Dealing with resistance in hypnosis
Working as a hypnotherapist, you have to have strategies to can help you deal with so-called 'resistant' clients. You can use these ideas in everyday situations too, because what I'm about to tell you is based around a few simple yet powerful principles.
Some people have what we call 'Yeah, but...' syndrome. This means that whatever you say to them, they automatically reply with 'Yeah, but...' Trying to give direct advice to such people is pointless. It's like throwing a lifeline to a drowning man only to find he argues with your choice of rope. Not everything in life needs to be a tussle, but Yeahbutters can't help but tussle with everything. Years ago when I first started teaching hypnosis, I was running a workshop in the south east of England. Now if you've ever done any public speaking you'll know that sometimes you get what looks like an 'assassin' in your audience; you know, the kind of person who looks as if they want to kill you. Their unfriendliness feels as if it is boring into you. Anyway, on this particular occasion a woman in the front row showed not a hint of friendliness as she steadily frowned at me. I racked my brains trying to think if I'd ever seen her before but no, this was no former girlfriend!
Beware the assassin!
When you are new to public speaking you tend to focus on the people who look the friendliest, so I did just that - but I could still see my nemesis in my peripheral vision. At one point she interrupted my talk and announced that she was a psychiatrist. She then proceeded to tell us all her professional qualifications and clinical experience - to which we all listened politely.
Next it was time for me to ask for a volunteer for my first demonstration of a hypnotic induction. You can imagine what I was praying for, but the worst happened anyway. The psychiatrist put up her hand. And as no else volunteered I had no choice but to choose her.
She came and sat in front of me, still showing not a flicker of warmth. And I then made the mistake of asking her why she had volunteered. She replied coldly that she wanted to show that hypnosis couldn't work because she knew there was no such thing. In all her experience she had never encountered it. I started to wonder which god I had angered.
But of course I had no choice. I had a group of 25 people who had only known me an hour or so, all waiting to see what I would do.
A quick lesson from Milton Erickson
I recalled the late great Milton Erickson, the most brilliant and flexible psychiatrist and hypnotherapist the world has known. 'Resistance is an energy', he would say, 'use it, don't fight it.'
When he was a lad of 17, Erickson was growing up on a farm in Nevada. His father was struggling to push a young cow into a barn but the creature was reluctant to move - it was 'resistant'. Young Milton went up to his father and said 'I can get that cow into the barn.' His father, looking at the puny youngster, replied: 'How on earth do you think you are going to do that?' Erickson walked up to the cow, but instead of pushing, instead he took its tail and pulled. And so in order to resist being pulled backwards, the cow moved forward into the barn.
A quick lesson from the "soft" martial arts
In the softer martial arts such as aikido, judo and jujitsu, when you are pulled by an opponent, you don't pull back, you push. You align your energy to theirs. When your opponent pulls, you push. And we can do this psychologically as well as physically. But how could I use this principle with the resistant woman at the workshop?
So as I sat there, thinking as fast as I could, I thought: 'It's easy to blame her or just to wish she was different, but how can I use her resistant energy to hypnotize her?' When people are resistant, it's either because of habit or because some very important need of theirs hasn't been fully satisfied.
So what was her need in this situation? Was it to make me look stupid? I don't think so. Besides, I can do that for myself. No, her need was to be seen as a professional person - perhaps as the most professional there. So if I could attach her need to be seen as professional to my aim of hypnotizing her then we might get somewhere.
How to deal with tricky people
I turned to her, looking directly into her eyes, and said: 'No sooner than your unconscious mind lets you know that you are professional enough for the learning benefit of everyone here to go into deep hypnosis will those eyes begin to close!'
Wow, what a crazy thing to say! Firstly, it was confusing - and we know confusion ties up the conscious mind. But it was also a challenge. As crazy as it seems, I had effectively said to her: 'If you don't go into hypnosis then you are not a professional person!' And I'd said it in such a way that her conscious mind couldn't readily process it but deep down she knew that somehow hypnosis was now tied to her appearing professional in front of me and the group. I had taken her resistant force and directed it.
Well you should have seen the struggle. One eye was still open (keeping an eye on me perhaps), the other was glued shut and pretty soon she was in profound and deep hypnosis.
As an aside, this may seem as if it confounds the idea that someone has to be willing to be hypnotized. However, when you look at it, she was willing enough to sit down and listen to me, and I had also engineered it so she had become a willing subject, albeit in a way she couldn't quite consciously process.
Resist the idea of resistance
The idea of 'resistance' and 'resistant clients' is one that has been bandied around by counsellors, coaches, therapists and hypnotists for years. My colleague Roger Elliott has a way of describing resistance in therapy - he says that resistance is something the therapist does.
If you think for a moment, resistance only exists if you push back. Until that happens, you just have a force in a particular direction. No-one can have a one way argument. All the therapists who have spoken about resistance are really talking about their own resistance. Rather than fighting that woman's need to be seen as professional, I encouraged it - but attached it to my need for her to be a good demonstration for the others on the workshop.
Some people are contrary by nature. They can't help themselves. This isn't the same as someone disagreeing with you because they happen to see that issue differently. A contrary person will automatically feel compelled to say the opposite to you, whatever you say. They have an automatic need to oppose. You say 'up', they say 'down' (even if they thought 'up' to begin with). You say black, they say white. Their need is to have a contrary view to you.
So how can we deal with an automatically resistant person?
Always use any resistance
Well, firstly as I've said, we can see the resistance as a force, and any force can be directed. So the energy of someone's so-called resistance can be directed rather than fought against. Years ago I was about to present a seminar in a university in Bristol. The technical guy at the venue - we'll call him 'Ray' - always made it clear that this was his domain and we had to dance to the beat of his drum.
Ray would assert his status by turning every little request into a problem. He'd start by telling you it was impossible, it couldn't be done - but you soon learned that this was just a ritual and eventually he'd solve the problem or comply with the request. By increasing the difficulty level of the problem and then solving it, he demonstrated his high level of skill.
On this occasion I wanted my lecture recorded. I knew if I simply asked Ray to set up some recording equipment, I'd get a long-winded explanation as to why it couldn't be done. I didn't have time to indulge his unconscious need to oppose, so I used a little mental judo. I said loudly to a colleague so Ray could hear: 'You know, it's such a shame they don't have a faculty to re-cord this lecture!' Instantly Ray's automatic need to oppose kicked into gear - who was I to say it couldn't be done! You should have seen how quickly the recording equipment was set up. I know if I'd asked him direct it would have taken much, much longer.
Some people need to oppose or 'rebel' and we should respect this need. Al-lowing for it, rather than trying to squash it makes for more satisfactory outcomes for everyone.
Helping resistant smokers
Another manifestation of resistance is rebellion. Take the typical rebellion of some smokers. The cigarette may be their way of saying 'stuff you' to the world. Telling them that smoking is bad for them just gives the rebellious smoker another excuse to rebel... against you and your advice.
However, if I was seeking to cure a rebellious smoker I might say: 'Of course, not every one is able to stop smoking from the very first session.' This lays a bit of a challenge and now we have given them something else to rebel against - now I'm the one telling them they shouldn't stop, rather than the do-gooder telling them they should. In order to inwardly oppose me now they have to at least start feeling some rebellious force against having to smoke.
And what about that resistant woman at the workshop all those years ago?
After this experience our psychiatrist became a complete convert to hypnosis. Later in the workshop she said to me 'We have come to an understanding haven't we?' and she contacted us afterwards to thank us. Rather than fighting her resistance, I had gleaned what really motivated her and attached that motivation to my aim of inducing trance in this woman. For the next few months she sent me a lot of her patients as well!
Finally, I think it is important to say that the way I dealt with her resistance was good for her. She felt recognized as a professional and got to learn about hypnosis, which is essential if you are going to be effective in dealing with people and understanding psychology.
Return to Uncommon Hypnosis Master Series
Help depressed clients quickly: Free eBook
Get '5 Things You Must Do When Treating Depressed Clients' free when you subscribe for email updates.