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The Time Dimension

by Dr Harry Alder(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 13 - July 1996

Another major difference between people is in the way they relate to time. Some people dwell on the past, others on the future, and others seem to live only for the present. A highly goal-oriented person who has clear objectives will usually think a lot in terms of where they are going, and the sort of experiences that will result. A visual person in particular will 'see' an experience in advance of it happening, so that it almost becomes the reality. But in a very similar way another person will be able to recall memories so vividly that in effect they carry their past around with them, which influences every current behaviour. In management, such a person would be less able to cope with change, or to grasp opportunities.

Through time and in time

There are even cultural differences in our approach to time, in that western people tend to have a linear perception of time as if going through it, whereas a more Arabic concept of time is that of a perpetual present, and the past is behind. These differences in our individual so-called 'timelines' are reflected neurologically in the way we represent memories and future events. On the one hand, imagery of both past and present is ahead of us, just as with external vision.

Typically, the past will be on one side and the future on the other, and this is referred to as 'through time'. The second type of person represents time as going from front to back, usually with the past behind, and some part of time actually 'inside'. So in this case you would have to turn your head to see a memory from the past. This type is referred to as 'in time' – part of the 'timeline' is inside you. As with other mental strategies, it is always hard to understand how someone thinks differently from yourself.

These ways of perceiving time offer further scope for differences, with resulting communication hazards. Subjectively, we can do all sorts of tricks with time. When we fall asleep time stands still, and our next conscious experience of time may be many hours later.

Something similar happens when we daydream, or are lost in our own thoughts – in the state termed 'downtime'. Conversely, when we are highly focused on present reality we have a better awareness of the passing of time. Time can drag or fly, depending on what we are doing, and our experience of it changes constantly. And although we each experience time in these different ways, we nevertheless have our own familiar concepts and experience of time. One manager 'never turns up on time', while another 'has never been late in her life'. We all know of these differences, and what happens when such people try to relate and communicate.

Your personal timeline

Fortunately, our brains are able to take reasonable account of time. Thus you will be able to differentiate between a regular activity you carried out this morning, and the same one five years ago, and for that matter imagining doing the activity at some time in the future. In giving us a structure of thought processes, NLP can help in identifying the actual neurological differences that give us this instinctive awareness of time. By imagining similar past and present events or experiences, for example, you should be able to spot differences in the modalities (seeing, hearing, feeling) and submodalities ('picture' contrast and brightness, voice tone, etc.). This includes the location of the image, which as we have seen might differ as between left and right, or front and behind, when we represent time. In every thought, we represent not just experience, but the time dimension as well. The differences may be subtle, and sometimes we are not sure whether we have actually done something or just have imagined it clearly. The unique characteristics of how you sort out time represent your personal 'timeline'.

Time perception and communication

For present purposes we need to understand that others may not perceive time as we do, and our communication might thus be ineffective. As with sensory preference, our words can sometimes give clues. Phrases like 'I can't see any future' or 'I'm looking forward to the meeting' may be more literal than we might imagine. Similarly 'looking back on it' illustrates exactly how a past event is represented as such.

The biggest difference is likely to occur as between a 'through time' person and an 'in time' person, and this happens most when communicating across cultures. What may not be understood by most managers is that 'African time', or 'Arab time', reflect structurally different ways of representing time – it happens in the brain. But even 'through time' people may have different ways of perceiving time. In one case the past might be dim, small and less focused than the future, or vice versa, and this accounts for the different degrees of emphasis we each give to the present, past and future. A clear representation of both past and future will usually mean a person is very time conscious, and – for instance – they will be reliable timekeepers. A person whose timeline is less distinct will live more in the present, and may easily overlook appointments, or simply not appreciate the importance of keeping to time schedules. These difference happen in the brain as learned strategies involving actual electro-chemical processes.

In the case of colleagues you work with closely, you will no doubt be able to categorise them by experience. Do they seem to dwell in the past, think mainly about the future, or live for the present? How do they see the future? Clear and positive, or hazy and menacing? How do they represent their distant past, or an incident a couple of days ago? How real are past and future representations, and how do they motivate the person today? You will be in a position to understand the other person better by appreciating their different strategy for representing time - their different map of the world. You can then start using appropriate language, just as when matching their basic sensory (seeing, hearing, feeling) preference. At worst, your own feelings about apparently ineffective communications will be changed; you will be more aware of the different perceptions involved, and will have the choice to change your own behaviour to bring about a better outcome.

All this has immediate application for managers. You don't describe vivid future scenarios to a person who (effectively) has no future timeline to speak of. Nor would the short term delights of the present mean much to the person whose whole life seems to be a preparation for some future outcome or other.

The time dimension is, I found, a major factor in leadership. The orthodox role of leadership usually includes creating a vision. But many would-be leaders have difficulty communicating their vision of the future to colleagues, who may neither think visually nor have a strong future timeline. However, by matching meta programs as well as sensory preference, rapport can be established with uncanny ease.

Extracted with permission from the book NLP for Managers by Dr Harry Alder, published by Piatkus Book, at Pleasure Books at £19.99


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About Dr Harry Alder

Harry Alder is an experienced businessman, having held top corporate director and public authority positions. He now trains senior executives in leading companies in personal effectiveness, specialising in the area of creativity and innovation. He is a popular keynote speaker at management and sales conferences internationally, and his books and research have also involved broadcasting on television and radio in the UK and in the far east.
He has tutored MBA students in strategic management, marketing, finance (he is an accountant by profession), and other subjects over a number of years. His writing on these subjects is extensive, with scores of published articles in leading management and training journals. His books include:
The Right Brain ManagerNLP: The New Art and Science of Getting What You WantThink Like a Leader;  The Right Brain Time Manager;  NLP for Managers;  NLP for Trainers;  Masterstroke;  Train Your Brain;  Corporate Charisma.
Currently being published (1998) Mind to Mind MarketingHow to Get, Do and Be what you wantCorporate PositioningNLP in 21 Days. Dr Alder has a masters degree and doctorate in business administration, and is associate professor of a leading international business school. He is a certified NLP master practitioner. Dr Alder can be contacted on 01604 702189.

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