a helping hand



HOME   /    BLOG    /    PODCASTS   /    CONTACT

Magicians, pick-pockets and successful people: the power of NLP


The magician snaps his fingers and the ball disappears right in front of your eyes. How is this possible, you ask? You know a little about physics and you know that it is impossible for a solid object to simply vanish. But it did, right in front of you.


Or, did it?


Magic and magicians allow you to experience the impossible. Derren Brown and the Dynamo are the latest illusionists to leave audiences gasping for breath. For centuries, other magicians have been doing it too. So, how does it work?


It is all about psychology


Human brains are complex, but they are simple at the same time. Our brains have limitations and it is these limitations that magicians exploit. For example, let's take a look at one of our senses, vision. Most people will have come across the following image. Clearly, one line looks longer than the other, but when we get the ruler out, we find both lines are exactly the same length.












We are amazed and surprised when we see the 'real' length of the line. So why do we get it so incredibly wrong?


When we look at the above diagram, complex neuronal processes within our conscious and subconscious minds get to work. The subconscious mind processes the information coming in through the visual cortex, but it then does something incredibly strange. Rather than taking the information at face value, the subconscious mind starts to process past experiences, it rationalises, and it provides an 'estimate' for our conscious mind.


The estimate of the length of the line that is provided by the subconscious mind is then passed back to the conscious mind and it is here that our decision about the length is made. The subconscious mind has 'tricked' the conscious mind. Magicians love this little trickery that goes on inside our heads.


Another important misconception about our brains is about the amount of information that is processed. Intuitively, we think that we are aware of most of our surroundings, but turns out to be incorrect. Processing large amounts of information comes at a cost, brain size. Instead of evolving massive brains, humans have developed with a compromise.


We have an interesting strategy that allows us to prioritise aspects of the environment around us, while ignoring other things. Magicians exploit these attentional limitations by misdirecting our attention thereby preventing us from seeing their secret moves.


Watch your wallet


Of course, it is not just magicians who use these deficiencies of the human mind. Pick-pockets have been distracting us for centuries. Imagine this scene. A stranger approaches you in the street. They are holding a map, looking a little lost. They ask you if they are near to Covent Garden tube station. Their right index finger makes swishing moves across the map, while they overload your auditory system with a deluge of verbal trash about being lost. Your conscious mind is taken up with the visual images of the map, the movement of their fingers and the auditory information, and it blocks out other information that it doesn't think important. Your conscious and subconscious mind have forgotten all about the person's left hand. Too late, your wallet, your tube station pass and your hotel key have all gone!


It is relatively easy for pick-pocketers to overload our conscious mind. If they give us lots of different types of information at one time, then we can get easily distracted. However, they play another trick too; they play the non-verbal communication technique.


A professor of psychology once told me, that when we decide whether or not we like someone, only 7% of that decision is made from their linguistic communication. An incredible 38% is made from their tonality and a whopping 55% is made by their physiology. Non-verbal communication therefore carries much more weight than verbal. Accomplished pick-pocketers watch for certain people before they make their move. They watch body language and characteristics and then, when they move in for the kill, they mirror those characteristics. Magician and illusionists do it too.


The subconscious brain at work


Picture in your mind this scene. Imagine we meet someone new. We talk to them for ten minutes or so before saying goodbye. The next day, we are walking down the high street when we see the same person again. We recognise them, and we stop to talk again. We spend a few minutes chatting away. Sometimes, we will remember their names from the previous meeting, and sometimes we will remember a 'lot' of stuff. However, sometimes we won't remember very much about the person, and sometimes we will go out of our way to avoid them completely.


When we meet someone for the first time, our conscious mind uses information from the eyes and ears. We don't consciously think about how the person moves, their hand gestures, the tone of their voice, the colour of their eyes. However, our subconscious mind is doing just that. It is 'linking'. It is taking in all the information around us, and it is working hard to decide whether we should like this person or not. The subconscious mind is processing, analysing, estimating and deciding.


When we meet the person the second time, our subconscious mind has processed and it sends a message to the conscious mind to say, yep, I want to talk more to this person, or, nope, avoid this person at all cost.


The fascinating thing about Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is that we can use the conscious and subconscious mind to great benefit.


Imagine you are a sales person, earning a living from selling products or services. The last thing you want is for your potential customers to dislike you because you are giving off unconscious non-verbal signals. What you need to do is to make sure your potential customers like you and feel at ease with you. Just like the illusionist, you can use NLP to help you communicate directly to the person's perceptive process and to their subconscious mind.


Building rapport to build success


Can you think of all the situations in life where knowledge of 'connecting with people' could be immensely beneficial? Interviews, presentations, negotiating with colleagues and many more situations could be helped with this knowledge.


NLP has a whole bunch of techniques to help us build connections with people. In NLP language, we call it rapport. Rapport and relationship building is the first of the four pillars of NLP and it is one of the most important.


Here is a little experiment for you to try. When you are talking with someone, consciously think about the words they are using. Are they using words that describe a visual image, for example are they saying things such as "I see what you mean" or "I can picture what you are saying". Or, are they using different adjectives, such as "I can hear what you are saying" or "now that rings a bell". Perhaps the person uses expressions that involve 'feel and touch', such as "I could really get a hold of that idea".


People habitually fall into three categories of representation: visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Think about the words that you use in everyday life. Are you a visual or auditory person?


Visual people will generally tend to use words such as look, see, picture, vision; words that are associated with visual representation.


Those who prefer auditory representation will use words associated with sound, for example, hear, resonate, harmonious, pitch.


Kinaesthetic people will use adjectives associated with touch and feel, such as grasp, hold, tackle, sticky.


Mirror to build great connections


A great way to build rapport with someone is to mirror their language. It is amazing how effective this simple technique can be. If we use the same type of words as the other person, their subconscious mind will recognise this and will instantly send a message to their conscious mind to say "like him".


Building rapport is only one step in the journey to becoming a fully fledged NLP practitioner. Whether they knew it or not, the great illusionists, and indeed the great pick-pocketers, have all taken advantage of the way the conscious and subconscious mind works. Successful people, too, have learned the benefits of rapport and NLP.


To find out more about this fascinating concept, listen to my Introduction to NLP podcast.