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The Language of Change –
Paul Watzlawick, 1978

One can free children from warts by ‘purchasing’ them. In practice this is achieved by giving the child a coin for, and thus laying claim to, his wart. As a rule the child then asks – amused or bewildered – how he is supposed to let go of the wart, whereupon one answers nonchalantly that he should not worry about that – the wart will come off all by itself.

Although the effectiveness of all kinds of magical and superstitious treatments of warts has been know since time immemorial, there does not exist a scientifically satisfactory explanation of these treatments; especially not for the procedure just mentioned. What happens is really quite extraordinary: A totally absurd, symbolic interaction leads to a concrete result; that is, the blood vessels leading into this virally produced tissue begin to constrict, and the wart eventually atrophies as a result of anoxia. This, however, means that the use of a specific interpersonal communication leads not merely to a change of the mood, the views, or the feelings of its recipient, as it can be observed on an everyday basis, but to a physical change that cannot ‘normally’ be effected deliberately.

The fact that communication is a condition sine qua non of human existence has been know for a very long time.

…Antiphon of Athens [480-411 b.c.] …appears to have come the closest to the modern concept of therapeutic communication.

…Antiphon would first encourage the patient to talk about his suffering and would then help him by means of a rhetoric which utilized both style and content of the patient’s utterances – a procedure which in a very modern sense amounted to a reframing of that which the sufferer considered ‘real’ or ‘true’, and thereby changed his pain-producing world image.

If delivery can count for so much in themes which we know to be fictitious and devoid of reality, as to arouse our anger, our tears and our anxiety, how much greater must its effects be when we actually believe what we hear? Quintilian

One cannot not influence. It is, therefore, absurd to ask how influence and manipulation can be voided, and we are left with the inescapable responsibility of deciding for ourselves how this basic law of human communications may be obeyed in the most humane, ethical and effective manner.

There are thus two languages involved. The one … is objective, definitional, cerebral, logical, analytic: it is the language of reason, of science, explanation, and interpretation, …

[There is also] the language of imagery, of metaphor, of pars pro toto, perhaps of symbols, but certainly of synthesis and totality, and not of analytic dissection.

The psychology of thinking …draws a similar distinction between directed and undirected thoughts. The former follow the laws of linguistic logic; that is, of grammar, syntax and semantics. Undirected thinking is the stuff of dreams, fantasies and other experiences of our inner world…

In linguistics and in communication research we find an almost identical polarity…They offer two different ways of expressing a given meaning. In the digital mode it is communicated by a sign whose relation to the intended meaning is a purely conventional and thus quite arbitrary one, albeit one which must of necessity be shared by all its users if communication is to take place.

The other possibility is the use of a sign which does not have some immediately obvious relation to the thing it signifies [the significatum] in that it represents a likeness or analogy; hence the term analogic. Examples would be maps and their relation to territory they represent [except, of course, the geographical names printed on them], images and pictorial signs of all kinds [although continued use may eventually digitalize them, as is the case with most signs in Chinese writing], true symbols [and not only allegories] as they emerge in dreams, onomatopoetic words [such as crash, hiss, bang], pars-pro-toto representations [in which certain parts stand for the whole], and so forth.
The fact that there exist these two ‘languages’ very strongly suggests that they must be representative of two very different world images, for it is known that a language does not so much reflect reality as create it.

…A schism runs through the analytical and the intuitive …

The function of the right hemisphere is very different: It is highly specialized in the holistic grasping of complex relationships, patterns, configurations and structures. Most of the clinical and experimental evidence seems to suggest that this ability must be somehow akin to the technique of holography, for the right hemisphere not only masters the perception and recognition of a Gestalt from the most diverse angels and consequent relative to distortions [a natural ability for the brain which still presents great problems for computer simulation], but that it may manage to perceive and recognize the totality from a very small portion of the latter.

What is of particular importance, however, is the strong likelihood that the right hemisphere is competent for the construction of logical classes and therefore for the formation of concepts ….

[The right brain’s] language is archaic and underdeveloped … It lacks the prepositions and virtually all the other elements of the [left hemispheric] grammar, syntax and semantics. Its concepts are ambiguous… It tends to draw illogical conclusions based on clang associations and confusions of literal and metaphorical meanings, to use condensations, composite words, ambiguities, puns and other word games …

The …archaic language is matched by a primitive arithmetic. Its upper limit is the addition of two single-digit numbers and thus remains below 20; but on the other hand, it is capable of very precise, immediate perceptions of quantity. Primitive herdsmen, for instance, whose ability to count is limited to three numerals, one, two and many, notice immediately if and which animals may be missing, even if the herd is very large.

…It posses a more or less consolidated world image …

It is the image that dominates here, the analogy, and therefore also the recall of memories of the moods and sensations that originally went with them.

…Plato ascribes subversive properties to music:

…for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; – he says when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.


…it appears that the affective component gets across to the speaking hemisphere, but not the more specific information.

The observable consequences of the hemispheric disconnection of the human brain show that we actually possess two brains which can function independently of each other. As a result of this duality, they may not only not react in an identical fashion to environmental stimuli, but each of them will respond only to those external influences which fall into the domain of its competence. From this it follows that any attempt to influence either one or the other brain must be made in that hemisphere’s specific ‘language’ in order for the signal or communication to be received and processed.

In other words, the right hemisphere has already grasped the result immediately and holistically; it is now the turn of the left hemisphere, with its specialization for detailed, stepwise investigation, to supply the proof.

…In any given situation the lead will be taken …by the half of the brain in which as a result of its specialization is more competent than the other to deal with the problems.

Galin cites two further patterns of hemispheric interaction…

1. For the one pattern, he introduces the term ‘resolution by speed’, meaning by it that the hemisphere that solves the problem first will gain dominance over the efferent pathways and with it the problem-solving behavior.
2 …. Since in man …the hemispheres are much less differentiated in childhood than later life, it may be assumed that similar reinforcements, promoting eventual dominance, may also take place between parent and infant. For this pattern of hemispheric interaction, Galin proposes the term ‘resolution by motivation’: the hemisphere for which a certain outcome is more important will take the initiative and determine the problem-solving behavior.

…These two modes of cognition are not only not interchangeable, but it may not even be possible to translate them from the one into the other.

Bateson – Toward a theory of Schizophrenia

A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘Don’t you love me any more?’ he then blushed, and she said, ‘Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings’. The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.

Obviously, there exists a glaring contradiction between the mother’s verbal and her nonverbal messages. But since these two modes of communication are processed separately by the son’s two hemispheres – the mother’s words by the left, her [analogic] body language by the right half of his brain – and defy integration by yielding two incompatible images of the reality aspect of mother, the son is left with recourse to one of the two alternatives only.

1. One hemisphere inhibits the other and thereby gains control of the efferent pathways. This amounts to a repression of the contradictory perception. The price to be paid for this solution consists in a massive falsification of reality. If it is the right hemisphere that gains over the left, the son’s reactions – his behavior in general, his language and its underlying thinking processes – are likely to have unmistakable right-hemisphere [primary process] connotations and will, therefore, be archaic, metaphorical, impulsive, illogical, in a word: psychotic. If, however, the left hemisphere prevails, the outcome will most probably be constrained, perhaps even compulsive, but in any case emotionally flat, ‘cerebral’ behavior.

2 If the contradiction is not swept under the rug by the pseudosolution of a repression, one could imagine that in their fight over the access to the output [efferent] channels the two hemispheres may paralyze each other, and that the resulting polarization may eventually [as in the above mentioned example] explode into panic or a violent abreaction.


[Human service] is concerned with change. But opinions differ widely about what it is supposed to change….

Anybody seeking our help suffers, in one way or another, from his relation to the world. Let this mean – borrowing from as far back as early Buddhism which, as we know was eminently pragmatic – that he suffers from his image of the world, from the unresolved contradiction between the way things appear to him and the way they should be according to his world image. He then can choose one of two alternatives: He can intervene actively in the course of events and adapt the world more or less to his image; or, where the world cannot be changed, he can adapt his image to the unalterable facts.

The world image, the ‘should’ state of the world, is a peculiar thing in its own right, about which Epictetus says in his often quoted…. aphorism: “It is not the things themselves that worry us, but the opinions that we have about those things”. We are thus faced with two ‘Realities’: One that is thought to exist objectively, ‘out there’ and independently from us [which shall be referred to as first-order reality], and one which is the result of our ‘opinions’ and our thinking, which thus constitutes our image of the first and may be called second-order reality.

Viehweg presented in Topica a search for premises – that is, for the sum total of the assumptions, suppositions, expectations, the image of the world, as the world should be, without which the problems would not exist.

We must think of a world image, then, as the most comprehensive, most complex synthesis of the myriads of experiences, convictions, and influences, of their interpretations, of the resulting ascription of value and meaning to the objects of perception, which the person can muster. The world image is, in a very concrete and immediate sense, the outcome of communication…

Von Foerster points to this paradoxical situation when he stresses:

…a description of the universe implies one who describes it [observes it]. What we need now is the description of the ‘describer’ or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer. Since to the best of available knowledge it is only living organisms which would qualify as being observers, it appears that this task falls to the biologist. But he himself is a living being, which means that in his theory he has not only to account for himself, but also for his writing this theory. This is a new state of affairs in scientific discourse for, in line with the traditional viewpoint which separates the observer from his observation, reference to this discourse was to be carefully avoided.

The translation of the perceived reality, this synthesis of our experience of the world into an image is most probably the function of the right hemisphere. To the left half, presumably, goes the task of rationalizing this image, of separating the whole [the pleroma in Greek philosophy] into subject and object, of the reification of reality as well as the task of drawing … the now inescapable consequences. They, in turn, consolidate the image in self-fulfilling, self-validating ways to the point where whatever may contradict the image no longer leads to its correction but to its further refinement and elaboration.

Usually the decision is made early, is found to be useful, and persists a long time, even in the face of contrary evidence.

To change this seemingly unchangeable reality, one needs to know first what has to be changed [which means that one must grasp the world image in the question], and secondly, how this change can be practically achieved. [Note the absence of the question why?; that is , of the causal, past oriented uncovering…].

As far as language is concerned, it should now be clear that …. It is the language of the right hemisphere…in [which] the world is conceived and expressed, and it is therefore, the key to our being in, and our suffering in relation to, the world.

But if this is so, then it also reveals the inappropriateness of a procedure which essentially consists in translating this analogic language into the digital language of explanation, argument, analysis, confrontation, interpretation, and so forth, and which, through this translation, repeats the mistake which made the sufferer seek help in the first place – instead of learning the [person’s] right hemisphere language and utilizing it as the royal road to …change.


A grammar…cannot [and is not meant to] list all the word combinations [sentences] which are possible in a language. Rather its purpose is to make transparent the rules, which when grasped and followed, will permit the free construction of any [admissible ] sentence.

[These chapters] are designed to promote the understanding of rules; their application must necessarily be left to the skill, the inventiveness and the presence of mind of the [counselor] and to the unique circumstances of every given situation.




…Parable of Chuang Tzu’s

Suppose a boat is crossing a river and another, empty boat is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper. But supposing there was some on in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear. And if the other did not hear the first time, nor even when called to three times, bad language would inevitably follow. In the first case the boat was empty, and the second it was occupied. And so it is with man. If he could only roam empty through life, who would be able to injure him?

Somewhere in the tropics monkeys are caught by means of a gourd which is tied to the ground and into which the hunters place a fruit that the animals are particularly fond of. The opening of the gourd is wide enough to permit the monkey to put his hand into it. But as soon as he grabs the fruit, he can no longer withdraw his hand with the fruit through the narrow opening. To free his hand he would have to let the fruit go, but this he cannot do in his greed. Thus he becomes his own prisoner, for while he is unable to let go and run away, the hunters come and throw a net over his. So he is, after all, forced to release the fruit, but now it is too late.

…It is difficult, if not impossible, to represent the nonoccurrence of an event by a picture.

…Therefore avoid negations and replace them, whenever possible, by positive formulations.

Any injunction, any instruction is much more effective when given in positive language – that is. Free from negation “Remember to mail this letter” is bound to be remembered much more reliably, especially by a child, than “Don’t forget to mail this letter”.

The more negative and frightening a linguistic formulation, the less the other will be willing to accept it and the sooner he will forget it. Positive and concrete formulations a preconditions of any successful influence.

[We seek] the deliberate concretization and consequent demolition of rhetorical abstractions.

“Private Katz”, asks the sergeant [presumably in the old Prussian army], “why should the soldier gladly die for his emperor?”. “Right you are; why should he?” replies Katz.

….Rhetorical, bombastic, seemingly unquestionable statements can be demolished much better through concretization than through replies in the same language, no matter how precious and pretentious.


It is in the nature of complex totalities that parts of them may, in a peculiar way, substitute pro toto- that is, for the whole.

…The pars pro toto principle is another vehicle that seems to bypass the left half of the brain and to permit direct communication with the right half.

Pars pro toto communication is particularly indicated where, for whatever reasons [for example, strangeness, enormity, apparent senselessness] the perception of a complex totality is difficult.

If somebody were to try to explain the ferocious violence of a tornado…
If however, he mentions that he saw a heavy wooden door into which a straw had embedded itself like a nail, we suddenly have an approximate measure for the otherwise unimaginable fury of the storm….

From Charles Bukowski’s poem “The Shoelace”:

…it is not the large things that send a man to the mad house ….
No, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies…

Not the death of his love
but a shoelace that snaps with no time left …

Allegorically one then talks about the straw that broke the camel’s back. Literally, however, it may indeed be the sudden pars pro toto awareness of a deep unhappiness or hopelessness whose actual extent we may be able to ignore until it reveals itself, suddenly and unbearably, in the realm of the trivial.

Often it is the [clients] themselves who reject a small, concrete change, precisely because it seems to overlook the “real” problem. Not infrequently, this attitude is reinforced by the widespread conviction that “real” therapy must be long and consist chiefly of explanations. Even under the best of circumstances, the decisive step from mere talking to doing – that is, actively intervening in order to change a concrete situation – is very difficult.

But to bring about such a change knowingly and willingly [instead of attributing it to intuition, insight or chance] requires the knowledge of the world image that is to be changed.

…Yet another aspect…is the basic rule of the unresolved remnant….

In essence this rule states that one should never aim at the complete, total solution of a problem, but only at its improvement or lessening; for instance, that the [person ] will feel less pain, or that he will sleep a little longer, or that he will probably always experience a measure of discomfort in an elevator, but that it will be tolerable. The effect of leaving an unresolved remnant is twofold: It lifts the whole idea of change out of the all-or-none utopia of either complete success or total failure, and it enables the [person] to go, on his own, well beyond the change that the [counselor] seems to consider possible. The [person] thus leaves [counseling] with a much greater confidence in his own capabilities and much less dependence on the [counselor]…


According to Webster, an aphorism is a ‘short, pointed sentence expressing a wise or clever observation or general truth”. In it at least two concepts or thoughts are brought into an association that is unusual, startling, and therefore [or perhaps in spite of its seemingly contradictoriness] has an immediate impact.

“Too little to live on, too much to starve from.”

When the Hungarian poet Gyula Sipos concludes in his poem, “If it is not worth it,” with the lines, “…if there is nothing worth dying for, life too, is worth nothing,” he highlights the interdependence of the meaning of life and death much more clearly and immediately than a more philosophical explanation could possibly achieve with twice as many words.

A particularly effective form of aphorism is the so-called chiasm. This is a language pattern of cross like structure that owes its name to the Greek letter chi [X].

…For those who work do not acquire anything, and those who acquire anything do not work…

Work not acquire
acquire not work

Rather an end with [that is full of] terror, than terror without end.

The tenser you become, the more you pull yourself together; and the more you pull yourself together, the tenser you become.

The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

Foreign aid consists in taking money away from the poor people in rich countries and giving it to the rich people in poor countries.

If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

Spitzer, in Weiner Spaziergange [Viennese Walks] tells the following joke:

Mr. And Mrs X live in fairly grand style. Some people think that the husband has earned a lot and so has been able to lay by a bit; others again think that the wife has lain back a bit and so has been able to earn a lot.


Its effect appears to lie in circumventing or blocking the logical, critical censorship of the left hemisphere by the use of phonetically identical [homophonic], but semantically distinct words out of which the right hemisphere can then choose the meaning that appears relevant or appropriate.

Right, write or rite sound identical but have very distinct meanings, and English, more than most Indo-European languages abound in homonyms and homophones.

Also the opposite is possible: Synonyms, that is, different words with the same meaning, may become the agents of change where the ingredients of a situation appear unchangeable.

One obeys but does not comply.

A special case …is the euphemism. “It consists”, to quote Webster again, in “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive express for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.

Be realistic, demand the impossible.

Ambiguity can be pushed further. There is a suggestive, evocative power in what at first blush may seem a jumble of words violating the rules of grammar and syntax….

Man without a woman is like a fish without a bicycle.

Statistics are like a bikini: what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital.

Try to overeat just enough so that you will lose between three and four pounds per week.

Oh, I agree, your improvement will probably come very unexpectedly”, made in response to the [person’s] disappointment or impatience with the course of [counseling], can create a …very desirable confusion through the way in which it contradicts his pessimism. Without directly saying so, it insinuates agreement where the [person] disagrees and thereby implies that his discontent is unrealistic.


Erickson’s confusion technique must be mentioned in this connection. It is particularly indicated with people who tend to intellectualize and to talk everything to pieces.

…The method is essentially a way of producing a state of intellectual confusion, be it by means of extremely complex, pseudological explanations, be it through very ponderous, complicated and therefore confusing references to the most trivial facts, or by a combination of both.

Into this steam of inanities and obscurities the actual suggestions are then either interspersed …or they are given suddenly and clearly in the midst of this intellectual fog as the only concrete piece of meaning which is, therefore, grasped and held onto with particular tenacity.

The exact opposite of the confusion technique also constitutes an effective intervention. ..In situations, which as a result of panic or great pain somebody [is] already in a state that amounts to confusion…. The absurd question: ”What did you have for breakfast this morning?” …followed by further, apparently related questions, all asked with an insistence and urgency of voice as if they were of greatest immediate importance, may, precisely on account of their startling and incomprehensible lack of rhyme or reason, bring about the desired shift of attention away from the panic of the present situation.

…Just as it is perfectly possible for a speaker to interrupt himself and not complete his sentence, one can also interrupt one’s thoughts an refuse to think them to their grammatical conclusion. It is possible to have the [person] practice this in the …session and he will readily notice how every interrupted thought is immediately replaced by a new one which he again must interrupt and which is followed by a third one, and so on in seemingly endless succession. He is then told to practice this before falling asleep. Almost invariably he finds out that when he maintains this exercise for a very few minutes [which admittedly seems like hours] there arises a sleep-promoting intellectual confusion which leads from the logical, directed thinking of wakefulness into the imagery of dreaming.

…The Zen Buddhist koan, a mental exercise whose absurdity or paradoxical nature blocks the faculty of rational comprehensions and thereby makes it fail. What then enters into consciousness is an awareness of one’s world image precisely as an image of reality and not reality itself. Indeed, there is reason to assume that the so-called mystical experience occurs when …we manage to leave the curved space f the self-reflectiveness of our world image and for a fleeting moment succeed in seeing it “from the outside” and thus in its relativity. He who has experienced it knows that this is not a terrifying moment of disintegration and dissolution of reality, but rather coveys a sense of liberation and of ultimate existential security.

…Let me repeat that the interventions described in this chapter are essentially based on an overload of the left hemisphere, which in turn permits direct communication with the right half of the brain.



Paradox is the Achilles heel of our logical, analytical, rational world view.

The prohibition to prohibit, prohibit anything, is, of course, itself a prohibition and creates a logically and practically untenable situation, because by prohibiting it self reflexively contradicts itself.

Be spontaneous!

Be happy!

The effects on the recipient of this message is a painful feeling of hopelessness, of being unable to do anything right in order to be approved of, in short: depression. However, this outcome is only possible if he does not question the validity of the message itself but submits to it – otherwise it has no power… But this means that …he eventually imposes this paradox on himself and thus internalizes the demand for spontaneity which came from the outside.

Whoever suffers from the inability to do something that he would like to do or, vice versa, from the compulsion to do something that he would like to avoid – in short: whoever has a symptom – finds himself in an analogous situation. We experience symptoms as inhibitions or as impulses outside our control, and in this sense totally spontaneous. This, however, suggests that the principle of similia similibus curantur may be applicable here. For if the deliberate attempt to be happy causes depression, and the effort to fall asleep keeps us awake, it stands to reason that the voluntary, deliberate performance of seemingly uncontrollable behavior should deprive them of their spontaneity.

In this connection also the “worst fantasy” technique should be mentioned. It enables the [clinician] to approach a very tabooed or otherwise anxiety-producing subject without the client’s full awareness by asking him not to talk about his “real” fear, but to try to imagine the most disastrous, most unlikely consequences that his problem could possible lead to. Thus exonerated from the bounds of the real, possible and reasonable, most people find it easier to envisage, and talk about, the real possible outcomes.

Symptom: I cannot say ‘no’.
Symptom prescription: Say ‘no’ to everyone present!
Double bind: Two alternatives [either say ‘no’ to everybody or say ‘no’ to the counselor] which both lead to the desired outcome.


…used for the alleviation of pain whose intensity is known to be greatly dependent on subjective, contextual and especially interpersonal factors. There are two ways in which this can be accomplished: shifts in time [ for example, ‘Your pain will concentrate itself on Monday Wednesday and Friday evenings from eight to nine’] or in space [for example, ‘Your pain will slowly descend from your hip through the left knee into your left foot”.].

But there exists a third possibility. It is the deliberate use of a symptom instead of its passive endurance.

…In accordance with the rule of the unresolved remnant …the agreement with the [person] is that she would save her symptom for other, more useful purposes.


Have you stopped beating your wife?

Aristotelian logic ……is a logic of alternatives [from the latin alter: the second, or other, of two], of which one obtains [is ‘true, or ‘real’, and so forth] and the other therefore does not hold. For within this frame nothing can either be both [true and false] or neither [neither true nor false].

The trouble is that on the one hand it is only too easy to violate this logic but that, on the other hand, the results of these violations may play havoc, especially in our interpersonal relations.

This pattern of communication was first identified by Weakland and Jackson in schizophrenic family interaction and called the illusion of alternatives. …The pattern is based on a forced choice between two alternatives, a choice which is illusory because neither the one nor the other alternative obtains, is permitted or is, for one reason or another, practically possible. The person trapped in this illusion is …’ damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Mother: I don’t blame you for talking that way. I know you don’t really mean it.
Daughter: But I do mean it.
Mother: Now dear, I know you don’t, you can’t help yourself.
Daughter: I can help myself.
Mother: Now dear, I know you can’t because you’re ill. If I thought for a moment you weren’t ill I would be furious with you.

The way the mother sees her daughter’s behavior, there are only two alternatives: madness or badness.

National Socialism or Bolshevik chaos? It implies that the two concepts are absolute opposites and once this implication is made, the moral obligation to embrace the good, pure alternative and to reject the chaotic-diabolic alternative seems to follow quite logically.

Tertium non datur – not because there really is no third possibility, but simply because it is not contained in the ideological framework of the slogan.

Reporter’s NOTE: the frame of reference requires a next level of logic – democracy and dictatorship – these alternatives are also open to a next level of abstraction – although one is not apparent.

…Raises the additional think crime of becoming aware of the existence of the meta-alternative and of breaking out of the frame.

In the example of the imaginary judge the defendant is threatened with contempt of court; in a dictatorship a political joke is considered subversive; and in the families of schizophrenics any move of the identified patient towards normalcy is seen as further evidence of his craziness.

Liang and Esterson’s report on a patient whose interaction with her family they observed through the psychotic episode:

So far June has held her own. Her mother continues to express herself in extremely ambivalent terms over evidence of June’s greater independence. She tells her she looks hideous when wearing ordinary make-up, she actively ridicules here expectancy that any boy is interested in her, she treats any expressions of irritation or exasperation on June’s part as symptoms of the ‘illness’, or construes them as tokens of ‘evil’…

She [June] has to keep a tight control on herself, however, because if she shouts, screams, cries, swears, eats too little, or eats too much, eats too fast, or eats too slowly, reads too much, sleeps too much or too little, her mother tells her that she is ill. It takes a lot of courage on June’s part to take the risk of not being what her parents call ‘well’.

Erickson …inducing his fellow students into a choice between two tasks, both of which they would have rejected without hesitation if they had been present to them singly. …They would execute one or the other if I made the refusal of one contingent upon the acceptance of the other. But he also noticed that the ultimate reactions were unfavorable if he used these double binds for his personal advantage, while he achieved lasting, positive effects when he employed them for the other person’s benefit.

The skillful use of illusions of alternatives may help parents get over many of those typical difficulties and power struggles with their children”

Do you wish to take a bath before going to bed or would you rather put your pajamas on in the bathroom?

Do you want to go to bed at a quarter to eight or at eight o’clock?

Do you want to gain control over your problem already this week or the next? That is probably too soon. Perhaps you prefer a longer pause – maybe three or four weeks? Notice here the ambiguity of the word pause. Is that supposed to mean that it is in the [person’s] power to postpone the intimated improvements [which implies that he has indeed control over his symptom and could, therefore, just as well improve it today], or that there will occur a pause of the problem [which again insinuates that it can be resolved]?

What all of these interventions have in common is that, almost by a sleight of hand, a specific frame is created which excludes the undesirable outcome. Within this frame an illusionary choice is then offered between two possibilities, both of which are aspects of the desired goal …. If it is not possible to establish this illusionary frame, the intervention will have no effect. If I ask a stranger: would you rather give me on or two dollars?. My question will fall flat because he will have no difficulty rejecting both alternatives. But if I ask the same question within a frame of, say, a fund raising event, my chances of getting at least one dollar are fairly good.


..a reframing is not an interpretation in the classic psychotherapeutic sense: it ‘deciphers’ nothing and does not uncover the ‘true’ meaning hidden behind allegoric, symbolic or bizarre facades.

Reframing goes in the opposite direction [from the illusion of alternatives]. It breaks the illusionary frame inherent in any world image, and thereby reveals that what appeared unchangeable can indeed be changed and that there exists superordinate alternatives.

In Doctor And The Soul…Viktor Frankl refers to the possibility of reframing a frequently encountered problem – namely, the deep, all-pervading grief produced by the death of a beloved person. Life has lost its meaning; everything that was beautiful and worth living for has left this world together with the deceased – and within this frame only the return of the dead could again lend sense to one’s own life. [Of course, the very fact that his person is seeking help contradicts his seemingly all-embracing hopelessness on a higher level.] Frankl reframes the situation by asking the [person] to imagine that…he would introduce him to another person who not only physically but also otherwise resembles the dead person in every respect; who is so completely informed about the life of the deceased that together they would be able to recall and discuss every detail of their joint experience – would the [client] accept this person as a valid substitute? In attempting to answer this question the [person] is forced to look at his loss from a perspective that lies outside the vicious, closed circle of his grief. Frankl reports that his [client] usually rejects the illusionary alternative, and …in achieving this rejection …has produced a decisive change in the [person’s] world image. He has gently brought the sufferer closer to accepting the irreversibility of the beloved person’s death and thereby has created some distance to it.

A useful intervention, combining elements of symptom prescription and of reframing, consists in pointing out to [the client] , in clear, understandable language and in his mother’s presence, that we live in a democratic society in which everybody has the same rights and that it is therefore not right to suck only one finger at the exclusion of the other nine. He is enjoined to suck every one of the other fingers just as long as his thumb, and the mother is advised ot make sure, if necessary with the help of a clock, that all fingers are democratically granted their equal privileges. What until then was a pleasurable activity that had the additional advantage of needling the helpless parents now is transformed into a duty whose fulfillment quickly becomes an annoying chore – especially since it takes place under parental supervision. But this reframing also offers a face-saving way out of the dilemma: It permits the child to suck less or not at all. What is more, it blocks the parents’ usually problem perpetuating solutions, such as shaming, threatening, punishing, and the like.

…Reframing must not necessarily be positive or even acceptable. In fact, it can be particularly effective to reframe a situation, a behavior or other set of circumstances in a way that to the client seems unacceptable, wrong, or outright stupid. This is especially the case when it is not only so incompatible with his world image that it actually challenges him into proving its falseness, but when this proof makes it necessary to engage in the very behavior which is the goal….

Injunctive Language – Behavior Prescriptions 127

…what is possible and feasible in [counseling] is determined much more by the nature of the particular doctrine …than by the nature of the human mind.

…Condillac thought that speech might have had its origin in the ‘language of action’ and in recent years Jaynes…postulated that commands are indeed man’s most archaic language forms.

…Willing – that is, wishing to bring about – a certain outcome does not necessarily mean that one wills [wants] all the consequences following from that act of will.

…Behavior prescriptions offer a third direct access to the right hemisphere…

Behavior prescriptions range from very simple, direct commands to highly complex combinations of [clinical] double binds, reframings and illusions of alternatives. It will hardly surprise …to find that interventions of this kind cannot be stereotypically applied to similar cases, but that every case presupposes as comprehensive a consideration of all the elements of a situation – especially its interpersonal aspects – as possible and therefore requires a specific plan.

…Caught in what in communication theory is called a game without end, and which comes about when a system is enmeshed in its own rigid rules and is unable to generate from within itself a rule for the change of its rules [that is a metarule]. Where this is the case, the metarule must be introduced from the outside and its selection and input into the system becomes the task of [counseling].

…When utilizing the intervention, we must not only observe the rule of the unresolved remnant, but we may find it necessary to approach the goal in minimal steps an in a very roundabout ways. The phobic who cannot enter brightly lit, crowded buildings may gain a measure of reassurance if instructed to enter the building but to stop one yard short of the critical point at which his anxiety would overwhelm him. From a reasonable, left hemispheric point of view this is absurd. What is it supposed to man and where exactly is that point? But in the subjective experience of the phobic this injunctive communication has a very different effect: He now pushes a safety zone, one yard wide, ahead of him, an absolute to a relative problem.

Anything Except THAT 138

It may be a useful simplification to postulate that whoever comes into [counseling] signals in one way or another: Anything, except that! By this I mean that emotional suffering creates a willingness to do anything for its alleviation, except one and only one thing; and this “one thing’ is exactly what causes his suffering. With this proviso the sufferer closes the vicious circle of his problem and of problem-perpetuation pseudosolutions. The only possible solution always lies in the direction of the greatest anxiety and, therefore, the strongest resistance.

…Traditional psychotherapy…[requires] that the [person] first be taught a new ‘language’, the language of the theory his [counselor] subscribes to. This learning process is of necessity time-consuming and greatly contributes to the length of classical therapies.

…The [counselor] not only does his utmost to arrive at an understanding of the client’s values, expectations, hopes, fears, prejudices – in short, his world image – as quickly and as completely as possible, but he also pays attention to the actual language of his client and utilizes it in his own verbalizations.

…The semantics of a person reveals the sensory modalities with which he primarily perceives the world.

…These modalities express themselves in everyday language:

I simply cannot see why.

When it comes to that he has a real tunnel vision.

He gives me a creepy feeling.

If one learns to listen not only to the content but also to the style of communication, it becomes relatively easy to identify and utilize these modalities in [counseling] discourse.

It should be immediately clear that this approach requires a significant change in the [clinician’s] own stance. Instead of seeing himself as a firm rock in a sea of trouble, he becomes a chameleon.

At this point many [counselors] themselves prefer to dig in behind the retort, “Anything but that!”…

We search for premises and, having found them, utilize them as the vehicles for change.


In every conflict situation there are basically two ways of defending oneself against the opponent’s thrusts: to react with a counter thrust of at least equal force or to yield, thereby letting the other’s attack fall into the void and making him lose his balance.

…Resistance…becomes a ‘sign that the [person] is not yet ready for [help].

Sometimes the source of resistance lies not so much in the client himself as in his significant others and yet can be utilized or at least neutralized in very similar ways.


There exists a relatively simple solution for this problem, but I am almost sure that you will not like it.

Preempting thus almost demands agreement by implying that disagreement would be a sign of limited understanding, lack of imagination or courage, or an otherwise mediocre mind.

A close derivative of preempting – and also of the confusion technique- are formulations through which one says something by claiming that one does not [or would not] say it.

If your wife were not here, I would say the following ….

Somebody less desperate than you I would probably tell quite frankly that I consider this problem rather trivial.

…For rather obvious technical reasons any …injunction, behavioral prescription or homework assignment must be acceptable [that is, compatible with our client’s world image], must be safe and reasonably eay to perform, inexpensive, apparently quite removed from the ‘real’ problem and, above all, not degrading – although this need not exclude actions that appeal to a client’s sense of the absurd.

Simple, seemingly insignificant prescriptions are usually more effective than complicated ones that leave too much room for misunderstanding and error; and those that require a certain action are more reliable than others that consist merely in a verbalization …

Furthermore, the [client] is always right …, And the [counselor] never enters into open contest with him. If a client refuses to accept a behavior prescription or first accepts it but then does not carry it out, it is useful to take full responsibility for this failure and to apologize for being carried away … And to have imposed on the client more than the latter is willing and capable of accepting. It is often then possible to give him a basically identical injunction under a somewhat different guise and in different words.

…Finding …the appropriate and acceptable intervention is no easy task. Rossi uses the analogy of a “mental locksmith now gently trying this key and now that”.

Any suggestion – which is what a behavior prescription essentially amounts to – must be given in slow, clear and repetitive language; a language that anticipates all possible misunderstandings and closes all loopholes. In general discourse we are all loath to repeat a certain point too often, as this appears to cast aspersions …, In [clinical] communication, however ….

The so-called shingles technique consists in making the second half of every sentence into the first half of the next one and is thus similar to the way roof shingles are placed so that one row half overlaps the other. An example taken form a typical induction …:

I shall now slowly count from one to five. When I get to five I shall slightly tap the table. When you hear this slight tap, you will notice a sensation of relaxed comfort in your body. As soo as you notice this feeling of relaxation….


Ritual is the most comprehensive and the most elegant synthesis of all the interventions and techniques mentioned in this book.

Labeled ‘sick’ …and having been doctored with massive doses of sedatives, he was treated like a maniac at home and hence allowed to behave in a way that no parent would have taken from normal children: vicious kicks at the other’s face as she bent down to ties his shoelaces; lunges with the table-knife; plates of soup over his mother’s dress, etc.

…The entire family….the father carrying all of the child’s medicine bottles and solemnly addressing the following words to his son: “Today we were told by the doctors that we must throw all these medicines away because you are perfectly well. All you are is a naughty child and we simply won’t take any more of your nonsense.”. Thereupon he would pour the contents of the bottles, one by one and with great ceremony down the lavatory, all the time repeating: “You are perfectly well”. This ritual proved so effective [notwithstanding the mother’s ears that the child would kill her without his sedatives] that it led to the disappearance of the aggressive behavior and soon afterwards, to an amicable solution of the secret interparental conflicts [ten sessions].


[Counselors] raise three skeptical questions:

the first has to do with the choice of the specific interventions.

The answer is trivially simple and therefore contributes to further skepticism: By carefully exploring what the clients have so far done in order to solve their problems. If, instead of engaging in the time honored but futile exercise of exploring anamnestically why a human system came to behave the way it behaves, we decide to investigate how it behaves here and now and what consequences of this behavior are, we shall find the actual problem is what the system has so far tried to do in order to solve its supposed problem, and it is then obvious that the therapeutic intervention must be directed at this repeated, problem-engendering pseudosolution. The solution is the problem and it alone, therefore, determines the nature and the structure of the intervention.

The second objection refers to the length of effectiveness of these interventions and is a curiosum sui generis. In virtually no other, comparable realm of human endeavor is it postulated and accepted that changes must be final and complete. Everywhere, …it is considered a simple fact of life that there are no perfect solutions, to be reached once and for all, that problems can recur and that existence is a life-long process of perhaps optima, but certainly never perfect adaptation – and be this only because the scenario of life constantly changes.

The third objection aims at the seemingly superficiality of this approach, which so patently contradicts the belief that human problems are deep-seated and for this reason requires deep-reaching and length procedures for their resolution. But the mere fact that a given technique does not fit into the conceptual framework of another theory cannot be taken a s a priori evidence for the wrongness or uselessness of that technique.

The crucial point remains its practical application – but not in the sense of the old joke: there is no such thing as piano playing; I have myself tried it several times and nothing came of it.

Jerome R. Gardner