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Getting Inside Your Client? - IT Consultant, February 2001


Neuro-linguistic programming may sound like a rehabilitation technique for repeat offenders, but it's really an effective way of quickly building rapport with clients and colleagues.

No matter how great a manager or trainer you are, if you can't communicate with others you're doomed to failure. In an age when there are more and more technical methods for relaying information, it is becoming increasingly common for people to feel isolated .

We all have experience of people who just don't seem to hear what we're saying to them, resulting in either long, drawn out, frustrating conversations or "agreements" which never get met. We've all met clients for the first time and not been able to make that subtle connection which makes the working relationship so much easier.

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) was first developed 30 years ago in the US by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. It is the study of subjective experience, aimed at helping us to understand how people do what they do, and allowing others to recreate the experience. Since it's inception NLP has grown and branched out, having been augmented and adapted over the years.

As human beings we process an enormous amount of information. Our senses take in millions of pieces of data every second - from sights, sounds and smells, through to temperature, air pressure and a whole host of other things. Far too much, in fact, for our conscious mind to deal with, so we filter this information. Through a process of deletions, distortions and generalisations we reduce the information coming in to a level which we can manage. And this information we let in becomes our reality, our view of the world outside our bodies. In NLP it's referred to as a map because it's not reality - we have removed so much information that all we have left is an approximation of reality.

The way each person deletes, distorts or generalises is different, based on experiences, beliefs and personal decisions. The filters actually remove the vast majority of the incoming information, which results in every person in the world having a different map of reality.

In NLP this is often summed up by the phrase "the map is not the territory". None of us see the real world (the territory), we only see our version of it (our map). Remember this the next time you're with a client and find yourself saying or thinking "I'm right and you're wrong", it may just be that your maps of the world digress on that point.

Once you appreciate the concept of so many different maps it becomes much easier to understand why there can be so many communication problems. In fact, it becomes a minor miracle that any of us can communicate at all.

The NLP approach to dealing with this is to accept that everyone has their own map of the world, and to respect that. Communication becomes a process of - as far as possible - operating within the bounds of another person's map. If you communicate in a manner that matches their viewpoint, the information will not be removed by their filters. So how can you use this? How can you operate within someone else's map?

In NLP, great communication is achieved by developing what is referred to as rapport. Rapport is that state when you're at ease with someone, and things are flowing between you effortlessly, such as with a close friend or partner. In this state communication is clear, easy and effortless. The key is to be able to recreate this state with anyone. You can divide rapport down into two types, physical and linguistic.

Scaling up

While the techniques outlined here primarily concentrate on one-to-one communication, the same methodology can be applied when communicating with larger groups, such as team meetings or presentations.

The starting point for creating rapport with anyone is on the non-verbal level. The reason we start with this is because even before we speak to someone we start to create rapport with them , or not. Verbal techniques can only be used while you are speaking - say 50% of a conversation , while non-verbal techniques can be used all the time. Studies have shown that the non-verbal elements of communication account for well over 50% of the total process.

The key to non-verbal rapport is the old adage that "like attracts like". The idea here is to create rapport by matching and mirroring the physical movements of the person with whom you are communicating. When rapport occurs spontaneously this physical matching also occurs and, as things progress, the matching strengthens the rapport. In turn, this increases the matching, effectively creating a feedback loop. The purpose of consciously matching is to "kick start" that loop, which will then ultimately create the same state as spontaneous rapport.

Matching is a process whereby you perform the movements like for like with the other person. So, if they move their left hand, you match by moving your left hand. Mirroring is whereby you act like a mirror - if they move their right foot, you move your left foot. The difference between these two approaches is the level of rapport which is created. Typically, matching creates a greater depth of rapport than mirroring, so in a business context mirroring is usually more appropriate.

Copy Cats

The secret of getting this to work, is subtlety. If you are duplicating every movement someone makes as they make it, it can start to look silly and awkward. This won't help to build the relationship you want. Two ways to minimise the risk of this happening, while creating the same effect, are time delay and associated matching.

Time delay is simply allowing a little bit of time between the other person's movement and your own. This combined with slow, fluid movement when you do shift, will make things look more natural.

Associated matching is where you match or mirror the movements with a different part of you body. For example, they cross their legs, you cross you ankles. They tap their foot, you tap your finger in time. By using a different body part it is less obvious to the conscious mind what is happening, though just as effective.

One of the most effective, and most subtle, forms of matching is breath matching. The idea is to simply match your breathing rate with the other person. The best place to usually watch is the shoulder, where the movements are most obvious.

After physical movement, the pitch, tone and tempo of your voice is the next most important factor in communication , again, much more so than the words themselves. Matching voice tone is done in the same way as physical posture, by carefully listening to the sound the other person makes when they speak and then matching that. This can be particularly powerful if you are managing a client or team remotely and need to use the telephone a lot.

So far I have not yet considered the actual words being used. NLP contains a vast array of linguistic tools, but a good starting point is to focus on the types of words that we use. NLP breaks these words down into three categories: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic which relates to physical feelings and emotions.

Each person uses words and figures of speech from all three categories although, typically, individuals use one or two of the categories more than others. A visually-oriented person will use phrases such as "I see what you mean", whereas an auditory-oriented person will say "I hear what you're saying" (see box, below).

 Words / Phrases Other indicators

"I see what you mean"
"It;s not very clear"
"The future is bright"

Process information in pictures and so may speak quite quickly.

"I hear want you mean"
"That doesnt ring true"
I like the sound of that

Very aware of voice tone and pitch, react well to voice matching.

"I get a feeling what you mean"
"I' m getting to grips with it"
"Keeping my head down"

Process information by accessing feelings, which is slower than other methods so they may speak quite slowly and carefully.

You must bear in mind that these are generalisations, and that we all use all three categories to a greater or lesser extent. However, this can still give us some useful information when speaking with someone.

Map Reading

As with the physical matching, linguistic matching is about recognising the map that people are using and operating within it. For example, if a person primarily uses visual language patterns, then their internal map of the world will probably contain a lot of visual elements. This means they are more likely to filter auditory or kinaesthetic language patterns. By using the other person's preferred language patterns, you can increase the chance that your message will get through.

Using "normal" language patterns some of the communication is caught by the recipient's filters.

Using the same linguistic types as the recipient allows more of the communication to get through.

So, if you were a highly visual person speaking to a highly kinaesthetic client, how might this effect the conversation? First, you might pace your conversation a little slower than normal. If, no matter how much you "show" them your idea it still doesn't "feel" right to them, you could let them "get to grips" with it in a "hands on" way. In communication, you can also use more than just words. For example, visual people often respond well to pictures or diagrams, kinaesthetics enjoy demonstrations or trials, while auditories really do love hearing about it.

This only scratches the surface of NLP. For now, don't just trust me, go out there and try it. Maybe in a meeting, maybe on the telephone or perhaps just standing in the lift. There are hundreds of opportunities to experiment everyday. As the witch doctors of Papua New Guinea say: "Knowledge is only rumour until it's in the bones."

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