©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Like most people I grew up learning about the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Some of this came from watching my parents teach my baby brother to point to his nose or tongue, ears or fingers. Thanks in part to information disseminated through Neurolinguistic Programming or NLP for short, much more is known today about the senses than ever before. There has also been a move to refer to the senses in terms of three main sensory systems:
- Visual – decodes information taken in through the eyes
- Auditory – decodes information taken in through the ears
- Kinesthetic – registers information related to taste, touch, smell, muscle awareness, temperature, position sense, and perhaps as sound waves that hit the skin (the largest body organ)
Areas in the brain specially designed to decode and interpret incoming sensory data are able to receive and interpret up to 10 million bits of sensory data per second¾far more than human beings are capable of processing at a level of conscious awareness. For the most part, these decoding centers are located in the two posterior divisions of the human cerebrum (refer to drawing to the right).
- Two occipital lobes decode / interpret visual data
- Two temporal lobes decode / interpret auditory data
- Two parietal lobes decode / interpret kinesthetic data – with one exception.
That exception involves the decoding of odors (e.g., the sense of smell). This decoding and interpretation of odors appears to occur in the limbic system, a subconscious layer of the brain. Because this portion of the brain is also involved with the storage and recall of memories, odors may trigger memories faster than any other type of sensory data.
No surprise, human beings perceive the world, process information, learn, and communicate through their senses. It will be big news if anyone figures out a way in which humans communicate without using any of the senses.
The seemingly magical dynamic between two people whose brain's “click” is often referred to as rapport. It has everything to do with communication. The great thing about rapport is that you can build it even if it didn’t seem to “click” right away. Rapport is the ability to sustain good communication with someone even when you strongly disagree on an issue. You don’t have to be right; you don’t have to be wrong. It can be helpful to understand that each brain has its own opinion or perception and likely a personal sensory preference.
When you communicate with others in their preferred sensory system you build a greater understanding, strengthen your rapport with them, and increase your ability to influence. Miscommunications can occur when the individuals have different sensory preferences.
You may have heard the saying “talk the talk” or “speak their language.” There are no tricks to this. The strategy simply requires listening to the other person carefully enough to pick up on the type of words and phrases that are being used. Identifying and using the other person’s sensory language (e.g., replying by using similar words and phrases) increases the likelihood that the individual will perceive that their communication is being heard accurately, which can enhance rapport.
Visual communicators think by creating pictures in their mind’s eye or in hard copy. They tend to use visual metaphors and you may hear words and phrases such as:
- Appears to me
- In light of
- Looks to me as if
- It’s plain to see
- Looks like
- Paint a verbal picture of what you want
- I see what you mean
- Picture this
- The light just went on
- That’s crystal clear
- She was blue in the face with anger
- Do you see what I mean?
Auditory communicators tend to think by creating an internal dialogue. It is important to them to speak well. They tend to use auditory metaphors and you may hear words and phrases such as:
- Voice of opinion
- Word for word
- Give me your ears
- Express yourself in words
- Call on
- That sounds good to me
- It’s clear as a bell
- Keep your ear to the ground
- That doesn’t ring true
- As irritating as a dripping faucet
- Do you hear what I mean?
Kinesthetics tend to communicate by getting in touch with what they sense. They may need to move around when communicating and often have a fine use of muscles. They tend to use kinesthetic metaphors and you may hear words and phrase such as:
- Lay the cards on table
- Get a handle on the project
- Firm foundation
- Too much hassle
- Get in touch with
- Get the drift
- That doesn’t fit or feel right
- I’ve got a gut feeling
- I’m trying to get in touch with that
- Let’s hammer out a plan
- Spare me the jolting headlines
Sensory preference impacts every facet of life. Here are three examples.
- When a child isn’t getting along well with others in the classroom, check to see if his/her sensory preference is in the minority or is different from that of the teacher’s. Sensory preference often influences the way in which a person learns most easily.
- When couples experience discord, compare their sensory preferences. If they differ, likely neither feels nurtured and affirmed. For example, a visual brings an auditory partner flowers when the brain might respond much more quickly to a musical concert or conversation. Do something every day for your partner in his/her sensory preference and watch your relationship improve.
- When customers aren’t responding, the salesperson’s sensory preference may be different from that of the customers or perhaps the business waiting room contains stimuli for only one or two of the main sensory types. Use all three systems during any interaction when you don’t know the other person’s preference.
Unless you make a conscious choice to do differently, you tend to communicate with others in your preferred sensory system. When your sensory preference matches theirs or the specific environment you tend to feel accepted, validated, smart, comfortable, and affirmed. When your sensory preference does not match, the opposite can occur.
Differences in sensory preference impact relationships and underlie many communication problems, situational misunderstandings, and feelings of discomfort. Understanding this can alert you to ways in which you can prevent some of these from occurring in the first place and can offer you strategies for resolution when problems already exist.
Communication that acknowledges sensory preference is a learned skill, and you can learn those skills.