NLP Filters

In NLP terms Filters are a way of reading other people’s styles and requirements. Filters allow us to clearly identify the needs of others and present ourselves, our ideas and our products in ways that are “in tune” with the style of the person with whom we are communicating.

In NLP Training we work out way through ten or more of the most common filters that people use when they are communicating. In this series of articles I will introduce you to the most common filters and give examples of what to look for.

Once you observe the filters that someone else is using you can communicate with them in a way that will be much more meaningful to them.

There are two keys to being able to use filters effectively:

  1. Be observant and attentive – really listen to the person with whom you are communicating.
  2. Really know about filters and be able to distinguish between different filters.

The Motivation Filter

People are motivated by Pain and Pleasure. When we feel pain we tend to want to move away from the source of pain. When we feel or expect to feel pleasure we tend to want to move towards the source of the pleasure.

For example: If you are asked to stay late a work when you want to go home, you might experience pain. But that pain might not be as severe as the pain you suspect you might feel if you gained a reputation as being a poor team player. Note that your pain is exacerbated by the pleasure you were anticipating in going home.

In this example a good boss might note your slight grimace when he asks you to stay late. Such a boss might therefore relate to your pain by saying: “Yes I know it’s a pain staying late. I wouldn’t ask you except that we have a window of opportunity this evening to cure a problem that could rumble on for months and cause us a lot of aggrivation. If we deal with it now our lives should be easier in the future.

Thinking Styles

Patterns in thinking and communicating enable us to recognise what is happening in our own and other’s thoughts, language and behaviour. The aim is to make others feel comfortable with the way we are thinking, speaking and behaviour because our behaviour mirrors what they would do.

Every day of our lives we are bombarded with messages and stimuli. It is simply not possible to give our full attention to every single message and event, so what we do is filter for the stuff that we consider will be of interest or value to us.

As we go through life we develop the habit of using certain filters and it is the way that we use these filters that creates the way that we experience life. In NLP training we spend significant amounts of time understanding and learning to distinguish filters so that we can become expert modelers.

We each use particular thinking styles. Our natural tendency is always to use our own thinking style when we are communicating with others. But you will communicate more effectively when you modify your language to use the thinking style of the person with whom you are communicating.

Feeling is the most common thinking style. Feeling also normally encompasses taste and smell.

People who use the Feeling style will use language like: “that doesn’t feel right to me.” Or, “What are your feelings about that?” A good communicator would respond by saying, “It feels good to me also.”

Visualising is the second most common thinking style. People who use Visual language will say things like: “Do you see what I mean?” Or, “I can’t see the point of this.” To which a good communicator might respond, “Perhaps if you looked at it this way….”

The Auditory thinking style is the least common. People who use Auditory language will say things like: “that sounds right.” Or, “I hear what you say.”


We tend to take memory for granted. We are clear about the quality of our memory and the areas of memory that we find less reliable. For instance many people say, “I have a shocking memory for names.”

So, how does our memory work? In our NLP training we consider that there are five triggers that help us to store and recall events. These are: Activity, Place, People, Objects and Time.

Think about your last birthday and observe the filters you use to recall what happened on the day. You may find yourself using filters in this way:

Objects – birthday cards, in particular the rude card that a friend sent. The meal you ate with friends, the food you ate and what you drank. Presents you received.

Activity – what you did on your birthday. Did you go out for a meal or eat at home? Did your colleagues in the office do anything to mark the occasion? Did you use any of your presents in a particular way?

People – who did you meet on your birthday? Did any person do anything special that marked the day out for you? Can you recall who you met that day and what you did together?

Places – did you go anywhere special on your birthday? Where was that? If it was a restaurant, what was it like? Can you recall the tables and chairs, the serving staff?

Time – it should be easy to remember your birthday, but at what time of day did you go out? Did you catch a train or a bus at a particular time?

It always amazes me when I do this exercise just how much I can remember about an event just be working my way through Objects, Activities, People, Places and Times. I will have to make remembering names the subject of a separate article.

Time Referencing

Each of us has a tendency to live our lives mainly in the Past, Present or the Future. Our preferred way of experiencing life shows up very clearly in what we discuss and the tense in which we express it.

There are many people who live their lives mainly in the past, thinking about and discussing what has gone before. Others live for and in the present and their attention is closely linked to what is going on around them at the moment. Still others are thinking and planning for the future.

In NLP training you will learn to look for patterns of speech that clearly reveal the preferred time reference of other people.

People who concentrate on the past and reference the past a lot will say things like:

“Did you see the game last night?”

“Did you notice how much they were drinking?”

“Do you remember when we were on holiday last year?”

“Do you recall when you said at the last meeting….?”

People who reference the future a lot will use quite different language like:

“I am planning a party next month?”

“Where are you going for your holiday?”

“It was a good meeting, but what concerns me is what we should do next…”

“Have you got an agenda yet for tomorrow’s meeting?”

“OK, but that’s history, my concern is where we go from here.”

You may have heard people asking questions or making statements that clearly show their present time referencing. Being in the present is an important skill in many contexts like presenting, listening and coaching. From people who are present you will hear statements and questions like:

“What I feel is….”

“So what you’re saying is….”

“What is happening now?”

“What is that like for you?”

“What else is true right now?”

“The way that I understand what you are saying is…..”

Self and Other

When I was a trainee advertising copywriter my superior George Simms would constantly remind me – “you are not writing for you; you are writing for the people whom you hope will buy this product. Talk their language, not yours.”

The sad truth is that most of us are not good listeners. How often have you sat in a business meeting thinking about what you want to say rather than listening to the person currently speaking. I confess that I have done this many times.

The ability to focus attention on ourselves is universally good – the ability to focus attention on others is a lot more difficult. This is especially true when we are discussing a concern that we have.

For instance I recently overheard this conversation between a young team leader and her boss:

Y.T.L. “I am very worried about how Heather is coping with her extra workload.”

Boss, “Do you think we are managing Project “X” as effectively as we might?”

Y.T.L. “I am not too concerned about Project “X” because it is running on time, but I am very concerned about how it is impacting some of the members of my team.”

Boss: “Project “X” is a pillar of our strategy for profit this year and we must do everything we can to make sure it is delivered on time.”

Y.T.L. “I am confident that Project “X” will be delivered on time provided that the members of my team do not get too stressed out by the extra work load. It would be a great help if we could have some extra resources, particularly some extra people.”

Boss: “That’s OK then. As long as you’re confident that the Project will be delivered on time I will leave it in your capable hands.” With which the boss spun on her heel and walked away.

In NLP training we show people how to move their focus of attention from themselves to the person to whom they are talking.

Big Chunk/Small Chunk

Sometimes problems can seem “insurmountable” – how will I ever be able to….?” we ask yourselves. But when you break the problem down into smaller pieces (chunks) and manage the chunks one at a time the problem suddenly becomes manageable.

This week there is an event that I really want to attend. When I heard about the event last week and looked at my diary for this week three of my days were filled with coaching appointments with important clients. How could I possibly move 18 clients?

First of all I chunked my appointments down into the fact that 17 of the clients work for just three companies. That way I only had to ask three companies to move their appointments back a week. The problem was immediately much easier to manage. With just three telephone calls I managed to move 17 appointments back a week. One more phone call and the eighteenth client also agreed to move.

Suddenly my entire week became free and I became able to spend this week at the event that I wanted to attend. The big problem of shifting 18 clients had been solved by chunking it down and making just 4 phone calls.

Conversely the process of chunking up can be used in negotiations or to increase motivation.

When I first heard about the event it looked like a reasonable opportunity that would bequite fun to attend. When I analysed the opportunity further I realised that it was anexcellent opportunity that would be great fun to attend. Furthermore when I looked ahead to see when the same opportunity might arise again it would not happen for another 5 months. So the time imperative was strong. As my feelings chunked up I found the energy to make the phone calls that moved the appointments.


For most of my life I busily tried to match with everyone I met. Matching seemed to me to be the logical and socially acceptable way to behave.

It came as a big shock to me when I discovered how powerful mismatching could be when coaching someone to improve their performance.

I had spent most of my life looking for similarities, looking for what was the same, not what was different. When I met someone new I would look for ways that they were the same as me. Did we share any interests, common backgrounds, or had we taken holidays in similar resorts, or could I find any friends that we had in common. My whole strategy for creating rapport, empathy and friendship was based on matching with other people. I found these skills valuable in making friends and in making sales.

Conversely mismatching felt uncomfortable. I instinctively felt that a person was not the sort of person that I would like. As a result I must have missed thousands of opportunities to make new and possibly interesting friends.

What I failed to appreciate until quite recently was the value of challenging thinking patterns. I had always done this when looking for business solutions, but only very rarely employed the same mismatching tactic in social, sales or coaching situations.

The key to mismatching is in the phrase: “yes, but….” This phrase challenges the other person to think, to reexamine their presuppositions and their entrenched positions. It can lead to arguments and disagreements. But it can also cause a lot of rethinking and reevaluating which can be healthy.

Internal and External Referencing

The way we value the feedback we get tells us whether we are internally or externally referenced. People who are internally referenced will be happy feeling good inside and telling themselves, “I did that well”, when they have completed a job. However, people who are externally referenced will need feedback from outside to reassure them that things went well. They need to read feedback forms, see sales graphs rising or get the order if they are to feel good.

It is probably true that most people are externally referenced. This is why a pat on the back and a “well done” work so well in the workplace.

It is a characteristic of very senior managers that they are able to provide their own reassurance and motivation by internally referencing that they have done a good job.

Entrepreneurs tend to have the same internal referencing process that enables them to work independently of the corporate structure that others need to support them with constant reassurance.

Team leaders can motivate the people in their teams especially well when they understand the referencing that each member of the team uses. It becomes a great deal easier to create meaningful feelings for the members of a team when you know what matters to them.

Observe yourself when you create an outcome. Did you manage to create good feelings for yourself or did you need to have some feedback from an external source before you felt reassured and able to feel good about the outcome.


The question here is are you inside of your body or outside of it – associated inside yourself or dissociated outside of yourself? This can happen when you are talking to someone or when you are at an event, in a meeting or even when you are making a presentation.

You may well have had the experience of trying to untangle the emotional turmoil of two people who have got into a difference of opinion when using e-mail to communicate. When both parties associate into the argument and become intensely emotionally engaged it can appear that they are on fire with emotion. Both believe that they are right, both think that the other party is behaving unreasonably. Both believe they are victims of the other person trying to deliberately upset them.

To untangle such emotionally charged misunderstandings it is important that the arbitrator dissociates from the emotions involved.

Sometimes feedback can be painful, it can be difficult to hear what is being said to or about you in a dispassionate way. In such situations it is valuable to be able to dissociate from the situation and listen objectively.

On the other hand when you want to really motivate the members of your team it is important to be very associated with both the words you use, with the situation and the people to whom you are speaking.

The tricks with these states are to be aware of the state you are in at any time and to be able to choose an appropriate state for the task you need to perform.

When making decisions it is helpful to be able to associate into the situation and to help others to do the same. However a member of the judiciary would benefit from being able to dissociate from the subject about which he has to pass judgement.


This is about the way that people need to receive information in order for them to be convinced. Filters influence how we interpret the experiences of our lives. It is often fairly easy to spot the filters that other people use, sometimes less easy to spot the filters that we use ourselves.

But even when you have a clear idea of the filters that someone else is using they may also need to have information presented to them in specific ways before they become convinced.

Some people need multiple layers of facts before they are convinced, others need minimal facts, still others need to be told the same information many times and others need time to digest information before they can make decisions.

Sales people and executives in positions of influence need to be aware of the different procedures that their customers use to make decisions. This is particularly relevant because so many buying decisions are made at an emotional level, even in the business world.

In NLP training we focus on teaching people to pay close attention to what is being said, how it is being said and the structure of what is being said. To help your colleagues and clients to make decisions you too will benefit from paying close attention to the same procedures.