In the Realm of the Senses – Modalities 101

Part of this article is excerpted from the notes of a workshop conducted in Feb, 2008.

“VAK” refers to the three primary senses or “modalities” through which we perceive our world. We tend to encode those observations with the same sense that collected the information. Meaning, if we saw something, we tend to remember it as a visual image. If we heard something, we tend to remember it as an auditory sound. If we felt something, we tend to remember it as a kinesthetic feeling. There are two additional modalities, rounding out the five senses, gustatory for taste, and olfactory for scent. However we leave those out of “VAK” as they are nowhere near as common. For our purposes, then, we as humans both perceive our world and recall details, and even generate new thoughts, based on some combination of those three senses.

We’re interested in those modalities so much because when we accurately understand how we or others construct subjective reality, we can exert far greater influence, making change far easier and quicker. Additionally, there is a belief that, in addition to our each using every sense at some point and in some combination, we have a preference. That preference can be viewed as a categorization to apply to each person. Of course, no one perfectly fits neatly into any category at all times and all situations, but it can at times nonetheless be useful.

Later, when we speak about pacing and leading, we’ll explore how awareness of the senses underlying the other person’s thoughts can help us to pace them more effectively. And with much more covertness!

Someone utilizing a visual modality more than the others at that time may exhibit more rapid speech as they are trying to simulate the pictures they see with words…and they need a lot of words to accomplish…legendarily, a THOUSAND words for a picture! Interestingly, auditory input doesn’t seem to distract someone operating this way, as they are primarily functioning on a different level entirely. Extraneous visual stimuli, however, may just be a challenge, as it would operate on the same level as this person is operating.

I myself tend to try and create a picture for you as I view that picture in my head. I may gesture with my hands that I’m drawing out a canvas or sheet of paper, then, keeping my hands at eye level—because when we draw on a wall, like a chalkboard, we tend to do so at eye level—I try to sketch that picture out so you too can see it! You may also notice that my voice pitch rises as I’m excited, trying to get all these words out, fast enough that you can see the picture they paint.

Auditory works differently. For someone using primarily this modality, you may notice more rhythmic speech. The person is hearing something in their mind, so while visual stimuli would likely not distract someone operating in this mode, auditory stimuli might. After all, two signals on the same frequency will conflict…

Because they are recording sounds as they gather information, they sequence things into steps, whereas the visual modality encourages a monolithic image—though I confess I’ve encountered people who, when using the visual modality, will create visual “schematics” in their minds to visually organize a process that must be performed sequentially. For the auditory modality, this is a natural thing, as when we learn as children, we often are given a set of steps, spoken slowly, so we can easily understand and remember them. Many children in that situation report later that they were even asked to speak those steps back to verify understanding. The visual modality often has little patience for such procedure, so when necessary, will not use auditory information to recall that sequence of steps.

As someone who often leads with the auditory modality, I often have music “playing” in my mind, and have to “turn down the volume” to hear the world around me. One advantage I’ve found is that concentration is very natural to me when leading with this modality. Auditory input can be disruptive, so I block it, or manipulate the submodalities of my primary experience to “shout it down”.

Kinesthetic is different from these in that where the visual modality interacts with the world from the perspective of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the kinesthetic modality might suggest that it takes “a feeling is worth a million pictures.” Predictably, it often takes more time for the kinesthetic modality when primary to gather information and to make a decision. However, when analyzing strategies later, decision strategies nearly always end with a feeling. This modality therefore is important. For primarily kinesthetic people, however, things may take longer, and can frustrate their peers who primarily lead with the visual or auditory modality.

Because when we are primarily using one modality over the others, our choice of predicates often betrays us. Which modality would you imagine is primarily in play when someone says to you that he “gets the picture”? Visual, right? What about when she says she “hears you”, or “that sounds right” to her? Auditory, correct? Are you starting to catch how the sensory predicates hint at the underlying modality at that moment? Good. Then it’s going to make sense to you when a person tells you that he “has a firm grasp” on what you’re saying, he “feels you”, or has a “solid understanding,” you know which modality is primary for him at that moment. Kinesthetic.

Let’s do a quick demonstration…let’s divide into two halves…NO, NOT upper and lower bodies! You to the left of me, please come up here…those the right, please stay where you are. That was close… Okay, you guys up here are the “subjects”, and those out there are the “observers”. Observers, please take your notebooks out. Let me know if you can’t see the nametags of anyone up here—okay? Good. Please jot down these names in a list…beside the name, we’re going to observe something interesting in a moment, then record that thing beside the person’s name. Please look back up here at me when you have all the names written down…

Great. Now, recall what we’ve been talking about, visual or “v”, auditory or “a”, and kinesthetic or “k”. I’m going to ask a question of each person and I want you to guess, which is code for “use your sensory acuity, your calibration skills, and intuit which of the three modalities that person is primarily demonstrating. And don’t worry, we’re going to make this first demonstration really overt. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll be much more covert and you’ll really have to test yourself!

Regarding sensory modalities, we may do all three, in fact all five, in a conversation, but we tend to lead with one in that moment. Your task is to write “v”, “a” or “k” beside each person’s name. Any questions? Great. Here goes..

As I face our “subjects” group, I’m going to start on this side, though I’m going to ask you the same question. Don’t worry about being “right”—that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is you answer each question in exactly the way as makes sense to you. I’m going to start with the person nearest me, and I want you to answer honestly. If you don’t happen to use sensory information, I may press you for more detail, but nothing here is wrong, got it? Then our observers group will have a chance to make a note in their books, then we’ll go to the second person, and so on. Okay? Great.

First question…Finish this sentence with one of the options I offer: Life is—a. “The most realistic movie—though sometimes a drama, sometimes a comedy, sometimes even a horror film! But I can see all of it up on the silver screen! Even when I don’t like what I see, it’s right up there, in front of me!” b. “A great symphony—where there are multiple musicians, a skilled director, and if conducted well, can sound amazing and become an orchestral masterpiece!” c. “A rollercoaster, full of ups and downs, tight, fast-moving corners and loop-de-loops that almost drop your stomach at times! But the thrill in the end makes each moment feel worth it!” First person, what is it? And can you offer any personal experience? Observers, please write one of the three letters we discussed beside that person’s name.

As the subjects answer, and offer language and body movements suggesting which modality is governing their thought process, the observers record these details, making from them a determination of that primary modality.

We repeat the process for several questions and once finished, we have only a handful of discrepancies. Each of these takes the form of one person appearing to lead with “visual” for several questions, then “auditory” for others. We discuss this, even asking follow-up questions of the subjects to verify that they don’t in fact use the same modality to lead in every situation, but that by and large, the observers got it right.

“Now, we can apply this to ourselves and consider which modality we ourselves tend to lead with in different situations. Then later as we dive into Strategies, we’ll explore how each modality serves a relevant and crucial purpose in larger, more complex strategies. Though we now have a good understanding of what we mean by VAK and how to identify each. We will be building upon this a great deal, and for those of you with prior training like NLP, this may have been a review of the sensory modalities. For all others, you’ll want to learn the distinctions here so you can see and feel a better way forward and to create the best life possible.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Gingolph

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