Better Memory Skills with NLP Sorting Patterns

Have you ever felt like you were absorbing lots of information effectively, and then... when called upon to recall that information later... drew a blank?

Did you ever master something complicated over years of effort... only to get to a point where the simplest details of those skills were out of your conscious reach, yet... you could still USE the relevant skills behaviorally or masterfully?

Has an NLP Practitioner or Trainer ever asked you "Think of a time when you felt _____...", named for you a relevant emotion from your past, and then you found you couldn't recall such a specific time (even though you KNOW you had to have had such an experience?

These problem-ridden moments are not a useful or helpful cause for making judgements about the quality of your overall memory skills. In other words, failure to recall information or memories like the above situations, does not mean you have a bad memory.

To understand these experiences more accurately, you need to separate "memory storage" skills from "memory recall" skills.

The people with the most celebrated memory skills combine more effective information-storing techniques, with more effective (and relevant) questions.

And if you're not in the above small category of lucky people with both great information storage skills, as well as great recall skills, then you're among the majority of people, who must decide either to be satisfied with our memory skills... or work to improve them.

So let's look first at:

Memory Storage Methods.

Most of us have no idea how we remember and organize our memories. Nearly all of us do this unconsciously. Human beings are extraordinary learners (given effective learning experiences, motivation, fascination, good teachers, great feedback loops, etc). We acquire new knowledge and

skill with some ease, granted - with variations from person to person. We also have preferences for how we store our information. From an NLP perspective, most of how we store information can be gleaned from our "metaprograms." How we "sort" for information is usually related to how we store information.

So... without going into excessive detail in a blog entry about metaprograms, they're like filters. And here are some common filters (or sorting methods) as they pertain to memories:

  • Time (some people store and access memories along a timeline)

  • People (some people store and access memories associated with other people they know)

  • Things (some people store and access memories based on the things they buy or keep)

  • Emotions (some people store and access memories based on emotional triggers)

  • Places (some people store and access memories based on locale, or cities, or landmarks)

There are more "sorts" (e.g. sorting methods), but these are among the most common ones.

Also, some people have the ability to store their memories or information using more than one sort. It's quite common for this to happen.

The computer metaphor version of this... is like a database. After all, databases were created by programmers to simulate how human beings store and access memories. It's no surprise we can use one as a metaphor of the other. So... we can have a great database full of gold, but if we don't understand the "index" being used (i.e., how the information is organized & sorted), we'll never be able to mine that gold.

Let's say someone asks you a question like "Hey, do you remember that guy "Jim, from Cincinnati?" How easily or not do you think you'll remember Jim if you store your memories based on time? If you don't store your memories based on people, or based on places, you probably won't remember Jim unless or until someone adds to the question "you know Jim, we met him last August." Until you have that one key piece of information that matches your preferred memory storage and sorting methods... the memory is unavailable. Now, knowing you met Jim in August, the memory of Jim comes back, images stream forth, and you'll suddenly remember Jim well.

So. If you somehow picked up the idea that your “memory wasn't that great,” you can throw out that limiting and inaccurate belief in favor of something more empowering for yourself, because the truth is: Your memory is fine; as soon as you begin to understand how your own sorting patterns work, you can move past memory challenges for some rather surprising results, and finally discover that your own world-class memory has been there all along... just waiting for you to discover how to use it more effectively!

How to Test for Your Own Memory Storage Method(s) / Pattern(s)

Simply ask yourself some questions using each of the above filters as your organizing method (and there are others beyond the above starting list).

To test whether you sort memories by time, ask yourself questions like:

(NOTE: Do not treat these questions as a complete diagnostic tool. They are a subset of examples, an incomplete guide as to how we go about evaluating someone's memory sorting preferences. They're labeled Q1..7 only so that we can refer to specific questions accurately and briefly.)

  • Q1: "Last Thursday afternoon, where was I or what was I doing?"
  • Q2: "4 Years ago this month, what was my most important project?"
  • Q3: "12 years ago & 6 months ago, who was my best friend at the time?"

Rapid answers to questions like the above indicate a strong time sort.

To test whether you sort by people, don't ask about time first. Try this:

  • Q4: “Name all of your lifetime best friends in any sequence. “
  • Q5: “And after you have the list, name the date-ranges relevant for each friend." (If you can only do this sequentially through time, then either you sort by time, or by era).

To test whether you sort more by emotions than time, ask this:

  • Q6: "Where in your body would or do you feel fascination (or, name any other emotion)? And once you do feel it, when was the last time you felt this?" (Emotion-sort, primarily)

If you can answer Q6 faster than the next question, you may have a strong emotion-sort:

  • Q7: "When was the last time you felt fascinated?" (Time-sort).

If you can answer Q7 more easily than Q6, then you sort memories more by time, than by emotion.

So, hopefully this has illustrated some ideal methods to use to determine someone else's memory sorting patterns. When communicating with coaching clients, it's worthwhile ensuring not a single moment is wasted. So if you're a coach, you'd better shape up your questions and realize that a client's lack of ability to come up with matching memories says as much or more about the way you phrase your questions, as it does about their history. And if you're a client of a coach, you'd want your coach to ensure the questions they ask are well designed for your ears, to get rapid and effective answers.

While the above questions are not a complete list, they are examples of some of the exact methods and protocols we use in personal coaching sessions to determine someone's memory sorting patterns.

So, presuming you have some great clues about how to figure out your own memory-sorting & storage methods, now we need to know more about how facts and memories are recalled and accessed.

Memory-Recall questions, for ourselves

Chances are, you're amongst the majority of people who use the same memory-recall sorting methods that we use to store our own facts and memories.

Most of us are fortunate, in that IF we use time to organize our memories, then to remember things both consciously and unconsciously, we tend to ask ourselves time-based questions. If we use places as our primary sorting method for storing memories, we think first about places, to access further information we memorized when we were living in or visiting those places. Another way of saying this is that our storage and recall methods are congruent. We use the same circuits, for input, and output! This is very important, and useful.

If you're not one of those people... then you may have difficulty remembering many, many, many things - even things you want to remember for your own purposes. Such a person will (not may, WILL) benefit massively from getting some private coaching from someone who understands all these issues and can help them to develop new long-term memory skills and techniques.

By contrast, if a stroll down memory lane is an easy frequent activity for you, and you can often remember addresses, telephone numbers, birthdays, names, etc., then you can rest easy that you probably don't have anything to worry about in terms of your own memory management.

Memory-Recall Questions asked by Others of Us:

Have you ever heard an NLP Trainer ask "Think of a time when you felt Powerful!" ? If so, did it ever not work for you? No matter how hard you tried, was it impossible to access a matching memory?

We've seen and heard this result happen time & time again -- in online chatrooms, and during breaks at courses we deliver, when people sometimes complain about other trainers' courses.

If someone asks you a question that attempts to get you to recall a memory, and you aren't able to recall such a memory, all it potentially means is that (a) you don't have such a memory - which is ridiculous if the question is similar to "have you ever felt powerful before," or (b) the questioner asked a question using a sorting method that doesn't match your memory-storage preferences.

Once in a while, a person presumes erroneously that it's their own fault. Perhaps they even conclude that there's something wrong with them, or their brain... or possibly that NLP doesn't actually work. None of these conclusions are remotely close to the truth.

If you store your memories by time and someone asks you to think of a time when you felt powerful, then unless you've felt weak all of your entire life, you WILL be able to follow their instruction, relatively quickly. Count on it.

If you sort through and remember your memories using places (as a primary organizing index) and someone asks you to "think of a time when you felt powerful," you might not be able to answer quickly or at all. The memory... which will still be buried in your mind through 'pointers' like what city you were in where (not when) you last felt that emotion... is not easily accessible through a time-sort. They would have to ask you "Think of a place where you felt powerful" and the memory would be rapidly available.

In NLP we call these types of questions "elicitations." We often ask questions that are designed to bring students (or coaching clients) to revivify emotions from past experiences. We do this because we operate from a belief that says "everyone already has the resources they need, inside them." In other words, everyone's capable of solving their own challenges, but for whatever reason, they just don't yet see how to access their own resources, yet. As NLP Practitioners, we act as guides to help people access their own existing brilliance and ability. We help elicit older more resourceful memories and skills and emotions... and help people bring those past resources into current challenges. And sometimes we teach a few new techniques to enable further progress.

Flexible, smart Practitioners & Trainers understand that they MUST elevate above the typical "think of a time when" types of questions. These are “elicitation questions,” and when they don't work, it is NOT a comment either about the efficacy of NLP, or about the person answering. It's a comment that the Practitioner or Trainer needs to change the elicitation questions they're asking, immediately.

It amazes us that there are even some trainers and practitioners out there that, when students or clients don't come up with memories in response to the typical elicitation questions, will actually blame others for having poor memory storage methods. In such a case... their own inflexibility as a leader is the primary culprit. Avoid these pretenders at all costs in favor of a true professional.

Regarding the Challenges Described Initially

If you know you absorb lots of information effectively, but have challenges with recall... chances are your methods of storing information may not match your methods of recalling information. In which case, use some of the insights from this article to (a) determine where the differences are, or (b) change the way you organize new information, or (c) change the way you ask yourself questions to sort through your existing knowledge and memory!

If you've ever mastered something complicated over years of effort, then found details outside of conscious reach, yet masterful demonstration still exists... rest easy. This is what happens when you reach unconscious competence in your learning. This is actually normal, and is evidence of reaching high performance levels! To regain conscious access to the details, you'll have to review the material again from the beginning (don't worry, it's far faster the 2nd time). Only after learning something twice can you have both conscious competence and unconscious competence concurrently (which, in my opinion, == mastery).

If "Think of a time when you felt _____" didn't work for you... rephrase the question to include your own natural sorting preferences, instead of just a time-sort! i.e. say to yourself “think of a place where...” or “think of a person who caused me to feel...” or “think of things that make me feel...” etc!

Times to Use These Lessons?

If you're ever given a high pressure test... and you need to do as well as you possibly can... recognize that sometimes tests ask questions that use less-useful sorting methods than we ourselves use. Learn to identify what sorting patterns you use.. . what sorting patterns the tests use... and how to translate in your mind from one to another! You'll be able to come up with better answers more quickly!

If you're in an interview... and you're either asked questions that you're not coming up with answers to... OR you realize that your interviewee/interviewer uses a different sorting process than you use... change how you ask your questions! Get different & better answers!

If you're speaking to groups... and you want everyone in the room to access memories that are resourceful... ask the same elicitation questions multiple times using different sorting methods! (Make sure to separate these questions with the word “or,” so that people know that all is well, as long as they can successfully answer only one of these questions!

And the list goes on... and on... and on!

These are critical skills for knowing how to gather better information from ourselves and others!


By Jonathan Altfeld


Want Additional Help Beyond the Above Self-Help?

Private coaching is available to help with these questions and issues. If you prefer self-help to coaching, get as far as you can with the above on your own, and see how you do! If either you'd like to go beyond what you accomplish on your own, ask Jonathan Altfeld for some private coaching via phone or skype (or in person, if you're within driving distance of Tampa, FL).  Initiate a conversation, here!