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There are no “rules” of hypnotic suggestion.  Well, rather, there are no rigid rules of hypnotic suggestion.  There are some rough guidelines, which occur in some form or another in most traditional books on the subject.  They vary slightly from one author to another.  In particular, the followers of Milton Erickson, who emphasise the use of “indirect” forms of suggestion, follow different principles, and this may be because they are actually attempting to employ a different form or mechanism of suggestion.

However, the “classic suggestion effect”, as it is known, is normally associated with the hypnotic tradition stemming from James Braid, the founder of hypnotherapy.  Braid clearly defined hypnotism as a state of focused mental attention upon a dominant expectant idea or mental image, which was capable of evoking a bodily response by means of a neuro-psychological mechanism known as the “ideo-dynamic reflex”.  This is, at least, the traditional theory of hypnotic suggestion.  This effect seems to be most easily and reliably produced when we adopt the following basic principles,

1. Suggestions should be formulated in the positive

This is perhaps the most important “rule” of suggestion.  Suggestions should not employ negative grammatical predicates such as “not” or “less”, etc.  For example, “I am not anxious” is a poorly-formulated suggestion.  “I am calm and relaxed” would be better because it is positively formulated.  In othe words, we do not mean “positive” in the sense of “good” but rather the formulation of suggestions so that they directly refer to the experience or response that they seek to evoke rather than attempting to do so by means of verbal negation.

2. Suggestions should be formulated in the present tense

Suggestions phrased in the future tense create a sense of detachment from the response and are therefore not evocative.  They also fail to provide any immediate evidence, or feedback, that proves the suggestion has been effective.  True post-hypnotic suggestions have consistently been found to work far less frequently than simple physical suggestions, in many experiments on hypnosis.  The basic dilemma of hypnotherapy is that clients seek to make changes in the future but suggestions phrased in the future tense are weak.  Suggestions like “On Friday, before your operation, you will feel calm and at ease” tend to be ineffectual when used alone.  We therefore generally ask clients to project themselves into a future situation, using mental imagery to make present tense suggestions appropriate.  Hence, a client might be asked to imagine that it is Friday and picture himself just prior to the operation so that suggestions like “You now feel calm and at ease” can be given instead.

3. Suggestions should be varied and repeated

Suggestions normally have to be repeated many times to accumulate enough effect.  However, when a word or phrase is repeated many times there is a strong, and easily observed, tendency for it to become less evocative.  It just starts to sound like a meaningless noise.  Suggestions therefore have to be varied but revolve around the same idea or train of thought.  We vary the words while holding the idea constant.  This is why hypnotic “suggestion scripts” usually employ many different words and phrases based on a single theme, perhaps describing different aspects of a complex response.

4. Suggested responses should be achievable

The general public often confuse hypnotic suggestions with the kind of affirmations used in spiritual self-help methods which, e.g., affirm “Life is being generous to me”, etc.  Suggestions work by evoking bodily responses so should generally refer to behavioural or physiological changes that could feasibly be evoked psychologically.  Likewise, changes in other people are outside of my direct sphere of control so I would not suggest “People are more likely to buy from me” but rather “I am becoming more confident at selling to people”, for instance.

5. Suggestions should be meaningful and evocative

Suggestion works by a psychological mechanism, not by magic.  If I were to read someone a suggestion script written in Latin, assuming they didn't know the language, there would be no effect whatsoever.  (Unless they guessed the meaning from my body language or something.)  That much may be obvious.  However, English words should also be experienced as personally meaningful and evocative to the subject.  For instance, “You are now more confident” is an abstract suggestion.  For some people it may conjure up images of assertive behaviour, specific memories, and feelings, etc.  For others, it may simply be too vague a concept to stir any specific response.  Abstract suggestions are useful when they have been defined, fleshed out, by many specific suggestions.  For instance, suggesting “You are now more confident” would be more evocative if associated with a detailed self-confidence script or specific mental imagery.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

6. Suggestions should be delivered congruently

Traditional hypnotic suggestion, as Braid himself noted, is related to the wider disciplines of rhetoric and oratory.  It is a myth that suggestions should be repeated in a “hypnotic monotone” and one of the most consistent findings of researchers and clinicians is that subjects respond better to suggestions which are delivered in a confident and meaningful tone of voice than those which are repeated monotonously and lackadaisically.  Braid illustrated this point by demonstrating that when he suggested to a hypnotic subject that they could see an animal, they would see a wolf, for instance, if he spoke in an ominous tone of voice, or a lamb, by contrast, if he spoke in a light-hearted or happy tone.

Bear in mind that the use of verbal suggestion is an art, more than a science, just like any other form of rhetoric.  The response that a subject experiences to suggestion is largely determined by context, expectation, and the way in which it is delivered.  A good analogy would be joke-telling.  A joke can be scripted but the effect of telling it will vary depending upon the context in which it is told, how it is being told, and who is telling it.

About the author | Donald Robertson

Donald is a writer and trainer, with over twenty years’ experience. He’s a specialist in teaching evidence-based psychological skills, and known as an expert on the relationship between modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Donald is the original founder of The UK College of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy, setting up in 2003 under the name Hypnosynthesis. Donald developed the evidence-based hypnotherapy approach taught in the College. He also has been instrumental in the further integration of hypnosis with CBT – both via the training courses of the College and his publication: The Practice of Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy. He passed the College along to Mark Davis in 2013. He now lives in Canada