When we talk about change, we seek transformation to something better. What if, to borrow from the world of hypnosis, that the transformation was really a ‘trance’ formation? How can understanding the concepts of trance help us to lead change?
What has hypnosis got to do with it?
Hypnosis is characterised by the ‘state’ of trance that people experience. Often it is misunderstood, as a state of ‘mind control’ where the hypnotist exerts some special power over the person entering trance. This concept has been completely debunked over the last thirty years, with over 4000 clinical papers into understanding hypnosis and trance. Even more recently, with the availability of new brain imaging modalities, we are learning to understand trance in a whole new way.
What has been discovered is that trance is simply a state of personal absorption. This means that parts of our experience are in focus and more highly amplified, whilst others are allowed to fade into the background. A trance is a state where the person has full control over how absorbed they are and what they do in trance, and is unique and personal to them. In trance, people can access some resources (memories, skills) in different ways. For example, age regression, visualisation and time distortion are all common trance phenomena which people can access differently in trance.
We are also learning that hypnotic experiences are a powerful element of successful personal change, when used by skilled professionals in appropriate circumstances (such as depression, anxiety and even addictions). If we can take something from ‘trance formation’ to help us understand ‘transformation’, perhaps we could develop similar approaches to achieving long term successful change in individuals, teams and whole organisations.
We don’t need a hypnotist to be in trance. If trance is a state of absorption and focus, then we exhibit trances all the time. When we read a book, and we no longer see the words but are carried into the story we are in a form of trance. When we drive somewhere for an hour and we get out of the car and can’t remember the journey, but it feels like five minutes, this is a type of trance. When we become engrossed in a movie or TV show, and don’t hear our partner ask us to put the bins out, this is also a type of trance. Each is characterised by absorption into parts of our experience, and access to the associations and memories connected to that state.
Some experts suggest that we are always in one trance or another, we simply exchange trances depending upon the circumstances. We could almost suggest that every moment that we are focusing on one thing at the exclusion of another, we are in a form of trance. Even as you are reading this, if you are less aware of things happening around you, the weather, other people…then you are now in trance!
No one has ‘put’ you in trance, or is controlling your mind. It is simply your own ability to become focused and absorbed which determines the trance you enjoy at any moment.
Why do we need ‘trance formation’ to drive transformation?
If we consider the biggest problems with transformation are:
Breaking out of the status quo
Defining how we should be after the change
Performing consistently in the new way
Then we can consider transformation a process of shifting from a less resourceful trance to a more resourceful one. That is, as we break out of the things that keep us stuck (what we are absorbed and focused on) and we shift to focusing on other, more valuable things, we transform what we do.
Our current status quo is built on our focus on skills and resources which make this way of acting possible, and a decrease in awareness on other possible skills or resources (including how we could use them in more productive ways). We create unconscious ‘rules’, select certain behaviours and focus on very specific things to maintain our status quo. Even when this is not serving us, the context provides the trigger for the trance that we choose which makes the status quo rigid around us.
Often when we see that people are stuck, from the outside we can appreciate that they have skills and resources that they just don’t access in this context. For example, in my sports team I might show leadership, teamwork and problem solving, at work I might demonstrate hopelessness and helplessness. The beliefs I have about myself and the context create my ‘trance’ in each case are different, and limit what resources and skills I access.
Trance therefore allows access to different resources and skills, based upon the context.
As we consider transformation, we can consider how the trance has to change to give the person, team or organisation the skills, resources and processes to be successful in the ‘new’ context. How, for example, do we establish the new context as separate from the old, and ensure that in that context each person can access performance skills and resources to deliver their best? That the new trance is better than the old trance?
Transformation through ‘trance formation’ allows a person to experientially learn how to apply skills from one context in another. If we help people understand what will be required in the changed state, we can help them define the resources and skills that they have that will make them successful there, and also identify the skills and resources that need to be added to make the new state possible. By doing this, we can help them access these resources, associate them to the new state, and get them absorbed in what will make them successful. A new trance (status quo) can then emerge.
As change leaders, we can utilise appreciative enquiry to help those that are changing to identify the skills and resources that they already have that will serve them in the new state, and help them apply them in the new context. People are really resourceful, and taking the time to find positive skills and resources across a range of contexts allows a change leader ‘early wins’ by helping the individual or team access and focus on using these skills in the new context.
By defining the skills that are missing, the people changing can be experientially taught these skills in context, and can then utilise these in that context. This means that the new trance context will allow them access to these skills.
The world of hypnosis also teaches us the capacity of people to adapt and learn, and to have untapped resources which may be excluded by the current circumstance (trance). It also teaches us that what one person can do in one context, they may not be able to do in another without appropriate learning and experience. This should teach us that assumptions we make about people undergoing change should be made very cautiously (and, hopefully with a strong positive bias!). Often change leads to surprise – as the people we expected to flourish struggle, and those we expected to fail step up and perform brilliantly. A great question for change leaders to ask is “What do they need to learn to be able to perform at their best in the new state?”
We can also learn that the role of focus and absorption is critical. As change leaders, if we remove distractors, make the change state compelling, and manipulate the resources so the old ‘trance’ is not possible, then we encourage people to rapidly shift to the new trance. These steps can guide the implementation process of your transformation – keep it simple, keep it compelling, make the old status quo impossible by changing the context and resources so people can’t slip back into their old habits and the old status quo.
A final – and critical – learning from the world of hypnosis is you cannot force people into trance, or force them to act in specific ways in trance. The subject is always in complete control. If we take this to the world of corporate transformations, we can’t force people to behave in certain ways, we can only invite them to. We can encourage them to focus on, and become absorbed in, specific processes, tasks and behaviours, but we can never force them to ‘buy in’ to the new trance. We cannot force trance, and we cannot force transformation. We have to help people cross the gap from their old trance (the current status quo) to the new trance (the desired end state) in a way which is comfortable for them, beyond fear and truly engrossing for them so that absorption is just the gateway to higher performance resources and behaviour.
Next time you are leading change, perhaps what you need is a ‘trance formation’ rather than a ‘transformation’?