Well, yes and no. Ericksonian hypnosis, also known as conversational hypnosis, can be performed on subjects who are not necessarily even aware that the technique is being used on them.
Could this be done unethically? Of course. Should you do so? Never. We should state right from the start that any techniques discussed in this article are not to be used for personal gain or the manipulation of another human being. Are we cool?
Milton Erickson was a 20th Century psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who pioneered the then-radical conversational method of hypnosis induction. If you’re fascinated by what you’re reading but could fit what you already know about hypnotism in general into a teacup, you ought to learn more about the “old fashioned” type of hypnosis before you start thinking about learning the Ericksonian type. Two great online courses to help you do so are “Hypnosis Crash Course” and “Introduction to Hypnotherapy.” Both will give you a thorough grounding in the basics of hypnotism.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was always aware of what was happening in the conscious present, always “listening,” if that makes sense. The conventional view was (and still is for many) that the unconscious and conscious minds are separate entities, and do not function at the same time. In other words, you get one or the other, but never both at once. In order, the old belief went, to access the unconscious, the hypnotist needed to induce the trance-like state that most call “hypnosis,” and only then could the unconscious be accessed, while the subject’s conscious mind was “resting” elsewhere.
Does that make sense?
Hypnosis is funny that way. Often, it sounds more like pseudoscience than even something that the most die-hard, tinfoil-hat-wearing, conspiracy theorist would come up with. The problem is, it’s real. Yes, hypnosis is the genuine article, even if scientists can’t exactly explain how it happens, they have to admit that it does happen.
But let’s get back to Erickson, shall we?
Erickson theorized that it didn’t matter if the subject was in a trance (or “hypnotized”), because since the unconscious mind was always “there,” always observing the activities and experiences of the conscious mind, hypnotists could make suggestions that would have the same effect as they would when made during conventional hypnosis, provided, of course, that the suggestions resonated in some way with the subject’s unconscious mind.
In this way, Erickson believed, willing subjects who “could not be hypnotized” or who were unconsciously resistant or blocked might be reached and helped. He developed his techniques as an aid to hypnotherapy, regardless of what other purposes some folks may use Erickson’s methods for.
A quick Internet search for “conversational hypnosis” will show you that for the most part, it is touted as a tool for salesmen to use when attempting to induce potential buyers to complete purchases. While it is certainly difficult to imagine such a thing as an unethical salesman, rest assured that they do, in fact, exist. No offense to salesmen intended, but it is hard to deny that the general public perception of those who sell cars, for example, is to esteem them roughly as much or perhaps slightly more than lawyers or hedge fund managers. ‘Nuff said.
Overt Vs. Covert Hypnotism
This brings us to the whole overt vs. covert hypnotism debate. There are those who believe that there can be no possible ethical or legal use for covert hypnotism. Of course, many of the same people who believe this watch Patrick Jane use covert hypnotism every week on “The Mentalist” and cheer him on. He’s charming as heck, we know, with his knowing grin, twinkling eyes, head full of blonde curls, and his impeccably stylish and slightly rumpled three-piece suits. He also breaks the rules, and is willing to use very unethical methods to get a confession out of a killer.
The message here is simple: just because someone does it on television doesn’t make it ethically valid. Again, ‘nuff said.
Hypnotist as Subject
Interestingly, we should note that Erickson believed that trance states were to the benefit of all, including himself. He would conduct hypnotherapy sessions while he himself was in a trance state, as difficult as that may be to believe. Erickson would hypnotize himself before hypnotizing others. While it may seem bizarre, it certainly makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re interested in doing a bit of autohypnosis yourself so you can follow Erickson’s lead, there are some excellent online resources you’ll find very helpful. It’s a good idea to approach self-hypnosis from meditation and visualization, as these are the bases from which it springs. A blog post called “Meditation Techniques” is a good starting point. After that, you might be interested in taking an online course on “Self Hypnosis,” which will take you even deeper.
Erickson also believed that most people enter trance states every day, even though they are not aware of it. Perhaps you’ve experienced such a thing while waiting for a bus, or while working out (especially while running), or while listening to or performing music. Anytime you become immersed in an activity to the extent that any irrelevant sensory input is disregarded. Many simply call this “being in the zone,” but for Erickson, such states were as legitimate as any trance state induced by a hypnotist.
But How Do You Do It?
Yes, that’s what you want to know, isn’t it? Well, we’ll assume that you aren’t going to use conversational hypnosis to convince someone to take their clothes off when they don’t want to, or buy something they don’t really want to buy. Either way, we’re not going to get into specifics here, since we wouldn’t want you going off half-cocked, trying to covertly hypnotize your friend Larry into picking up the tab for lunch, or anything like that.
In general, the process must begin with the conversational hypnotist using his or her powers of observation. Erickson wrote about unconscious signals that most people send out, signals that indicate that they are near to a trance state or that their unconscious is close to the surface, observing. The potential conversational hypnotist must be able to catch these signals and make the most of the opportunity.
Next, the hypnotist must connect to something that is troubling the “subject,” validating the subject’s concerns and efforts, or offering to help the subject. The hypnotist must make eye contact and speak in a slow, regular rhythm. The subject must feel comfortable, as if a rapport has clearly been established.
Then, the hypnotist makes statements with which the subject will readily agree. The subject must fall into the pattern of agreeing with what the hypnotist says, entering a state of willingness to believe what comes next.
Then, the hypnotist makes subtle suggestions about what the subject should do or not do, should think about or not think about. Of course, if you’re trying to help your friend to get over a problem or addiction, or trying to help your friend to change his or her behavior in a positive way (perhaps moving towards a healthier diet or exercising more regularly), you’ve done some good with conversational hypnosis. As we said earlier, if you’re using it for nefarious purposes, don’t tell us about it, or mention us to the gendarmes when they apprehend you.
The conversational or covert method of hypnotic induction and suggestion is a fascinating and potentially quite useful subject. Milton Erickson’s ideas revolutionized hypnotism in ways that even he could not have anticipated. Even now, almost thirty five years after his death, his techniques are still used, still considered valid by many psychologists and psychiatrists. If you’re serious about hypnotism and want to learn more, you might want to check out an online course that will help you to earn a “Certificate in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy.” The course goes into far greater detail than is possible here. Whatever type of hypnotism you choose to explore, be aware always that it is a powerful tool, and not to be toyed with. Hypnotism is not just a party trick—it is a serious and highly-regarded method employed by therapists around the world.