Direct vs. Indirect Hypnotic Suggestion

Illustration for direct suggestion and indirect suggestion

Suggestions can be direct – that is, we tell someone what we want. An example is: “You will feel warmth in your hands.” Or a suggestion can be indirect: “I wonder if you can imagine how it would be if you were wearing fleecy lined gloves…” When it comes to hypnotic suggestion, both forms have value and can be extremely powerful. Within our self hypnosis recordings we employ both direct and indirect suggestion, for maximum impact.

Direct suggestions are clearer, more authoritarian and are generally delivered in a more forceful manner. This is the more traditional method of using suggestion in hypnosis. With direct suggestion we are essentially telling someone what to do. Some people respond better to direct suggestion. Due to life experience, background and their upbringing, they may be more agreeable to being ordered about.

Examples of indirect suggestion

When we use indirect suggestion, we are using a smoother, slicker, less obvious form of suggestion. It is easier on the ear and is often easier for people to accept. Saying something like: “And you might find that your limbs feel heavy or light,” is an indirect suggestion. So is: “And as you go deeper now…” and: “I wonder if you can already feel that relaxation spreading through your whole body…”

You will see, from the last example, that there is no need to actually tell the listener to do anything or feel anything; we simply wonder aloud if they feel it and their mind will do the rest. And how about this:

“My friend John comes to see me sometimes, and he often tells me how, while he’s relaxing in that chair, he seems to somehow lose all sense of time… and another thing John notices is that nothing much seems to matter, somehow… while he’s here… so that he can just go deeper and deeper…”

This is an example of indirect suggestion, in which we can catch the subconscious ‘off guard’, as it where, if we sense that there might be some resistance to a direct request to relax. Indirect suggestion is simply one that refers to what the listener seeks without actually suggesting it to them directly.

The late Milton H. Erickson – who penned the ‘my friend John’ induction – was a master of indirect suggestion. Erickson was a one-off, a man who seemed gifted in his ability to work almost, if not completely, invisibly. It is even possible that even he didn’t know why some of his clients got better – he just knew that they would. He used many techniques, but much of his work was based around metaphor and story-telling, and is therefore probably one of the oldest forms of therapy in existence, dating back to the earliest days of language.

Riddles, metaphors and implication

We are used to speaking in riddles, metaphors and implications. We automatically ‘read’ what is meant (though part of our communication difficulties is that we often get it wrong) when somebody says something. “Go and sit over there,” means, to the conscious mind: “Go and sit down on that chair over there.” We did not need to be told about the chair because we were told to sit ‘over there’, there was a chair ‘over there’, and we realise that we are not expected to sit on the floor. “Sit down on that chair,” was an implied meaning that we understood well enough without thought. But our subconscious mind works differently – literally – and the only way we can be certain of the interpretation of hypnotic suggestion is to word suggestion cleanly. If we do not take such care, we have no way of knowing what the response will be, even assuming that there is one.

I am not saying that implication should not be used, only that the implicit meaning must be unmistakable. There are times, in fact, when it can be particularly useful, since it makes conscious intervention less likely. Here is an example of a very carefully crafted implication, or indirect suggestion:

All your troubles and fears will be resolved at night in your dreams.

Can you see what the implication/indirect suggestion is? In case you cannot, it is: You will sleep soundly enough to dream. We would usually add something to it: So that you wake up in the mornings, wide awake, alert, full of energy and looking forward to whatever new opportunities that day will bring. This works at the fear of death experienced by some people with sleeping difficulties, via wake up in the mornings, as well as promoting optimism and enthusiasm generally.

Most hypnotherapists make use of both direct and indirect suggestion. They are both powerful tools. As was mentioned earlier, some people respond more to the direct approach, while others respond more effectively when it the suggestion is less obvious. Of course, there are some people who respond better when a mixture of both are used. The important thing to remember is that whatever type of suggestion is used, it must be devoid of ambiguity and to be acted upon it must first be accepted, consciously and subconsciously. One thing we know for sure… is that there is a suggestion for everyone!