Hypnotherapy has a bad reputation. We’ve seen the old movies where a sinister Svengali-like figure, probably in a cloak, hypnotizes the heroine or hero in order to further their evil plans.

The notion is tied up with deceit, manipulation, seizing control from innocent people and abusing the power.

Up to a point, this reputation is deserved. Not because of the old movies – or those grim stage shows where innocent people are made to do embarrassing things – but because hypnotism is used on us all the time by politicians, by advertisers, more positively by comedians and actors.

All these people have learnt, probably by trial and error, the skills that enable them to take this power.

What is hypnotherapy? How does it work?

First off, hypnotherapy – at least the way we do it – has nothing to do with rabbits.

Hypnotherapy is, in essence, the power to create trance. Nowadays, this word is most associated with hundreds of people dancing in a nightclub – but dance is just one (more pleasant) form of trance. There are many other types and levels.

We all spend time at some levels of trance, on public transport, in lifts – in situations where we are both powerless and surrounded by other people. We can go into trance when we’re bored, or when we’re fascinated.

In different trance states we switch off different sets of filters that we usually use to sort out the information that life is hurling at us all the time, filters that let some material in and block some out.

The key to hypnotherapy as therapy

In therapy, we often need to bypass the filters that clients have built for themselves, usually after many years of unintended hypnosis from other people such as parents or teachers.

These can be beliefs about who they are, what they can do or be, how the world works, or (very important, these ones) about which messages are worth attending to and which ones are not.

In depressed individuals, these filters will block out positive, healing messages.

Combining hypnotherapy and NLP

Trance is a way of confusing these filters while the therapist has a chance to address the client’s unconscious mind and suggest some healthier stuff to it.

NLP teaches that this mind is still ready and willing to hear positive messages – if only this material can get past the filters. The client is then free to make what they will of the material: hypnotherapy is not about taking control but about creating options and choices.

NLP learnt the art of creating and using such trances from Milton Erickson, the founder of modern hypnotherapy. Erickson, an amazing man who taught himself hypnosis while suffering from a crippling polio attack in his youth, mastered the arts of intuitive reading of body language and the gentle use of confusion to bring about pleasant trance like states.

His techniques, formalized into the NLP ‘Milton model’ form the basis of the hypnotic skills I teach on Practitioner and Master Practitioner courses. Such skills can, of course, be abused, but the subject of ethics remains a core one throughout the courses: I want people to use this material for good, not ill.

Not every NLP Practitioner becomes a hypnotherapist

Some take to the Ericksonian techniques more than others (most students come away with a preferred kitbag of techniques, which may or may not include the Milton model).

But even those who choose not to go deeply into the techniques during NLP come away with some sense of how they work.

If nothing else, such knowledge enables you to spot when someone is trying to send you into trance, at which point you have the choice to follow or not.

If it’s a favourite writer, musician or comedian, or your partner in a romantic mood, then why not? If someone’s trying to sell you a timeshare, just walk away, calm and in control.

And if the hypnotizer’s eyes suddenly turn into whirls and sinister music starts playing – relax, it’s only another one of those old movies…

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