes use of all of the rep systems, generally  people tend to favor one rep system. This becomes particularly evident when someone is under stress. Furthermore, people will often use a particular rep system when speaking about one topic and then switch to a different rep system when speaking about another topic.

Take counseling, for example. Let's say that an employee, student, child, or friend wants to discuss a personal problem. When describing the problem people will often use kinesthetic ("feeling") words. This is what you might expect since the problem makes them feel bad.

"I feel a lot of pressure lately and I don't seem to know how to handle it."

However, when considering possible solutions many people will change rep systems. Some people will want to "look at" different solutions. Others may prefer "talking things out and hearing new ideas." Still others may go into auditory digital as it distances them from direct sensory experience and helps them to be more objective.

"The way I see it I am going to have to look into various possibilities and clarify which ones appear most relevant."
"I hear what you're saying and it sounds interesting. Perhaps we can discuss it more tomorrow."
"I don't really know what is the best solution. I need to think it over some more and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of the possibilities."

Recall the principle of pacing and leading we discussed in the article on "Disagreeing without Arguing."  If someone would present you with a problem you would want to notice which rep system is dominant in describing the problem and emphasize that rep system when discussing the problem with him.

When the conversation moves to solutions, again notice which rep system they use. It is probably a healthy sign if the rep system of the solution is different than that of the problem. Usually you would want to favor that rep system when discussing the solution.

If, however, it is the same rep system, this may indicate that the person is stuck in his problem state of mind. This is especially true if the rep system is Kinesthetic. You might consider leading him to a different rep system when discussing solutions. This can help shift him out of that problem state into a more resourceful solution state.

What are the percentages of people who favor each of the rep systems? In American society the statistics are: Visual 45%, Auditory 15%, Kinesthetic 40%. My experience is that amongst Jews there is a higher percentage of auditory. In Hebrew people often greet each other with "ma nishnah" (in Yiddish "vos hert zach.")--which means literally "What is there to hear about you" When parting we often bless each other "shenishma bisuros tovos" which translates as "May we hear good news".  Perhaps this can be partly attributed to our tradition of an oral Torah and from the Torah prohibition against making statues and images.

And if you do public speaking be sure to use all of the rep systems during your talk. This will help you connect with everyone in the audience. It can also make your talk more stimulating. With more specialized groups consider which rep system they are likely to favor. A group of artists will probably favor a different rep system than a group of musicians or massage therapists or lawyers.

Interested in doing further research? Start by noticing the wording in advertisements. Predictably most ads favor visual and kinesthetic words. Auditory is usually sprinkled in, too. Auditory Digital is used when a more academic, professional impression is desired. An ad for the Hyatt Regency Dead Sea Resort reads: "...immerse yourself in the sparkling mineral waters...indulge in the colors of exquisite Mediterranean and International cuisine, and let the sound of music bring the desert alive..." That's a pretty sophisticated blend and you can be sure that this successful hotel chain hired a first-class advertising firm to put it together.