Book Review

Hypnotic Language
Its Structure and Use
Reviewed By
Judith Pearson, Ph.D.

By John Burton, Ed.D. and Bob G. Bodenhamer, D. Min.

Crown House Publishing Limited, Wales, U.K.  
Copyright 2000  

Reviewed by Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. L.P.C.

"Sometimes when we change we say we no longer know who we are but it really means we are no longer who we were knowing full well who we most truly are now and will be feeling this deeply or maybe even deeper knowing how you can live this…n-o-w always." (p. 114)

Hypnotic Language explores the methods by which language induces trance and stimulates new thinking.   In this book, Burton and Bodenhamer expand our understanding of the Milton Model by illuminating the cognitive underpinnings that make Ericksonian hypnotherapy effective.  To do so, the authors draw upon a diversity of psychological models, including Neuro-linguistics, Neuro-semantics, developmental psychology, Gestalt psychology, NLP and Meta-States.  

Most of us agree with Milton Erickson’s assertion that “trance” is a natural, routine event that occurs in everyone, throughout the course of the day.  We tend to think of trance states as daydreaming, visualizing, or absorption in a conversation, film, video-game, or book.  Burton takes the definition of trance a step further.  He says that any time we focus inward to assign meaning, that is “trance.” Thus “all communication invites the receiver into a hypnotic trance.” In that moment, when the listener’s mind travels between not knowing and knowing, there is an opportunity for the speaker to influence the mind’s direction. 


Hypnotic Language has two parts.  Part One discusses theory and Part Two discusses application and example.  Part One presents three factors that allow the mind’s susceptibility to hypnotic language.  These factors are:

The Conscious-Unconscious Mind Split – The conscious mind consists of “primary awareness;” whatever one attends to at any given moment. The unconscious mind consists of “secondary awareness;” the mind’s storehouse of information, residing outside of primary awareness.  Theoretically, primary awareness is limited to Miller’s 7+2 chunks of data, while secondary awareness is virtually unlimited. The authors postulate that hypnotic language overwhelms primary awareness processing capacity and creates access to (potentially useful) information residing in secondary awareness.  Thus, in hypnotherapy, old data (the content of the problem) can be processed in a new way, for new meanings and possibilities that lead to solutions. 

Cognitive Styles – Limiting beliefs and ineffective strategies develop in childhood, when flawed perceptions create “problem states” that carry into adolescence and adulthood.   Hypnotic language patterns revisit these flawed cognitive/perceptual styles of childhood, returning to the “scene of the crime” so to speak.  However, this purposeful revisiting is intended to reshape the problem state into a solution state.  The cognitive styles of problem states (which easily translate into hypnotic language patterns) include:

Perceptual Principals of Gestalt Psychology – Several principals of human perception play a role in making hypnotic language an effective tool for changing perception.  Perceptual principals explain how people mentally sort and organize data into patterns and relationships.  Hypnotic language can use these tendencies as leverage for implanting new meanings.  The patterns are:

In figure-ground reversal, for example, the hypnotherapist can suggest that the listener allow the problem to fade into background, while bringing potential resources from the background into the foreground.  Linking opposing concepts activates dissonance reduction.  To illustrate, here is an example of hypnotic language suggesting that the listener concern himself less with the “why” of the problem, and focus instead on the solution.

"And just why do you need to know why…be…cause…instead…when you have what you did not have or feel how you did not feel will you care why not?" (p. 140)

Part Two of Hypnotic Language contains case examples showing the application of hypnotic language to specific clinical issues.  The text provides narratives or scripts that demonstrate hypnotic language patterns for the following applications:

The scripts address issues such as frustration, isolation, questions about one’s competence and personal strength, self-esteem, inflexible strategies, procrastination and depression.  They teach the listener how to let go of painful pasts, or fears of the future, to find purpose, comfort, recovery, and healing in the present. They invite the listener to doubt the utility of rigid perceptions and to expand choices and meanings. There are applications for reducing pain, grief, and self-criticism, and for overcoming indecision, many of which rely on figure-ground reversals.  The authors show how to use language to change emotions such as boredom, disappointment, impulsiveness, anxiety, guilt, and resentment. They describe language patterns that potentially could help people improve performance, expand choice, access resources and achieve outcomes.

If you read the scripts carefully and thoughtfully, you can experience the effect of the language patterns.  Here, John Burton’s artistry with language, combined with Bob Bodenhamer’s mastery of NLP (particularly Meta-states) is truly evident.  The scripts demonstrate the authors’ facility with Meta-stating, sleight of mouth, and Milton-model language devices such as metaphor, puns, double entendre, tag questions, conversational postulates, implied cause-effect, ambiguity, etc., to induce trance, suspend skepticism, cause uncertainty, and lead the listener to access new possibilities in belief and behavior. 

This excerpt, for instance, shows how the authors invite the listener to access the “unconscious” mind. 

"You know what you experience at this very moment but do you know what you do not experience at this very moment: What is here in the now and what is there in the then?  Of course then can represent past or future, any time other than now, you know?  So you know what you have and use now, your primary awareness you might call it. Then you can shift to your secondary awareness you might call it.  This secondary awareness knows there and then, all other possibilities.  Your secondary awareness knows and can go there and then, making it here and now for your primary awareness, you know?  What state or style or resource does your primary awareness know is missing for the most effective results?  What and how do you need to be here and now that is there and then…using this here and now, what do you primarily experience?  You can now hear this, here and now k-n-o-w there and then, can’t you use this then and now?" (p. 115)

Here is an excerpt from a delightful script that addresses irreversibility.  Note how the use of temporal shifts can cause confusion.  This script invites the listener to consider the possible resources to be found in both the past and the future.

"This is interesting because what was before and what will be next as the last next was before and before is timeless because what was before you is both past and the future, you know, and you can glimpse behind to see what is left before you.  How many befores do you step over counting your way back to before the first one? And what do you call the time before any of your befores began?  Feeling this…now…see and feel the future is right before you to realize you can see how the past was left behind while the future is right in front of you want to do what is right now, don’t you see how it stretches out already?  Your future does not know your past, how will you tell it to be?" (p. 106)

This script asks the listener to focus on future outcomes and take the “next step.” Note the use of similarities and continuation.

"Now you know what you do not want to do and, more importantly, you know what you do want to do.  You can look in your past to notice all the steps, one after another, a series of nexts leading you up to here…this…now that you know what you want, look into your future and see yourself thinking, feeling, and doing as you want.  See the outer edges of your future self and moving toward the center notice the stronger deeper awareness of what and how you want to be then feeling this now notice what your next step is in making your future happen now.  What will be your next next and…so…on…until…you create a clear path of nexts leading you right up to…what and how you want to be…now? And now simply allow your mind to inform all of you what to do next." (p. 104)

Hypnotic Language concludes with an informative chapter that reviews and contrasts the Milton Model and the Meta Model.  The authors explain that words function as symbols of sensory representations (maps), which in turn function as symbols of actual experience (territory). With words we translate sensory representations into concepts, meanings, and paradigms. The Meta-model provides a means of linguistic analysis, to detect inaccuracies in the surface structure (words) of experience, so that we can glimpse the deeper structures and clarify how one represents the territory.  The Milton Model is the Meta-model in reverse; purposely using abstractions and ambiguities (deletions, distortions and generalizations) to cause the receiver to engage in transderivational search.  With Meta-model violations, double meanings, ambiguity, and language linkage, the Milton Model triggers an inward search to “make sense out of it”---an opportunity to reconfigure the map. 

The Authors

John Burton is a graduate school instructor and Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Greenville, South Carolina.  He holds a doctorate from Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Bobby Bodenhamer is a highly respected and innovative writer, theorist, and NLP trainer.  He teaches at Gaston College in North Carolina and provides NLP training through NLP of Gastonia.  He is also a therapy consultant, pastor of a mission church, and maintains a private therapy practice. 


Hypnotic Language reminds us that language can truly have magical powers, to harm or to heal; that every communication with another carries the potential for influence—because at any moment, the receiver may enter “trance,” to derive meaning and direction from the words.  An awesome, somewhat disarming thought, indeed.

For NLP practitioners and hypnotherapists, Hypnotic Language explains how words can effect change, and shows the reader how to choreograph words as they dance across the mind.  The scripts demonstrate an elegance of communication that draws from and rivals that of Milton Erickson.  Reading them, one cannot stay out of trance!  Yet, this book is more than a collection of very good scripts and case examples.  It gives an astute explanation of how words shape cognition and meaning. 

The sense I got from reading Hypnotic Language, especially the scripts, was that I was reading the words of a gentle teacher.  While the book does not address practitioner attitudes or style, the “feel” of the text is one of permission, respect for the individual’s capacity to possess and access resources, and persuasion softened with wisdom—truly reminiscent of Erickson, Satir, and Perls.  These qualities are consistent with what I have experienced in brief acquaintance with the authors.   

Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a Certified NLP Trainer, and a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Springfield, Virginia.  She is also the Executive Director of Certification for the National Board of Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists.


Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a Master Practitioner and Certified Trainer of NLP. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Springfield, Virginia.

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