Joanna Taylor introduces hypnotic language patterns and their benefits to the endodontic practice
Hypnotic language is the art of using words in such a way as to alter the listener’s state of consciousness; for example, to assist patients to access a state of calmness, or to motivate them into better oral hygiene—it is not about getting someone to do anything they would not normally want to do.
We already use hypnotic language—think of a time when your mind wandered off halfway through a conversation, and you missed what was being said, because something in the speaker’s words had sent your mind off in a completely different direction.
Learning how to use this technique deliberately and with positive intention can turn it into a useful communication skill.
The power of language
Language is one of our most powerful internal “filters” through which we perceive the world around us.
Words, whether spoken by another person, or what we say to ourselves inside our own heads, communicate much more than we can process consciously.
Whatever we say will affect the receiver in some way, so it makes sense to use language in such a way as to produce the most effective results, both for ourselves and for those around us. On the subject of language, acclaimed hypnotherapist Milton Erickson wrote, “In any work, you are going to use words to influence the psychological life of an individual today; you are going to use words to influence his life 20 years from today. So you had better know what you are saying. You had better be willing to reflect on the words you use, to wonder what the meanings are, and to seek out and understand their many associations.” Erickson’s skill with language was such that one of the models within neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)—The Milton Model—was based upon his work. The Milton Model uses “artfully vague” and ambiguous language that can communicate with an individual’s unconscious mind, enabling him to overcome problems and discover new resources.
By changing the structure of the language we use, we can create more choices for ourselves and others. As you start to pay attention to the words you use within your practice, you and your team can develop a way of communicating elegantly and effectively, which is what conversational hypnosis is all about.
Negatives and positives
How do the words you use affect your patients? The unconscious mind cannot process negatives (don’t think about a blue poodle with orange ears—oh, sorry, too late!). Bearing this in mind, how careful are you to avoid negative words and phrases such as “nothing to be afraid of,” “this won’t hurt,” references to injections or drills and so on. These are obvious ones, but what of the less obvious ones? Consider the impact of your words, especially with nervous patients; what thoughts are being created in their minds as a result of the language you use?
We can make a big difference in our outlook and our patients’ thinking by presupposing what we want and avoiding what we don’t want. You may suggest that many patients having dentistry with a rubber dam find it so relaxing that they fall asleep, or that they may find it a bit claustrophobic to start with, and that it will be a nuisance until they eventually get used to it. Which option do you think will produce the best results?
Trying to change
The word “try” carries with it an implicit suggestion of potential failure. Inviting your patient to “try to relax” or “try to floss more often” is therefore unlikely to achieve the results you want. (How is that poodle, by the way, or are you trying not to think about it?)
Truisms and the “yes set”
Socrates proposed that if a question is asked to which a positive answer will definitely be given, it is more likely that subsequent questions will be answered positively. This is also the case if we use a succession of “truisms,” i.e. statements of fact that cannot be denied, followed by a statement that we wish the patient to act upon. For example, “So as you sit there in the chair…” (the patient is sitting in the dental chair) “…listening to the sound of the music…” (there is music playing in the background) “…and looking at the trees moving in the breeze outside…” (the patient can see the trees through the window) “…you might notice how easily you can relax.”
Now that you have given the patient a suggestion to relax, he/she is likely to respond since the rest of your statements were true.
A presupposition is the linguistic equivalent of an assumption. The power of presuppositions lies in the fact that the unconscious mind has to accept that the presupposition is true in order to make sense of the sentence.
Every sentence that we use contains at least one presupposition, and we can use patterns such as the “double bind” very elegantly in conversation. For example, when giving oral hygiene instruction, “Will you choose to floss in the morning, or at bedtime?” presupposes that the patient will definitely be flossing; it’s only the time that is in question.
Embedded commands are an instruction embedded within the context of the sentence; For example, “…and you can be surprised at how easily you can relax in the chair now.”
We can also use presuppositions to attach meanings to something specific. People like to know why you are asking them to do something: “Yes, the appointments will be quite long; it’s important that we take the time now to clean out the canals really thoroughly as this will give you the very best result for this tooth.”
There are many more language patterns than I am able to detail in this short introduction.
Perhaps you might be curious to learn just how easily you can use them in your conversations and how much fun you can have with your new discoveries. You probably already know much more at an unconscious level than you think you do, and by the way, have you managed to stop thinking about that poodle yet?
Joanna Taylor is practice manager at John Taylor Dental Care in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, UK. She is a clinical hypnotherapist, an NLP master practitioner and an International Neuro-Linguistic Programming Trainer’s Association (INLPTA) certified trainer. She provides courses and in-house training in communication skills, stress management and hypnosis for the dental team in addition to one-to-one coaching and therapy. For more information email
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