NLP: How to Identify Primary Representational Systems from the Words People Use

examples of visual predicates
examples of visual predicates

This article follows ‘A Quick Introduction to Representational Systems‘, ‘Do you have a preferred representational system?‘, and ‘Characteristics of Primary Rep Systems‘ so read those first if you’re not familiar with the concept of rep systems in NLP.

The representational systems we are using to think with at any given moment show up in the words that we use. These are often referred to as ‘predicates’ in the NLP jargon, using ‘predicate’ in the sense of implying something, in this case that a particular representational system is in use.

You can listen out for the dominant sensory words in what a person is saying and use words from the same representational system when you reply. If you use visual words to a ‘visual’ person – by which I mean ‘a person with a strong preference for the visual representational system’, it’s easier for them to understand because they don’t have to translate from another system. This is another way to gain rapport, because you will sound more like the other person.

Where two people are using different rep systems, there’s an extra obstacle to communication, because each person has to unconsciously translate what the other person is saying into their own preferred rep system in order to process it. And like any translation, information can get lost. Here’s a consultant meeting a client:

Consultant: Well first I feel I need to say thanks for inviting me. Now I understand the business has hit a sticky patch – maybe you can lay out for me what the problems are?

Client: Yes, we’re hoping you can shed some light on it for us. We’re seeing storm clouds gathering on the horizon and we can’t see our way past them at the moment.

Consultant: Well, as soon as I can get a grasp of the situation, we’ll knock together some plans that you can carry out as soon as we get them to where they feel workable.

Client: Let me outline it for you – we just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Consultant: Yes, that must be very stressful for you. I’ll feel a lot better if you just help me get a handle on it.

Client: (impatient) I’m trying to show you the big picture here…

The client is thinking: I thought consultants were supposed to be bright, but this one seems really dim.  What do I have to do, draw him a diagram?

The consultant is thinking: Hmm, the client is resistant. Tough sell…

So what rep systems was each one using? Can you get a handle on the consultant’s rep system? And the client’s rep system should be blindingly obvious as well…

If you were the consultant, what could you have done that would have made that communication go better? I’m pretty sure you were saying vary your rep system to match the clients. And if you weren’t saying it, I know you were thinking it (that’s called a mind read in the Meta Model, by the way – we’ll get to that in a later article).

If you are talking to a group of people, or writing a report which may be read by many people, the chances are that your audience will contain people with different preferred representation systems. So what could you do to achieve greater rapport in that situation? And… I’m guessing that you said ‘use words from all the rep systems in your presentation’. It’s a good idea anyway – it will make your presentations more interesting to listen to. And especially if you yourself have a strong preference for one rep system – which we’re about to find out – use a variety of representational systems in your communication.

This is not just about words, because there are other ways of communicating. You can appeal to the visual sense through the use of pictures, and using channels or environments for your communication that look nice. This can make a huge difference to customer experience, especially in the retail market and online.

In 2006, Myspace was the most popular online social networking site. At its peak in 2007, it was valued at $12 billion. And then it started losing members to Facebook, in huge numbers.  When you compare the design of the two sites as they were then, it’s not surprising. Because Myspace users could customise their profile pages any way they wanted, most of them looked hideously cluttered, with loud colours and horrible fonts. The clean, uncluttered layout of the Facebook site was much easier on the eye.

In 2011, with declining user numbers, Myspace was finally sold for $35m. And the only group it’s still popular with – is musicians – although it’s now relaunched with a cleaner interface at a time when Facebook is annoying a lot of its users, so who knows what the future will bring?

If you are holding an important meeting or training course, you might want to consider the room from the point of view of each rep system in turn. Does the room look good? Any litter, shabbiness or untidiness will glare out to strongly visual people. Natural light is good, and if you have some fresh flowers in the room, you will also appeal to the olfactory channel.

Is the room quiet? If you’re using music to enhance the mood, or bear in mind that for auditory people it can get in the way of what you’re saying. If you’re using it on a training course, as some Accelerated Learning enthusiasts like to do, it may or may not enhance learning as is claimed, but it could definitely interfere with the thought processes of auditory thinkers.

And consider the room from a kinaesthetic point of view. Is it comfortable? Is it too warm or too cold? And does it feel welcoming and pleasant.

Finally, give some consideration to putting yourself in the shoes of the classic “Auditory Digital” processor (the person who thinks in words and numbers rather than feelings, sounds or images, and is who thinks logically and systematically). What they are going to care about is: does your presentation make sense?

Across the spectrum
All shiny and new
All will be revealed
Birds-eye view
Blue sky thinking
Dark corners
Dawned on him
Enlightened leader
Flash of inspiration
Flashes through my mind
From my viewpoint
Get a visual on
Get it into perspective
Green around the gills
Green shoots
In contrast
In the dark
In the shadow of
Lightbulb came on
Lightning fast
Lit up like a Christmas tree
Look where you’re going
Paint me a picture
Rainbow alliance
Scintillating wit
Showing me up
Sparkling conversation
Steely glint
Barking up the wrong tree
Booming economy
Call of nature
Chorus of approval
Cracking night out
Deafening silence
Dropped a clanger
Echoes of the past
Find my rhythm
Go out with a bang
Harmonise procedures
Hearing voices
Howling with laughter
In tune with
Listen to your heart
Making a splash
Murmurs of discontent
On that note
Patter of tiny feet
Peals of laughter
Pop the question
Ringing alarm bells
Silent partner
Something inside me says
Sounding off
Speaking of which
Squeaked it in
Talk it through
That joke backfired
Thinking aloud
Best served cold
Bit of rough
Emotional whack
Comfort factor
Dizzying heights
Falling into disrepair
Feeling rattled
Filled with determination
Flow state
Get a grip
Getting into a scrape
Gooey sentiment
Grab hold of
Heavy heart
Hold fast to
It’s a stretch
Itchy feet
Kick in the butt
Laid back
Leaning in
Light on her feet
Pulling together
Razor-sharp wit
Ruffled some feathers
Scratch that
Skating on thin ice
Slapped down
Stick in the mud
Tapping into something
Too hot to handle


© 2013 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Barbara Bird

    Excellent article – so simply explained

    1. Andy Smith

      Thanks Barbara!

  2. Yuthicka

    Awesome article gives so much clarity. Can there be one or two dominant rep systems for one person? Please go to and give an opinion as it says we can’t necessarily always classify a person on rep systems.

    1. Andy Smith

      Thanks Yuthicka. Yes, someone could have a preference for a couple of rep systems over the others – or they could have a roughly equal preference for all rep systems. Any combination is possible.

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