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.