Article: The Client, the Therapist, and the Ethical Use of Language – Tibor Magyar (Is.15)

Tibor Magyar, Ph.D.

In this article, the author calls to the therapist/reader’s attention the importance of language in the therapeutic process and presents the reader with a series of timely suggestions, caveats and admonishments for the practice of past-life therapy.

There is a magic in words. Language has power. Every word has at least three meanings: connotative, denotative, and stipulative. Beyond the dictionary definition, each word is also defined by current usage and the experience/value system/understanding of the user and the receiver. To add further complexity, it is not only what is said, but how it is said. Ultimately, it is also what has not been said. According to Davis (1994) these are the three vital dimensions of any verbal message.

As therapists we are often fond of referring to the so-called medical model. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss whether or not the medical model is the only appropriate framework within which the practice of past-life therapy should take place, but we can still draw from its wisdom. The first responsibility charged to physicians in their oath is to “do no harm.” This is a wise and appropriate tenet which we would be well-advised to heed.

As professional therapists, every time we work with clients we need to be mindful of the power of language to help or to hinder. But language is only one of the complex and not always compatible dimensions of the therapeutic process. First and foremost, we must never forget that central to any therapy are the needs of the client. While this simple declarative statement may cause some readers to snort and say to themselves, “Of course it is. We always do this,” it is simply not true that all do. Far too many practitioners, either consciously or unconsciously, may be affecting the therapeutic process by their careless misuse of language.

Let us consider some examples of how this happens. Moving the focus of the session away from the client and to the therapist can be as simple as the use of a couple of words. How often have we observed colleagues – or found ourselves – using command phrases such as “Now I need you to…” or “I want you to…”? These are commands. Their use moves the client in directions which may be important to the therapist, but whose session is it?

Therapists often engage in the manipulation of the experience through the use of leading phrases such as “Look down at your feet and describe what kind of shoes you are wearing.” Whether it is because of inadequate training or the careless use of language, it may well result in a complete distortion and/or redirection of the client’s experience. While it is true that a stronger-willed client can resist this kind of “loaded language,” it is also true that many clients view the therapist as an authority figure whom they are extremely anxious to please or who knows the “best” way. Thus, they may begin to follow the lead of the therapist’s suggestive language.

It is a basic “given” in altered state of consciousness work that the client is much more susceptible to suggestion and often seeks to please the therapist, to do it “right.” To test this, pause for a second and reflect on those sessions you have conducted in which one of the first things a client said upon awakening was “Did I do ok?” or some similar question, in the hope of eliciting your reassurance and approval.

In the example just cited above, the use of a single sentence, “Look down at your feet and describe what kind of shoes you are wearing,” by the therapist (the authority figure, remember?) has suggested to the client that she or he (1) is in a physical form (2) can see, (3) has feet and (4) is wearing shoes. Make no mistake about it. Use of this kind of leading and limiting language is not appropriate to the therapeutic process. It can distort. It can redirect. While some leading may be appropriate, depending upon the circumstances, it is the therapist’s responsibility to be extremely cognizant of the precise implications of everything which he or she says.

The inappropriate use of language is pervasive. It creeps in everywhere. It is even readily found in the professional literature and training models. One finds the same kinds of language errors which are perpetrated within the therapeutic setting by practitioners. Indeed, it is often a case of “as I am trained, so shall I practice.” Let us then consider a few examples which illustrate the unwise use of language found in some of the standard books used to train and guide therapists in the use of altered states. In citing these examples, it should be strongly emphasized that most could be corrected by simply changing a word or two.

Identification of Embedded Commands

Let us look at some examples of the use of embedded commands. In The Hypnotism Handbook (Cooke & Van Vogt, 1956), a book often used as the basic text for introductory courses, we find many examples. Consider the following induction. The uses of embedded commands are noted in brackets.

Relax comfortably in your seat [command]. Please place your feet flat on the floor [command]. Move back firmly against the back of the chair [command]. Unclasp your hands [command].

Elman (1964) was a pioneer in training professionals in the use of therapeutic hypnosis and his book continues to offer contemporary practitioners a wealth of techniques and ideas, but his approach was extremely authoritarian. For example:

I am going to take three puffs on this cigarette. With the first puff your eyelids are going to get tired [command]. With the second puff you are going to want to close your eyes [authoritarian judgment] but wait until the third puff [command] at which time close them [command]. They will lock and you won’t be able to open them [stage show challenge – power play].

Although Havens and Walters (1989) have written what, in the opinion of this writer, is perhaps the single most helpful desk reference of neo-Ericksonian scripts, even it contains many, many examples of embedded commands such as “The first thing I would like you to do before you continue to relax and enter into a trance…[command].” This is a perfect example of a command which could be changed to a very empowering suggestion by simply replacing the “I would like you to” with “As you allow yourself to continue to enter a deep state of comfortable relaxation, at whatever pace is right for you, you may wish to…” It’s that simple. Replace the command with an empowering suggestion which reassures the client that she or he is in control of the process.

Hartland’s classic reference on the use of hypnosis in medicine and dentistry (1966) is also authoritarian and filled with induction scripts containing commands such as:

I want you to lie back comfortably in the chair [commands: to lie back and how you should feel doing it]; Look upwards and backwards at the tip of the pencil [command]; Don’t move your eyes [command].

Each of these examples is loaded with embedded commands which rob the client of a sense of empowerment. They are, however, easily changed by the use of permissive language such as “Just allow yourself to…” or “As you let yourself …you may begin to feel…” In essence, let the client determine what he or she will feel or experience.

Another favorite reference work of the author is Hammond (1990). But while it contains many wonderful examples of suggestions and techniques, it also is not free from embedded commands, leading statements and other uses of language best avoided by the therapist. Here are some examples:

“You don’t need to be concerned if…” [This is a command. The therapist is saying, in effect “I and not you will make the decision about what you (the client) should and should not be concerned with”].

And do you notice the beginning of… [leading command. More appropriately, the therapist might pose an open-ended question asking the client what she or he may be experiencing].

I want to remind you of something that you probably already know, which is… [changes focus from client’s experience to therapist’s perspective].

On the other hand, Hammond is also filled with numerous examples of facilitative language, suggesting phrases that the therapist may find useful such as “and if you wish…,” “And would you be willing to experience…,” and “I wonder if you’ll be reminded…”

An important question is: Should one ever use an embedded command? A reasonable answer may be “Yes, but only after carefully weighing the alternatives.” As a general rule, it is important for the therapist to be mindful of his or her use of language and to avoid anything which distracts the client’s focus from his or her experience. This includes specifically the avoidance of embedded commands and the use of leading language. With this in mind, let us briefly outline some aspects of language use.

Choice of Language

The language used in accessing and working with altered states is critical to the process. It facilitates client-therapist interaction and promotes client empowerment. Elements in the use of language include the use of words. Words can empower the client. Very helpful to this process are phrases such as “allow yourself…,” “Let yourself…,” and “when you’re ready…”

The use of metaphoric language, as in neo-Ericksonian Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is extremely effective because it is nonthreatening and it is the “language of the subconscious.”

Intonation is also important. Intonation affects the meaning of words and the effect of emphasis and tone are significantly higher in the altered state. A rhythmic intonation may enhance both the acquisition and deepening of the altered state.

The use of pauses and silence are vital to the process. They provide the client with vital time to experience and become aware. They also telegraph permissiveness and the willingness of the therapist to allow the client to lead.

“Pacing a client” means to move at whatever speed is comfortable to the client. The truly competent therapist “gets in sync” with the client and avoids leading, except when absolutely necessary. Learning to pace a client is an extremely effective technique for calming him or her. To do this, the therapist begins to speak at a tempo which approximates the client’s rate of breathing. Once synchronized (“in sync”) with the client’s breathing, the therapist can then begin to slow down her or his rate of speech. This will have the almost immediate effect of lowering the client’s respiratory rate, reducing stress.

The therapist should use open-ended rather than “yes/no” questions. “Yes/no” questions limit the client’s awareness while open-ended questions allow fuller exploration.

The therapist may facilitate the process by using “what” and “where” questions. They serve as natural bridge for client exploration of the experience and help facilitate the client’s own understanding.

The therapist should avoid asking “why” and use “how” questions only sparingly. “Why” forces the client to move away from the experiential/emotional (right mind) functions and towards left mind logic. “Why” questions are, however, sometimes appropriate for exploration of the interlife. “How” questions may also have a similar negative effect and should be used with caution.

The therapist must strive to avoid manipulation through embedded commands and authoritarian language. Never use “I want you to…” or “I need you to…” Keep the focus on the client’s experience, not those of the therapist. Classical authoritarian commands rob clients of empowerment.

Responsibilities of the Therapist

Ethical considerations

An ethical therapist practices his or her art within the guidelines of an appropriate professional organization. Examples of these include the ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association, the American Counselor Association and the International Board for Regression Therapy, and the canons of the Association for Past Life Research and Therapies. All of these provide important frameworks for the practitioner.

An ethical therapist practices within the limits of her or his competencies. He or she is aware of what they are and are not, and does not exceed them. In like manner, the professional seeks to review, renew, expand and enhance competencies through professional development and participation in workshops and conferences. Additional ways include taking additional training and courses, reading journals and other professional publications, and seeking validation of competencies through some certification process, such as that offered through professional organizations.

A mark of a professional and ethical therapist is a commitment to keep the client as the center of focus. Before undertaking any work with a client, one should do a thorough intake to gather vital information and determine what the client has as goals and objectives. During therapy, one should avoid intrusion into the client’s experience. It is important to pace and to move “in sync” with the client into and through the experience by avoiding leading and “knowing:” i.e., thinking you know what the client is about to experience /say/do. You may be in tune, but let it come from the client, not you.

It is important to avoid suggesting anything which may cause or force the client to move in a direction selected by the therapist rather than one chosen by the client. It is equally important to avoid the use of leading language which might foster the development of false memories (which has both legal and ethical considerations).

Time spent in “structuring” the experience is time well spent. This is a matter of simply taking a few minutes at the outset to help the prospective client gain an overview of what he or she can expect and also, should not expect. This can be accomplished in conjunction with doing a thorough intake. Many excellent forms have been developed to help the therapist gather essential information of this nature. It is extremely important to give the client an opportunity to express and explore questions and concerns and to help the client gain a clear understanding of your role and his or her role.

This also fosters very positive rapport-building, and helps immensely to set the tone for subsequent work. Rapport-building is vital at the outset, prior to undertaking any altered state work, and is equally important during and after the experience. It is a hallmark of professionalism and helps put the client at ease. In a very real sense, this initial process of talking, gathering and exchanging information, agreeing to who does what, etc., is very much to therapy what foreplay is to love-making. Failure to engage in it may leave your “partner” feeling uncomfortable, confused and even with a sense of violation or having been raped. From time to time, the author has had clients who have come to him expressing precisely this kind of outraged and violated feeling following a session with some other therapist who tried to rush in without taking the time to go through the initial process. The result can be and often is traumatic.

The Four Critical Steps

There are four critical steps in conducting past-life therapy. The first step is the initial stage in which the focus is on getting acquainted, rapport-building, doing an intake, answering the client’s questions and addressing his or her concerns, and establishing the client’s goals for therapy – in that order.

The second major step is to conduct the induction. This is the initial entry into the altered state of consciousness. It is a guided journey. The client is helped to enter the state at a rate and to the depth which he or she intuits as being acceptable. It is facilitated by the professional’s use of language and understanding of the process. The therapist acknowledges the locus of control lies with the client and demonstrates acceptance of the power and rights of the client through the uses of permissive language and appropriate suggestions to help enter, enhance and deepen the altered state. This can be facilitated through the use of appropriate metaphors and may include establishing a “safe place,” cloaking the client with a protective aura, and establishing ideomotor responses with the client’s “Higher Self.”

It is vital to provide the client with an expanding mindset to be able to transit temporal present life boundaries, and permission to explore any important issues, relying on the wisdom of his or her “Higher Self.” Perhaps this is one of the most important theoretical and philosophical principles underlying the conducting of past-life therapy: To understand and accept that every individual has a vital part of him or herself which is eternal and wise, and to trust it.

The third step is that of discovery, the process of becoming aware of what is happening. In this stage, the therapist husbands the process by the use of appropriate permissive statements and questioning techniques. The therapist, extremely mindful of the power and effect of words, avoids “yes/no” questions and leading and suggestive language, using whenever possible open-ended and “what” and “where” kinds of questions such as “What are you aware of?” “What are you experiencing?” and “Where are you now?” At the same time, one avoids the “why” and most “how” kinds of questions because they interrupt the experience and may force the client away from the emotional (“feeling”) aspect of the experience and into a logic (“rational”) mode. During the session, the client may need to move back and forth between the experiences to become more fully aware of the “whats” in order to uncover any significant events which may have preceded or followed the event being experienced.

It may also become appropriate to go to other lifetimes which proceeded or followed the lifetime being reviewed in order to assist the client in understanding what is occurring (especially in the next step, that of processing the experience).

Be aware of the client’s perspective of the event through the use of language. For example, describing something in past tense means that the client is recalling what happened and is in an emotionally “safer” position, whereas describing the experience in present tense indicates that the client is in the moment of the experience and probably experiencing emotional abreaction. In this case, the client’s use of language will help establish whether the client is a witness of or a participant in the event.

Processing is helping the client to work through that new knowledge to reach some better understanding of what it means. Processing helps the client to establish:

  1. what meaning she or he attaches to the events;
  2. how the events relate to one another;
  3. how these events relate to his or her present life;
  4. if the events form a chain of relationships which extends over several life times

Closure is bringing to a conclusion an understanding and acceptance of the information retrieved during the experience. Closure may take place in the “between lives” experience as part of a post-experience “debriefing” in which the client is better able to make use of logic and reasoning to combine it with the emotional components originally retrieved during the discovery and processing stages. This combining process is an integration of right and left brain understanding. It fosters closure, a sense of completeness. An important aspect of closure is to help the client understand how the experience relates to his or her present life conditions and circumstances.

Transformation of an event or events may also bring about closure. The client has the ability to go back into a past life and change an event or events. This is a powerful therapeutic tool, enabling the client to reframe an event or series of events. Reframing allows a client to become “unstuck” and to move forward.

Reframing: Gary

Let us look at a simple example of reframing a past event. “Gary” (not the client’s real name), a 22-year-old college student, sought help for periodic episodes of unexplainable depression. Attempts at treatment by a psychiatrist and conventional therapy had been unsuccessful at either uncovering the causes or relieving the symptoms. During the session Gary was asked to allow himself to move back in time and space to the incident which precipitated his depression. It was not suggested that the cause lay in a past life, only that he allow himself to move back to when the event(s) took place.

He immediately moved back into his most recent past life; that of a soldier in World War I. Gary, who in that life time was a sergeant in the American Army fighting in France, was leading his squad across “no man’s land” toward the German trenches. His best friend since childhood was a member of the squad. The squad was caught in a deadly hail of German machine gun fire and his friend was wounded and died almost instantly. Gary felt himself torn between stopping the assault to comfort his old friend and his sense of duty to lead the other men to safety. Gary wept openly as he described the scene and said over and over, “If only I could have stopped and helped Frankie. He died all alone. I never even got to say goodbye.”

After the session, Gary expressed a feeling of partial relief at finding the cause of his long time sense of depression. When asked what he needed to do to make it complete, he quickly said that he needed to be able to say goodbye to Frankie. With Gary’s permission, he was helped to reenter the altered state and return to the battle field, where he was given the suggestion that he had the ability to stop time and to say goodbye to Frankie without endangering the other men of his squad. Gary was able to hold his friend, express his feelings, and say goodbye, allowing his friend to die peacefully in his arms.

This reframing allowed Gary to return to the precipitating event and change it so that he was able to comfort his friend and say his goodbyes. This produced a cleansing catharsis. Afterwards, when asked if he needed to do anything else, he said no and gave his permission to move back to present time and space. The reader will note that it was Gary, not the therapist, who determined what he had to do, when it was done and when it was time to return to his present life. Past-life therapy uncovered the causality of the depression. Reframing changed the precipitating event, allowing closure.

Fourth, and finally, the therapist may wish to give the client affirmations and suggestions that she or he may, over the next few hours and days, experience additional remembrances and understanding of the just concluded experience, as a result of his or her “Higher Self” providing additional information and awareness.


The therapist has a professional and ethical responsibility to be mindful of his or her use of language and to avoid its inappropriate use. The primary focus of any therapy must be on meeting the client’s needs and to do everything which is possible to facilitate that process. To do anything less is not only counterproductive, it is also unprofessional and unethical.



Bache, C. Lifecycles. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Cook, C. and Van Vogt, A. The Hypnotism Handbook. Alhambra, CA: Borden Publishing Company, 1956.

Davis, R. Negotiations: Accessing the Layered Message. The U.S. Negotiator, Spring, 1994.

Elman, D. Hypnotherapy. Glendale, CA: Westwood Publishing Co., 1964.

Hammond, D., [Ed]. Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1990.

Hartland, J. Medical and Dental Hypnosis and its Clinical Applications. London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cassell, 1966.

Havens, R. and Walters, C. Hypnotherapy Scripts. New York: Brunner Mazel, 1989.


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