I talk to you about internal representations but if you are not of the NLP world you might be wondering what on earth does she mean? Internal representations is basically the NLP terminology for what goes on in your head – it’s to do with your thinking, the pictures that you make, the language that you use and all of the other stuff that you do inside your head. It is actually better said as an internal (inside) re-presentation. You are constantly re-presenting to yourself the information that you got from the outside world back inside your head when you come to think about it.

The reason why internal representations are important for us to know about is because what we do can affect our own and also affect other people’s internal representations, and it’s the internal representations of others that I wanted to talk to you about today. Let me start off with an example of where and when we can sometimes get it wrong and why, therefore, we need to be mindful of other people’s internal representations.

The way in which people represent the world to themselves inside their head is going to be influenced by various different things; memories and experiences from the past can have the strongest influence the internal representation that someone may be caused to have. If I see a dog and I have lots of positive references and experiences of dogs then that could cause me to have a positive internal representation; if I have been bitten or attacked by a dog in the past and I see a dog then the internal representation I end up having be a very different and perhaps a lot more troubling one than for someone who has a love and appreciation of dogs! The way in which we communicate with others, and what we communicate about is going to affect their internal representation but we don’t necessarily know what that will be. We can’t always predict what that’s going to be because we might not know the entire repertoire of their memories and experiences and therefore how the internal representation is going to affect them.

The other thing that can affect somebody’s internal representation is the emotional state that they are in at that exact moment in time that you’re communicating with them. If they are in a bad state then you can say the nicest thing in the world but it might not necessarily penetrate into their mind. Likewise, if someone’s in a good state and you’re trying to have maybe a shocking effect on them it might not work because you’re not able to penetrate their emotional state.

Another thing that can affect their internal representation is their references: what do they already know about? I wanted to give my own example of this. When I was five years old and in school, I had a limited number of memories and experiences because I was only five. I just hadn’t been on the planet for very long yet! In my school the reading scheme that we used there was called ‘Break Through’ and it was loads of little drawers and inside there were cards with words on. You would take the words out of the drawers and then you would slot them into like this wall hanging that had pockets on it and you were to use that to make sentences and that was how we learnt to read. As it happens my teacher had decided that she was going to introduce us to this breakthrough reading scheme in backwards alphabetical order so she was starting at the bottom of the register was working her way up. She would take maybe three to five children from the bottom half of the register, call them over to the carpet where they’d sit down and go through the drawers, pull out the words and start creating sentences and that was their introduction to reading. Because my name is alphabetically at the top of the register this meant that I was going

to be going last but I didn’t know that.

Here’s what happened in my experience: I’ve never heard of the word breakthrough before, that word didn’t exist in my vocabulary and I had no references for it as I was five, but it did sound a bit like grapefruit to me. I knew what a grapefruit was because every weekend I went to my grandparent’s house and my granddad would eat a grapefruit for breakfast. He’d cut in half, cut out the little segments, sprinkle sugar over the top and then spoon it out and inevitably some would always squirt in his eye and then he’d sit there swearing! I knew what a grapefruit was. My teacher was calling children out of the register to the carpet to do breakthrough with her. What happened in my head was that my teacher was calling children over to the carpet to have grapefruit with her and I hadn’t been invited and I like grapefruit. I went home and told my parents that I didn’t like my teacher because she was sharing grapefruit with everybody on the carpet except for me and my parents went to the school to complain. There was never any grapefruit.

As adults we can misunderstand a situation because what’s being communicated doesn’t match up with our references and experiences so we end up with this really mangled, confused internal representation happening. A more recent example which frustrated me is that my mum has recently started having quite a lot of falls. My mum has a rare form of dementia and her mobility and balance are being affected. She had a physio who went out to see her who was going give her some exercises to do to try and keep the brain tuned into those parts of her body that are not talking to each other as well as they should be at the moment. The physio came when I wasn’t there and has told her that every time she falls over and hits her head she loses a few more brain cells and that’s why she’s becoming so forgetful. At this moment in time I want to smack that physio guy in the head myself and have him lose a few brain cells because whilst that may be factually somewhat correct it’s not useful for the internal representation of that person.

This person already has concerns about their memory and there is already not an awful lot that can be done about that because that’s just the way her condition is. Giving her an additional concern whereby it may now cause her to feel as if she shouldn’t be up and moving around as much because that might cause her to fall over and she doesn’t want to lose any more brain cells is unhelpful because actually she needs to be mobile and keeping her brain and her body in sync with each other. A tiny throwaway comment has done so many different things in her internal representation; it’s causing her to go off and have this entire whirlwind of other thoughts which are not helpful ones for her to be thinking.

The reason why it’s so helpful for you to know about internal representations is because what you say affects the internal representation of the person you are speaking to, and I want you to be conscious of how you are affecting others. As we know you can’t always know the backstory of that person – you don’t know what their memories and experiences are, you might not even know completely what state they are in at that moment in time – but if you can be at least conscious of what seems to be going on for them. What are their circumstances? Maybe start asking questions before you give them suggestions so that you’re more informed before you start planting those little seeds into their internal representation. It will go a long way to making sure that what you say has the most positive and profound impact on their mind rather than something negative.

By Gemma Bailey