Nonverbal (Contextual) Implication**

Steve Andreas, MA

“Every sentence has implications and it is in the implications that the important message is given.”

—Milton H. Erickson, M.D.

         In a previous article, I described verbal implication as follows: a statement is made that is the opposite of the desired outcome. This statement is made about a different context, which is one part of a categorical “either/or” that divides space, time or events into two categories. The result is that the listener (usually) infers the desired outcome in the present context. For example, “Your conscious mind will probably be very confused about what I am saying” implies that “Your unconscious mind will understand completely.”

      Nonverbal implication works somewhat differently, by creating a nonverbal context that elicits the desired response. Here are a few examples from Erickson’s work.

            With several women who were incontinent due to physical reasons, he put them into trance, and then had them experience sitting on the toilet urinating, and then imagine the bathroom door opening and a strange man’s face appearing (“Strange man” is a context for not urinating, eliciting an autonomic response of constriction.)

      A woman was in intractable pain due to inoperable cancer, and drugs and surgery had not helped. After considerable pacing, Erickson asked her, “Now tell me, madam, if you saw a hungry tiger in the next room, slowly walking into the room and eying you hungrily and licking its chops, how much pain would you feel?” (Extreme danger is a context for not feeling pain.)

         A mother always spoke up and answered for her anorexic daughter when Erickson asked the daughter questions. Erickson told the mother to get out her lipstick and hold it very close to her lips and notice how her lips tended to move when he asked the daughter questions. (Putting on lipstick is a context in which the lips are kept motionless–and therefore unable to speak.)

      A man who couldn’t drive outside the city limits without passing out and vomiting was told to put on his best suit, drive to the city limits and stop by the last telephone pole he thought he could reach. Then he was to start his car, accelerate, and then put it in neutral so that it would gently coast to a stop when he passed out. If he felt faint, he was to stop the car, and get out and lie in the roadside ditch until he regained consciousness. (His best suit implies not vomiting, and not lying in the ditch where it would get dirty. Having to put the car into neutral implies some control, or at least delay, in passing out, and passing out implies a delay in driving out of town, rather than its impossibility.) He passed out repeatedly in the car, but Erickson’s report makes no mention of his vomiting or lying in the ditch. (An additional implication in Erickson’s instructions is that passing out becomes the beginning of driving out of town, not the end of it.)

      A “horribly fat girl,” prudent and prudish, came in and said that even after she lost weight she would still be about the ugliest girl in all creation. In the first session, Erickson spent most of his time handling and looking at a paperweight, glancing up at her occasionally. At the end of the session he said to her. “I hope you’ll forgive me for what I have done. I haven’t faced you. I know it’s rude. I’ve played with this paperweight, it’s been rather difficult to look at you. I’d rather not tell you, but since it’s a psychotherapeutic situation, I really ought to tell you. Perhaps you can find the explanation. But actually I have the very strong feeling that when you get reduced, at least everything I see about you, that’s why I keep avoiding looking at you, indicates that when you get reduced you will be even more sexually attractive, which is something that should not be discussed between you and me.”* (She is sexually attractive–nonverbal implication supported by verbal presupposition.) Since in the context of therapy, Erickson shouldn’t notice or talk about her sexual attractiveness, the fact that he did, along with his rudeness in not looking at her, playing with a paperweight instead, etc. all imply the truth of what he says.

      Nonverbal Implication

      1. Is provided by the nonverbal context, or some element(s) of it.

      2. This context can be either real, or imagined/hallucinated, but it must be compelling.

      3. The context elicits the desired response or understanding.

      4. Is what Erickson often described as, “What you know, but you don’t know that you know”–a dependable involuntary response to a specific context that you aren’t consciously aware of.

      Creating Nonverbal Implication (Algorithm)

      1. Select the response/outcome that you want to elicit in the client.

      2. Find a context that would naturally and powerfully elicit that response/outcome.

      3. Create that context, either:

      a. Vividly and compellingly in imagination (in or out of trance).

      b. By “tasking,” instructing the client to do a certain set of actions in the specified context in the real world.

      c. Behaviorally, by your own actions in the present.


         These different aspects of nonverbal implication, or what might better be called contextual implication, have been presented separately for clarity of understanding, but of course they can be used together. They can also be combined with verbal implication and presupposition, to elicit a stronger response, and this will usually be the case with behavioral elicitation, as in the last example given above.

      Contextual implication will actually be a factor in every moment of therapy; since the therapist’s office, clothing, and especially nonverbal behavior–speech, pauses, tonal patterns, posture, gestures, etc.–all provide a context for the meaning of what the therapist says.

      There is yet another aspect of implication, how to create intensity of response to an implication through drama or suspense. Let’s take another look at the last example. Erickson apologizes for not looking at her, which she will certainly interpret as a response to her ugliness. He then follows with five more statements that she will surely interpret in the same way–each of which will confirm and intensify her unpleasant response. Then he suggests that she do what she is already doing, “Perhaps you can find the explanation,” confirming her interpretation yet again, followed by a meandering sentence with five more phrases that seem to confirm her ugliness. Only after this build-up and suspense does he deliver his alternate explanation, which offers her a surprising, and much more pleasing, way to reinterpret the entire situation.

      If Erickson had said something about her being sexually attractive without this hour-long nonverbal buildup and suspense, it would have had very little impact, and would probably be understood as yet another confirmation of her ugliness: “Oh, he’s just trying to make me feel better because I’m so ugly.” How to create this kind of intensity of response will be the topic of a subsequent article.

      *Conversations with Milton H. Erickson, Vol. III, by Jay Haley, pp.18-21

** Originally published in Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2004.