The Power of How

May 9, 2022

Rebecca Cherry, MD
July 28, 2022 / 5 mins read

Hypnosis is all about semantics and using our words to establish positive expectancy -- opening the door to feeling better. This approach has changed the way I speak to patients and families all the time, not just when I am doing a formal hypnotic induction.

One of the changes I've made is cutting back on the use of "if" in favor of "how." It's amazing how much difference those small words can make.

For instance, consider these two sentences:

  1. "Let's see if this treatment works and then we can figure out the next steps."
  2. "Let's see how well this treatment works and then we can figure out the next steps."

In the first sentence, the word "if" implies that there are two possibilities: yes and no.

In the second sentence, the words "how well" leave the possibilities wide open:

  • Perfectly
  • Not at all
  • A little bit
  • A lot
  • Helpful with function vs. helpful with pain
  • When I take it in the evening

"How well" also encourages goal-setting.

I often ask a patient questions that allow for a much broader understanding of what it means for something to help:

  • How will you know that the treatment is working?
  • Would it be better if the episodes first become milder and then less frequent, or the other way around? Or if you had more energy? A better appetite? Could fall asleep more quickly?
  • How about if you still had discomfort but were able to go back to soccer/piano/school/etc.?

Questions of this type also set an expectation that a problem is unlikely to disappear overnight – there will be gradual changes that might not even be obvious unless a person is looking for them.

“If” can change to “how” in a number of ways – how far, how soon, how easily. “How” allows for more nuance and more possibility than “if.”

How much will it help you to make this semantic change?

You may be surprised by the subtle shifts you notice with a small adjustment of language.