Philip Holder, PhD.
Copyright Philip Holder, PhD. 2005 – 2009


A man purchased a cat at the local pet store. The cat, never having been housebroken, would do his business on the man’s carpet. Not wanting a litter-box in the house the man was determined to housebreak the cat so every time the cat went to the bathroom in the man’s house the man would rub the cat’s nose in the mess and throw the cat out of the window and into the yard in an attempt to teach the cat to do its business outdoors. After a few days a behavioral change had in fact occurred. The cat still crapped in the house but after doing so it would jump out of the window.


Words are the most powerful thing in the world. Our entire perception of reality and our understanding of the world around us has been conveyed to us in either the written, spoken, or signed word. The quality of our communication with others is dependant on our ability to send clear messages. The other half of the equation is in how we receive and interpret messages. The fact is… we all interpret words through the filter of our own life experience. Understanding this phenomenon is critical to do quality hypnotherapy.


As hypnotherapists, the words we use are so incredibly important. The true skill in therapeutic hypnosis is to structure suggestions (both waking hypnotic and hypnotic) that will facilitate only “The Desired Change”. First and foremost a good therapist must have a therapeutic plan. Secondly but equally important, the therapist must follow that plan. My father used to say “Plan your work and work your plan”. Makes sense to me!

I am not a believer in the use of scripts. Using a script is, in my opinion, using a “one size fits all” approach to what should be a very individualized process. Even if a therapist adjusts the script to fit the client more specifically, it is still a script.

Every client is a unique individual. Each client has a different view of the world and a different reality based on that person’s individual life experience. What is significant to one person may not be to another person. What is pleasant to one person may not be to another.

To help a client accomplish his or her goals in the most expeditious manner you must have a game-plan. The intake phase of therapy (as most of you reading this article are aware), is the phase where the therapist elicits information from the client that is then used in the formulation of suggestion relevant to that specific client’s needs. [Note: I am not referring to an intake “form”. I am referring to a quality one-on-one intake interview.] The information is also used in the structuring of a therapeutic plan. The words and statements that you choose to move that client from point “A” to point “B” must be specifically selected to meet that individual’s perception of reality, motivators, likes and goals.

There is an old saying. “When you’re up to your butt in alligators it’s hard to remember that your prime objective was to drain the swamp” (Remember, if you drain the swamp and the alligators will leave). In structuring a session it is important to stay focused on the goal. It is important to think ahead, in effect planning the route to your client’s desired destination. There are two important questions to be considered… What can I say that will lead my client to achieving his or her goal and what, if said, might sabotage that effort and result in unintended consequences? One other footnote… During the intake asking the right questions is an important skill. Getting the right answers to the wrong questions is no more valuable than getting the wrong answers to the right questions.


During one of our certification classes a student was practicing an induction in which she was attempting to include some visualization that she thought was exemplary of a pleasant experience. Her attempt at creating a pleasant visualization went something like this: “Imagine that you’re on the beach with your mother. There are clouds in the sky. Three sea gulls are flying overhead.” Needless to say I stopped the student before she could go any further.

There is always the chance that with the appropriate client her words may have been fine and the session may have progressed without issue. For that to be true, however, one must assume that (1) the client liked the beach, (2) the client had a good relationship with his or her mother and would like to be at the beach with her, (3) the client did not interpret the clouds as ominous or threatening, (4) the Sea Gulls flying overhead were not a scary idea to the client and (5) that the client has the visualization skills to create all of this in his or her mind (including specifically 3 Sea Gulls). [Note: if the person has to struggle to create the visualization it is likely that the critical mind will come back into play in an attempt to figure out what to do, or what is wrong.]


Often times we think that we are being clear in our intent with the words we use when in fact we are not. We think that someone should easily be able to understand a statement that is abundantly clear to us when in fact the message we provide is dramatically unsuitable due to the differences in the two people’s life experiences and the way they each perceive those words.

It is also important to keep in mind that the subconscious mind is the simple, basic, child within us. Absent of critical thought, it functions on an honest, simple and childlike level. It accepts ideas at face value. Science fiction and mystery movie makers attempt to create what is called a “Suspended State of Disbelief”. If they are successful viewers can watch a movie that is far removed from reality, yet still become emotionally involved in the movie as if in fact is was real.

To a great extent, when speaking to the subconscious, you are interacting with a person’s creative self, then functioning within a suspended state of disbelief. Because the subconscious mind has no critical, analytical, or rational thought abilities in cannot filter ideas in terms of context. When making statements, asking questions, or making suggestions, we must keep in mind the state of mind of the client while he or she is in hypnosis and speak to this simple yet creative part of the person’s consciousness. The messages must be clean and clear or they may be misread.

Below are some examples of unintended consequences that can be created when we either form suggestions relevant to our own perception that are not particularly relevant to the client (based on the client’s frame of reference) or when a therapist simply doesn’t think through the possible ramifications of the words that he or she uses.


* Could result in unintended consequences (in pre-talk or other pre induction):
“Don’t worry” (or “There is nothing to be afraid of), if you notice a warming of your skin or tingling feeling in your hands or feet while you are in hypnosis.”
* Why:
You would now have introduced the idea of worry or fear that otherwise may not have been present.
* Correct Delivery:
“If you notice a warming of your skin or a tingly feeling while you are enjoying hypnosis that is perfectly normal so just enjoy.”

* Could result in unintended consequences: Something “NOT to say” to an obese person coming for weight loss sessions, during the induction or the session.
* You are feeling heavy
* Why:
* I think the possible ramifications of that are unpleasantly obvious.
* Correct Delivery:
* Allow yourself to drift and float gently across the sea of dreams.

* Could result in unintended consequences:
* You can’t fail
* Why:
* Contains 2 negative ideas… “Can’t” and “Fail” that the subconscious mind may imprint.
* Correct Delivery:
* You succeed and easily accomplish your goals

* Could result in unintended consequences: Smoke Cessation
* When I emerge you, you will be a non-smoker
* Why:
* This assumes the change has not yet happened or it will happen sometime in the future. The change needs to be in the here and now. Putting change off reduces the chance that it will actually happen. You want the change to take place while critical thought is suspended and the creative subconscious can create the reality of being a non smoker.
* Correct Delivery:
You are a non-smoker, you feel great as a non-smoker, you take great pride in this wonderful change you have made.

* Could result in unintended consequences: (Fear of Flying Session)
* “You are not afraid of Flying”
* Why:
The subconscious mind may hear the words “Afraid of flying”
* Correct Delivery:
You love flying to interesting destinations

* Could result in unintended consequences:
Don’t forget to drink your water
* Why:
Subconscious may hear either “Forget to drink your water” or “Don’t drink your water”.
* Correct Delivery:
Instantly you remember to drink your water

* Could result in unintended consequences:
Whenever you are tempted to have a cigarette (eat chocolate or whatever) you will take a deep breath in, close your eyes, and when you exhale you will say firmly in your mind, “I don’t need a cigarette.
* Why:
Double whammy… (1) “Whenever you are tempted”, suggests that the person will continue to be tempted. (2) If the person says firmly in their mind, “I don’t need a cigarette, the subconscious may choose to hear, “I need a cigarette.”
* Correct Delivery:
“If” ever temptation from tobacco were to try and invade you, instantly you would recognize that and instantly you take a deep breath in, close your eyes, and say firmly in your mind, “I am a wise and proud non-smoker”. Then you’ll open your eyes feeling wonderfully proud that you are a healthy non-smoker with tremendous control over your own destiny.

Avoid statements like “You won’t be a smoker” or “you won’t feel sick anymore”. They are a setup for undesired results. As well, avoid statements that could bring the conscious mind back into play. With the act of inducing hypnosis you have devoted great effort into getting the critical faculty to step aside. It is important that you do nothing to draw it back. To that end it is important that you do precisely what you say you will do. For example, if you were you to say to your client who is in hypnosis, “in a moment I’m going to count backwards from 3 to 1 and with each number allow yourself to drift deeper into this wonderful feeling”, then you need to do exactly what you said you would do. Were you to mistakenly begin counting from 1 to 3, instead of 3 to 1, there is a significant chance that the critical mind would be drawn back into play because of the unexpected change (wondering what was going on).


Picture an old fashion scale like the one being held by the statue of “Blind Justice” (Two baskets hanging from opposite ends of a stick that will cause the stick to tilt one way or another depending on how much weight is in each of the baskets). Tilt the scale one way and you have a successful session. Tilt it the other and you do not. Every word that you as the therapist say, each suggestion you make, each metaphor you use, each touch, each inflection of your voice, is equal to one pebble that can be placed into either the basket representing success, or in the basket representing failure. This is why it is important to be aware at all times the consequences of the words we use and to be certain that they represent “TO THE CLIENT” ideas that he or she can positively identify with.


The child within us takes things very literally. Make your questions, statements and suggestions simple and specific. Speak from a neutral viewpoint. In other words, don’t assume that your perception of the world is the same as your client’s.

Would a small error in semantics ruin an entire session… probably not, but if you want a great success record and the referrals that come from a reputation of success. If you want to make your day easier and to have a great sense of confidence and pride in your work, then toss as many pebbles as possible into the appropriate side of the scale.

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