Basics, Mind Management

The Ethics of NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline developed by Richard Bandler and Eric Grinder. If you think of computer programming as “cyber-linguistic programming,” you’ll get the gist of NLP. Assuming that the mind is an information processing device, NLP proposes a model of how the mind receives and filters information, and then provides methods of communication that allow us to hack the program.

NLP was popularized in the 1990s by Tony Robbins, whose Unleash the Power Within seminars use a form of group hypnosis to encourage people to cast off their self-limiting beliefs. During business networking, I have encountered life coaches, mediators, sales people and hypnotists who testify to have mastered these practices in seminars typically lasting a week or so.

A characteristic moment from Robbins’ seminar illustrates the technique. Tony may start “you like me – want to get the most out of this weekend.” Through emphasis, that innocuous sentence embeds the suggestion that “I like him.” The suggestion is obscured by the pause between “you” and “like,” and so may be discarded by the conscious mind when the sentence is completed. But the emotional effect lingers on in the subconscious, and subsequently affects our behaviors.

I could elaborate the NLP model, but I hesitate for ethical reasons. That caution was codified by Milton Erickson when founding the America Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). All members must be licensed clinicians with a degree in mental health. (That’s right: I don’t qualify for membership.)

This is significant because Erickson was one of the clinical luminaries that Bandler and Grinder studied to develop the communication patterns that give NLP its power. Erickson’s caution is illustrated in a published paper that applies those patterns to his own work: “Transcript of Trance Induction with Commentary.”

The value of the paper is not just in its elucidation of the techniques that would be adopted in NLP, but also for what it reveals about the context in which those methods were developed. Erickson was an academic researcher, and coaxed many of his patients to serve as experimental subjects before beginning therapy. This was because Erickson felt that successful therapy required the application of “hypnotic work” that was accessible only after twenty or more hours of conditioning. But the experimental subjects were not limited to patients. Erickson and his wife also hosted weekend gatherings in which friends and colleagues were encouraged to explore hypnotic experience.

“Transcript…” is interesting on its face because it shows how skillfully and gently Erickson went about bringing his subjects into hypnotic experience. But for the concerns of this post, the important point is made near the end of the session. Erickson takes the subject into an age regression. The commentary reads:

Her hand didn’t point, so then I started narrowing down. Have her point with her left hand. When she failed to do that, I knew how deep in the water I was. I was out of contact with her.

The problem is in having convinced the subject that she was about eighteen years old, severe trauma would occur if she awoke in that mental state in a room with people who related to her as a thirty-year-old – not least her husband.

NLP techniques are powerful in part because they bypass the conscious mind – but that in itself is why they are so dangerous. The subject changes their behavior and doesn’t understand why. They begin to fear that they are losing their grip on themselves, and so that they might begin to express their worst tendencies. The mind turns against itself and may break.

As I summarized in a prior post, Erickson was extremely sensitive to this vulnerability, and eventually began to try to dissuade practitioners from application of his methods of speaking. Paraphrasing, his observation was

Do not believe that you can adopt my manner of speaking and thereby achieve the same therapeutic results.

I believe that he left silent the stronger caution: that in fact, the subject can be harmed when linguistic methods are applied with neither psychological understanding nor compassionate intuition. (This is not a hypothetical: I have interviewed a client who was so affected.)

Some confirmation of this caution is found in Hammond’s “Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors.” Hammond summarized the collected wisdom of the ASCH, and in surveying research on the effectiveness of techniques for formulating suggestions, reported studies that showed NLP was of marginal therapeutic value.

For those of us without clinical degrees, Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery program, the culmination of the lay hypnotherapy program formulated by Dr. John Kappas at HMI, is a safe practice. The therapeutic method facilitates self-improvement through gradual reconciliation of conscious and subconscious perspectives. The pacing of the process is under the full control of the subconscious mind, whose over-riding concern is to preserve the subject’s well-being.

Basics

Hypnowars: Team Kappas vs. Erickson Camp

When choosing a hypnotherapist, clients should understand that we do not all use the same techniques. This post will compare the two most important bodies of techniques: those developed by Milton Erickson and John Kappas.

Our methods are always the same: attain depth and change thinking. As depth increases:

  • the regulatory activity of the conscious mind decreases, and
  • the elements of the subconscious mind operate more independently (they disassociate).

When the right depth is attained, behavior at that depth is changed through suggestions. These suggestions must match the expectations of the conscious mind, which must still interpret them for the subconscious mind that regulates the body and motivations.

Prior to Erickson and Kappas, many hypnotherapists worked at shallow depth and used scripted suggestions. This limited both the pool of clients and the types of behaviors that could be changed. Both Erickson and Kappas used systematic studies to create techniques that made it possible to attain any depth and address almost any behavior.

While they shared the same goals, Erickson and Kappas worked in entirely different contexts.

Milton Erickson

Erickson was a practicing psychotherapist in an academic setting. Many of his published papers recount experimental sessions where he attempted to teach the curious how to do “hypnotic work.” This “work” included (among others) catalepsy (muscle rigidity), analgesia (pain suppression), amnesia (lose memories) and age regression (revisit old memories). These skills were also important in therapeutic settings but are rarely emphasized in his reports.

Erickson’s methods are powerful but require great care. Depth cannot be created willy-nilly but must be done as a spelunker enters a cave, with markers and lights left in place to ensure that the patient can be brought out if something ugly is encountered. For this reason, the American Clinical Hypnosis Society he founded requires that all members be licensed psychologists.

Erickson’s ethics were impeccable. In his favorite paper (“Deep Hypnosis and Its Induction”) he offers the following principles.

A subject needs to be protected at all times as a personality possessed of rights, privileges, and privacies and recognized as being placed in a seemingly vulnerable position in the hypnotic situation. …

This protection should properly be given the subject in both the waking and the trance states. …

There should be a constant minimization of the role of the hypnotist and a constant enlargement of the subject’s role.

These principles came to full expression in his paper “The Burden of Responsibility in Effective Psychotherapy.” In the three cases reported, each cure was achieved as the patient slowly and laboriously explained his condition and described the behavior that would resolve it. Erickson did nothing more than suggest a powerful compulsion to do as the patient himself said.

Erickson was not followed by an intellectual heir. In part this reflected his choice of cases. Personal fondness or intellectual challenge seemed to play a large influence. When writing of patients (rather than volunteers) Erickson focused on complex cases often involving medical or psychological disorders. Many of his patients were referred to him as a “last resort” following ineffective surgical or drug treatment.

For less acute treatments, Erickson’s desire to guard the integrity of the patient’s autonomy led him to use images and metaphors familiar to them – again increasing the flavor of his therapy.

Given the diversity of his cases, it was unlikely that a formal manual of Ericksonian technique would arise. That does not mean that others have not built upon his legacy. Neural-Linguistic Programming (NLP) offers a model of information processing (although Hammond, in Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors, disputes its efficacy). Erickson’s use of implication in suggestions is a hallmark of a certain therapeutic style. Zeig and others focus on hypnotic disassociation as the key to effective therapy.

John Kappas

Kappas learned hypnosis at a young age, using it informally with family and friends. He polished his skills at a school for professional stage hypnotists. Although a terrible performer, Kappas was recognized for his hypnotic technique. He was picked by a pair of TV producers to represent the profession in a never-aired series.

In contrast to Erickson, Kappas was directive in his style. However, he recognized the need to utilize natural processes in allowing the mind to seek balance and health. To facilitate this, he devoted years to developing a theory of mind that – while psychologically sound – was understood by people from all walks of life.

Four pillars formed the basis of most Kappasinian therapy. The Theory of Mind was extended with Eric Erikson’s Stages of Development. The tendency of the mind to shift emotional pain to physical pain is explained in a basic theory of body syndromes. The Institute recognized the importance of dream process – both as relates to developing new behaviors and releasing obsessions and trauma.

Most importantly Kappas developed a fundamental theory of relationships (the Emotional / Physical dichotomy known here as Protector / Adventurer). While harder to explain than the Theory of Mind, E&P accounts for many of the most serious conflicts we face in our relationships, giving clients hope that they can work their way to a resolution. In this process, Kappas (as Erickson) was protective of the client’s goals and preferences, passing no moral judgment on behaviors that many would consider deviant.

We might expect that Kappas as a therapist was focused on the nuts-and-bolts of everyday living. Indeed, his recorded cases histories are dominated by commonplace issues, including fears and phobias, neurotic behavior (especially obsessive/compulsive personalities), marital disputes, and inexplicable pains, tics, and allergies.

As he aged, Kappas became more sympathetic to Erickson’s ethic, guiding the development of Cheryl O’Neil’s therapeutic imagery program. In this technique, the client constructs resources before venturing out into their subconscious landscape. The therapeutic imagery comes from the client’s own words.

From these elements, Kappas and his team at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute constructed an accredited hypnotherapy training program. Successful students have been applying those methods for fifty years.

What should be appreciated, however, is that Kappas designed a sandbox that minimized the chance that a therapist could upset the mental balance of the client. Age regression is almost never used – rather hidden trauma clears through the dream process. A limited set of therapeutic practices is employed. Recommended session length is one hour at weekly intervals.

The effect is that the client develops an understanding of their behavior and emerges with a strengthened partnership between the conscious and subconscious minds. It is that outcome that is most important to me as a therapist. Kappasinian hypnotherapy is not limited to helping the client accomplish their goals. It improves their understanding of their mind, empowering them to confront future challenges with their whole being, rather than just the part that they reason with.

And the Winner Is…

Always the Kappasinian client and the Ericksonian patient.

Neither approach is better than the other. Erickson left less in the way of organized therapeutic techniques, and those we have require greater control and discipline attained through formal psychological training. Kappas left a large and well-motivated body of techniques, constrained by models of “typical” behavior that can hinder treatment of deep psychological disorders. Ericksonian therapy has the flavor of surgery, with behaviors added or removed in various states; Kappasinian therapy tends toward overall integration of the hypnotic and waking experience under processes controlled by the client’s subconscious.

As a client seeking support, you are encouraged to understand your therapist’s approach. Appreciate that hypnosis is a tool employed in several practical styles. Don’t be afraid to explore alternatives. Your comfort with the therapeutic method is an element essential to successful change.

Book Reviews

Ericksonian Elicitation: A Book Review

Milton Erickson was a titan of psychological research. He’s also a personal hero. His most important paper on trance makes the firm statement that the therapist’s highest priority is to protect the integrity of the subject’s personality. For me, this commitment has been central to the development of clinical rapport. We can analyze technique and method, but I read Erickson’s papers and understand that his intuition was guided by people that wanted to reveal themselves to him. His phrasing of suggestions reflects the tenderness with which he confirmed their invitation.

Erickson’s impact upon his students was profound. One of them – Jeffrey Zeig – peppers “The Induction of Hypnosis: An Ericksonian Elicitation Approach” with personal vignettes. The instruction that follows makes evident his devotion to Erickson’s memory. A whole chapter celebrates his impact on the history of psychology following World War II.

For the professional, the development is a little slow. In part this follows from ambiguity in the definition of hypnosis. For the first six chapters, Zeig offers metaphors and stories in building a procedural definition rooted in the experience of the subject. The subject experiences, in order:

  1. Modified awareness – even something as simple as becoming aware of their breathing.
  2. Altered intensity – noticing the correlations between focused attention and experience.
  3. Avolitional experience – being guided into awareness without conscious ratification.
  4. Avolitional response – responding to experience without conscious ratification.
  5. Ratification of hypnosis – the operator bringing these elements into awareness and labelling them as “hypnosis” or “trance.”

The goal is for the subject to become receptive to suggestions from the operator. This requires agency on both sides: the subject trusts, and the operator builds rapport. On the operator’s side, Ericksonian phrasing makes the transition extremely comfortable. The pattern is pace, lead, and motivate. In pacing, the operator offers truisms – observations that are natural to the situation. Having attained that agreement, the subject is then led into the next step of the elicitation. Finally, they are offered a statement that aligns the step with their motivations. When the step is taken, it seems not only natural but as though it always was that way.

Zeig guides the reader through the grammar of Ericksonian elicitation. This is a finicky subject, and while clearly described, actual use of the grammar requires extended practice. This is emphasized: Zeig cautions that the operator should not be thinking “This would be a good place for a presupposition. Oh, and then I can offer an embedded command!” Instead, the operator is tracking the subject’s descent into hypnosis, and intuitively offers statements that serve the elicitation. To facilitate the development of that intuition, Zeig analyzes transcripts for study – all involving students that offer intelligent analysis of their experience. That is no substitute for immediate practice.

As a professional, I found myself wanting more at the end of the book. Zeig does a detailed deconstruction of a “traditional” model of hypnosis that I would characterize as a “straw man.” Zeig focuses on scripts. While the structure of a session does follow the pattern Zeig lays out, non-Ericksonian therapy does not require scripts – and even when I reference a script I rarely follow it slavishly.

Having demolished his straw man, Zeig promotes a core virtue of Ericksonian therapy: a session begins with elicitation. Unfortunately, the shift to therapy takes us out of the pattern of elicitation, into (progressively) 1) confusion and destabilization, 2) perceptual alteration, and 3) disassociation. The goal is to identify the mechanisms held in the subject’s mind that allow behaviors to be adapted. Sensory metaphors figure prominently, each wrapping a suggestion to create, modify, or delete an experience or behavior. Once disassociation is attained, those mechanisms can then be used to alter behaviors independently of the rest of the mind.

Zeig allows that to survey the subject’s inventory of adaptive mechanisms involves several sessions before therapy can proceed. Unfortunately, that procedure is not developed in depth, leaving the professional to wonder what to do after hypnosis is elicited.

The focus on disassociation is also troubling. Disassociation allows the subconscious to control movement and sensation without conscious awareness. In his writings, Erickson was proud of automatic writing and waking hallucinations. But ultimately the subject must integrate their experience and learnings. That may be accomplished by reinforcement as the subject is brought back into the normal state. Erickson never addressed this point, and neither does Zeig. What Erickson reported was, in fact, that by use of these disassociation he could create long-term syndromes in colleagues .

At the conclusion, Zeig’s writing left me a little flat. In attacking the methods that I use every day, Zeig showed a lack of respect for the work that has been done in the “traditional” model to assimilate Erickson’s central tenet: protecting the integrity of the subject’s personality. That includes:

  • offering the subject’s conscious mind a simple explanation of the therapeutic process,
  • the origination of free-style imagery in which the subject has autonomous engagement with their subconscious as the unified mind seeks for healing, and
  • allowing that the subject may evolve new behavioral development strategies.

More daunting, however, is Zeig’s observation that Erickson seemed to make it up as he went along – and that his most impressive elicitations involved unspoken elements. Erickson may not have been a therapist in the normal sense – he may have been a guru.  Zeig steers safely clear of those waters.