Listening to the way your clients express themselves, and how their words relate to their senses, reveals so much more than words alone. As your client expresses themselves, listening to the way they talk – their thoughts, feelings and the descriptive words they consistently use, can reveal great deal. Their language highlights their key preferences.
You can identify a client’s language and decode how they process the world around them via their unconscious use of sense-related words, which originate in deep-seated patterns that drive the way they process and make sense of life.
As a coach, you listen attentively to the narrative and hear the specific sensory and non-sensory ways your client describes their experiences and the words they habitually use. This adds extra breadth and depth to the quality of your listening. Here’s what you need to know about decoding sensory language.
Why an awareness of sensory language is critical for coaching
For you, as a coach, an awareness of sensory language shows you how a client filters and perceives the world. It also reveals how they will best receive information, how they learn, and what’s the best way to deliver feedback effectively. You will become better attuned, expressing yourself as you build rapport and trust with your clients. If it is appropriate, you can adapt your style to match your client’s way of working, creating a powerful kind of emotional mirroring. Moreover, it means you will take more care over the way you communicate.
This deeper understanding helps you frame your questions more directly and provides insight into ways of expressing yourself more thoughtfully and aptly, ways that resonate strongly with your clients. Your communication can be linked more to their preferences.
Sensory language awareness also helps you notice the sensory styles of language that your client is not using on a regular basis. If the opportunity arises and your client is willing to experiment, you can extend the range of ways they express themselves. Building greater awareness of the language they use, as well identifying other people’s preferences, is a valuable developmental benefit, enriching your clients’ range of language and enhancing their communication skills.
What are representational language systems?
These ranges are called representational systems in NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming, systems we construct around our sensory experience, including seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, smelling and tasting. They are all rooted in the way we use our senses to perceive the world and inwardly represent it, and they often include partly-remembered and imagined experiences. People use these representational systems to filter and make sense of the world on a repeated, constant basis.
Most of us tend to favour one or two representational systems, although everyone can access aspects of all of them. As a coach, the key is to listen carefully to the representational systems your client favours, and your clues are the words your client sprinkles throughout their conversation. We all tend to choose our words unconsciously but consistently, using the representational systems we are predisposed to use. Listening to the language people use reveals which representational systems they prefer.
Five sensory representational systems
Here are the five sensory representational systems:
- Visual – sight
- Auditory – hearing
- Kinaesthetic – kinesthetic in US English – touch/feeling
- Olfactory – smell
- Gustatory – taste
The choice of words hold the clues, and they speak for themselves! Here are some examples of how to identify different sensory languages.
Visual sensory languageinvolves thinking in pictures and images. Clients who are visual usually find diagrams and mind map helpful in gaining an understanding of their issues, and because they frequently work well with metaphors, they often use colourful language. A client might say things like this:
- It helps to have more of an open horizon view
- Give me some different perspectives
- Can you shine a bright light on my understanding here?
Auditory sensory language is all about the importance your client places on sound. Their hearing is finely tuned, and they are often musical or love music. They learn best through hearing themselves think aloud, and through discussions, audio books and talks. Clients may make comments like:
- I like the sound of doing that tomorrow
- I hear what you are saying
Kinaesthetic sensory languageis a preference for body and feelings-based expression, where clients use metaphorical, physical or feeling words. They learn best through experimentation and experience. Clients may express themselves like this:
- Hold on; I need to get more of a handle on this problem
- It seems right – I have a gut reaction
- Things just seem to have clicked into place now
Olfactory sensory language describes a preference for processing experience through the sensation of smell. These people are highly attuned to their environments, aware of the breadth and variety of different smells that other people might not notice. Clients might make comments like:
- It is about time you woke up and smelled the coffee!
- I smell a rat in these numbers
- If I get a whiff of trouble brewing, I am out of here
Gustatory sensory language focuses on taste. Food, the flavour and nuances of taste are prevalent, and clients will often be keenly interested in the subject, with personal interests around specialist cuisines plus aspects of health and diet. Their language links to ideas around flavour:
- I find these ideas easy to digest and process quickly
- I get a bad taste in my mouth at the very thought of it
- I would like to savour this successful moment
The final sixth representational system is slightly different.
Like the others, it is still about the process of building models of the world that involve attaching meaning to our experiences. Collections of words symbolise our experience, and we develop the rules that govern their use. Our preference for different representational systems is then demonstrated through our choice of language. However, this sixth representational system is far less directly linked to the senses. It stands apart, in this respect. It is called auditory digital, and it is a representational system that focuses on inner dialogue.
Auditory digital sensory language is concerned with our inner voice and the subsequent thinking processes. People who prefer this way of processing their experiences engage in lots of self-talk and inner thinking. They tend to value understanding, information, data and facts, rather than feelings and insight. They tend to live in their heads rather than experientially or through a conscious connection and awareness of their senses. This system can, of course, include some of the characteristics of the other representational systems, but it is usually much more about thinking than it is about feeling. Clients may say:
- I am conscious that I have not got back to you
- The facts here speak for themselves
- You might like to consider these three specific options
Read more about sensory languages
If you would like to read more about this topic and NLP in general, there are a couple of books that we highly recommend:
NLP at Work – by Sue Knight
Introducing NLP – by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour
We will help you deepen your understanding
As an executive coach, knowing how to identify and apply your client’s representational systems is a handy and positive addition to your repertoire of coaching techniques. Attuned listening and sensitivity to your client’s preferences is a great start. If you want to deepen your understanding, even more, get in touch.