Compliance – is it Hypnosis, or just being nice?

Compliance vs Unconscious Response

I saw a hypnosis demonstration recently in a lecture hall of professionals. The speaker asked for a volunteer, then selected one based on their prior suggestibility. As the volunteer stood up, the speaker said “and you can just go into a trance right now… as you come up to the stage”. The guy shuffled along, slowly like a zombie, obeying the speakers every command. Gasps from the audience.

Oh sorry – was I supposed to say responding to the speakers every command?

Well who can tell.

The way I see it, there’s a huge grey area between genuine hypnotic response and compliance. Some hypnotists would of course defensively argue that there’s no real difference, but I would say that its important to realise that there is. Seriously – hypnotists can get incredibly defensive about this kind of thing.

When I was in training, I got into a conversation with my trainer where he was suggesting that all response is hypnosis.

I said “if you asked me to sit on a chair and I did, would that be hypnosis?” and he agreed that it would be.

To me though, this is compliance, and its distinctly different from the automatic unconscious response of hypnosis.

When he asks me to sit down, I’m not automatically compelled to sit down, the belief that I should sit down is weighed with all the other beliefs about doing what the trainer says, not wanting to rock the boat, actually wanting to sit down, believing that sitting down might be necessary or relevant for some reason because I trust the trainer. Its weighed with all the other beliefs, and unconsciously processed to result in an outcome, a decision to sit or not sit (or throw the chair across the room).

If it was a hypnotic response, the unconscious belief that I am about to sit down would have to be somehow installed. Which is possible – if I was upset or angry, and he happened to just suddenly shout it whilst maybe distracting me with a rocking shoulder motion, perhaps my unconscious would “buy it” and I would feel compelled to automatically sit down.

Because, if we were to call a simple asking to sit down a matter of hypnosis, then it really widens the definition to include all sorts of other things. It just muddies the water and becomes less useful.

The speaker on the stage at the hypnosis talk I attended, very soon after the induction, commanded the guy to hallucinate a box. “And look at the plant OVER THERE!” he suggested, then adding “and what KIND of PLANT IS IT?” The guy pondered for a bit, staring onto the floor, before answering “a shrub”. Gasps from the audience.

I felt really sorry for the poor guy on stage. The pressure to comply in a situation like that will be enormous, and I don’t think its fair to use that kind of a pressure to “crowbar” someone into giving a response. If anything, it shares more in common with a magic trick – with the dual reality principle at play. To the guy on stage, it could well look like pressure, compliance, and responding how the guy is suggesting he wants him to respond. Why would he want to let the speaker down, attract boos from the audience, get some chastisement on stage or shoed off for being awkward?

Asked a leading question like “what plant is it” is unlikely to evoke a response like “what plant? What are you talking about?” when the hypnotist is clearly absolutely adamant that he wants him to respond as if there is. Its like when you just have to laugh anyway at someone’s joke, when they seem to absolutely expect you to laugh. You laugh to humor them, because we naturally want to be nice people and not pull the rug from under other people’s feet too often. We don’t want to let them down.

Yet to the audience, it looks like he is in a deep trance, and is genuinely experiencing what the speaker is suggesting he is experiencing. But we don’t know if he’s really experiencing that – only that he’s responding how the speaker is suggesting he responds. Or telling him to respond.

The speaker then immediately moved onto invisibility, then saying that only his head was visible. The volunteer’s response was a slightly confused kind of grimace. To me it looked like “well I’m certainly not going to look shocked, or scream, or ask where you’ve gone. But I’ll humor your request by acknowledging that you might be invisible in a vague kind of way.” It was a very different response to more overt hypnotic responses where it made sense that the subject would respond unconsciously to the suggestion.

Lets just flip it a bit.

When actors have read their lines, and the director says “right, now I want you to read your lines in character, on that set over there” and then shouts “action!”, and the actor acts, is that hypnosis? Should we gasp at the marvellous miracle of unconscious response? Maybe it wasn’t the best example, but I think its more in line with what goes on in situations of compliance. Its response, rather than experience (and experience is response, but unconscious, rather than conscious).

And if hypnotists argue that an actor is hypnotised for responding to the directors suggestions – well then hypnosis really wouldn’t be anything more than asking people to do something – and that would be ridiculous. But we know that hypnosis is more than that, because things can be achieved very quickly with hypnosis that are very, very difficult to “fake” consciously. So there is a difference, and it should be the hypnotists job to show that difference, rather than just look impressive.

The Compliance Personality

I’ve noticed that there is a certain personality which evokes increased compliance.

I’m talking about the practitioner’s personality – not the subject.

Its that strange kind of inherent fragility of self-belief – as though you can intuitively “feel” that the persons personality and world-view is precariously balanced. A conscious positive belief masking a more negative, conflicted one. I’ve noticed that these sorts of people naturally evoke a kind of automatic sympathetic response. So long as people are being reasonable and without negative agendas, they will chuckle at this person’s jokes, agree and nod politely to their world theories and conspiracies, and shake their heads in unison to their ills and complaints regardless if the locus of cause is within them.

It just somehow seems rude to challenge or resist them. When they do say something ridiculous or just plain wrong, they’ll probably just get a gentle response along the lines of “well I don’t know about that…”

We instinctively feel that anything further might be too much – and we can’t particularly put much faith in their perceptions anyhow. We just intuitively understand that their perception of reality is a little strayed, that they’re running an unconscious agenda to feel better about themselves. If after an induction you were honest about not hallucinating what was suggested, you feel like you would be upsetting and confusing the practitioner, challenging their reality of how you should be responding.

Lets contrast this with someone who we intuitively understand is grounded, “gets it”, is a bit tougher and more invested in reality. With these people, we can enjoy more of a shared truth and reality. If someone like this attempted an induction and you weren’t feeling it, you weren’t hallucinating what they were suggesting, you got distracted by your own thoughts because the ongoing suggestions weren’t quick and forceful enough, you would feel more comfortable being honest about it.

But because of that, its easier to trust them, to feel in sync, and therefore there is increased rapport, and therefore there is an increased chance of letting go and being unconsciously responsive.

It comes back to the central idea, that just like light energy, we are being bombarded with beliefs and suggestions all the time, and our unconscious minds are constantly processing all those suggestions to know how to react appropriately to the environment. The more awkward, conflicted person unconsciously projects the belief “I need you to go along with this, this is about me, I want you to help me, please don’t embarrass me” whilst the more grounded practitioner projects beliefs like “you can allow this to happen, this is about you, lets see what happens, I’ll accept you whatever you do”.

But here’s the thing – I think that many therapists are unfortunately the more awkward, conflicted personality.

It makes sense, because the people who are usually attracted to such work are the people who have gained a thirst for psychological awareness through their own anxieties and life conflicts. Similarly, the people attracted to stage hypnosis or magic and hypnosis are often fulfilling an agenda for power and control as overcompensation for some feeling of vulnerability or inadequacy. Obviously not always, but I have noticed it. Therapists will also struggle to maintain a strong feeling of expertise and self-worth because deep down they know there’s far more about the mind that they don’t know. Yet they’re supposed to maintain a strong image of confidence, that they can help bring about lasting life solutions.

So you get these practitioners who smile politely, do a bunch of techniques, seem to love the ease and convenience of NLP, and present it all like its the most obvious, fool-proof thing in the world.

“Great! Now – rate your anxiety out of ten! How low is it now?” they might say, all awkward smiles, unconsciously projecting the absolutely craved-for response of “yeah, yeah, zero!” To which the practitioner smugly sits back and feels relief at another moment of self-reinforcement for the scaffolding of positive self-beliefs.

I once went to some NHS talk at some clinic where a speaker happened to be an NLP practitioner. He came across as slightly awkward and clumsy, but nevertheless had a bunch of otherwise-clueless nurses eating out of his hand.

He proceeded to do an anchoring exercise for no other reason except to show off and massage his ego. To my surprise, he anchored the negative state first, then the positive (holiday memory) state, then triggered off the anchor again for another negative future thought – but on the wrong arm from where the anchor was originally set up. According to NLP, and all the bullshit supposed reasons of why it works, it really shouldn’t have worked. Wrong arm, wrong anchor, negative state.

Yet, of course, it worked and she was all smiles.

The woman reported feeling positive, and feeling more confident about whatever the future event was.

So what really happened?

What I suspect often happens with these kinds of situations – the simple positive belief that something has happened, pushed along by a unconsciously strong pressure to comply.

The man could have stroked coloured ribbons across her head and had the same response – and indeed this of “intervention” does happen in little therapy rooms across the country all the time.

I’m not bashing it – its good that the woman had a positive response. The only point I’m making is that I think its useful to be aware of compliance evoking personalities and placebo processes. Placebo in itself is of course absolutely valued – the essence of belief formation and unconscious response.

But if its presence is being masked with another technique, e.g. clumsy anchoring, then it should be acknowledged by the practitioner that a belief is being set up, not some physio-neurological assocational state-memory trigger. Or maybe it shouldn’t, or isn’t, I don’t know.

Does any of this matter? If it works, it works, right? That’s what NLPers always love to say. If the person responds as suggested, then they’ve responded positively, right?

Well yes, but yes I think it does matter.

Here’s why – is the person who complies (and responds out of some awkward pressure to serve the practitioner) going to get as far with their therapy as the person who is more honest and grounded with their responses?

I doubt it (but maybe that’s just me).

If someone didn’t actually respond that great to a six-step phobia cure, and was just forgetting their fear for that moment because of the overwhelming pressure to do so, will that experience be lasting and penetrate all their reinforcing associations to that fear?

Will a smoker stopping after a six-step reframe resist from lighting up when feeling depressed and stressed and their buddy lights one up for them? I doubt it.

What I would prefer is a client who doesn’t just go along with everything, but provides accurate feedback about thoughts and feelings so that such things can be covered in more depth, with more robustness.

The other thing about this compliance-evoking personality type, particularly the males, is that their presentations lean heavily towards a need to be superficially impressive.

By this I don’t mean actual insightful information or techniques, or results from the awkwardly pointless demonstrations, but in an empty anecdotal way.

Just impressing for the sake of making an impression, not to impart information or expertise.

Richard Bandler, a compliance professional

Richard Bandler used to do this a lot, probably still does. Between occasional moments of insight, and some useful reframes and inspirational positivity, he tells some pretty vacuous, often fake sounding anecdotes or naff jokes. They feel like a process of constant regurgitation and honing has distilled them to some core of exclamation, that lack the context and detail to seem plausible. Eventually these “parables” come to feel like metaphors, and are often even contextualised as some “unconscious learning” exercise.

Forewords to his books have often said things like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Bandler sure talks a lot of total and utter shit, but maybe its possible that its all really genius stuff, that he’s… I don’t know… hypnotising you with his old-fool-talking-bollocks routine”.

Here’s the kind of anecdote I mean: “So this client came to see me, because she had been to literally everyone else in town. Another practitioner even called me up, saying ‘don’t accept this woman!’ so of course I had to. She was suffering from trauma after being gang raped by a pack of bears. She hadn’t spoken in five years, and was catatonic. Well she was wheel-chaired into my office by her sister. What did I do? Well I didn’t talk to her – whats the point? I don’t appreciate one sided conversations (so funny!), and I couldn’t expect her to reply. I couldn’t even zap her into an instant handshake induction like I normally would, because she couldn’t move her hand! (Hilarious!) But here’s what I did. Before she came in the office, I put a teddy bear on the floor, near her chair. When she arrived, we sat there for five minutes in silence, so she knew she could trust me. Then, I gently motioned to the teddybear, and said ‘I don’t know if you’ll want to shout at that bear now, or later’. And that was it. I just sat there. Waited. For half an hour. Then she leapt up, suddenly, waking me up, and shouted at that bear. Tore the stuffing out of it, demolished it, dead. Stuffing everywhere. She cried, hugged me, her sister paid the bill. Opened a gym and got engaged to an a-list Hollywood actor the next week.” (Wow, such a genius!)

Now, my anecdote was clearly bullshit, but you can see what I mean. When I hear these kinds of cute case studies, I don’t think “yes, that makes sense – I can understand how a deeper awareness was found, how the change took place, how the issue was resolved”, in the same way I do for example whenever I watch a Gil Boyne case study.

I just have an exclamation mark in my mind instead – and I can’t imagine the speaker intends for anything else. Its not like a particular technique is being explained in all its sensical glory. Its just asking for a “wow, that’s incredible!” response.

I watched another Bandler demo recently, involving rapid hypnosis inductions. His presentation was shockingly misjudged and egotistical. There was no real rapport with the audience – his delivery felt stilted and forced, like he’d said these awful jokes so many times that he barely knew what he was saying any more, relying on laughs purely from belief. Some of his gags were so weak the audience remained awkwardly quiet.

As an example, at one point he was bashing modern technology (sigh) and says “I like it when those screens come up saying hard drive crash, I always take that as a command and smash the thing” (mimics bashing down on a computer, except you can’t help but think he’s probably imagining someone’s head). I don’t think I’ve ever, ever seen a screen saying “hard drive crash”.

Anyway, with the inductions, he delights in making them as casual as he possibly can. In on instance, a woman has just sat down and he pushes back on her face, so her head rolls back – and catches her nose in the process so she looks like Skeletor for an instant. Gasps from the audience.

Is this hypnosis? Of course not – they’re merely responding to suggestion, complying, doing what’s expected, as is often the case in the first instances of these style inductions. It could of course, be compounded into something more compelling, but Bandler milks the impressive moment of compliance for all its worth. He even says at one point to the male subject “I say it, so he does it, simple”, which is in essence exactly what he’s about.

His ego seems far more important than the integrity or experience of the subjects.

So many other practitioners have been influenced by trainers like Bandler, trying their best to become what they were initially intimidated by. Having been impressed by people like Bandler before, they end up unconsciously emulating them as a way of wanting to be them. I always end up thinking “wow, this guy really believes his own bullshit” and can spot the ego from quite a distance.

At a recent panel Q and A I saw, I had sussed one of the speakers from their earlier presentation as having this kind of ‘need to impress’ personality.

An audience member asked a question, which was perfectly and efficiently answered by a more grounded panel member.

What’s interesting is that whilst listening to his response, I predicted that the awkward compliance-evoking need-to-impress personality would just have to add their response, which would no doubt involve a lengthy, pointless anecdote. They couldn’t be unconsciously upstaged by the guy who spoke efficiently and knowledgeably. Attention is needed! And they did exactly that. Added more fluff and guff which added nothing, big long anecdote.

Everyone looked bored out of their skulls. Yet people still admired and praised this guy – because he had impressed them with implausible sounding stories.

I get a feeling in these situations that the audience is split between the people who respond as wanted – with exclamation, surprise and admiration – and the people who can see through the bullshit and find it all a bit tedious and empty. Yet, often, even the latter will still be praising and admiring because that need to not go against the grain is so strong with these people. They expect admiration so much it feels mean to think anything otherwise.

In a nutshell then

To put it simply, does a practitioner recognise the difference between compliance and genuine, unconscious response, or not?

If they don’t, then there is no way of separating their work from a director telling an actor what to do. So how will you ever know if something more expert and genuine is taking place? The practitioner can’t be relied upon to help you know.

If they do know the difference, then they’ll hopefully be far more engaged with the idea of helping you feel assured that how you’re responding is genuine, and mutually acceptable to both in the most wholesome way. Erickson called it ratifying trance, proving to the subject that what they were experiencing was genuine.

Anthony Jacquin always says test your work, fully understanding the importance of that feeling of involuntariness, to set it aside from consciously controlled compliance.

Its a murky distinction for sure, and I doubt I’ve done a very good job of trying to explore it. But, in our search for understanding, truth and honesty, I think we owe it to ourselves to wander into that no man’s land once in a while.

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