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Causal Comments

24 Sep


When people offer  spontaneously, without thinking, their offhanded remarks   possess a special kind of power.  We frequently assume that extemporaneous comments are  truthful, or at least that they honestly reflect the way the speaker feels. Unintentionally overheard comments can be especially influential, since we assume they were frank expressions,  not tailored specifically for our ears, just ask Mitt Romney.

For example, our five-year old grandson prefers to wear button-up shirts  instead of the polo variety. We believe that’s because of a remark that some sweet nursery or Sunday School  teacher once made  that   resulted  in him referring to button-up shirts as “Mr. Handsome Shirts”.  After all, what male wouldn’t want to wear a “Mr. Handsome Shirt”.

Of course such statements are not always positive.  At a parent-teacher conference   my wife Diane once overheard her Kindergarten teacher tell her mother,  “Don’t bother ever giving Diane  dance lessons, because she has no rhythm at all.” This has stuck with her for all these years and made her feel inhibited and avoid dancing. Some people may say perhaps for the best.

In his book Uncommon Therapy famed hypnotherapist  Milton Erickson  describes how he once treated  a young woman who was convinced that her perfectly normal   feet were grossly oversized  and ugly. This belief kept her from ever going outside the house.  On pretense  Erickson made a  home visit ostensibly  to see the young woman’s “sick” mother.   He acted quite annoyed and grumpy and  “accidentally on purpose” stepped on the  young woman’s foot. As she recoiled in pain he said loudly, “If only you could grow those feet big enough for a man to see!”.  His crabby and spontaneous statement had more credibility with the young woman,  than all the reasoning in the world would have had,  and  ultimately  did the trick as,  she re-shuffled her thinking about her self-image.

Over the years Diane has prepared and given children’s sermons in various churches we’ve attended. She always says that the children’s sermon is an excellent way to communicate with the adults in the audience.  Since the message is not intended specifically for them, their defenses  are down.  Also their critical judgment is often suspended, as they are distracted and  charmed  by the youngsters’ response to the message.

Such casual messages function similar to what are called indirect or embedded suggestions in hypnosis. An indirect suggestion is a type of instruction phrased as an offhand comment, used during hypnosis to encourage patients to follow a desired course of action without specifically telling them to do so. The power of   indirect and embedded suggestions lies in their ability to by-pass normal conscious resistance and influence people on an unconscious level.

An embedded suggestion is another special kind of a hypnotic suggestion that is usually buried in some sort of mind-numbing context,  like a boring conversation.  The suggestion is typically repeated, but since it doesn’t stand out dramatically,   it is usually not consciously perceived.

I once attempted to use a variant of these techniques with a young woman I was seeing for counseling. Outside my immediate family,  she was probably the most argumentative person I had ever met. Even when I was repeating back exactly what she just told me, she would disagree.  Most of all she was highly self-critical and  I was trying to help her  realize that she did possess some positive features.  One day I was talking to her and the secretary called me  out of my office,   to handle an  emergency.  When I returned the  chart containing my progress notes was in a slightly different position. It was hardly noticeable,  but I realized that she had must been reading my notes. For the next session, I carefully prepared a fake progress note to put in a dummy chart that looked just like the real thing.  This note contained all the positive messages that I wanted her to realize. If I had said these things to her, she would have just argued with me and rejected them.  When she came in for her session, my secretary made a prearrange call to my office,   and I excused myself, claiming that it was another emergency. After about 15 minutes I returned. The client seemed both pleased and frustrated. She obviously liked what she had read, but seemed bursting,  wanting to argue the points. She was not able to, however, because she was loathe to admit she had been surreptitiously reading my notes.

Back in  June,   Ann Von  Brock, a blogger  with United Way in Asheville, North Carolina wrote a   piece entitled,   “Can One Passing Comment To a Child Really Make a Difference?”  It was about the power of adult influences on a young people’s lives.  She describes how her 7th grade biology teacher once wrote “has potential”  as  remark  on her report card.  Although  Von Brock  admits  she was a an underachiever for much of her school career  she  says,  “… somehow I hung onto the comment of that one teacher and always believed that I was a smart kid.”   She concluded that  seemingly casual comments can be   “powerful”, “ motivating  and inspiring”,  but  just as easily   “crushing”     depending upon the people, the setting, the tone,  and the context.

I suppose there are two important lessons you  can draw from  the power of passing comments.  First, if some casual comment is hurtful or discouraging, then reengage your  critical thinking  and challenge it. If parts still seem true, then use it as a motivator for positive change.  Second use your own casual remarks constructively. You can never really know how much influence a word of encouragement or a positive comment can have in the long run. We  are constantly confronted with  opportunities that can change people’s lives with very little effort or cost to ourselves.

I respond to  casual remarks as much as anyone.  When I was   in high school,  the first day of varsity football practice,  the coach looked at me  and realized  my brother had played for him a few years earlier.  He said   to the people standing around, “Stawar’s brother was an All Conference Guard, but Terry here  isn’t good enough to carry his cleats”. I suppose that was meant to be inspirational but it ended up being more prophetic.  Was it important to me or did it affect me?  I would like to say no, but then I do remember it,  48 years later.

On the other hand many years ago I   attended a two-day training workshop. It was in a resort area and everyone dressed very casually. On the first day I wore a tan jacket. On the second day  I overheard   people at  nearby table talking about what people were wearing. One of them said, “You should have seen this tan jacket some guy was wearing yesterday. It was really cool.” I don’t think I had never heard a spontaneous positive comment about my apparel before. I believe I wore my “Mr. Handsome” tan jacket for at least the next decade.

How to Build a Better New Year’s Resolution

30 Dec


How many New Year’s have you resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, spend less, or exercise more? Research shows that most people make the same resolution for at least five years before they achieve even six months of success. While about 40 percent managed to continue for six months, over a quarter of all resolutions are abandoned within the first week.

People make the same resolution an average of ten times and even all these failures don’t reduce future plans for self-change. Over 60 percent make the same resolution year after year. As you might suspect, behaviors with an addictive quality are the most difficult to change. Relapse rates for these behaviors are extremely high (around 50 percent to 95 percent).

The main reason for failure is having very unrealistic expectations. Like the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, we all believe we are “above average.” People routinely overestimate their abilities, including the amount and rate of self-change they can achieve. In one study 60 percent of adolescents and 47 percent of adults believed that they could smoke for “just a few years” and then easily quit. Self-change is just much harder and takes much longer than most of us realize.

Also we tend to greatly overestimate the benefits obtained from the change. For example, many overweight people believe in what has been called “the power of thinness.” Not only will you lose weight, but you will also be vastly more attractive, popular, successful, and of course happy. The Duchess of Windsor once said that a woman can never be too rich or too thin and today popular culture icons have carried this shallow ideology to the extreme. While such anticipated benefits can motivate future attempts at change, when they are not immediately forthcoming, people are deeply discouraged.

Anther cause for failure is that many people frame their goals negatively — don’t overeat, don’t gamble, don’t drink, don’t spend, etc. Each individual breach of the prohibition is seen as another failure, which can rapidly lead to a total collapse of the change effort. You have a much better chance reaching your goals if they are couched in positive terms over a longer term.

When asked why they didn’t succeed, people usually misinterpret their failures. Typically they blame external factors like, “I was on the wrong diet” or “It just wasn’t a good time to start.” They also blame themselves for lack of will power. They believe minor adjustments can lead to success the next time-like picking a better diet or just trying harder. Since most individuals try to do way too much, it is important to redefine success in terms of modest and realistic goals.

Another major factor contributing to self-change failure is that most people are not at the stage where they are really ready to change. Dr. James O. Prochaska from the University of Rhode Island has worked decades researching self-change and has identified five basic stages:

1. Precontemplation: You have no intention to change your behavior in the foreseeable future. People in this stage lack awareness even about the need to change. They may, however, “wish” to change and often make resolutions without any plans whatsoever.

2. Contemplation: You are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about changing, but have not made a commitment to action. People often get stuck in this stage.

3. Preparation: You make up your mind and start planning. You intend to take action in the next month and have a definite plan in mind.

4. Action: You actually modify your behavior, experiences, or environment in order to achieve self-change.

5. Maintenance: This where you work to prevent relapse. Most people do not maintain their gains on their first attempt. With smoking, successful quitters made three to four attempts before they achieved long-term success. Most of us move through these stages in a spiral pattern. Typically we progress from contemplation to preparation to action to maintenance, and then relapse. During relapse, we often return to an earlier stage. However, each time we recycle, we learn from our mistakes and can try something different the next time around.

So this year if you really want to change, level with yourself and decide what stage you are at, then select some modest goal that can help you progress to the next stage.

For example, if you are still in the precontemplation stage, don’t try make some large impossible change. Instead commit to becoming more aware of the problem and how it affects you and your environment. Read about it, talk to others (friends, family and professionals), see films and try to fully experience and express your feelings regarding the issue.

If you are in the contemplation stage consider making a careful and comprehensive written cost-benefit analysis of the problem, listing all the pros and cons. Fully assess how and what you think and feel about the problem. What needs does it meet, are these needs still relevant, and are there other ways to meet them?

If you are in the preparation stage, this is the time for a resolution. Candid discussions with others, self- help groups, and counseling can help you decide and commit to a course of action in this stage.

Finally in the action and maintenance stages, you can benefit most from acquiring techniques to facilitate change, such as establishing self-rewards and learning how to relax or be more assertive. Developing alternatives for problem behaviors, finding sources of social support, and avoiding situations that lead to problem behaviors are other important strategies than you can learn more about through reading, counseling, or attending self-help groups.

So this year don’t set yourself up for failure. Know your readiness to change and strive to make those small achievable steps that lead to success.


Based on a Column that appeared  in the Southern Indiana News Tribune


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