Do you remember being taught how to communicate when you were a child?

Probably not. It’s something we pick up by observation and osmosis. By that I mean we absorb the rules of our culture and mimic them so we’re accepted and fit in.

Do you consider yourself a good communicator? 

I think that most of us like to think that we are. Our conversations flow easily, we understand what people are saying to us, they understand what we’re saying and we can easily build rapport.

Does that mean you never have misunderstandings with people.

Of course not! We all do! We’ve all had times when someone has said one thing, but they actually meant something else. You think they weren’t clear in their communication and they think you didn’t listen properly. Or the other way around.

Sound familiar?

 When we communicate we often do so unconsciously. We have our own way communicating and other people theirs. We don’t think about the words we use, they just trip off our tongue. Or we might not listen fully because we’re distracted or we’re thinking about what we’re going to say. We might not even look at the person we’re communicating with as our attention is focused elsewhere or we might have a no look to listen style.

So we don’t fully tune in our senses to the communication that’s taking place and this means we can miss vital clues about what is actually being said.

However if we do and we practice what’s called sensory acuity, or sensory awareness, we can take our communication up to another level.

Making The Unconscious Conscious

People trained in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) know how to attend to all aspects of communication when they’re talking to others. They pay attention to the words, how they are spoke and body language together and are able to skillfully apply these to their responses.

When we’re talking to each other, we’re all going through a process of thinking while we talk. We’re both processing what’s being said and how we plan to respond. In doing so, changes occur in our physiology that give clues to others about what we’re thinking. So we unconsciously process clues such as changes in facial expression, tone and body movements.

If we fail to pick up on these different clues or we misinterpret them, communication can get misunderstood and break down. Conversely, when we pick up on and understand the clues, we can build rapport easily, with absolutely anyone and communicate more effectively and have more influence too.

Developing greater sensory acuity enables us to make the unconscious process conscious and enhance our communication skills.



Looking for Clues

So, what are the clues that we can pick up on?

There many many visual clues we can pick up on but it’s important to remember their exact meaning may be different for each of us. We can notice changes in expression, breathing, skin colour, pupil dilation and eye contact. We can observe shifts in position like leaning forward or back, tilting sideways, sitting upright or rounding, arms folding or unfolding, legs crossing or uncrossing and foot position, face or hair touching, biting nails and so on.

We also get many auditory clues from things like, changes of tone, rhythm, speed and volume, the length of sentences and pauses, mumbling, stumbling over words or speaking clearly.

Then there are the words themselves. If we use sensory acuity, we can detect if the words we use are producing the outcome we intended and if not we can amend our choice of words accordingly. We have our own preferred style and that affects our choice of words.

If we’re more visual we’ll prefer words and phrases that convey the visual, like see, look, picture, vibrant and it was a spectacle to behold.

If we’re auditory we’ll choose words like, resonate, sounds like, I hear you and tuned into/out of.

If we’re kinaesthetic (feeling) we’ll prefer words and phrases like, connects with me, get a feeling for, tap into and if we’re more analytical then we have a tendency towards similar in our speech, so things like, sense, analyse, explore, conceive and experience will be preferred.

If we use visual words to a person who is more auditory, they won’t connect in the same way as if we used auditory words. The other person is much less likely to understand our meaning. So by paying attention and using their preferred words, we’ll connect on a much deeper and more accurate level. This is only one aspect of language, there is so much more.

When we listen carefully we can pick up on subtle or not so subtle shifts in the language that people are using. That’s the key thing about sensory acuity, we can use it to adjust our behaviour and responses to help improve our communication with others. We process all the clues we receive, and we adjust and review and repeat. This skill is one that can be used in so many contexts; coaching, sales, mediation, change management, public speaking, training, negotiation and health management.

Developing Sensory Acuity

So how can you improve your sensory acuity? One way is to simply pay attention and practice. The next time you speak to someone, consciously focus on the types of words they are using, or how they are speaking or certain aspects of their body language. Choose one thing at a time and practice or you’ll get overwhelmed and confused. Notice any subtle or not-so-subtle changes in any aspect and modify your behaviour and communication accordingly. With practice you’ll notice it becomes easier and with time it will become second nature.

If you want to really master your sensory acuity and skyrocket your communication skills, NLP Practitioner training will do that for you and open up a whole new world. Dip your toe in with a one day Introduction to NLP or dive in fully with the Enhanced NLP Coach Practitioner training. Find out more here or here.

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Originally posted 2019, updated May 2022