Managing Emotional Responses with NLP

Contrary to popular belief, NLP is not a therapy, although therapy practitioners who use it get spectacular results. It is not a sales training programme, yet sales people who use it also get spectacular results. It is not a personal development medium, yet personal developers who use it get spectacular results too. And it is not a suitable subject for home study. It works too well to be safe in the hands of the untrained, and is best learned with experienced and qualified NLP trainers. Would you attempt to learn scuba diving from a book, or from your neighbour who did a weekend course in the local swimming pool? This article offers insight into one of our cultural assumptions and ways, using NLP information, to learn to manage it ourselves.

NLP studies how we put our thoughts together, how we know what we know and how we construct our own experiences. And yes, our own subjective experiences are different from everyone else’s. And everyone else’s experiences are different from each others’. All of our thoughts, emotions, memories and imaginings are made from pictures, sounds and sensations. The differences between our common experiences come from the myriad sequences and placings we can make with sounds and pictures and sensations and in the choice of subject matter that attracts our attention.


Many people in the west find it easy to see their mental pictures and the rest can be taught quite easily. Everyone makes mental pictures; it is just that some people have not yet learned to notice them. Think about your own mental pictures of something you enjoy, for a moment. Are they coloured or black and white, still or moving, are they close to you or far away, large or small, portrait, landscape or wraparound? Which parts are in focus? Are you watching the scene as if it were live, or are you watching yourself in it, as if on video?

These are examples of how we can do the same thing differently from each other. You can change the meaning of an experience by changing one of these options. If you have chosen something you enjoy, find out what happens if you bring the picture closer to you, or make it bigger. You can move mental pictures simply by intending to do so. If you like the result, keep it. Otherwise put it back as it was and find out what happens if you intensify the colour. Make one change at a time. And remember to put it back the way it was between each change. If you find one or more changes that you like better than the original, keep them. Be careful to keep track of the changes you make to your pictures. If you do anything that you do not like, reverse it immediately. Ensure you finish with an experience at least as pleasant as when you began.

Auditory and Kinaesthetic representation

For most westerners, pictures are the easiest sensory representation to notice and alter deliberately. You can learn to make similar alterations to the sounds you hear and the sensations you feel just as easily. Move sounds from where they are to another location; changing the speed, the tones, the volume, as if you had a sophisticated mixing desk. You can increase or decrease the intensity of sensations, change the texture, heat them up or cool them down, slow the rhythm or speed it up, move them around, make them bigger or smaller or disappear completely.

You may have noticed that if you change a picture in one specific way, the sound and feeling change too, or if you change a particular aspect of the sound, the picture and feeling shift simultaneously. These are known as ‘drivers’. You will also have found that other elements change alone. Finding your particular driver differences is a quick way into your least easily accessed system (sight, hearing or feeling). For example, if your picture is moderately exciting, and it felt more exciting when you made it bigger, you changed the sensations by changing the picture. If your picture were fuzzy and it had distorted sound and scratchy sensations, would the picture come into focus if you clarified the sound and could the sensations become smooth through changing the sound?

Sensory representations and Emotions

There is a commonly held belief in western society that sensation cannot be changed at will and neither can emotion. There is a related myth that anyone who can change their emotions is faking, shallow, uncaring, or untrustworthy, unenlightened, repressed or ‘not ready’ to be ‘authentic’. Most cultures believe that one system (sight, hearing and feeling) is outside their control, but not all find feeling the most difficult. For example, Native American culture has a reputation for changing feelings and sensations with facility.

For Native Americans, visible mental pictures are equated with visions from their gods, and therefore given religious significance. The Sun Dance and Vision Quest rituals are specifically designed to heighten the chance of mental pictures becoming visible. Both rituals involve the initiate in extreme discomfort to a level that most westerners would find unacceptable. For Native Americans the pain control they practise during these rituals shifts their attention and alters their mental state sufficiently for them to see pictures. It works by overloading their preferred system (feeling) for normal purposes so that they have to do something else; in this case, see. As the ritual is framed as religious or spiritual, it is culturally encouraged for them to see mental pictures in that context.

The western equivalent is the personal development market, bungy jumping, adventure training, drug use and religious ritual. Westerners rate peak experiences by the intensity of sensation they experience at the time whether the vehicle is secular or religious. Some call it emotion, but the structure of emotion is … pictures, sounds and sensations, and the most convincing of these in the west is sensation.

Managing Emotions

The ability to feel what we want to, when we want to is a very useful skill. It frees us from the expense of seeking repeated peak experiences. One exposure is sufficient to use as the beginning of a personal library. After that you can alter it, intensify it, customise it in any number of ways by playing with the pictures, sounds and feelings that first went with it. Or you can build your library from scratch, using attractive bits of ordinary pleasure and enhancing and mixing them to your liking. The way in, as described above, is through pictures and sounds. Simply remember a pleasing occasion and make it big, bright, life-like, and maybe slightly slower. Step into it and turn up the sensations. Through practice you can increase your facility with sensation and learn to turn it up and down directly.

The next stage is literally managing emotion. There are two immediate ways of doing this. The first is good for neutralising unwanted emotional responses. If you are laughing at a funeral, crying at work or angry with an innocent person, to neutralise any of them, move the picture a long way from you, or shrink it down to the size of a postage stamp. You can always come back to it later if you want to regardless of what is in it. Make it small enough, or distant enough and for most people it will become less intense.

To invoke a particular emotion you want to display, remember or imagine a time when you would do that, and make a big, bright, close picture. Then step into it. This is great for thanking a special person for an awful present, or for producing remorse when you break someone’s favourite ornament that you have hated for years. Have you ever wished you could be more patient when training a child or an animal? Do you want to say ‘No’ to someone and mean it? Find a picture in your memory that has the quality of emotion you want. Make it big, close, bright and life-like, and a suitable state will follow.

The second way to manage emotion involves the feeling more directly. Leslie Cameron Bandler lists seven changeable parts to any emotion in her book ‘The Emotional Hostage’. These include rhythm, tempo, intensity, time frame, and personal involvement. Like the changes we made to pictures at the beginning of this article, Cameron-Bandler suggests making similar changes to the feeling of emotions to change them directly. For example, anxiety commonly has a fast, uneven rhythm, and is always concerned with the future. If you slow down the rhythm to an even 120 beats per minute, the feeling changes to something more comfortable. If you imagine being in a time after the event, anxiety vanishes. Remember a previous occasion when you were anxious about something and how much less alarming the event was in retrospect.

Guilt and shame require personal involvement. Guilt happens if you offend someone else’s values and it matters to you. Shame happens if you offend your own values, without recognising the more important value that you kept. If you imagine you are back before the event, there is no guilt or shame, because you have not done the deed yet. Alternatively you can reduce the intensity and change the rhythm. You may discover that you acted on another value of your own, or that you made a mistake. Mistakes are feedback to learn from. The consequences may be sad or irreversible, but they can become acceptable if you can consider them. For any emotion that you want to change, take the most obvious feature and alter it. Find out what happens. To enhance an emotion, take a feature and increase it. You may build a peak experience all by yourself. Wouldn’t that be something?

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(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

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The Myth in NLP of the Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic Person

Today, one of the hallmarks of a lack of appreciation of NLP is the notion that we “are” a representational system, as in “you are a visual, he is an auditory and I am a kinaesthetic”. A variation is “you are an auditory to visual to kinaesthetic and he is a visual to kinaesthetic to auditory” but this is just as benighted, only the box is bigger and if the very idea confuses you, that is how its user gets people to believe it. People do not have single, fixed sequences of thinking, however much they try to box ideas. How facile to attempt to identify a person on a single or small sample of expression, but this class of identification does make an excellent criterion to include in seeking a possible source of NLP training or practice.

Representational System Model

Representational systems is the name of a model of the way we code and order our thinking, memory and imagination. The model proposes that people think in combinations and sequences of images, sounds and sensations, tastes and scents. These internal representations match our external senses and when elicited in an associated form, like the sensory experience of being there, use the same neurological circuits as sensory experience. We distinguish linguistically between live sensory experience and internal representation by referring to sensory or representational vision, sound, feeling etc.

Everyone can use all internal representational systems simultaneously when attending internally, just as we can attend externally with all our senses, but often, only one system is in conscious awareness at any given moment. The supporting observations for this rely on personal reporting, choice of sensory specific words, known as “predicates” and the external evidence of eye accessing cues.

Eye Accessing Model

The eye accessing model proposes that people use location to gain access to the content of memory and imagination (this includes patterns). Material in different representations is accessed from particular locations by a flick of the eyes in the appropriate direction. The majority of people access visual representations by flicking their eyes above the eye line. Auditory or sound representations are sourced horizontally and feeling, both sensation and proprioception are found below eye level.

The distinction between accessing memory or constructed ideas is less clear cut. While there is a majority that keeps memory to the left of the body and imagination to the right, there is a sizable minority that does the reverse. Contrary to speculation in some NLP literature, the idea of a “normally organised right handed person” is not reliable. Ideally, to use eye accessing to assist someone retrieve information, we need to know exactly where each class of information resides for that person. We do this by asking questions to elicit deliberate accessing in each representational system and with reference to the past or the future. Questioning for future accessing needs to seek completely fresh ideas to ensure they have not been transferred to memory.

When information is accessed, it can be reviewed with the eyes on its location or it can be brought into our visual and/or auditory field and/or felt, smelled, tasted in the body. We can detect sequences of representation in someone else’s thinking through the sensory predicates they use and the directions of their eye movements.

Using Representational Systems

There is a choice, usually exercised unconsciously, of being aware of one or more representations simultaneously. When a memory or proposed situation is activated, we can become totally engrossed in it as if we were present in real time. Then we can experience all representational systems at once. If we represent the information as if from a distance, we might only see it or hear it, but in both these possibilities, use of more than one representational system is simultaneous.

Synaesthesia is another option. This occurs when we experience a representation, usually in a different system, in response to a sensory input or representation. Examples include, see favourite pet – feel warm glow; hear scratch on blackboard – feel teeth stand to attention; hear piece of music – see selection of colours. Synaesthesia is also the structure of phobias; see or hear phobic stimulus – experience disproportionately nasty feeling. The eye accessing evidence can be a fast flick of the eyes from one system to another, but this is seen with rapid multi-representational thought as well. If the eyes are defocused and facing front, this usually indicates a synaesthesia is happening. Synaesthesia can include more than two representational systems, though most reporting refers to two.

Outside NLP, most people are unaware of the way they use their internal representations or even that they have them. Synaesthesia is commonly defined as a condition a few people exhibit, not a choice. Some people are convinced they do not visualise and cannot learn to do it. In NLP, it is presupposed that we can learn to track our current uses of internal representations and learn to use the parts we have not known before. We can separate unwanted synaesthesias, create new and desirable ones, expand our repertoire of thinking by including habitually ignored representations and facilitate our capacity to learn with deliberate mental photographs and sound recordings. We can change the meaning we attribute to any content we think about by altering the size, volume, bandwidth, clarity, shape, brightness, temperature, distance, speed etc: of our representations of it. This uses a related model called Submodalities, which considers the packaging in which an image, sound or sensation is presented to us.

The myth of the visual, auditory or kinaesthetic person

When Grinder and Bandler first became aware of representational systems and eye accessing cues, it was through observation and listening. Grinder describes in “Whispering in the Wind”, hearing a conversation between two people in a petrol service station and becoming aware that they were using sensory specific words to each other, but from different senses. This did not produce smooth communication and it drew Grinder’s attention.

Grinder and Bandler conducted experiments with training groups, creating sub-groups based on sensory specific language. When they put strangers together according to the representational system used in their greeting, conversations were freer and more spontaneous in the group than when people were placed with others who greeted in different sensory predicates.

Initially, the idea of a preferred representational system was postulated, not to identify or label people, but as the basis for further research, which has been taking place ever since, with excellent results. But, the tendency of most people to take a single example of something, or an open proposal and over generalise from it occurred and the NLP community of the day welcomed the idea with open arms. Regardless of further observation and more discovery in the last 35 years, including evidence that we shift between representations when thinking and use all of them in different sequences or strategies, the original postulate has become an icon.

Learn more

Check our 10970NAT Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming program.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

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