Verbal Implication*

by Steve Andreas


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

—Milton H. Erickson, M.D.

         Implication is one of the most common ways that we unconsciously make meaning out of events in everyday life. A speaker’s statement implies something that the listener infers. Implication was used extensively and deliberately by Erickson, as shown in the following examples (some paraphrased) with the implication in parentheses:

      “You don’t want to discuss your problems in that chair. You certainly don’t want to discuss them standing up. But if you move your chair to the other side of the room, that would give you a different view of the situation, wouldn’t it? (From this different position you will want to discuss your problems.)

      “I certainly don’t expect that you’ll stop wetting the bed this week, or next week, or this month.” (I certainly expect that you will stop sometime.)

      “Your conscious mind will probably be very confused about what I’m saying.” (Your unconscious mind will understand completely.)

      Examining these examples, we can begin to generalize about the structure of implication.

         1. There is a presumption of a categorical mental division that is usually an “either/or”–here/there, now/later, conscious/unconscious, etc..

         2. This categorical division can exist in either space, time, or events (matter and/or process).

         3. A statement that is made about one half of the either/or division (often using negation) implies that the opposite will be true of the other half.

      (Look back to verify that these three elements exist in each example above.)

      Since implication is often confused with presupposition (which  Erickson also used extensively)  it is useful to contrast the two. Presuppositions have been well studied by linguists, and 29 different “syntactic environments” for presuppositions in English have been identified. (See the Appendix to Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M. D. Volume I, (pp. 257-261). However, implications have not been studied, even though Erickson made very extensive use of them, so this is a very useful area to examine in much more detail.


      1. Can be identified unambiguously by examining a statement in written form. The simplest way to identify presuppositions is to negate the entire statement, and notice what is still true.

      For example, “I’m glad that you have the ability to change quickly and easily.” Negated, this becomes, “I’m not glad that you have the ability to change quickly and easily.” Only gladness is negated, the rest of the sentence “You have the ability to change quickly and easily” remains true.

         2. Are usually passively accepted unconsciously.       

         3. Are usually processed and responded to unconsciously, yet can be identified consciously and challenged. “You are presupposing that I have the ability to change quickly and easily, and I disagree.”


      1. Can’t be identified unambiguously by examining a verbal statement.

      For example: “Of course, it’s difficult to change quickly and easily in your everyday life.” (It will be easy to change quickly and easily here in my office.)

         2. Are generated by the listener inferring, using their assumptions and world view.

         3. Are almost always processed and responded to unconsciously. Although they can be identified consciously, they can’t be challenged in the same way that presuppositions can, because they do not exist in the statement. If a client were to say, “Are you saying that I can change quickly and easily here in your office?” it is easy to reply, “No, I only said that it is difficult to change quickly and easily in your everyday life, isn’t that true?”

         Summary: Implications are much subtler than presuppositions, they are generated actively by the listener’s process of inference, they are typically processed entirely unconsciously, and they can’t be challenged.

      Creating and Delivering Implications (an algorithm)

      1. Outcome. Identify your outcome for the client, what you want to have happen. (Example: The client will talk freely about their problem.)

         2. Opposite Think of the opposite of this outcome (not talking freely; keeping information secret, etc.)

         3. Either/or Category Use space, time, or events (matter/process) as a way to divide the world into two categories (here/there, now/later, conscious/unconscious).

         4. Sentence. Apply the opposite of your outcome to the contextual category that is not present (there, then, other) and create a sentence that will imply the outcome that you want the client to infer.


      “In your life outside this office, I’m sure that you would feel uncomfortable talking about private matters.” (Here in the office, you can feel comfortable talking about anything.)

      “If you were talking to someone at work, there would be many things that you would not want to discuss at all.” (Here you can talk about anything.)


      “In the first session with me, there were undoubtedly certain matters that you were not comfortable disclosing.” (In this session, you can feel comfortable disclosing anything.)

      “In your previous therapy, you may have been unwilling to talk about certain events that were relevant to your problem.” (Now you are willing to talk about these events.)


      “I want you to carefully think about which matters are not relevant to the problem, and that you would like to keep entirely to yourself.” (You can talk freely about anything that is relevant to the problem.)

      “In your normal waking state, of course there are topics that you would be very reluctant to discuss with me.” (In trance, you can easily discuss any topic.)

      Another way of thinking about this process is that the client’s concern, objection, or reluctance is completely acknowledged, at the same time that it is placed in a different context (place, time, or event) where it won’t interfere with your outcome. Implications can also be delivered nonverbally, and since Erickson also made great use of that, it will the the topic of a second paper.

*Originally Appeared in Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 2003, p.14