A Fine Work of Conversational Reframing

Published: June 21, 2010

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You don’t need to put someone into a formal trance in order to do
reframing. However, it can be fun as a variation. The basic steps of
reframing can also be done in the context of a normal conversation.
The only difference is that you need to be more observant to notice the
responses you are getting. In a normal conversation you can get the
same unconscious responses, but they usually go by more quickly and
that makes them harder to notice.
Let me tell you a funny little story that’s an example of how you can
reframe someone in a normal conversation. Last year I was visiting a
friend in Southern California. I was in a liquor store buying a couple of
bottles of champagne for a party we were going to have at his house.
In the liquor store I noticed a little old alcoholic woman. It’s quite
easy for me to pick out an alcoholic by muscle tonus, skin tone,

posture, and breathing, even when she’s not loaded. I’m sure all of you
who have spent time noticing the difference between alcoholics and
non-alcoholics also find it easy to make that distinction. She was short,
and although she looked ancient, my guess is she was actually about 65.
I nodded to her and smiled and went about my business. I knew the
woman behind the cash register, and we made a couple of joking
remarks to each other and laughed. This little old lady also laughed
and made some comment which was actually pretty funny, and I
laughed too.
The old lady turned to me as I was leaving and said “You don’t
happen to be going up the hill by the Post Office, do you?” I said “I’d be
delighted to give you a lift home. I’ll wait outside in my car.”

She came out, got in the car, and we started driving. As she sat on the
seat next to me, she was wringing her hands and looking over at me
furtively. It was obvious to me that somehow I’d tapped something
inside of her. Finally she said “Why do you drink?”
I did my best to keep from laughing, because she was obviously
wondering why she drank but making a referential index shift. I said
“Well, personally,  I drink for taste. I drink very fine wines, and I drink
champagnes. I don’t particularly like the taste of whiskey, so I don’t
drink whiskey, and I drink beer when I’m at the beach and it’s hot.”
And then I said “But that’s not really the question you want to ask me.
The question you want to ask me is ‘Why do you drink?’ ” That was
such a good match for her experience that she burst into tears.
Crying wasn’t useful for me, and it wasn’t useful for her, either. I
looked outside and saw a dog walking along. I pointed at it and
exclaimed “LOOK! IS THAT YOUR DOG?” just as a way to get her to
stop crying. Because of the urgency in my voice, she responded con-
gruently to my question. She looked out, then looked back at me
confused, and said “I don’t even have a dog.” But she had stopped
crying entirely, which was the point of the maneuver.
Then I told her a story. “Well, you know, that dog reminds me of this
little dog that I knew—a very small dog—that lived in San Francisco.
This dog believed that nobody in the world understood it. That’s what
the dog told me, and the dog was almost right. Because it was true that
almost nobody in the world really understood her. And the dog didn’t
realize that there is a big difference between no one understanding it
and almost no one understanding her.” She burst into tears again.
We continued driving, and soon she said “You’re right, the question
is ‘Why do I drink?’ ”

“And even that is the wrong question” I said. “Your whole life you’ve
been asked that question, and you’ve been asking yourself the question
‘Why do 1 drink?’ Everybody’s been saying ‘Why do you drink?’ but
you’ve been made a fool of. Not only did you ask me the wrong
question, but you’ve been asking yourself the wrong question for the
last 30 years. Everybody around you has been asking you the wrong
question, and they’ve made a fool out of you by focusing your attention
on that question, because it’s not the right question.”
I pulled into her driveway. She looked over at me, and first she said
“Who are you really?” I just smiled. Then she said “Well, are you going
to tell me what the right question is?”

“Well, I’ll tell you under one condition. The condition is this: after I
finish telling you, I’ll reach over and touch you on the shoulder. When
you feel my touch on your shoulder, you’ll get up, walk out, go into
your house, and begin to find answers to the question I give you. As
soon as you know what the answer is, you’ll call me.” And I gave her
my friend’s phone number.
She said “OK. I agree.” So I said “Well, the question is not ‘Why do
you drink?’ the question is (slowly) ‘What would you do if you didn’t
drink? ”
Immediately her whole demeanor changed. Different expressions
began tumbling past one another on her face. She went through
breathing, skin-color, and posture changes. That was precisely what
I’d wanted. She’d never considered what else she’d do if she didn’t
drink. She went into a fairly deep trance, and I let her sit there for two
or three minutes, and then I reached over and touched her on the
shoulder. She roused a little bit, got out of the car, and went into her
house.
Five minutes after I got to my friend’s house the telephone rang, and
sure enough it was this woman. She said “Is that really you? . . .  I just
wanted to tell you that you saved a life this afternoon, 1 was going
home to commit suicide. But I decided I just didn’t know how to
answer that question, and I want to tell you that. I don’t know what it
meant to you, but that is the single most beautiful question in the
world.”
I said “I don’t care whether you like the question or whether you
believe it’s the most beautiful question in the world. That’s not my
interest. My interest is in the answer to that question. And you call me
tomorrow with several answers to that question.”
At one point in the conversation she used a perfect idiom. She said

“Well, I just felt like I was going down the drain.” And I said to her
“People don’t go down the drain. Other things do!” And sure enough,
when she called me the next day, she’d dumped all the booze in the
house down the drain. I was there for two weeks, and I know she didn’t
drink again during that period of time,

I consider that a really interesting example of conversational re-
framing. There wasn’t a wasted move in the conversation on either my
part or her part. And what made it work, of course, was my ability to
notice the sensory-grounded responses I was eliciting, and her ability
to do that as well. She was quite sensitive to minimal cues and so forth.
I suppose a person who is about to commit suicide would be, since this
is their last time around.

In this example I skipped most of the steps I asked you to go through
in refraining. However, the essence of what I did was the same kind of
symptom subsititution—”What would you do if you didn’t drink?”
One of the big advantages of hypnosis is that people’s responses are
amplified and slowed down. There’s nothing you can do with a person
in trance that you can’t do with a person out of trance, as far as I
know. I’m able to induce every deep trance phenomenon in the waking
state. However, hypnosis slows the person down enough so that you
can keep track of what’s happening, and stabilize states long enough to
be able to do something systematically. To do it in the waking state
requires sensitivity, speed, and flexibility. With hypnosis, you stabilize
a person in a particular altered state, so that she will stay there long
enough for you to be able to do something.

Excert from Richard Bandler and John Grindler in “Trance-Formations: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Structure of Hypnosis

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  1. Thank you @disqus_IIWI9Jadmf:disqus. This example is not my own. It is a transcript from the old book called – “Traceformations” by Dr. John Grinder and Dr. Richard Bandler.

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