Embedding the Message
by Steve Andreas
Presuppositions are messages about the way things are, embedded almost
invisibly in a therapist's language. Because they are not even noticed
consciously, these communications have immense power to change a client's
perceptions, expectations and beliefs. Consider this example from the
work of Milton Erickson:
In the late 1950s, when Erickson was a guest speaker at the Veterans
Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, California, a psychiatrist took
one of his toughest clients—a young man who had committed a wide
variety of violent offenses—to see Erickson. The young man waited
in the hall with his psychiatrist, watching other patients enter and
leave Erickson's office, many of them still clearly in trance. When
the two men finally went in, Erickson asked the psychiatrist, "Why
have you brought this boy to me?" After the psychiatrist listed
the many offenses his client had committed, Erickson said to the psychiatrist,
"Go sit down." Erickson then turned to the client, gazed intently
into his eyes, and said, "How surprised will you be when all your
behavior changes completely next week?" The young man looked startled
and said, "I'll be very surprised!" Erickson then turned to
the psychiatrist and said, "Take this boy away." The psychiatrist
thought that Erickson had decided not to work with him. However, a week
later all the client's destructive behavior did, in fact, change completely.
Erickson had undoubtedly noticed the young man's heightened receptivity,
and decided to deliver the presupposition that all his behavior would
change. Erickson didn't ask him, "Will your behavior change?"
Erickson's question presupposed that the boy's behavior would change;
it was only a question of how surprised the boy would be when it changed.
When the client's response—verbal and nonverbal—told Erickson
that he had completely accepted this presupposition, Erickson knew he
had succeeded, so he dismissed him to avoid undoing what he had accomplished.
If the client had said, "I would be surprised," or if he had
looked doubtful, Erickson undoubtedly would have gone on to try some
other intervention. However, the young man said, "I will be very
surprised," indicating that he had accepted Erickson's presupposition
that the change would occur.
There were other important presuppositions that supported this brilliant
intervention. When Erickson asked, "Why have you brought this boy
to me?" he presupposed that the patient was immature, had a lot
to learn, was dependent and needed guidance. When he commanded the psychiatrist
to sit down, Erickson presupposed that the psychiatrist (who had been
in a parental role to the "boy" he brought) was in a position
to take orders from Erickson.
With these two short utterances, Erickson set himself up as an authority
superior to those who had been dealing with the client, all by presupposition
and implication. Without these first presuppositions, it is unlikely
that his later question would have had such impact.
Most of the presuppositions that are useful in therapy are not as global
as Erickson's. Nevertheless, they can achieve significant shifts in
perception and behavior. A number of small presuppositional shifts can
work together to affect families powerfully. One of my favorite examples
is contained in a videotape of structural family therapist Salvador
Minuchin's first session with a family whose 10·year-old son
was sniffing gasoline. Immediately after the introductions, Minuchin
turned to the boy and said, "I understand you like to sniff gasoline.
What do you think you are, an automobile?" This humorous comment
had an immediate impact. Everyone relaxed a little, and the problem
became a little less insoluble.
The joke was fairly obvious. Not so obvious was the presupposition that
serious matters can be discussed with humor. Even less apparent was
Minuchin's use of the words "you like to." In contrast, "You
sniff;' or "You have to," or "You fell driven to"
would have presupposed that the behavior was out of the boy's control,
and therefore difficult to change. "You like to" presupposes
that the behavior results from the child's own desire, not some crazy
or incomprehensible compulsion.
In his next statement to the boy, Minuchin built on this: "Which
do you prefer—unleaded or regular?" Everyone relaxed a bit
more as this second joking comment shifted the family's attention again.
Minuchin's presupposition opened them to the possibility that the problem
might not be beyond everyone's control, but a matter of the boy's preferences.
Next, Minuchin smelled and then took a sip of the herb tea he had been
holding, saying, "I wonder what kind of tea this is." Then
he turned to the boy, offered him his cup, and said, "Since you
have a good nose, tell me what kind of tea this is." This comment
built on the previous ones, refocusing attention from the: preference
to the learned ability that makes preference possible. Minuchin had
presupposed that the boy had "a good nose" and was able to
make some discriminations that Minuchin couldn't. This made the boy
superior to Minuchin in this respect, and altered the implicit hierarchy
of the superior therapist/needy family.
With three short comments, Minuchin transformed the family's perceptions,
so that they thought of the gasoline sniffing as an expression of the
boy's preferences, and one that demonstrated a positive ability to discriminate.
The uncontrollable problem was several significant steps closer to a
solution because family members were thinking about it in a very different
way. Rather than criticizing, reprimanding or interrogating the boy,
Minuchin implicitly complimented him on his skill at discrimination.
This provided a positive basis for guiding the boy toward using these
skills in ways other than sniffing gasoline.
Of course, more needed to be done. Minuchin gathered information that
demonstrated that the boy was a "parental child" with major
responsibility for his 4-year-old twin brothers, and he worked toward
reorganizing the family so that the l0-year-old could have his own childhood,
free of parental responsibility.
As these examples show, presuppositions can subtly alter hierarchies,
allow a client to imagine a future that is not hostage to the past,
or humorously reframe a worried family's attitude toward their difficulties.
It is impossible not to use presuppositions: Every sentence you utter
sends many signals to your clients about what you implicitly assume
to be true.
One simple way to identify presuppositions is to negate a sentence and
notice what is still true. Take this simple sentence: "It's good
that you're willing to express yourself". When we negate this sentence,
we get: "It's not good that you're willing to express yourself."
Despite the negation, "you're willing to express yourself”
remains as true as it was in the first sentence.
People typically focus on what they can agree or disagree about, while
ignoring what is presupposed. When listeners do not notice presuppositions,
the ideas unconsciously sink in and the listeners accept them as if
they are true, without being consciously aware of the shift that has
taken place. If we turn the statement above into a question—"Do
you think it's good or bad that you're willing to express yourself?"—we
focus the listener's attention more strongly on the choice offered rather
than the presupposition behind the choice.
The presuppositions that therapists unwittingly deliver in their first
sentence to a new client can set the course for the therapy that follows.
Many therapists start by asking, "How can I help you?" This
presupposes "I can help you," a complementary helper/helpee
relationship. This is a welcome mat for future dependence and passive
By contrast, "What changes do you want to achieve today?"
presupposes that rapid changes—plural—are possible, and
also presupposes that the client is in the active role: the client is
the one who both wants and achieves changes, not the therapist "What
are the problems in your marriage?" directs the couple to the past
in a search for what didn't work. This is an invitation to endless archaeology,
a return to what family therapist pioneer Virginia Satir called "the
museum." However, the question "What kind of relationship
do you want to have?”, directs the clients to think of desired
outcomes. From there, it is a short step to develop specific ways to
reach those outcomes and leave the problem behind. It is amazing how
powerfully presuppositions can influence the therapy that follows. Often,
if the direction is not useful, the therapist will later complain that
the client is resistant or "passive-aggressive," or realizing
that this behavior is a predictable response to the therapist's own
presuppositions about the therapy.
The more therapists know about how they send these messages, the more
power and impact every word can have. By sensitizing themselves to their
own presuppositions, therapists can recognize ways they may have been
holding their clients back unknowingly, and can use this information
to change their presuppositions. Listening to clients' presuppositions
points out exactly where their thinking is limited and offers a direction
for therapists to take to make it easier for clients to have new perspectives
Presuppositions about time are particularly useful. The verb tense of
every sentence carries a time message that can be a powerful indicator
of attitudes toward a problem and the possibility of change. Perhaps
a wife says, "We always fight. It is a terrible problem in our
relationship." Her use of the present tense, combined with "always,"
indicates that she is thinking of the problem occurring throughout the
past, present and future. In contrast, she could have said, "We
fought on Saturday," which would have limited her perception of
the problem to a narrow and contextualized past.
My response to the wife might be, "So this has been a terrible
problem for you when you have gotten into fights." By describing
the problem in the past tense, I leave it in the past, while acknowledging
that I understand what she has said. Then I might begin to direct her
attention to what she wants in the" future—"And I’m
guessing you both want things to be different."
The use of verb tense in this exchange is crucial because the language
of time carries powerful messages about whether or not change is possible.
Most people perceive the past as fixed and unchangeable. But most people
can see more alternatives and possibilities in the future, since it
hasn't happened yet. A careful use of presuppositions of time can clear
their mind to imagine a more open future.
Notice the difference in your experience if you think of some minor
problem of your own, and say to yourself, "It is a problem, isn't
Now try saying, "That has been a problem, hasn't it?" and
be aware of your sense of the internal spatial location of “the
problem” as you do so. If you pay close attention to your internal
images, you will find that your image of the problem shifts with each
The location of images in your internal perceptual field profoundly
influences how you will respond to them. You may find that the image
of "It is a problem" is close and large, while your image
of ''That bas been a problem" is farther away, off to the side,
and smaller. Both sentences match your experience, but the second takes
the problem out of the future and literally clears a space in your mind
for new behavior in a subtle and profound way. If, as a therapist, you
use every sentence to communicate that problems are unlikely to continue
into the future, and that solutions are part of the future, you make
it easier for your clients to develop and consider solutions.
Many therapists still direct their primary attention toward the past.
While it is possible to speak of the past in a way that puts useful
presuppositions in place, it is much easier to slip in presuppositions
of things being different, better or solved in the present and future.
Even a brilliant therapist is operating with both hands tied behind
his or her back if limited to changing presuppositions about the past.
Since the future hasn't happened yet, it is much more malleable. It's
the easiest place to begin to put in presuppositions about change without
violating the client's sense of reality. If a client wants to lose weight,
for example, I might ask, "What resources do you think will allow
you to lose weight easily?" "What will be your first indication
that you have what you need to maintain your desired weight?" "After
you reach and maintain your desired weight, do you think you will look
back and find it strange that you were ever overweight, or do you think
you will have a feeling of understanding and compassion for that former
you?" Once the client begins to think of the desired outcome as
almost inevitable, it becomes much easier to develop specific interventions
to accomplish the desired outcome.
It’s easy to discover how presuppositions work; all it takes is
paying close attention to your own internal images. Try the following
experiment: First imagine "eating dinner at a restaurant."
Then imagine "discussing a proposal." Now notice your internal
experience of "Let's eat dinner at a restaurant before discussing
a proposal." Notice how the two representations become smoothly
linked together in your mind.
Now try a slightly different sentence: "Before we discuss a proposal,
let's eat dinner at a restaurant" and again pay close attention
to the spatial arrangement of the images in your mind. In this case,
the first representation you make, "discussing a proposal,"
moves aside to your less detailed peripheral visual field in order to
make: room for "eating dinner at a restaurant." In each case,
the result is the same: The presupposed representation becomes linked
to the other, more conscious one. The process of getting there is slightly
different, due to the different order of the two sentences.
"You can go on to experiment with other time words like before,
after, during, as, since, when, prior and while. These words all create
a presupposed sequence or link between experiences in time and a slightly
different internal experience.
You can learn how to generate presuppositions by listening to your own
and others' language and identifying the presuppositions. A detailed
analysis of presuppositions can be found in the work of Richard Bandler
and John Grindler, the founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. In
their book The Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Millon H. Erickson,
M.D., Vol. 1, they delineate 29 linguistically distinct kinds of presuppositions.
With practice, generating useful presuppositions can become an automatic
part of your verbal behavior. Since different clients respond more fully
to certain presuppositions better than others, it's useful to be able
to generate a variety of presuppositions at will.
How messages are delivered non-verbally is at least as important, if
not more so, than what is said. Tuning, pacing, tone of voice and volume,
facial expression, gesture, posture and eye contact all affect how the
message is received. For example, questions usually end in a rising
pitch, while statements do not. Commands typically end with a sinking
pitch. If you ask, "How much do you want to change?" and allow
your voice to sink, the apparent question takes on the impact of a command,
strengthening the presupposition that "you want to change."
Although most people respond strongly to such tonal communication, very
few recognize it consciously, and this increases its impact. Marking
out the phrase that is presupposed with a gesture or a shift in voice
tone or volume also adds impact. These "embedded commands"
were an explicit part of Milton Erickson's work, and Virginia Satir
also used them fully.
You can learn better nonverbal expressiveness by observing animals
and infants. Since preverbal children and animals only respond to tone,
tempo, volume and other nonverbal expressions, communicating with them
will help you develop nonverbal skills that you can then transfer to
your interchanges with clients.
After you have learned to craft and deliver a presupposition, it's important
to be able to observe whether it has had the desired effect. Ultimately,
what counts is not how artful it is, but how the client responds. Nonverbal
responses will usually tell you much more than what is said. With practice,
you can learn to notice small shifts in your client's posture, breathing,
muscle tone and facial expression that indicate the effect.
Never underestimate the potential power of a properly supported presupposition
on your clients. Years ago, on a television program about kids with
cancer, I saw a tape of a 10-year-old child, bald and emaciated. I wouldn't
have bet a nickel on his chances for recovery. The child's therapist
asked him congruently, "How long do you think it will take you
to get well?" The child took some time to think carefully, and
then answered, "About six months."
Then a segment shot six months later was shown and the child appeared
happy, healthy and fully recovered. I don't know how much of the child's
recovery was due to the other treatment he was receiving and how much
was due to the presupposition that he would get well—but I'm sure