Injunctive Communication

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Erickson was a master of injunctive language. In fact, his style of therapy, and especially hypnosis, can be characterized as building responsiveness to injunctive communication. Applying Watzlawick's ideas to Erickson's work affords a useful insight into the mechanisms activated in a typical induction. A good illustration of this is Erickson's well-known early learning set induction (Erickson & Rossi, 1979). A close reading of the induction reveals an indicative level (how a child learns to write the alphabet), and an injunctive level (Erickson's implied instructions about hypnosis directed to the patient). Table 6.1 illustrates this.

The reader should note that in Table 6.1, the message sent is not necessarily the message received. Influence communication should be judged by the response it elicits, not by the cleverness of its structure. In his inductions, Erickson worked to develop responses to injunction. If the patient did not respond to his alembicated methods, he would modify his technique to promote that responsiveness.

Let's consider the covert messages contained in the early learning set induction to which the recipient could respond. The overall injunction, 'Go into a trance!' is presented nonverbally. Erickson offered this injunction by changing the locus and tone of his voice. When speaking to the floor in a 'hypnotic' style, Erickson indicated, 'The time for trance is now!' The allusion to the difficulty in learning to write is a parallel communication in which the patient could associate the difficulty of learning to write with perceived difficulty in achieving trance. At one time, learning to write was difficult; now it is second nature. In parallel, the same can be true of trance.

Questioning whether the child dotted the 't' or crossed the 'i' can confuse the patient. Confusion is part of every hypnosis induction (Haley, 1963), and is used to depotentiate conscious sets (Erickson & Rossi, 1979).

When Erickson queried, 'How many bumps are there in an ''n'' and an ''m''?' he

Table 6.1 The early learning set induction

Indicative level

Injunctive level

Erickson looks to the floor, softens his voice, and slows his tempo.

'I am going to remind you of something 2. that happened a long time ago ...'

1. Go into trance!

'... when you first learned to write the letters of the alphabet, it was an awfully difficult task ...'


Hypnosis may seem difficult at first, but it will become second nature!

4. 'Did you dot the "t" and cross the "i"?' 4. Be confused!

5. 'How many bumps are there in an''n'' 5. and an ''m''?'

6. 'Although you didn't realize it, slowly 6. and gradually you formed mental images of those letters that were stored somewhere in your brain cells and stored there permanently.'

7. 'And while I have been talking with you, 7. your pulse rate has changed, your blood pressure has changed, your motor tone has changed ...'

Be absorbed in the memory! The order of things may be unexpected and confusing!

You will have permanent unconscious learnings as a result of this experience! Visualize!

You are responding correctly! You are demonstrating hypnotic patterns!

elegantly changed the injunction from 'Remember!' to 'Be absorbed in memory!' This was accomplished by the subtle shift in tense from past to present. Initially, he talked about the past, for example 'It was a difficult task' and 'Did you dot the ''t'' ...?' Abruptly, he began speaking in the present, 'How many bumps are there ...?' as if the patient were reliving the childhood learning process. Subsequent injunctions covertly remind the patient that hypnotic learning can be gradual but permanent in a manner similar to learning to write. The patient is also encouraged to develop visual images.

Next, Erickson ratified the occurrence of physiological changes, thereby confirming the patient's ability to experience trance and hypnotic effects. Ratification is the process of reflecting back in simple declarative sentences the changes that occur as the patient becomes absorbed in the induction, for example, 'While I've been talking to you your pulse rate has changed ...' The injunction to the patient is 'You're responding!,' 'You're responding correctly!,' 'You are demonstrating hypnotic patterns!'

Please note that the above injunctions are deliberately written with exclamation points rather than as statements or questions. By their very nature, injunctions are subtle imperatives. The deliberate use of injunctions parallels the patient complaint, because patients customarily tell their stories to therapists with both overt and covert exclamation points, for example 'I am depressed! Relieve my problem! I am helpless!' By communicating with imperatives through indirect injunctions, the therapist fights fire with fire. A primary injunction that should be communicated to all patients is, 'You can find within the resource you need to change or cope!' (For more information about the grammar of change, see Zeig, 1988a.)

Merely presenting injunctions is not therapy. The therapist must first elicit and build responsiveness to offered injunctions. For instance, in attempting to produce an arm levitation during trance, the therapist might enjoin the patient, 'Lift your arm.' But, even if the patient responds, this is no guarantee that hypnosis has occurred. On the other hand, if the therapist says to the patient, 'I want you to realise in a way that is handy, that hypnosis is an uplifting experience, in a way that is right for you,' and the patient lifts her or his right hand in a dissociated manner, the injunction has been understood and accepted. Because of the dissociated response garnered by the use of injunctive communication, the existence of hypnotic responsiveness can be surmised. The therapist's words and data do not so much promote therapeutic change, as does the patient's ability to hear and respond to what the therapist has said indirectly (Zeig, 1985a).

Hypnotic induction is essentially the elicitation of dissociative responsiveness to injunctions (Zeig, 1988b). During induction, the therapist maximally builds the patient's response to injunction. Once the patient consistently responds to injunction, the patient in effect communicates to the therapist, 'Okay, I am open to your influence.' At this point, the door to the constructive unconscious is unlocked and the treatment phase can begin. Subsequent hypnotherapeutic injunctions access the resources of the constructive unconscious (Zeig, 1985a, 1988b). Once responsiveness to injunction is developed by the hypnotic induction, then injunction-rich therapeutic communication can be used to help patients elicit constructive associations that 'drive' more effective behavior.

Injunctions per se are not therapeutic. Again, while the structure of injunctions may be interesting, it is the response to the injunction that must be elicited during induction before hypnotherapy can begin. The more responsiveness to injunction which can be established, the more effective the therapy. As I have previously argued, 'The success of hypnotherapy in general is proportional to the degree of responsiveness to minimal cues (injunctions) developed within the patient' (Zeig, 1988b, p. 358).

Communications not only contain underlying injunctions, they also possess a covert message about relationships.

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