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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Meandering Messages—Indirect Suggestion

Much of Erickson’s work was based on indirect suggestion.  In order to reduce resistance, suggestions were given in a form that the client could easily accept and not argue with.  Erickson did not want his suggestions to be rejected and so he would often offer them indirectly, and in this way Erickson was able to lead a person from one suggestion to another.  Erickson often used the word "perhaps," and which would allow a person to consider something provisionally. Being indirect facilitated a client’s ability to accept an idea and respond accordingly.


Being an acute and careful observer, Erickson was a master of non-verbal communication, which accounts for 93% of communication. Because only 7% of communication is conveyed through words, the remaining 93% is nonverbal, and consists of body language—55%, while vocal qualities such as intonation, pitch, and tempo make up the other 38%.  Erickson found that these modes of communication are not as conscious, and thus provide good means of indirectly communicating with another person.  Working directly with the unconscious allowed Erickson to help a client transform without being hampered by reluctance of the client's conscious mind. Erickson (1980) notes that indirect suggestions allow a client "to go through difficult inner processes of disorganizing, reorganizing, reassociating and projecting of inner real experience to meet the requirements of the suggestion" (p. 39) without their ego interfering with the process. 


Essentially, Erickson was using the same pattern that we have been exploring.  Through trance, Erickson would separate the person from the outer world, causing disorganization to occur, which would create a liminal space where reorganization could occur.  Erickson would then reassociate the person to the outside world again and project the change into the future. 


One way of creating indirect suggestions is known as "embedded commands," which are similar to placing things in italics when reading.  By subtle changes in voice tones or other nonverbal cues, Erickson would "mark out" what he wanted a person to unconsciously pay attention to.  The idea of embedded commands is similar to putting something in italics, because it is different from the surrounding text, you pay special attention to it. For example.  You can easily see the change in George’s behavior as a result of Mary’s using confusion to induce a trance, a holotropic nonordinary state of consciousness. 


By placing simple messages within what you are saying, which are marked out in some way, using either voice tones or physical gestures, the unconscious mind can more easily grasp them, while the conscious mind will seldom recognize them.  (O’Connor & Seymour, 1990, p. 119).  Negatives fit into these patterns, too, because negatives exist only in language, not experience. Negative commands work just like positive commands, since the unconscious mind does not process the negative and simply disregards it (p. 120). Mary uses embedded commands in “Stay Awake,” when she gives the  children a string of embedded commands: “don’t rest your head, don’t lie down upon your bed, you’re not sleepy, as you seem…  don’t nod and dream… don’t close your eyes.” ∆RC[mp16]

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