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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Educational Hypnosis

Tim Murphey and Richard Bolstad
Nanzan University and National Training Institute of NLP (New Zealand)

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You already know a great deal about hypnosis under other names, or under no name at all. (Grinder & Bandler, 1981, p. 5)

A well-known communication principle states that "You cannot not communicate." Even when you are silent, your silence communicates something to the people you happen to be with. At the same time, when you talk, you cannot not suggest certain things for people to represent in their minds. Understanding words demands that the listener/reader represent them in some way in their minds. Thus, all comprehended language suggests certain internal representations in the minds of those present. The principal idea behind educational hypnosis is the desire to consistently suggest internal representations that lead someone to facilitative states and beliefs. Pinker, in his l994 best seller The Language Instinct, summarizes this power inherent in language use, which we are calling hypnosis:

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision. . . . Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. (p. 15)

When you think about it this way, hypnosis describes a process which can be used effectively by any communicator, any teacher. We might even say, we are actually all hypnotized (through language use and other means) all the time, in our working states, playful states, or mixed states. Wolinsky (l991) would call these states "trances we live by." Hypnosis as a process can take us from state to state as we change our state of mind. The deep trance normally associated with medical hypnosis is but one of these states, which we nevertheless recognize as similar to day-dreaming, driving to work on automatic pilot, and other such states. Note also, that we can have conflicting states as internal representations compete for attention, like a student thinking of our lesson, last night's baseball game, and the girl sitting beside him all at the same time. You might just check now to see what state or states you are in as you read this article and further become conscious of how you are producing the state you are in.

We know that language learning is not necessarily a joyful state for everyone, nor can it be pain free for everyone. In all instances, however, the communication about it influences the outcome. Because teachers have positions of authority and are allotted a great deal of time to communicate to students, they are extremely well situated to provide messages that can stimulate more effective learning.

So we can say that all communication suggests and is hypnotic in that it influences one's state. What we wish to show in this article is how teachers can learn to do this more congruently and further support learning. We wouldn't want to suggest that it could be easy for everyone to learn new language patterns and ways of speaking that help students to learn. However, when you are curious and motivated for powerful personal development, educational hypnosis has great potential to accelerate learning.

To summarize thus far:

  1. We all communicate all the time.

  2. All language suggests, or directs, internal representations in the listeners.

  3. Communicators suggest internal representations with varying degrees of efficacy, or consistency, and listeners receive them with varying degrees of sensitivity.

  4. All communication is potentially hypnotic (state changing) with varying degrees of success at getting people to focus on certain representations and not on others.

  5. We are always in a state, or mixed states, which can be influenced by the communications we receive.

Beliefs, Placebos, and Pygmalion

Bierman, whose 1995 article "Medical Hypnosis" provides some of the framework for this article, defines hypnosis simply as "ideas that evoke responses" (p. 65). Many of the responses that ideas evoke are beliefs. One can believe in the efficacy of a pill (placebo) or a method or simply the words of a doctor or teacher. Because the belief that health or success will follow, the person then breathes deeper, takes more exercise, laughs more, and generally can lead a healthier life which actually does lead to more health and better well being.

Rosenthal and Jacobson's (1968) "Pygmalion Effect" findings of the power of teacher beliefs to shape student results is well-known, but worth summarizing here in the light of hypnotic communication in the classroom. In the late 1960's in America some Harvard researchers gave a group of students an achievement test but told teachers it was a test to predict future progress. However, they actually only picked names at random and told the teachers that these students would make amazing progress that year. At the end of the year the Harvard researchers came back and gave another test and found the selected students had, indeed, made amazing progress, more than the other students who were not lucky enough to be randomly picked by the researchers. The difference that made the difference was the teachers' expectations which were communicated to the students ("You can do it!"). Their expectations persuaded the chosen kids (hypnotized them) to believe in themselves. (Of course, the Harvard researchers persuaded/ hypnotized the teachers to believe this in the first place.) That was a wonderful thing for those kids. Apparently teachers do this all the time with some of their students. Could we learn to do it with all students? (Now thatıs an idea!)

The Learning Hypothesis

Once you understand the power of hypnosis, the question becomes, How do you structure your communication to produce the responses you want?

There is, according to Bierman, a central suggestion which is common to all therapeutic hypnotic encounters (and all successful teaching) which he calls the "Curative Hypothesis" and we are calling the "Learning Hypothesis." It can be stated as "When you do (X), then (Y) will happen." That is, you will have the joy of changing/learning easily. X is the therapeutic ritual or structured learning experience -- it may be anything from completing a whole set of practice exercises to simply thinking about the situation in a new way. Y is the therapeutic response of "learning."

How successful this suggestion will be depends in part on how believable and how achievable the therapeutic ritual X is. That is, students who believe in the method contribute greatly to its success, and, visa versa, students who don't believe in it can contribute to its failure. Success also depends on how possible Y (learning) seems, and on the relationship between the person making the suggestion and the student (the degree of rapport, confidence and credibility). Consider the following examples of the learning hypothesis in teaching.

Lecture: When (X) you listen to me, repeat this information, then (Y) you will learn it.

Experiential learning: When (X) you have this experience and reflect on it, then (Y) you will change your ability to respond to related experiences.

Homework: When (X) you complete several more examples of this pattern tonight, then (Y) you will install the pattern so it becomes easy to use.

Bierman identifies three principles which explain how this hypothesis actually creates the reality of change in human beings.

Principle One: "Patterns Emerge and Persist"

The first principle a teacher can apply is that human beings seek out and preserve patterns. The brain naturally sorts for such patterns and, once discovered, they tend to persist. According to Bierman "Three patterns prevail over the hypnotic situation: (a) rapport, (b) linkage, and (c) authority. Their persistence is what drives ideas to actualization." (p. 69)

(a) Rapport is a pattern which naturally occurs in human interactions, where two people develop a sense of resemblance, of shared experience between them. It is created where the teacher's tonality matches the student's; when a teacher uses similar body postures and gestures to the student; when a teacher laughs or sings or otherwise synchronizes breathing with a student. The handshake in the West and the bow in Japan are both formal methods of creating this pattern.

Bierman says "It is the 'I = You' pattern. Thus, my experience equals your experience (my ideas = your ideas; my movements = your movements; my state of mind = your state of mind)." (p. 69)

The degree of rapport determines the degree of identification with others. When rapport is well established, the teacher's entrancement is immediately communicated to the students, creating a sense of flow. When this flow doesn't happen, it can be a signal to re-establish rapport. Teachers may relate to the experience of teaching a class that for some reason "clicks," in which students seem to absorb nearly everything you do. And then you try the same thing in the next class and it doesn't work. Often it is a question of rapport and flow which was established dynamically in the first class and which was not present in the second. The material alone is not strong enough to create the flow.

(b) Linkage is another pattern which naturally occurs with human beings, and follows on from rapport. In NLP this pattern is called "pacing and leading." When a teacher acknowledges (paces) something the student knows is true (e.g., "You've read this section in the textbook."), this statement can be easily linked to another statement which might be true (e.g., "So you're learning how to do these things.") If the students agree with the first statement (the "pace") they will be more willing to agree with the second statement (the "lead") which is linked to it.

This pattern allows the learner to move from description of present experience to representation (usually visualization) of possible or future experience. Very young children already use this linkage pattern with their parents: "You love me, so buy me this new toy." "It's a lovely sunny day; let's go to the beach." Even apparently opposite concepts can be linked in this way, for example, "The fact that you have doubts about this article means you're checking out how these ideas will really work." "If you're skeptical about hypnosis, you owe it to your skepticism to find out more about how it works."

(c) Authority is a pattern which results from our experience as children, trusting the greater experience and wisdom of parents. "It is essentially the 'My ideas = your reality' pattern" (Bierman, p. 69). A situation like the teacher-student relationship revives this pattern with tremendous power. Some teachers shift their communication style enormously after understanding that when they as "authorities" tell students "You'll never manage to pass this exam," it has the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy (again, see Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). You can also use your authority to suggest "You can achieve anything you set your mind to," and encourage success.

Principle Two: "Consciousness (present attention) is a Quality" and Principle Three: "Consciousness is Limited"

These next two principles concern the nature of consciousness and work together to enable the Learning Hypothesis to function. Bierman states: "Consciousness is not a thing, it is a quality. Like a shaft of light, it shines at times on some experiences, some patterns, while at other times it does not. And it is limited. It can shine only on a limited number of experiences at any given time" (p. 69).

The significance of this for the teacher is that when you direct a student's attention using rapport, linkage and authority, you are shining the limited light of consciousness in a specific direction. Because emphasized language patterns persist, the subject will continue to give attention to this new direction.

In guiding a class's attention using selected language, teachers can shift their focus from discomfort and self-doubt that students may have previously experienced in relation to mistakes, for example, to more confident and proactive images and outcomes (Murphey, 1996). The focus can move to the students' ability to learn, to experiences of success and enjoyment and to ways of thinking which empower them to make increasingly more events educationally enriching (e.g., "Mistakes are learning steps"). By your expanding ability to hold these newer more useful patterns in consciousness for longer periods, students will tend to automatically and effortlessly let go of the older, less effective patterns. (They just don't have the time for them anymore when they are focused on more effective messages.) The limited nature of consciousness then means that only unlimited learning can be conscious.

The way each of us teaches already contains a full set of beliefs and suggestions, conflicting and congruent to different degrees, whether we are aware of them or not. As Harvard educational psychologist Jerome Bruner (1986) puts it:

. . . the medium of exchange in which education is conducted -- language -- can never be neutral, . . . it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind . . . and a stance toward what we view. . . . The message itself may create the reality the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. (pp. 121-122)

Once we acknowledge that this is true, there are at least four things we can do to create a more consciously supportive environment for learning:

  1. Examine our language for the suggestions we are giving (record your classes and listen and just notice).

  2. Consciously think through our beliefs and the things we wish to communicate and then see if we are really communicating these things.

  3. Decide on or create a context in which you can communicate them smoothly.

  4. Observe the response that our ideas evoke in our students. If the response is not positive, then perhaps the idea or its expression can be changed.


Having read this far means you've already begun to recognize your ability to use educational hypnosis successfully in a class situation. Empowered by some very simple principles, you can increase the likelihood that your ideas (such as the idea that students can learn easily and fully) will be actualized by your students. That's all hypnosis is. Finding the ways to express your ideas, verbally and non-verbally, so that they produce the responses you intend. All teachers are hypnotists, and there isn't any question that you've been using these hypnotic principles. The question, instead, is whether you've understood yet how consciously to use them to structure your teaching for the better education of your students.

To do so you can develop your ability to apply the patterns of (a) rapport, (b) linking from pacing to leading, and (c) perceived authority or expertise. You can carefully choose where you direct the limited conscious attention of others, and focus students on enjoyment and learning. As you do, your language will increasingly suggest to students that everything they experience (X) can cause learning (Y).

When you'd like to develop more skill with the specific processes described here, a few days of Ericksonian or NLP based hypnotherapy training can give the practical experience to sharpen your skills phenomenally. The book Trance-formations by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (1981) is a good beginning text for such training.

Finally, educational hypnosis is not just something that can be found in schools, rather it is woven in the very fabric of society, in many forms of communication and texts. Zig Ziglar (1994) illustrates this well in Words to the wise: They do matter:

As a youngster I heard a little rhyme which said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." That's untrue. Words give us hope and encouragement, or they can break our spirits and dash our hopes.

It has been said that one picture is worth a thousand words, but the person who said that obviously had never read the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence or the 23rd Psalm. They'd never read Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," or the impassioned pleas of Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, or Patrick Henry. Those words changed the course of history and gave individuals and nations a hope for a better future. . . .

Yes, the changing of words changes the thought. Thought leads us into either positive or negative action. Needless to say, the right words produce the right thoughts, which produce the right action, which produce good results.

Thanks to all the NLP special issue authors for feedback concerning this article.

Bierman, S. F. (1995). Medical hypnosis: advances. The Journal of Mind-Body Health. 11 (1), 65-71. (Available from Fetzer Institute, 9292 West KIL Ave. Kalamazoo, MT 49009-9398, USA.)

Grinder, J., & Bandler, R. (1981). Trance-formations. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Murphey, T. (1996). Changing language learning beliefs: Appreshiating mistakes. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching. 6, 77-84.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Harper Perennial.

Wolinsky, S. (1991). Trances we live by. Connecticut: The Bramble Company.

Ziglar, Z. (1994). Words to the wise: They do matter. Detroit Free Press. October 24, p. F 17.

Tim Murphey may be contacted at: Nanzan University, 18 Yamazato-cho, Showa-ku, Nagoya. 466. Tel: 052-832-3111; Fax: 052-832-5330. e-mail: <>

Richard Bolstad may be contacted at: The National Training Institute of NLP, 26 Southampton Street, Christchurch. 8002. New Zealand. Tel/Fax: 64-3-337-1852. e-mail: <>

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