Representational systems

Do representational systems matter in hypnosis?

Do you need to pay attention to the representational systems that clients use? I was asked this by a newbie the other evening. He had recently finished a hypnosis training course, and was full of enthusiasm about NLP, wordplay, and the scientific approach to hypnosis.

Representational systems theory

What he was talking about was the old NLP belief that people tend to represent the world using one dominant representational system. These are generally known as VAK, standing for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (feeling).
I was rather surprised that this is still being taught, or rather that it was being given so much importance. Even the founders of NLP have said publicly that is perhaps a little overdone.

Representational systems reality

When I started my hypnosis practice I was fully convinced that VAK was important to success. I used to start every session by asking the client to close their eyes and imagine a horse. Then I would ask them to describe their horse and note the type of words they use to describe it. I did this hundreds of times. Eventually I concluded that it was a waste of time. I could find no evidence for consistent VAK.  Dominant primary representational systems do not exist.

I did get some very interesting answers. One woman told me that her representation was in fact auditory. What she was getting was something like a race caller's patter "and now the leader is rounding the bend, and the second favourite is coming up the outside…". Another woman told me that she could feel the horse. I said so you can feel what? Its back, its legs? "No, I can feel this much". And she demonstrated with her hands that she could feel about two palms width on any part of the horse she chose to. Another told me that what she got was patches of random colour in her mind.

Now these were all very interesting, in fact fascinating, but not really useful in therapy.
What I found much more useful was listening carefully for the metaphors that the client uses. In my opinion, these give a much more accurate representation of how the client is feeling and where their problems lie. And unlike VAK, they also give you a very good idea of where to direct your therapy.

David Mason

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