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NLP Calibration: what to notice

Following on from earlier articles about calibration and calibration exercises, let’s look at some of the changes you can calibrate in people’s responses. This comes from NLP, but if you’re at all interested in the ‘relationship awareness’ aspect of emotional intelligence, or in coaching, counselling, communication or influence, being aware of these external signs of changes in someone’s internal state will be useful.

I’ve come up with the acronym VIBES to help you remember. Let’s run through each letter in the acronym in detail.

V for Voice: There are many things that might change in someone’s voice.

The tempo of the voice, which is the speed and also the rhythm, which might be smooth – or it could be – staccato! Generally, if someone gets more excited, their voice tends to speed up. Remember, we’re looking for changes here, not making generalisations. We’re not saying that people who talk faster are more excited than people who talk slowly.

Some people naturally think and talk faster than others – more about that in the next programme. However, if you notice someone’s conversation speeding up, it’s a pretty safe bet that something has caught their interest.

The volume of someone’s voice – again, some people habitually talk quite loud, and others usually talk softly. But if you notice someone getting louder, or quieter, it’s a sign that some change has happened on the inside.

Another thing you can pay attention to is the pitch of someone’s voice – is it high or low, or getting higher or lower?

And you can notice the modulation of the voice – this is the way in which it goes up and down. Some people have very little modulation in their voice, others have beautifully modulated voices like an actor. If someone’s voice gets flatter and less modulated, what could that indicate?

Another thing to notice is the timbre of the voice. This is the quality of the voice – it could be clear, or maybe a bit breathy, or nasal, or maybe a bit croaky. It can change a bit as people’s emotional states change.

All of these together pretty much make up what’s known as tone. I’m using ‘tone’ hear in the sense of the emotional message conveyed by the voice. You’ll also see it sometimes used in NLP to mean the same as pitch – since we have a word for that already, I think it’s more useful to use ‘tone’ in the everyday English sense – as in “Don’t you take that tone with me young lady!”

Another thing you can notice is the type of words the person uses. That’s a different kind of indicator from the non-verbal qualities we’ve been considering so far, so we’ll get into how to do this and why it’s useful in later articles.


I for Inclination of Spine (general posture and gesture)

This is actually body language in general – but I needed an ‘I’ for the acronym! The inclination of the spine is a good place to start though as it’s easy to see.

So, is the person slumped or straight?

Are they leaning forwards, or backwards, or are they just upright?

Is their posture symmetrical, or leaning to the left or right?

Notice the general range and speed of their gestures – big gestures or small? Are they moving quickly or slowly?

And, getting more subtle now, notice any micro-muscle movements. For example, some people tense their fingers when they are angry, even if they don’t go all the way to clenching their fists. Some facial expressions are very subtle and fleeting.


B for Breathing is a real indicator of state. Think of the difference in your breathing when you are tense, and when you are relaxed.

Notice the rate of breathing, and variations in that rate. Is it fast or slow?

The indicator of breathing rate that everyone thinks of is the chest rising and falling. In some people this isn’t very obvious, especially if the breathing is quite slow or shallow – and of course there may be situations where it may not be appropriate to stare at someone’s chest. There are other indicators, depending on how they are breathing – the stomach or shoulders rising and falling slightly, or even slight movements of the head.

Another sign to notice: how deep is the breathing? How much air are they taking in?

And where in their body is their breathing located? How far down does the breath go? Some people habitually do abdominal breathing, where their stomach pushes out as they breath in – you will be familiar with this if you’ve ever done yoga or tai chi; some people breathe more to the middle of their chest; and some people do what’s called ‘clavicular breathing’ where they don’t really breathe down past their shoulders – particularly if they are distressed.


E for eyes: There are also various changes in and around the eyes that you can notice. Pupil dilation or contraction, redness around the eyes, watering of the eyes, narrowing or opening wider, and blink rate are some of the changes you may notice. And, of course, the direction the eyes move in may tell us something about how that person is processing information moment to moment – more about this in the next programme.


Finally, S for Skin. The skin and the brain are intimately connected – in fact, both develop from the outer layer or ectoderm of the early embryo. We’ve known for a while that psychological stress can make skin conditions like psoriasis and dermatitis worse. For calibration, though, we are interested in more fleeting changes:

Changes in skin colour, which darkens or lightens according to how dilated the capillaries in the skin are.

Muscle tonus – how tense or relaxed the muscles are. This is particularly noticeable in facial expressions.

One aspect of muscle tonus is that the size of someone’s lips can change, from plump and full to tightly compressed.

Skin may change from matt to more shiny, or vice versa, depending on how sweaty the person gets.

And, of course, a person may get goose pimples – either from cold, or from extreme fear and excitement.

All or any of these changes may give you information about changes in a person’s state, moment to moment.
Since everyone’s reactions are individual to that person, it’s best to notice how they correlate to other evidence you get about that person from their behaviour, rather than treating a particular change as always meaning one particular thing in every case.

For example, when people are talking to someone they are attracted to, their pupils tend to dilate; but just because someone is looking at you with dilated pupils, it doesn’t always follow that they are attracted to you. It could be the poor light in the room, they could be thinking about someone else that they like, or they could be on medication. You don’t know for sure until you have other behavioural evidence to back it up.

© 2011 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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