When you are working in hypnotherapy with a client, their level of active/conscious engagement will often depend on the purpose for that work. When working with limiting beliefs or unhelpful behaviours you might wish to work more cognitively or consciously. Whilst, when gaining insight and negotiating change of subconscious responses, you may want to be working more with the subconscious mind. This blog is all about how to communicate with the subconscious mind using ‘ideomotor responses’ (IMRs) – and has been adapted from the ‘analytical hypnotherapy’ course notes featured in our brand new ‘live-online hypnotherapy certification course’.
Communicating with a client in hypnosis
When giving direct or indirect suggestions to a client, such as for them to become more relaxed, or to boost their resilience, etc., you might not require any direct feedback or communication from a client, simply letting them absorb the suggestions. You may also be giving some new ideas to the client, such as with therapeutic metaphors and future pacing, and they will (hopefully) be listening to what you are saying. These approaches do not require much active client engagement, although you might be observing any non-verbal communication (e.g. frown or smile) as an indication of their response. These subconscious movements and responses can be considered a simple form of ‘ideomotor communication’.
Ideomotor communication refers to the spontaneous non-verbal ways in which our bodies communicate emotions, thoughts and ideas, often outside of conscious control or awareness (‘dissociated’). You will notice that some examples of ideomotor communication can be either consciously controlled or subconscious (e.g. swallowing), whereas others are far less likely to be conscious (e.g. blushing). Examples of ideomotor communications include:
Involuntary muscle movements e.g. foot tapping whilst seated
The subconscious movements of a client can provide much information to a therapist. In the therapy room they may support or contrast with what the client is saying. For example, they may be saying, “Yes, I have eaten what was on my eating plans”, whilst nodding (conveying subconscious support of what they are saying). However, they may then go on to say, “no, I didn’t eat any extra snacks”, whilst nodding (a subconscious contrast to the verbal statement). Generally, where the body language conflicts with the verbal communication, we tend to believe the message conveyed non-verbally.
As well as giving suggestions that do not require a response, you might be asking the client to engage or make changes in that moment, and you might be seeking a more obvious response to let you know they are doing so. For example, if you’re asking the client to “imagine putting all of the worries into a balloon and then letting that balloon float away”, you might ask the client to nod as confirmation of this happening. This is simple to request with no prior set up needed. However, for some clients, the act of moving their head can lighten any depth of trance, as it requires conscious effort as well as a fair amount of physical effort. Also, the movement may be so small that it might not easily be seen, or it can be a long wait (seconds, even minutes) before the client responds, especially if the client is quite deep in hypnosis.
An alternative to the head nod may be to ask the client to speak. However, this engages the conscious mind even further. Where conscious engagement is required, or can offer a positive contribution, this is useful. However, where you wish you work on a deeper analytical level, or in a way that the client has less conscious influence over, you may prefer to work less with the conscious mind and more with the subconscious. This is enhanced by coming away from large muscle movement and speaking, and actively using ideomotor responses instead. These require very little physical effort and thus preserve depth of trance and subconscious engagement.
Ideomotor responses within hypnotherapy
The term ‘ideomotor’ refers to movement (motor) in response to an idea or thought (ideo) beyond the conscious. If you were a poker player, these would be the ‘tells’ that you have which indicate to others whether you have a good or bad hand. The movie ‘House of Games’ (1987) talks about tells in this context. Within a hypnotherapy context they can take the form of spontaneous ‘ideomotor communication’ as we have already explored. However, we can also make deliberate use of this type of subconscious communication with ‘ideomotor signalling’.
Ideomotor signalling refers to the deliberate use of a technique which enables communication with the client’s subconscious using a suggested ideomotor movement, called an ‘Ideomotor response’ or, commonly, an IMR. Initially, Milton Erickson used ideomotor signalling within hypnosis creation processes (inductions and deepeners). This was more significantly developed later by a number of individuals including Ernest Rossi.
A true (subconscious) IMR movement is likely to be small, often more of a twitch than a deliberate and smooth clear movement. If a client is impatient, or anxious, or wishes to deliberately influence the outcome, they may consciously make a movement. This will commonly be more obvious a movement and more deliberate (should this happen during the IMR signalling process, you can simply acknowledge the client’s conscious response and suggest that the conscious allows the subconscious to come forward and communicate). A truly subconscious IMR signal may not be felt by client at all, or it may feel like a twitch, or a tremor, a jerkiness or an ‘electrical impulse’. The actual movement involved in an IMR, either when felt by the client or when acknowledged by the therapist (see further on), can act as an indicator of hypnosis, commonly know as a convincer or ratifier, as the movement appears independent of conscious thought.
There are several advantages for using an IMR within hypnotherapy. Firstly, as just mentioned, it can be a convincer. However, more significantly, it can help maintain depth of trance and preserve the communication link with the subconscious as so little cognitive engagement is required of the mind. Furthermore, as such little effort is required for a response, such responses can often be quicker than waiting for a client to move their head to nod, or to speak. Also, on the topic of movement, some clients may experience spontaneous catalepsy in hypnosis which may inhibit any requested nod or verbalisation, whilst IMRs seem to be unaffected by this.
Using IMRs in hypnosis
To enable the subconscious mind to respond to questions with IMRs, the therapist would first give suggestions that it can do that, and set up the IMRs using direct suggestion. Most commonly, a ‘yes’ signal is established for a finger on one hand and a ‘no’ signal on the other hand. It is common practice to specify a hand for each response, such as left hand for ‘no’ and right hand for ‘yes’. This can make it easier for the therapist to remember what each response indicates. Specifying a particular finger to respond is also possible, although this may be more challenging to get a clear response, as the subconscious seems to choose the most appropriate route. Generally, two responses are sufficient (yes and no). By installing more, such as ‘I don’t know’, ‘maybe’ or ‘I don’t want to answer’, it can complicate the questioning process and possibly start to generate more conscious activity. If you are clear in how you construct your questions to the subconscious mind, then yes and no tend to work fine.
When the IMRs have been ‘installed’, at this point, the therapist may ask some ‘calibration questions’ to which they know the likely answer. This helps check that the client is responding using the installed IMRs as expected. For example, “Is today Christmas day?” [no], “Is your name [client’s name]?” [yes]. This also helps the client understand a response has been given; as they may be unaware of any finger movements. It is worth bearing in mind that the location of the IMR responses may change between sessions, or even within a session. At any point, if you think an answer doesn’t seem appropriate, it can be useful to check/calibrate by asking the subconscious to show a ‘yes’ response and then a ‘no’ response.
Prior to commencing change work using IMR signalling, it can be helpful to prime the subconscious for change by recognising its efforts, rather than being critical. You can do this by suggesting that the subconscious has carried out it’s role of supporting and protecting the client in the best way it knew how, and that now the situation has changed, the client would benefit from a new way of responding. This often enables subconscious change to happen more easily.
Once IMRs have been set up and calibrated, then the therapist can begin to question the subconscious mind. When communicating with the subconscious mind using IMRs, it is helpful to ask simple closed questions. The easiest way being to phrase your questions where the only response is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Here are some useful example questions:
“Are you comfortable?”
“Are you ready to proceed?”
“Is there a reason that you want to keep this problem?”
“Is there anything stopping you from finding a solution?”
“[Present solution/task] I’d like to ask the subconscious mind to let me know if this is acceptable?”
“Do you have any insight that might benefit [client name] by making them aware of it?”
“Are you willing to share this insight with [client name] now, or over the coming days?”
“Are you willing to change?”
“Do you need time to consider those changes?”
“Are you ready to make those changes now?”
Though it may seem strange at first, it is good practice to thank the subconscious each time it successfully communicates with an IMR. This acknowledgement helps to ‘condition’ the response (so that it continues to respond), and also helps the client to understand that a response has been given; as they may be unaware of any finger movements.
When to use IMR questioning
IMR questioning can be used for something as simple as checking whether the subconscious is ready to change (e.g. “Are you willing to make a change?”) or to proceed with a change (e.g. “are you ready to proceed with this new way of responding now?”), or dealing with more complex issues. For example, where there may be a conflict between the conscious and subconscious, such as with self-defeating behaviour or resistance to change. Resistance to change can be a subconscious attempt to protect the self. IMR questioning can be used to explore the need for protection without being directly challenging. However, IMR questioning is most commonly used through a change process. You might start by identifying the issue and the desire for change e.g. the problem the old way of responding is causing and what is sought instead. Any ‘positive intention’ behind that old response can be explored and a new way of responding that is more beneficial can be agreed. This may be future paced subconsciously afterwards to double check that the change is appropriate and acceptable to the subconscious, and then can even be repeated again on return to more conscious work, in order to bridge the new behaviour into conscious awareness (where appropriate).
At the end of the IMR work with the subconscious, a final thank you can be given before you transition between subconscious and conscious communication.
It is important to be very clear with the client when you are speaking with the client’s conscious mind and with their subconscious mind. So, when you’ve finished the IMR communication process, you might simply say, “I would like to thank you, subconscious mind, for your engagement during this process and I will count from 1 to 3 and on the count of 3 I would like to return to speaking with [client name]’s conscious mind, so 1, 2, and 3.”
We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on communicating with the subconscious mind using IMRs. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, join us on our upcoming live-online hypnotherapy course.
If you have any more questions about this topic, or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks