Cognitive Flexibility: VAK’s amazing!

“Cognitive Flexibility” is identified as a top 10 skill that will be most desired by employers by 20201.

One important element of this skill is the ability to be flexible in your communication and adapt your language according to who you are communicating with.   When communicating, one size does not fit all, as the learners at Lindsay Taylor’s recent IAM CPD Session in London discovered…….
Learners left the training room with a new insight into communication and the ability to put their learning into practice (with benefit) straight away. 
“What a fabulous training session! I have a new awareness of communication styles and how I can adapt my message to cement really great working relationships…..”

The Session was based on a chapter of Lindsay’s award-winning book “A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs”2 which we are delighted to share with you in this blog post. 

C is for… Communication

As an Executive PA you need to communicate with internal and external customers. Very quickly you need to get on someone else’s wavelength in order to communicate effectively with them and create good rapport. You need to think about the best way to communicate in any given situation (face to face, email, text message, telephone call… ) then think about the language you will use to communicate. 

People use terminology, phrases and words that relates to how they process their world and that’s what I want to introduce in this Pearl of Wisdom. We are all complex beings – with neurological pathways buzzing with activity, skilfully multi-tasking with organisational expertise and company knowledge at our fingertips… we are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting our way to PA excellence and success!  

But did you know that, whilst we access all five senses to “make sense” of our worlds, in fact most of us have a dominant or primary sense that we use over the others? That dominant sense can mean we favour certain words, phrases and vocabulary. 

Being able to identify your own and others’ dominant sense can be a useful thing to do to ensure you communicate as effectively as possible. Take a few minutes to think back to the last meeting you were involved in and re-live the most memorable bits – collect the memories in your mind. 

Then, think about how you remembered:

Did you create a visual picture of the events? Was it a “snapshot”, a still image? Was it a “mini movie”? Was it in colour? 

Or did you notice the sounds within the experience – people’s voices, music or the natural sounds of the surroundings? 

Or maybe the memory was about feelings inside – happiness (the meeting went really well!) or tension (the Sales Director and Managing Director could not agree on anything!). 

Whichever one of these ways of reconstructing your memory was the first and/or most recognisable indicates your likely dominant sense – or your lead Representational System.

Quite simply, it is how you create a “representation” or “re-present” your world – either in:

  • pictures (the Visuals – or The V)
  • sounds (the Auditory – or The A) or
  • feelings (the Kinaesthetics – or The K).  

This is our VAK System – one that you as a PA can tap into to communicate really effectively with the people you work with. An indicator of your Representation or VAK System is the language that you use – particular words and phrases that we call “Predicates”.

The V
If you have a predominantly Visual Representational System then you’re likely to use words and phrases like:

  • “I see what you mean.” 
  • “I get the picture”
  • “Things are looking great.”
  • “We need to focus on this aspect.” 

and, because you can see in your “mind’s eye” what you’re talking about you’re likely to use your arms and body to draw out in front of you the very thing you’re describing! You will notice how things look around you – their shape, form and colour – the aesthetics.

The A
If you have a predominantly Auditory Representational System then you’re likely to talk in predicates that are sound or music related, as examples then:

  • “We discussed the situation”
  • “I’d like to listen to your ideas”
  • “I do like the sound of that”. 

You might be great at tuning into new ideas. 

The K
If you have a predominantly Kinaesthetic Representational System then you’re likely to use language that is feelings, movement or touch related:

  • “I’m under pressure”
  • “I like the feeling of that”
  • “Things are really moving now”
  • “He’s hot on quality control”

You probably have a pretty clear idea of where you experience your feelings too. If you’re stressed you may touch your head, if you’re hungry you may touch your stomach and for you to really optimise any learning, you probably want to be there, doing it as a first-hand experience.

So, why is this useful I hear you cry? “Tell me more” say the Auditory readers!  “I get a feeling this is really beneficial stuff – how can I take this great new learning and really get to grips with it in the office to communicate effectively?” ask the Kinaesthetic readers.  “So, that’s great you’ve painted a picture of what this VAK thing is all about – can we look at it in relation to the Executive PA role?” you Visual readers request. 

What is the use of my newfound knowledge?  Before I answer your question, let me ask you a couple of questions.  How often have you met someone for the first time and felt that you got along really well and immediately seemed to be on the “same wavelength”? And…how often have you met someone for the first time and found it really difficult to keep the conversation going?  The reason for this could be because you are either talking the same or a different “VAK Language”. 

If a primarily visual person is using all their visual-type predicates, an auditory person is likely to “switch off”. However two “visual” people are much more likely to create quicker and deeper rapport and be “comfortable” with each other because they are, in effect, talking the same language. So, next time you are listening to colleagues or friends in conversation, notice what words they tend to use and favour. Read through your emails in your inbox and notice any patterns of predicates favoured by those you work with. What Representational System do you think they are?  If you’ve discovered you are a primarily Visual Representation System and your manager is Auditory – in order to communicate effectively with him/her you can adjust your language and include more auditory predicates.  

And that just leaves me to end this Pearl of Wisdom with a beautiful quote from Nelson Mandela who said

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.


1According to a recent WEF survey of 350 executives across 9 industries in 15 of the world’s biggest economies to generate “The Future of Jobs” report (https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018).

2 Taylor, L (2015) A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs. Bedfordshire: Your Excellency Ltd

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