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NLP lead and representational system – Complete guide

NLP Representational System

Table of Contents


In this post we will explore one of the most important and controversial NLP concept, the Lead and Representation systems. I would like you to consider a few questions to understand these concepts better.

While having an interaction with someone, have you ever looked into their eyes and noticed how their eyes move, while they talk, in different directions and do not remain still?

Have you ever wondered why do the eyes move the way they move?

This seems to be especially true when the conversation is about something related to a past event that the person had to recollect or about a hypothetical situation that they had to create in their mind.

Not sure of what I am referring to?

Go ahead and notice your eyeballs while imagining a red coloured elephant wearing an orange coloured bow, with a yellow coloured cap who has a face that looks like the last person you saw before reading this post. Most people who are able to observe their eyes while creating this image in the mind, notice their eyes moving up and then alternate between left and right while imaging the elephant and recalling the face of the person they saw last.

Why does this happen?

To understand this, let us explore the Model of “Representational System” from NLP.

NLP Representational System

This model examines how the mind takes in, processes and gives out information. As discussed in an earlier post on the NLP presupposition “Map is not the territory”, we are a part of a world in which many things happen simultaneously. All that is happening around us is observed and understood by us with the help of our senses.

Our reality is defined by what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste.

Once our senses absorb this information, it is processed through some filters (refer to generalisation, deletion, distortion) and stored in the mind as a map of the reality that we are a part of. Generally, before or while we talk about a past experience, we first need to access the experience in our minds. Since this experience is stored in terms of sensory information (what we were able to see, hear, feel, taste or smell originally), we access the experience also in terms of these senses.

In NLP training programs, the senses through which we experience the world are referred to as modalities or representational systems.

Main Representational Systems

The three main representational systems are visual (see), auditory (hear) and kinaesthetic (feel). The olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) systems feature to a lesser extent in experience.

The abbreviation used in NLP to represent the different representation systems is VAKOG.

In early studies, it was observed that smell and taste are rarely used in processing and storing information, with the exception of the association of certain powerful memories. For practical purposes, the representation system model was reduced to three components V-A-K.

Subsequently, a further distinction was made within the auditory representational system. First is sounds which are a part of the event (both actual or imagined) and second is talking to oneself internally, known as internal dialogue or “Auditory digital” (sometimes represented as AID). The representation system model becomes V-A-K-ID and this is referred to as the 4-tuple in NLP.

Primary Representation System

While most of these systems are present in our map, one is usually more dominant, although this is not a rule. In other words, though the information is stored as a part of the map in multiple senses and can be retrieved by us in multiple senses, according to what Bandler and Grinder hypothesized in the model of Representation system, each of us have one or two preferred sense(s) via which we generally gain initial access to this stored information. The preferred sense(s) is known as the “lead system“.

Once we get the initial access to the stored experience using the lead system(s), we can explore this information further and get additional details which may have been stored in terms of other senses.

After we access the required information, we can describe this experience or represent this information to others with the help of our words, tone and body language. The words used to represent this information can be sensory (VAKOG) or non-sensory (also known as unspecified words).

In most cases, but not always, the words used to represent information (also known as the primary representation system) to others would be indicative of the system through which we are accessing the information.

Understanding NLP Representation System with Examples

Let us understand all of this with the help of an example:

Let’s say, I am talking to a friend about my experience of visiting Leh – Ladhak. I begin by telling him “how this vacation was literally a visual treat for the eyes. The mountains were completely white, covered in a thick layer of ice. The water that was flowing in the river by the side of the mountains was crystal clear. I can literally feel the chilling sensation that I had after putting my hand in the water. Next to this river was a camp where we stayed during nights. In the camp, tents were set up. It was almost like living in the middle of nature. The tents were of white and sky-blue colour and were very comfortable. The beds in the tent were surprisingly soft. At nights it would become so cold that we would literally see ourselves shivering. Each of us used at least two or three blankets. The feeling of that warmth in the cold was almost heavenly. We visited certain monasteries and saw monks draped in maroon clothes. The music that was playing in the monastery was so soulful and soothing. The chants almost had a trance-like effect….

In order to describe this experience with these vivid details, I first had to remember/access the information, about this vacation, that was stored in my mind. I had to remember how the mountain and water looked, the colour of the tents and the clothes that the monks were wearing, the chilling sensation that I had when I put my hand in the river water or the cold that I experienced during the nights. I had to recall the music that was playing in the monasteries and its effect on how I felt….Notice how though the experience was stored in multiple senses and I was able to recall the experience in multiple senses, the initial information I accessed was visual. Once I had access to these visuals, I could add other sensory information as well. So, for me my lead system for accessing this experience was visual. That said over the course of the conversation I also used the kinaesthetic and auditory representation systems.

A further distinction was made for Visual and Auditory representation systems in that these representations can be both constructed or remembered. For example, you may visually remember the picture of someone’s face in your mind (visually remembered) and remember the sound of the words you heard them saying (auditory remembered). Equally, you may imagine what something looks and sounds like that you have never seen or experienced before, thus visually constructed and auditory constructed.

The Controversy about NLP Representational System

There are two primary controversies that were a result of the way the NLP representation systems was (and sadly is still) promoted and taught in many NLP training programs.

  1. The idea that every person has one preferred representational system and that this system remains the same across time and situations. This lead to novice NLP practitioners labelling others based on their incorrect assessment of the other persons’ representational system.
  2. The distinction between remembered and constructed visual and auditory information lead to an incorrect promotion of NLP as a lie detection technique. This along with other falsified projection of NLP is responsible for most of the criticisms that it receives. We will talk more about this in the next article in this series.

Points to keep in mind when using the understanding of the representational system

  1. Avoid labelling people or putting them into ‘boxes’ & ‘categories’. Labelling people makes us less flexible in how we understand and deal with them. Remember, no-one ‘is’ completely visual, completely auditory or completely kinaesthetic. We all use all of our rep systems all of the time, even if most of us have preferences and prejudices in our use of them.
  2. Identifying the preferred representation system during one interaction should not be generalised to other interactions with the same person. It is wise to avoid the assumption that because someone uses lots of auditory predicates (refer to the next article in this series for details) today that they are an ‘auditory’ or that they will be the same next time you meet.
  3. It is important to observe and calibrate people on a continuous basis. Simply listen to the person in the first few moments of the conversation and adapt to their *current* favoured system. Re-check each time you communicate with someone to verify what they are ‘doing’ today, here and now. The key is to realize, “it’s what they are doing right now – not what they ‘are’.”

This brings us to the question “How can one identify the favoured/preferred representation system for oneself and others?”

Identifying the preferred representation system

External behaviours that indicate what kind of internal processing a person is doing are called accessing cues. There are multiple accessing cues that can be considered as indicators of the representation system being used by a person to access information.

These accessing cues when used individually may not be very reliable but when used in combination with the all other accessing cues can provide valuable insight into how a person thinks, access & processes information in his/her mind. These accessing cues include:

  • Predicates
  • Eye cues
  • Others


NLP Predicates are language, words and phrases that we currently use that can act as indicators for our preferred representational system. As mentioned earlier, in most cases the system through which we access information is reflected in the process words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs) that we use to represent that information. In other words, if I am accessing information visually, it makes sense for me to represent it to others using visual words.

In the story about my vacation (from the first article in this series), since I began by accessing the stored experience using visual representation system, I also described it using visual words like mountains were white, water was crystal clear….

Here are a few examples of predicates indicating the representation system that the speaker was likely using:

Visual Predicates:

  • see what you are trying to say;
  • The man looked fake
  • The colours used in the painting were very bright
  • Your demonstration of this has surely helped me see things more clearly.

Auditory Predicates:

  • hear what you are trying to say
  • That man sounded fake
  • The colours used in the painting were very loud
  • Your explanation of this has surely helped me tune into its meaning.

Kinaesthetic Predicates:

  • I am able to grasp the meaning of what you are trying to say
  • I have this tingling feeling that the man is fake.
  • The colours used in the painting were very soothing and comforting
  • Your walking me through this has surely helped me get a handle on its meaning.

Unspecified predicates

(Generally used by those with auditory digital or self-talk as preferred representation system)

  • I am able to understand what you are trying to say;
  • sense that the man is fake
  • The colours used in the painting were very good
  • Your description of this has surely helped me make sense of it.

When you are listening to a person, you may notice them using a combination of predicates from different categories or representation systems. But as you develop sensory acuity and use your observational skills, you are most likely to find that there may be a dominance/preference, in terms of usage, of a particular category of a predicate. The representation system that is dominant in the predicates used by the person is called Primary Representation System. The primary representation system is one of the indicators of the lead representation system.

Predicates / primary representation system in most cases may act as indicators of the representation system likely being used by the person (notice the words “most cases” and “likely”), but in some cases, this may not be true. Think of accessing / lead system as the language of thinking and the primary representation system as the language of talking. Generally, the language that I think in, will match the language that I speak in, but in some cases, that may not be true. So, there is a possibility that I am thinking in Hindi but may speak with you in English. Similarly, I may access information Visually but use kinaesthetic words to describe the information. This being the case, it is always useful to have multiple indicators that are considered in combination with one another to identify the representation system. So, we recommended using this accessing cue in combination with the other cues mentioned below.

Eye cues

Remember, we began the previous post in this series by asking you whether you have ever wondered why the eyes of a speaker move in different directions while speaking about an experience?

Eye movements, according to Bandler and Grinder, can be used as one of the indicators for understanding how a person is accessing information in their mind. In general, it is observed that when people are accessing information using visual system they have a tendency to look up, when they access information using auditory system they have a tendency to look towards left or right at eye level and when they are accessing information through the kinaesthetic system or by talking to themselves (auditory digital system), they have a tendency to look down.

Bandler and Grinder along with some of their students also hypothesized that for right-handers looking towards right or left can also indicate whether the person is remembering an experience or constructing a new one. Though they mentioned that movements towards right and left are purely indicators (which are very unreliable), many NLP training programs started teaching and promoting eye cues in a sacrosanct manner. This lead to what is now popularly known as the Great NLP Lie Detection myth. In our training programs, we offer a more reliable and practical understanding of NLP concepts and processes to ensure that our participants do not fall prey to unscientific assessment tools.

The standard eye cues are likely to apply in case of a majority of people. (Note the word ‘likely’.)  But, as we explain in our own CHCP training program it is important to treat these cues only as a starting point. The most important thing to understand about people is that people differ and not everyone will have the same pattern. We recommend that you use your sensory acuity and calibration skills coupled with the effective question to establish how the person in front of you accesses information from their map.

Developing Sensory Acuity and Calibration skills can have the potential to transform the way you take coaching/therapy session and interact with people around you in your personal life. You will develop these skills in the classroom module of the Level 2 and 3 of the CHCP program.

Other Indicators or Accessing Cues:

  1. Indicators for Visual Lead Representational System

    People who have visual lead representation system have the following characteristics:

    • Tend to move, think and talk faster (simply because visually you can access a lot of information quickly & simultaneously, which means they have so little time to describe the images they see in their minds)
    • Understand better by pictures and diagrams rather than written words
    • They remember faces easier than names
    • Interested in whether things ‘look good’. They may even not taste foods which look bad
    • Usually, they will be nicely dressed and well groomed, and their desk will be tidy – they don’t like clutter.
    • Tend to stand up straight
    • Breathe from the top of the chest
    • Prefer to stand back so they can see you
  2. Indicators for Auditory Lead Representational System

    People having auditory lead representation system have the following characteristics:

    • May find it easier to remember phone numbers and names
    • Learn by listening
    • Understands better by talking rather than reading
    • Easily distracted by noise
    • Can repeat things back to you easily
    • Breathe from the middle of the chest
    • The tone of voice very important
    • Interested in whether things ‘sound right’
    • Like to be close enough to hear you
  3. Indicators for kinaesthetic Lead Representational System

    People who have a kinaesthetic lead representation system have the following characteristics:

    • Often talk and breathe slowly because they need to feel what they are saying
    • Best learn by trying and experiencing the situation. Memorise by doing or walking through things
    • Respond to physical rewards and touch
    • Breathe from abdomen
    • Interested in whether things ‘feel right’
    • Like to be close enough to touch you
    • They will dress for comfort rather than looks.
  4. Indicators for Auditory digital Lead Representational System

    People who have an Auditory digital lead representation system have the following characteristics:

    • A lot of internal dialogue/self-talk
    • Talk things out with others, or use them as a sounding board for their ideas.
    • Memorise by steps, procedures, sequences
    • Fond of lists, flow charts and writing things down
    • Good at categorizing and summarizing
    • Interested in whether something ‘makes sense’
    • Can exhibit characteristics of other systems
    • Will often be leaning back (dissociated)
    • Like to think plan and analyse
    • Have a strong secondary representational system or even have some aspects of all major systems – remember this is a second layer for some other sensory processing.
    • Can be very logical but not necessarily in sequential step-by-step ways.

Why identify representation systems?

The representational system is all about how people access, process & represent information. Observing the representational systems can help you understand how people are thinking. Once you understand this “how”, you could present information to them in a way in which they are able to tune into the things you want them to be able to grasp more effectively.

Once you develop this skill and use these accessing cues (in combination with common sense & other skills you develop in the course), you can also get important information about:

  • Whether the person you are interacting with is paying attention to what is going on around them, or to their internal feelings or mental images or sounds, or is he/she silently talking to themselves.
  • When it’s OK to speak and when it is best to remain silent to allow the person you are interacting with ‘space’ to think.
  • What you can do or say to help the person access information from their own minds more effectively and easily.
  • How the person is thinking. (Notice it is “how “and NOT “what”)
  • The best ways to ‘present’ your ideas so that the person(s) finds them not just easy to understand but also appealing. This presentation of ideas could be in
    • One to one interactions
    • One to many interactions (e.g. training programs)
    • Verbal, written…. communication
  • The kind of behaviour they would feel comfortable with. For example, would they prefer for you to
    • stand closer to them or a bit further away
    • speak quickly or slowly
    • explain through metaphors or through facts or with the help of practical activities

All these insights along with the understanding of the representational system will help you:

  • Understand the other person in a better and more effective way
  • Develop Rapport
  • Become an effective and influential communicator
  • Handle and Resolve conflicts effectively
  • Collect relevant information quickly and easily
  • Help more clients or patients
  • Develop deeper relationships
  • Make more sales
  • Create compelling content (articles, books, speeches, videos…)
  • And much more

Some practical applications of representation systems

The following are just of few applications of the insights resulting from developing skill in recognising lead and primary representation systems

Use them to think more clearly and effectively

After observing yourself and identifying your accessing cues, you can use them to think more clearly and effectively. To understand this let us assume for the purpose of this example that you have a preferred lead accessing system that is visual and that your eyes generally move in a way that is in sync with the generalised eye cues we discussed in the previous article. The next time when you wish to remember an experience in a more detailed manner, first try looking up towards left and think about how things in that experience looked. Even if you have a vague picture/image of that experience in your mind while continuing to look up allow that image to develop. Look at the elements present in that mental image. Once the mental image is more clear and vivid, look down towards your left and get in touch with the sensations and feelings you were experiencing and then look towards your left (at eye level), recall the sounds that were present in that memory. Give yourself time while doing this activity. Since in this example we have assumed that your lead representational system is visual, in case you have difficulty accessing auditory or kinaesthetic information, feel free to move your eye back up in order to make the image more vivid and then repeat the steps again.

  1. Most people who use this activity daily for a week or so, notice that their ability to access details from their mind begins to improve and the time required to access this information becomes lesser.
  2. Please modify the above activity to personalise it based on your preferred lead system and how your eyes move while recalling information in different representation systems.

First of all, check your own internal representations:

Does a particular memory or imagined, future event involve pictures, sounds, physical sensation, smell or taste? Then, notice the predicates that you use. It will probably be easy to identify your own preference.

Develop rapport

When you are presenting an idea that you would like to be accepted by the other person, based on the accessing cues that you are noticing, you can modify what you say, when you say and how you say in a way that makes the other person more comfortable. This may make the person more receptive and make it easier for the person to understand what you are saying. Knowing a person’s preferred thinking system enables you to literally ‘speak their language‘. Notice other peoples’ language. You may hear someone say “show me how it works” (visual) or, alternatively ‘tell me about it” (auditory), or even “walk me through the process” (kinaesthetic). A person’s use of predicates provides important information about:

  • how they may currently be thinking and
  • how they would like to talk about what they are thinking.

If the representation system (primary, based on their predicates) they are using is different from yours, experiment with pacing/matching it. It is important for effective communication and understanding to adapt the presentation of information to match an individual’s preferred way (Refer to the post on love languages). Representation system is similar to language in this respect. If you continuously respond to a person in English when he/she tries carrying on a conversation in Hindi, how do you think he is going to feel? Would he/she be comfortable during that conversation?

Business Presentations

Let’s say you are making a business presentation to

  1. a person who is highly visual. He/she will like to think in pictures and will give you more attention if your presentation is not too fact-filled, has lots of anecdotes, is delivered in a slightly high tonality, has a brisk pace and is supported with lots of visual aids such as slides, photographs etc.
  2. a person who is involved in a lot of self-talking. He/she wants hard facts and figures and are not influenced by emotions or effusive enthusiasm. Support your ideas with well-researched data and use graphs, bar charts, etc.
  3. a person who is highly kinaesthetic. He/she would want to be actively involved. Give them things to handle. Invite them to come up and help you with working things out on the flip chart. Ideally, have a sample that they can keep and play with. Speak at a measured rate, not too fast, and allow lots of pauses especially when you see them accessing their feelings.

Understanding the need for Personal Space

The lead representation system also gives us information about their ‘personal space’ needs.

  1. Highly visual people generally like lots of personal space which allows them to get a lot of information from watching all of you. So stand or sit relatively far from them.
  2. People who think mainly with feelings may prefer to be close enough to be able to touch you by patting your arm or holding your elbow or shoulder, or using a double clasp handshake!
  3. The auditory and self-talk auditory specialists will probably have only minimal awareness of you and your body language since they are paying so much attention to the facts and figures and to their analysis of these facts and figures.

Specific Tasks

Representational systems are also relevant where some tasks are better performed within one representation system or another. For example, in education, spelling is often learned best by children who have unconsciously developed a strategy of visualising words rather than phonetically ‘sounding out’. When taught to visualise words, previously poor spellers can improve.

Working with Groups or one to many interactions

In writing for a wide readership or while giving speeches or in training programs, it’s useful to mix the representational systems so that everyone can see your point, tune into what you are saying, grasp the meaning or understand it in the context which is in sync with their taste!


How we relate to someone to a large extent depends on how effectively we understand them and communicate with them. Many relationships are adversely affected as a result of partners having different preferred representation system. One of my client during a relationship counselling session said that “My wife keeps telling me that I don’t love her anymore.” He continued “I tell her I love you at least three or four times a day! I don’t know what else should I do?”The wife responded by saying “You can say all you want, but what is the point if I can’t see that in your actions? You no longer buy gifts for me, rarely take me to movies. Forget that you don’t even look at me in that special way.”Were you able to notice the words used by the wife? Can you see what is the problem clearly? The wife wasn’t able to tune into the meaning of his words and he wasn’t able to demonstrate his feelings in a way that she could see the same. She felt loved when she was shown visually. The husband was expressing his love auditorily. All the husband had to do was, determine which Representation System she was thinking in by observing the words she used. He would have heard the visual words and realised his declarations of love were ‘falling on deaf ears.’ He could have matched his communication style to show her he loved her.

Coaching & Therapy

One of the key skill required by a coach or therapist is to collect relevant information from the client. A coach or a therapist does so by building rapport (so that the client feels comfortable sharing) & by asking relevant questions (that help the client access the information from their mind). We have already looked at an example of building rapport with the help of the representational system above. So let us focus on collecting relevant information in this example. The client begins by accessing information in their mind by using their current lead representation system. The ability to identify the lead system being used by the client can provide very useful insights that can guide the coach/therapist. These insights can help them pace the client by asking them questions. These questions can make it easier for the client to explore, see or hear the information that they are accessing. Then pacing and leading can also be used to help the client access information stored in other sensory systems. For example: During a session, you observe that your client while thinking about the problem, appears to be primarily thinking in pictures. At that moment, it would not be very useful to ask “how does he ‘feel’ about his problem?”. It would be much better to ask him:

  • can he see how the problem looks?
  • While thinking about the problem, what are the things he can observe?
  • How would this situation look like after the current problems are resolved?

This helps them:

  • Go deeper into their map of the world as it is easier for the client to understand what you are saying.
  • When they describe the problem, it reduces the possibility of distortion in information that can take place while translating information from one representation system to another.

Points to remember

  1. Do not label people or put them in boxes. People ‘are’ not auditories nor visuals nor kinaesthetics. It’s just something they do. Some people do it most of the time and in most situations, while others have preferred representation system in particular situations. Also, the favoured preferred systems may switch in a different context. So always verify how the person with whom you are interacting is functioning during this interaction.
  2. Do not take the standard eye cue model at its face value as it is based on generalisations and would not stand to be true for everyone. They are merely working hypotheses. You may use them as starting points but verify whether or not they are applicable for the particular individual through further observation and through questions. If the generalized model is not applicable to this particular individual, identify the cues that are related to the individual by using questions and your sensory acuity to calibrate the individual. (ICHARS students can refer to the classroom activity during level 2)
  3. Knowing about these cues is interesting but to be able to use them in everyday conversation, or in coaching or therapy sessions, one needs to develop the skill by practising so that the application of this skill becomes automatic or unconscious. If you are a trainer or a coach and would like to develop advanced coaching competencies and apply the understanding or Lead and Representation systems in you practice, check out the Cognitive Hypnotic Coaching™ Program. If you are a Psychologist who would like to develop advanced therapeutic skills based on an eclectic approach that integrates NLP, Hypnosis, Cognitive therapies, Metaphors…. you must check out the Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy™ Program