Apparently up to about 80% of our thoughts seems to be verbal rather than visual or emotional – at least according to recent research at the University of Nevada. This finding emerges from a field of study that’s looking at the power words have to influence our perceptions – i.e. the way we see the world.
As someone who uses words as the tools of my trade, this area is obviously of great interest. I wrote Wordweaving: The Science of Suggestion in 2003 to describe a model for creating hypnotic suggestion that moves away from using a set script based on the client’s problem, to a flexible system that allows you to spontaneously create suggestions within a session, based, not on the label the client has for their issue, but on the individual way the client will have of experiencing that issue.
What I was heartened to see in a recent article in New Scientist on the power of words to mould our perceptions was research that validates some of the key principles within WordweavingTM and Cognitive Hypnotherapy.
For example, one experiment showed that subjects who were exposed to a word for a hidden object were more likely to notice it in their visual field. It seems that the words we use for things primes our brains to become more aware of something around us, even if it’s not immediately obvious. I describe this phenomenon as ‘what is on your mind is brought to mind’, and the primer can be from any sense – a picture, feeling, smell etc – but the finding that 80% of our thoughts are verbal raises the likelihood that words will be particularly powerful. Further, when subjects were shown two different versions of an object, one the right way up and the other inverted, and tasked with identifying which was upright, they were able to do so faster when the objects were given a name. So it seems that our unconscious will bring to our awareness things around us that we’ve been primed by its name to notice, and that we will recognise such things faster if we have a name to put to them. But what’s that got to do with therapy?
In Cognitive Hypnotherapy our first task with clients is to identify what we call their problem pattern – four distinct ways of describing their thoughts and experiences that cause their issue. From this we’ll be able to make a decision about what is the best technique, or combination of them, that is most likely to help that particular client – so five clients with the same label (such as fear of dogs, or smoking, or low self-esteem) are likely to get a different set of interventions tailored to their unique mindset.
This is what tends to be called a problem-focussed strategy. But that’s only half of our first step. The next is to identify their solution state. Essentially this is the response to the question, “What would your life be like without your problem? How would you know it had gone?” This is called a solution-focussed approach. We think it’s vital to cover both bases. What is particularly important to us about the solution state is that it’s not simply the absence of their problem –“I wouldn’t be scared” – but what would fill the space the problem occupied: “I’d be relaxed, confident, happy” etc. Thus the journey the client embarks on with us is one that takes them from their problem to their solution.
One of the ways we achieve this is especially relevant to the research I mentioned earlier. We think it’s very important that the client’s solution state comes from the client, not from the therapist’s idea of what the solution should be, so we take careful note of the words the client uses in response to the questions we ask. So if a client says, “If I didn’t have my problem I’d be able to breathe in company, I’d feel relaxed around people and be more confident,” I’d be making a note of the words ‘able to breathe’,’ relaxed around people’ and ‘more confident’ and use them in a WordweavingTM ‘suggestion pattern that I deliver to my client – and probably record for them to listen to after the session.
A portion of it might go something like, “…and as the days go by you might begin to notice more and more opportunities around you for you to be able to breathe in the way that’s important to you…so naturally that it might only be afterwards, looking back, that you realise how much more relaxed you were around the people you met…in a way that seemed so natural that you might not even be aware of your confidence growing with your relaxation…bit by bit…more and more…and that just means that it’s working…you’re becoming who you want to be..” etc.
What the research I mentioned suggests to me is that, by using the client’s words for things they want to experience, their unconscious is more likely to bring to the client’s conscious awareness things from their surroundings that match their meaning of the words they use – because in most cases the evidence for these words is around them already, (for example, a pessimist and an optimist live in the same world but choose to interpret information differently) it’s just that their mind is primed for words connected to their problem, not their solution. By switching their attention, the evidence for their problem disappears and the solution state becomes the world they live in, more and more. It’s why I think that the client’s choice of words are more important – and powerful – then the therapist’s choice of words.
Also notice that the words I use are words that describe states of mind, or concepts – like confidence, relaxation, power, focus, calmness or peace, but I avoid nouns – i.e. words that provide concrete ‘things’. So I might say, “…how you might be surprised at how many things begin to appear in your life that help to grow your confidence…”, but I won’t say, “so soon you might know you’re growing in confidence because you’re driving home in your Porsche with Jennifer Anniston (or Brad Pitt) beside you.” Even if that’s what the client says their ultimate goal is. The solution state needs to be independent of ‘things’. It’s not about what you have, it’s about who you are and how you feel. If you prime the mind at that conceptual level it leaves your unconscious a huge range of possibilities about what ‘things’ can fit the bill – which doesn’t exclude Brad or Jan, but isn’t dependent on it being them alone.
This is an example of how I’m interested in Cognitive Hypnotherapy developing – taking note of things from science that give us clues about what might help our clients, and then developing a model to test them.