Techniques For Hypnosis – Authoritative and Direct vs. Permissive and Indirect

This article describes alternative techniques that hypnotists use to put the subject into a trance. The two techniques are named: Authorative/direct and permissive/indirect. The difference between these two techniques is shown in examples of hypnotic suggestions and some hypnosis history about Sigmund Freud and Milton H. Erickson. 

One of the many ways to divide and categorize hypnotic strategies – strategies for getting a person into a hypnotic state of mind and suggesting things to the person once in that hypnotic state – is to divide them into authoritative and direct or direct permissive and indirect.

Direct, authoritative hypnotic strategies are, as their label suggests, direct, directing, and authority-based. The hypnotist directs the hypnotic subject to do something (e.g., feel a heaviness in the eyelids and let them close). The issue goes along with the directive because the hypnotist is an authority figure and seems to say things with authority. What the hypnotist is suggesting is very straightforward – very directly told. The hypnotist is directing the subject like a traffic cop might direct traffic.

Direct, authoritative strategies are generally thought of when thinking of hypnosis. These are the traditional means of employing hypnosis. Typically, when watching hypnosis as portrayed in movies, you are most likely to see the authoritative and direct type. It’s easier to see what’s happening. Natural, traditional type hypnosis (e.g., “You will now go to sleep, but you will continue to hear and obey my voice…” — or, “You have no choice but to feel your eyes closing…”) is much more obviously “hypnotic.”

Indirect, permissive hypnotic techniques were devised by Milton Erickson, a psychologist and psychiatrist of the mid-twentieth century. He “rediscovered” the potentials for hypnosis that had been pronounced too tricky to work with by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As the label indicates, indirect and permissive hypnotic techniques rely much more on the hypnotist, suggesting to the hypnotic subject that they do this or do that rather than directing them to do so. The hypnotic subject is assured – through the structuring of the language used in making a suggestion – that they have the right to choose whether or not to comply with the hypnotist’s suggestion.

Where an authoritative directive might seem heavy-handed, the hypnotic subject is more likely to experience a permissive, indirect suggestion as just that – a request. So, for example, if a hypnotist wants to have the hypnotic subject close their eyes and begin the process of deeply relaxing, using an authoritative, direct technique, the hypnotist might say,

“You will feel your eyelids becoming heavier and heavier, and you will not be able to keep your eyes from closing. You will find yourself slipping deeper and deeper into sleep while still sitting upright and still being able to hear my voice….”

The indirect, permissive alternative, on the other hand, would be to say something like,

“If you like, you might let yourself imagine feeling comfortable enough to allow yourself to feel like you’re going to sleep while continuing to be able to hear my voice… allowing yourself to keep your eyes open as you slip into sleep … or allowing your self to let your eyelids gently close.”

The permissive, indirect suggestion doesn’t seem so obviously demanding. It allows the hypnotic subject to feel more in control of their experience.

Sigmund Freud versus Milton Erickson

Freud used a hypnotic technique that essentially demanded that the hypnotic subject slips into a trance. He found this reasonably challenging to get results from. Freud also complained that subjects – when they were significantly helped through hypnosis – did not give him enough credit. He didn’t like it that they seemed to think they fixed themselves. He also felt uncomfortable using a technique that appeared to access unconscious thought processes – which he believed were the repository of dark, ugly aspects of the human mind.

Coming along some decades later, Erickson couldn’t see the harm in letting people feel in charge of their improvements. He thought it remarkable that people felt that they fixed themselves. He thought it was only polite – and, ultimately, much more practical – to allow people as much control and permission as possible. In contrast to Freud, Erickson believed that the unconscious processes accessed by hypnosis were the most delicate, most valuable part of the human mind. He thought that hypnosis was a means to foster those more acceptable thought processes and believed it was essential to word hypnotic suggestions in ways that would permit the hypnotic subject’s mind to decide what might be best to do in every instance.

Erickson believed it was polite, political, and practical to use hypnotic techniques in a manner that would permit the individual’s mind to make the best use of the relaxation and openness of hypnosis as that mind believed best. This meant wording suggestions in ways that permitted to interpret requests in specifically non-specific ways that left much to interpretation. For example, an Ericksonian turn of phrase might look something like this:

“You might notice or not notice how a certain sensation, there, in a certain muscle, might seem to signal a deepening sense of confidence, gradually, imperceptibly growing, that you might not even realize had begun… or is developing …until you experience a delightful surprise – perhaps not today or perhaps not even tomorrow – a surprise of how confident you feel – without having recognized that …you really can appreciate that… you are so much more capable than you had given your self credit for… for so long…”

The above set of suggestions give the hypnotic subject full permission to feel or not feel the changes suggested in confidence – and they permit to handle them when the individual wants to. This is very different from the heavy-handed demands of the authoritative directive.

Indirect techniques present carefully chosen suggestions within carefully crafted wordings that suggest specific ideas in non-specific ways. The purpose of the creation of carefully crafted, specifically non-specific wordings is to capitalize on the human brain’s tendency to “fill in the blanks” when trying to make sense of something said.

When individuals have presented ideas in a carefully crafted general manner, they tend to process the incoming words based on what they expect to hear, wants to hear, needs to hear. Thus, the listener’s mind assures that suggestions are personally “form-fitted” to their needs and expectations because of indirect techniques. And positive, healthy responses to requests are confirmed by additional mini-suggestions threaded throughout each direction. These mini-suggestions strongly emphasize doing only those things — and making only those changes — that are in the listener’s best interests. With indirect techniques, the emphasis is on the listener’s empowerment in allowing their mind to utilize its under-used strengths and abilities independently.

Direct techniques, in contrast, are powerful and often effective. Still, they are technically more complicated, often more challenging to make effective use of, often very narrow in their impact, and involve an unnecessary element of submissiveness, helplessness, and surrender on the listener’s part.