Knowing the Difference between Hypnosis, Suggestibility and Compliance Will Increase Your Success

Hypnotherapist Instructor Cal Banyan

by Calvin D. Banyan

I have to admit that I have been a bit surprised by the responses I get when I ask trained and experienced hypnotists, “What is the difference between suggestibility and compliance?” In my advanced classes, like my 7-day course (the Week of Power), the question makes for a good starting point, and their answers give me an insight into how well they really understand hypnosis.

What I have learned by asking this question is that even advanced students of hypnotism often lack clarity about these two very important terms “suggestibility” and “compliance” and the concepts that they represent. I believe that having a solid understanding of these terms is essential to understanding what hypnosis is and is not. Furthermore, I believe that a good understanding of these concepts is essential to obtaining consistent success, even with difficult clients. In this article, I will suggest some definitions for these important terms and explain them in order to guide the practitioner to a higher level of success.

I believe that having this level of understanding of these two words should be an integral part of a hypnotists’ training. Otherwise, the hypnotist may confuse a client’s compliance with some level of hypnosis.

So, what is compliance and when or why is it important?

In order to have hypnosis occur, there must exist in your client the ability to become more suggestible than she is in her normal state of consciousness. In fact, one could define hypnosis as simply being in a heightened state of suggestibility. The willingness and ability of a client to successfully enter into a state of hypnosis rests in large part upon her willingness and ability to follow her hypnotist’s instructions, which is what we will call compliance.

Compliance is required when overt hypnotic techniques are used, such as is the case with hypnotic inductions which require clients to follow the hypnotist’s instructions. This is also true of most deepening techniques and other hypnotic techniques as well, such as overt depth testing. Compliance is not quite as important when utilizing covert induction and suggestibility techniques. However, because most hypnotists utilize some kind of formal induction in their practice, these hypnotists must first obtain a state of compliance in their clients before she can use an overt induction process.

What is hypnosis if it is not a state of compliance?

Hypnosis is not simply compliance. Before the hypnotic induction begins, the compliant subject is willing to follow instructions, and does so without significant hesitation. The level of suggestibility at this point is not yet heightened, but is merely the normal level of suggestibility, which can vary from client to client and across situations. This is the ideal state of mind in a client from which the hypnotist is most effective as she conducts her hypnotic induction.

Repeating my earlier offering of a definition of hypnosis, it is simply a heightened state of suggestibility. I like that definition and believe it is a very simple and useable definition that should be adopted throughout the profession. I don’t know who originally penned that definition, but I believe it to be both elegant and accurate.

Often the terms “trance” and “hypnosis” are used interchangeably. I believe this to be an error. I believe that we are better served if we understand trance to be a heightened state of focused attention, which can occur without being in a state of heightened suggestibility, which defines the hypnotic state. The same goes for meditation. In meditation, one can be in a state of self-induced trance, but without any evidence of heightened suggestibility, and thus, it is not a hypnotic state.

As hypnotists, we are best served by understanding that it is only when we have evidence that the client has achieved a heightened state of suggestibility that we can state with any certainty that some level of hypnosis exists in one of our clients. This is also true of visualization and guided meditation techniques. Unless we have tested the level of suggestibility we can not assume that hypnosis has occurred.

Be certain that your client is in hypnosis.

I believe that taking on this approach will take some of the “fuzziness” and uncertainty about what we do out of our profession. Far too many hypnotists are conducting sessions when they have no idea whether or not their clients are in hypnosis, just being compliant or merely fallen asleep. The rest of this article will help the reader to be much more certain about the work that she is doing, especially with regard to whether or not her client is in hypnosis.

Note that merely achieving some level of personal change in a client does not mean that they were hypnotized! Using techniques such as trance, meditation, guided visualization or affirmation does not necessarily mean that hypnosis has been achieved, even if some success has occurred after the procedure. Some level of success can be achieved by working in the “normal waking” level of suggestibility. Everyone is suggestible to varying levels without hypnosis. Only testing for specific levels of hypnosis can assure that your subject is or was hypnotized, and will benefit more profoundly than they would if you and your client were working from the level of ordinary suggestibility.

This understanding is essential because as professional hypnotists we want to confidently work with clients who are verifiably hypnotized. Only then should you proceed with any hypnotic technique by using basic techniques such as simple hypnotic suggestion, or advanced techniques such as age regression or parts work.

Going beyond compliance by testing for hypnosis.

As Gerald Kein, Dr. Richard Harte and others taught me back in the early days of my career, the only way we know if someone is in hypnosis is to do some testing. What do we test for? We test for specific depths of hypnosis. How do we do that? We suggest certain hypnotic phenomenon, through which research and experience has been correlated with different levels of hypnosis and which demonstrate and confirm those varying levels of hypnosis.

The ability of a client to exhibit or experience different hypnotic phenomenon rests solely upon the depth of hypnosis. For example, eyelid catalepsy requires a lighter state of hypnosis than does hypnotically suggested anesthesia.

So, if we can accept that affirmation, trance, meditation, and visualization are not necessarily states of hypnosis, then I would now like to take this further and discuss “suggestibility.” We must deal effectively with the concept of suggestibility in order to understand hypnosis and be able to fully understand the concept of depth, because we don’t really go “deeper” into hypnosis, we become more suggestible.

What exactly is hypnosis?

I would like to offer a definition of this “heightened suggestibility” which would also ultimately define hypnosis. To be in this heightened state of suggestibility, one must be able to accept suggestions so fully that they affect how the mind works in regards to our perceptions, beliefs, habits and behavior. As a result, the suggestions, once accepted by the hypnotized person, can be observed and demonstrated through the exhibition of hypnotic phenomena such as catalepsy, amnesia, analgesia, anesthesia, and the ability to hallucinate. All of these hypnotic phenomena are greater than which can be exhibited by someone who is not hypnotized.

As noted in the National Guild of Hypnotists Certification Course manuals and NGH approved text books, there are many different scales which are used to measure these varying levels of suggestibility, each scale being useful in differing circumstances. However, they all have one thing in common: they rely on the “subject’s” ability to accept suggestions and exhibit the hypnotic phenomenon associated with that level.

The Harry Arons Depth Scale is a well accepted and very useful scale which is also taught in the NGH Hypnosis Certification courses. It identifies six levels of hypnosis, each identified by the exhibition of different hypnotic phenomena starting with “Stage 1” with the Hypnoidal state being the lightest level of hypnosis, and then proceeding through the different stages through “Stage 6” called Profound Somnambulism being the deepest, or most suggestible hypnotic state. (Note that the test for Hypnoidal is the eyelid catalepsy test, and the test for Profound Somnambulism is accomplished when a client is able to experience negative hallucinations by suggestion.)

Having now discussed the concepts of compliance and suggestibility separately, we can now discuss them in contrast. I believe that we can now confidently make these statements:

  1. Suggestibility is not hypnosis.

  2. Compliance is not hypnosis.

  3. Trance, meditation, guided visualization, and affirmations are also not necessarily hypnosis.

  4. Only when we have a state of suggestibility which is greater than normal, “a heightened state of suggestibility,” do we have true and effective states of hypnosis.

  5. If you add a heightened state of suggestibility to any state of consciousness, you then have hypnosis, whether you call them hypnosis or not (i.e. if you add a heightened state of suggestibility to visualization, you have hypnosis).

  6. The only way that you can really know if an individual has been hypnotized is to test her to determine whether she will experience the phenomenon suggested in a particular test, be that test overt or covert.

Once the hypnotist has a firm grasp of these concepts, then she will be able to proceed in her sessions with a high degree of confidence that her clients are in hypnosis and that her sessions will be successful because her client has achieved a level of hypnosis.

With all of this in mind, we can then say that we are best served by working exclusively with compliant individuals, because these individuals will readily go into hypnosis when a proper and effective hypnotic induction is used. And as any well trained hypnotist knows, compliance is increased by providing each client with an excellent pre-talk and rapport building. First, build compliance and then conduct the hypnotic induction. Do not attempt to hypnotize non-compliant clients (unless you intend to use covert techniques).

Use covert tests and then convincers to improve the quality of your sessions and to improve success.

Taking this a step further then, it makes sense to include testing for varying levels of hypnosis as part of your sessions, especially in your initial sessions with your clients. So, you need to know what level of hypnosis is required for the work that you intend to do, for example, if you are going to do hypnotic age regression or hypnoanesthesia, you need to use inductions that are designed to take the client into somnambulism, and then be able to test for those levels.

Covert testing techniques are best because if the client has not yet reached the level of hypnosis that you are testing for, she may fail the test. Allowing the client to become aware that she has failed a test should be avoided because it decreases her confidence in her ability to be hypnotized as well as her confidence in you as a hypnotist. Use covert tests so that if she fails the test, she will not be aware of failing it. An excellent example of a covert test is the losing the numbers part of the Dave Elman-type rapid induction procedure.

Once the covert testing has been conducted successfully, I recommend that you do one or two overt tests in order to demonstrate to the client that she is hypnotized. These tests are called “convincers” and tend to improve the quality of your sessions, making for very satisfied clients and increased referrals. Good convincers are suggestions for eyelid and arm catalepsy. Any client who has passed a tested for somnambulism would readily pass these tests.


Understanding the difference between compliance, suggestibility and hypnosis is essential to being a completely competent hypnotist. This level of understanding can make your hypnosis sessions more successful, and ultimately help you to have a more successful hypnosis practice.

Also, with this knowledge, the hypnosis professional can experience a new level of certainty and success by routinely using covert testing and convincing procedures so that she and her clients know that they have been successful in creating the hypnotic state.

Copyright © 2008 Calvin D. Banyan. All rights reserved.

Previously published in the National Guild of Hypnotists, Journal of Hypnotists. Scripts