Planting ideas in people’s minds

Planting ideas into the mind

Planting ideas into the mindDr. Milton Erickson, the great American psychiatrist and psychologist who specialised in medical hypnosis, had a patient who only spoke in word salad. You may know this condition to be a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases. Naturally the patient often became frustrated when trying to communicate with others who just didn’t understand him. However, the good doctor decided that there must be some messages hidden within his dialogue and decided to investigate further.

Milton decided to have the word salad recorded and then transcribed for his analysis. It took him hours to go through the transcription detail and found nothing. But then Milton had the idea of using the same type of word salad in conversation back to the patient, which he appreciated as he felt he was being listened to and understood.

Milton is legendary for his ability to notice details about people and this case was no exception. For certain words Milton used precisely the same tone as the man and soon discovered that by joining these words together he was able to create a sentence. He believed he had stumbled onto a style of unconscious communication.

To test the theory, Milton did two things:

Firstly, he gathered a history of the man by communicating in word salad and the patient realised that Milton actually understood him. Now if you imagine this conversation taking place, it must have looked quite crazy for any onlookers. You’d have seen and heard Milton asking questions in word salad and the patient responding in word salad, while Milton wrote all the responses on a form.

Secondly, Milton tested the idea of embedding suggestions within language on his secretary. He waited until she had one of her migraines and asked to go home. He refused to let her go and insisted that she take some dictation before he let her go. Reluctantly she agreed and Milton then went into a long drawn out case study. But within the case study, and unbeknown to the secretary, he had hidden messages about relaxation and feeling good – each time he used these particular words he lowered his tone.

By the time he had concluded the dictation of the case study the secretary’s migraine had disappeared.

Patterns within language

So what was going on in this scenario? What had Milton discovered?

Your brain is constantly scanning for patterns and it does this for many reasons including: safety, danger, deception and to understand the world around us. We might love some patterns, such as music, i.e. Sound Patterns.

The human voice is one of the most versatile musical instruments in the world, within which you will find a diverse range of patterns that can change the meaning of communication. For example, when you emphasise a particular word within a sentence it can change the meaning of that sentence:

  • I never said she stole my money

This simple sentence comprising 7 words has 7 different meanings. Go ahead and say it aloud 7 times –but each time emphasise a different word.

Could we tap into this pattern hunting system the brain runs? Milton thought so and in NLP we call these emphasised words embedded commands.

Purpose of embedded commands

Milton would go on and use these embedded commands with his patients throughout his life. The idea is that sometimes, when we are making changes, the conscious mind can get in the way. When we bypass the conscious mind and use embedded commands, the unconscious mind can act upon the request being made.

How to deliver embedded commands that work

First let’s think about your voice and the effect that it can have.

  • When your voice goes up, what you say becomes a question.
  • When your voice stays at the same level, what you say becomes a statement.
  • When you voice goes down, what you say becomes a command.

Parents would benefit from learning this little trick.

How often have you heard a parent shout, “Don’t do that!” as their voice goes up?

Now the child’s response is to think, “That’s a question and I have a choice”, and so they carry on.

Yet, when the parent firmly says, “Stop!” with the voice going down, the child not only stops but so will everyone else nearby who heard that command.

So this is the process to run:

  1. Decide the outcome: what you want to achieve
  2. Develop the sentence: incorporating the embedded command as explained above
  3. Deliver the sentence: say the sentence to the other person, your subject
  4. Calibrate for results: notice the response in the other person, i.e. the outcome

It’s important to deliver the sentence congruently, i.e. where behaviour (words, tonality, physiology, etc.) matches the words and actions a person says and does.


Let’s say I would like someone to scratch their nose:

  1. Decide the outcome: Scratch nose
  2. Develop the sentence: I NOSE you have realised that we are just SCRATCHING the surface of the potential of embedded commands. (Yes, you would get away with saying ‘nose’ and not ‘knows’. These two words sound the same but have different meanings- this is known as a phonological ambiguity – you can learn more about this when you book onto my NLP courses).
  3. Deliver the sentence: Use it today and see if you can get someone to scratch their nose.
  4. Calibrate for results: Did they scratch their nose? If not do it a couple of times throughout the day.

Other examples include:

  • I don’t know how soon you’ll feel better
  • I don’t know whether you will go into trance in a few moments….
  • Let yourself be comfortable
  • People learn very easily how to relax and access unconscious resources

One of my students owns a music shop and has been successfully using a particular embedded command to dramatically improve his sales. Customers would come into his shop and ask if they could find a comfortable spot to try out the musical instruments. His response was a resounding, “Yes, just over there, buy that guitar where there’s a seat.”

Can’t this be used for evil purposes?

Yes, it could. Like anything powerful it can be used for good or bad. You can often hear embedded commands all around you once you are aware of them. TV, adverts, radio, politicians and just people using them without knowing it. However, you are tasked to use this power for the greater good.

You may not be surprised to learn that, following that fateful day, Dr. Erickson’s secretary was always keen and willing to undertake dictation at any time, but especially if she was getting a migraine.

Next Step:

This is just one type of language pattern you will master on the NLP Practitioner training course. By now you nose just how powerful language can be. Even though we have only just scratched the surface, you can smile.

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    1. Hi Bandi, Good to hear from you and becoming an NLP teacher is a great goal and thing to do. Go for it.
      Are you telling me this is what you want or are you asking for some advice? happy to give you some advice and please do ask any questions and I will help you in any way I can.
      all the best