Sharpen your senses

Prior knowledge required: Representational systems

How do you know when someone did not understand what you said, even if they said that they did?

How do you know that someone did not like the gift, even if they said they did?

How do you know the mood someone is in as soon as they walk in the door?

How do you know that what you said caused offence, even if their smile is still pasted on?

You know because you are noticing lots of physical signals to that effect, including voice tonality, facial expressions and body posture. Some of these signals are very obvious – for example, someone blushing when they are embarrassed – but other signs may be much less noticeable, such as a slight tightening of the lips or a change in the dilation of the pupils of the eyes.

Our observations of other people’s reactions are a vital part of effective communication.

  1. We notice things about other people, both consciously and unconsciously.
  2. We draw conclusions based on prior experience.
  3. We use those conclusions as input to decide what we will do or say next.

For good communication, you need to get these three steps right. At the moment, you are probably doing all this without conscious thought; in other words, you are operating at an automatic and unconscious level. In order to get better at doing it, you need to bring what you are actually doing back into conscious awareness so that you can make improvements. Practice will then embed the new skills back into the unconscious so you do them automatically again, only better than before.

Key point

Learning to improve your conscious awareness of the signals that we all send out will hugely improve your communication:

  • You will notice much earlier when you either have rapport or have lost it.
  • You will notice much earlier when you have taken the conversation down a wrong turn, which will give you time to get back on track.
  • You will sense when you have lost people and when you have their attention.
  • You will be able to respond to people in a way that makes them think ‘This person understands me’.


The signals we are actually noticing are part of a BMIR (pronounced beemer). This is an acronym for a Behavioural Manifestation of an Internal Representation.

Whatever we are thinking about will show up in our observable behaviour, but there are variables. The same thoughts will trigger the same external clues in a given person, but may trigger different external clues in another person (though there are common patterns). Some people, such as the inscrutable ‘poker faced’ types, will not show so much; others, who ‘wear their heart on their sleeve’, will show much more. That said, whenever someone has a change in their internal representation, there will be an observable change on the outside.

We are already experts at spotting these outward manifestations of thinking. It is part of our evolutionary heritage. However, we often fail to capitalise on this skill because

  • We ignore the signals and focus on the words
  • We are so focused on ourselves or what we want that we miss the signals
  • We ignore our hunches about what is really happening
  • We give credence to only a few signals when there are many
  • We take a ‘snapshot’ and then ignore changes in the signals
  • We draw incorrect conclusions about what the signals mean.

The most overt signals typically fall into the visual and auditory categories. Below are some examples.

Visual Auditory
  Skin colour Tone
  Facial muscle tonus Tempo
  Lower lip size Locus
  Eye movements Pitch
  Pupil size Volume
  Head tilt Rhythm
  Breathing rate Pauses
  Posture Predicates
  Hand and finger gestures Speed

These are some of the more obvious signals. There are many more. There are even signals in the olfactory system. These are the pheromones that we all give off, although we sense these largely at the unconscious level.


In order to notice change, we need to contrast two BMIRs. This means taking a ‘snapshot’ of the first BMIR and then noticing when it changes, indicating that a different internal representation is now taking place. This ‘snapshot’ is called calibration in NLP jargon.

The ‘snapshot’ includes the outward signals. It does not include the conclusion about what is happening on the inside. So a snapshot is sensory specific and would include things such as ‘his skin is dark in colour; his body is tense; he moves quickly; his jaw is clenched, and his lips are thin and tight’.

You could conclude from this that this person is angry, but that is called mind reading and is not a sensory description of what is observed. It could also be wrong. Maybe the person is trying to see how long they can hold their breath before going free diving!

Start getting used to separating out your conclusions from what you actually observe.

Mind reading

Misunderstandings often result from seeing a pattern of clues at both the conscious and unconscious levels, and leaping to a conclusion about what is going on for that person. This is the seductive trap of ‘mind reading’.

Key tip

Become aware of when you fall into the trap of ‘mind reading’ on scanty evidence.

Some people – such as Derren Brown, the entertainer – develop incredible skills at accurately reading minds in this way. Most of us are far less skilled, but we can greatly improve our abilities by becoming aware of what is going on and practising to increase that awareness. We will then fall less often into the trap of facile mind reading, and look for other corroboration before drawing conclusions about what someone is thinking, simply from their BMIR. If the relationship permits it, you can even ask ‘Were you feeling anxious just now?’ This will help you build your library of patterns for that person, and also build your databank of more general patterns to use when you don’t have prior experience of a person.

One place we do this mind reading is at the movies. If an actor is saying one thing, but our mind reading picks up another, we dismiss the person as a bad actor. The actors who can get into their role so well that their unconscious signals match their character are great actors and we know it. They are ‘believable’ in that role, though we would be hard put to say why. Now you know!


You will need to do this fun exercise with a friend. It is also a good party game to play with a group!

  1. Have your friend think of a person they like and calibrate to the BMIR. This means take a mental ‘snapshot’ of how they look.
  2. Now have your friend think of a person they are neutral about, or do not like. Calibrate to this BMIR.
  3. Ask your friend some questions, so that they bring one or the other to mind, and you immediately ‘guess’ which person it is. The questions would be ones like
  1. Which person is older?
  2. Which person has longer hair?
  3. Which person is taller?
  4. Which person do you see most often?
  5. Which person lives further away from you?
  1. Notice that you have an immediate sense of which person your friend is thinking about. Now backtrack in your mind and notice what visual clues you are using to make this intuitive jump. You will find that some people will be easier to ‘read’ than others. If you want to make it tougher, have your friend think of two people they like!

By the way, it is not the thinker’s job to hide anything. Whoever’s turn it is, they should just be their normal self.

Practise this, taking turns, and you will get much better at it quite quickly. It is, after all, something we already do very well; it’s just that we normally do it unconsciously. Get really clear on what specific clues you are noticing: for example, twitch at left corner of mouth, narrowed eyes, slight frown, skin colour darker or blotchy and so on.

Try the same game with something other than people: for example, foods or holiday destinations.

Optional extra

Now do it with auditory clues. Rather than looking at your friend, close your eyes and have them count from one to five as they think of one or the other. Listen for differences in the sound and breathing.


This is all really about awareness of others, and also understanding that you are far more transparent than you thought you were. There is so much more going on in any communication than we are routinely conscious of, and sharpening up your sensory acuity is a good way to access this extra dimension and make use of it.

In effect we are looking for patterns that match ones we have already stored from past experiences. When there is a pattern match, we find something pops into our mind as the connection is made. This is the basis of intuition and there is more on this in the topic on Intuition.

One of the quickest ways to speed up this process of awareness is to notice whether you pay attention to more signals in the visual or auditory system, and then practise with the least-used system. This will open up a door to a whole new set of clues.

If you are weak in auditory acuity, find someone who pays attention to the sound of people’s voices as their main clues to what is going on, and practise the above exercise with them. Have them explain what they are noticing until you can notice it too. Listen to foreign language broadcasts together and notice the differences and changes in tone, pitch and so on.


Start looking closely at people. Because we are taught in this society not to stare, we actually miss out on a lot of information. Give yourself permission to stare at people for a few weeks. At worst, they will think you are a bit strange when you are riding on the bus! (‘Oh, was I staring? I didn’t realise – sorry’ will get you out of trouble, if necessary.)

Notice the small changes that flit across people’s faces as they think or talk with a friend. Notice changes in breathing and skin colour. These changes can’t be consciously controlled and will always be there to the practised eye. As you notice more distinctions, you will build up a larger internal library of patterns and your ‘intuition’ will improve.

Getting specific

There is a huge range of unconscious responses that people make to their internal representations; too many to track consciously. Here are four which are easy to see once pointed out and which, since they are unconscious, will give accurate information about someone’s thinking.

  1. Skin colour changes
  2. Minute muscle changes
  3. Lower lip changes
  4. Breathing changes.

Skin colour changes

You would be surprised at how much your skin changes colour as the thoughts flow through your mind. Some of these changes are very subtle; others, such as blushing, are very easy to spot.

The way to start noticing the subtle ones is to first see how the colour varies across a face. Notice how the nose colour is different to the colour in the cheek and the areas just beside the eyes and so on. As you start noticing that there are indeed quite large variations, you will also begin to notice that these colours are not static. They shift and change in quite complex patterns. You will see blotches and spots come and go, some with defined edges and some smoothly blending in. Do the first exercise above and just focus on skin colour alone.

Play the game of talking to a friend about their favourite sport, then switch the conversation to something else and watch for the changes. If you were a painter, what colours would you need on your palette?

Did you know?

In an embryo, the skin develops from the ectoderm, which also develops into the brain, nervous system and spinal chord. No wonder, then, that our skin reflects our nervous reactions and what we are thinking.

Minute muscle changes

While you have been looking for colour changes, you will have noticed that there are also many muscle movements within the face, and some of these produce the colour changes. For example, a tightening around the eyes can drain colour from the area.

The muscle tension changes on the face are most easy to see at the outer corners of the eyes, around the mouth and along the jaw line. Also watch the nostrils and the area just between and above the eyebrows. The muscle tension changes are visible, due both to changes in the skin texture or tone and to changes in the creases or lines, which may change in depth or length, or even disappear.

Lower lip changes

There is a surprising amount of change going on in your lower lip. You will begin to notice changes in size, shape, texture, movement, trembling, firmness, colour, wetness and simply how full it seems.

Breathing changes

People breathe from different places in their chest or abdomen, and at different rates. There is a very wide variation in the ways in which we breathe. Our breathing responds to our internal representations; interestingly, our internal representations also respond to our breathing. That is, if we consciously manage our breathing, we can influence what we are thinking and feeling. Who has not taken a deep breath to calm themselves?

If you cannot see someone’s breathing, just watch the outside edge of the shoulders for a little while. You will see the regular movement caused by breathing. From here you will start to see other subtle signs that show where the person is breathing from.

You can also look at the topic Body Language, particularly the parts on synergology and the minute changes in posture that are always there and that you can train yourself to become aware of.