When people offer spontaneously, without thinking, their offhanded remarks, they possess a special kind of power.
We frequently assume that extemporaneous comments are truthful, or at least that they honestly reflect the way the speaker feels. Unintentionally overheard comments can be especially influential, since we assume they were frank expressions, not tailored specifically for our ears.
For example, our 5-year-old grandson prefers to wear button-up shirts instead of the polo variety. We believe that’s because of a remark that some sweet nursery or Sunday school teacher once made that resulted in him referring to button-up shirts as “Mr. Handsome Shirts.” After all, what male wouldn’t want to wear a “Mr. Handsome Shirt.”
Of course, such statements are not always positive. At a parent-teacher conference, my wife once overheard her kindergarten teacher tell her mother, “Don’t bother ever giving her dance lessons, she has no rhythm at all.” This has stuck with her for all these years and made her feel inhibited and avoid dancing — some people may say perhaps for the best.
In his classic “Uncommon Therapy,” Jay Haley describes how famed hypnotherapist Milton Erickson once treated a young woman who was convinced that her perfectly normal feet were grossly oversized and ugly. This belief kept her from ever going outside the house.
On pretense, Erickson made a home visit ostensibly to see the young woman’s “sick” mother. He acted quite annoyed and grumpy and “accidentally on purpose” stepped on the young woman’s foot. As she recoiled in pain he said loudly, “If only you could grow those feet big enough for a man to see!” His crabby and spontaneous statement had more credibility with the young woman than all the reasoning in the world would have had, and ultimately did the trick as, she reshuffled her thinking about her self-image.
Over the years, my wife given children’s sermons in various churches we’ve attended. She always says that the children’s sermon is an excellent way to communicate with the adults in the audience. Since the message is not intended specifically for them, their defenses are down. Also, their critical judgment is often suspended, as they are distracted and charmed by the youngsters’ response to the message.
Such casual messages function similarly to indirect or embedded suggestions in hypnosis. An indirect suggestion is a type of instruction phrased as an offhand comment, used during hypnosis to encourage patients to follow a desired course of action without specifically telling them to do so. The power of indirect and embedded suggestions lies in their ability to bypass normal conscious resistance and influence people on an unconscious level.
An embedded suggestion is another special kind of a hypnotic suggestion that is usually buried in some sort of mind-numbing context, like a boring conversation. The suggestion is typically repeated, but since it doesn’t stand out dramatically, it is usually not consciously perceived.
Back in the days before HIPPA, I once attempted to use a variant of these techniques with a young woman I was seeing for counseling. Outside my immediate family, she was probably the most argumentative person I had ever met. Even when I was repeating back exactly what she just told me, she would disagree. Most of all she was highly self-critical and I was trying to help her realize that she did possess some positive features.