In Ericksonian hypnosis and in NLP, we often use metaphor to help people change. Now, there’s evidence that helps clarify how this works.
In The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, we learn that , when we hear stories, our brain activates many of the same areas that would be active if we were actually experiencing the events in the story. In other words, to some extent, our brains don’t know the difference between a story and reality.
Why Is This Important
Well, when we’re helping someone get over a fear or change a habit, we are essentially looking for resources they have. A person who has a fear of public speaking has the ability to feel calm in some situation. They just need to activate it when they’re speaking in public. A person who wants to stop smoking has the ability to drop habits. Maybe they sucked their thumb as a child but stopped it at some point. They just need to activate that resource in the context of smoking.
In other words, our job is to find the client’s existing resources, strengthen them and apply them to the client’s current situation. We don’t “fix” people; we just help them apply what they already know.
Levels Of Skill
At the basic level, a hypnotist simply hypnotizes the client and tells them to change their behavior. That’s direct suggestion hypnosis. It leaves it up to the person being hypnotized to figure out how to accomplish their goal. Another layer of skill is to identify resources the client has that would help, and attach those resources where they’re needed. “And you can feel the calmness of being out on a boat on a still lake, just like when you were a boy. You can feel that calmness, flow through every cell of your body. And as you step up to the podium to speak, that calmness grows even stronger.”
For many people, telling the unconscious mind more specifically what resources to apply will have better results. It’s the difference between saying, “fix a pleasing meal” and “follow this recipe.” Specific instructions are more likely to get results for specific presenting problems.
Using Metaphor To Activate Resources & Give Instructions
Another way to activate resources and attach them where they’re needed, is through metaphor. In other words, we use a story (or several) to access and activate the resources a client needs and we attach them to the context in which they need them. How does this work? Well, when someone tells us a story, we search for parallels to that story in our personal experience. And, if you’re engaged in the story deeply, you and the storyteller will even go through the same emotions!
Put one way, a story is a way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own ideas and experiences.
So, you make the story parallel to the problem the client comes to see you for and you provide a solution in the story. The story’s solution activates the resources in the client that they need.