The stage hypnotist tells his mesmerized subject, a dignified woman in a designer dress: “When I snap my fingers, you will run in circles and bark like a dog.” Moments later, the woman is out of the trance and chatting happily about the experience, when suddenly the hypnotist snaps his fingers. The woman instantly begins running in circles and barking, and the audience breaks into howls of laughter.
The psychiatrist turns down the room light. He takes a beautiful pen with an unusual golden cap from his pocket and begins wagging it back and forth in front of his client’s eyes. He intones: “As you watch the pen, you are feeling sleepy. Your eyes are becoming heavy . . .” Moments later, in a deep trance, the client begins exploring traumatic moments of her childhood, guided by the skilled psychiatrist.
This is our image of trance: a special state of mind, induced by a skilled professional, over which the subject has little control.
Yet the father of modern hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson, insisted that trance was a quite common state, one that we drop into many times a day without any help at all — a “petting the kitty” trance, a “yelling at the kids” trance, a “surgeon” trance, a “lovemaking” trance, a “getting dressed down by my superiors” trance.
How can we call these events “trances” when they are so ordinary? Erickson pointed out several key ingredients of a trance — and it is these defining ingredients that give the trance state its great power. These might be pleasant or unpleasant experiences, they might be helpful to us or they may be holding us back, but they have a number of things in common:
Trance is an altered state of consciousness in which the attention is narrowed, focused for the moment just on the purring kitty, on the patient and the sterile field, on the face and body of the loved one, on the outraged boss. Other inputs — the birds chirping outside, the itch you had a moment ago, your worry about the big meeting at lunch — tend to fade in importance. In fact, you may not register them at all.
A trance feels autonomous, like something that is happening to you. It does not feel like you are creating it — yet you are. No pointy-headed alien or scaly demon has taken charge of your brain.
As a corollary, your behavior while in the trance feels automatic, autonomous, out of your control. You don’t start it, you can’t stop it, and you can’t change it — at least, that’s how it feels, and that’s how you act. You may make decisions as a surgeon, for instance, but your stance at the table, your tone of voice, and your habits of mind are unconscious, unguided, ingrained.
A trance comes packaged with any of a number of “Deep Trance Phenomena.” Shifted time is one such phenomenon, in which we can regress to a childlike state (the enraged superior becomes mapped onto a domineering father), or project ourselves into an imagined future (“I’m going to lose my job!”). We might have hallucinations, seeing things that aren’t really present (“You’re just like my first wife”). We might have negative hallucinations, failing to notice things which are present, but conflict with the trance (such as, say, a colleague’s alcoholic haze after lunch). Other trance phenomena include dissociation (“I’m not really here.”), amnesia (in which we later have difficulty recalling exactly what went on during the trance), confusion, and even sensory distortions such as insensitivity to pain.
A trance tends to repeat. A particular trance is a package of learned skills and trance phenomena triggered by some outside stimulus: put on the scrubs, scrub up, put your hands up for the gloves, take one more look at the X-rays, and you enter the “surgeon” trance, just as you have hundreds or thousands of times before.
The husband says, “I’d love to have one of those new Jaguars,” the wife says, “We can’t possibly afford it, you don’t make nearly enough money, Stanford tuition has gone up again . . . ” The husband interrupts, “I make plenty! If you just managed it better . . .” and they are off to the races, having the same argument they have had over and over. Both of them have the “money argument” trance ready to hand, with all of its narrowed focus, age regression, and amnesia — in fact, he’s making more money than he used to, and she’s managing it better, but for the purposes of the trance, they both forget these realities.
Trances are universal. We can’t operate for long without being in a trance of one kind or another. We often need them to narrow our focus.
Erickson focused at length on ways to induce trance to help clients with the problems they brought to him. Psychologist Stephen Wolinsky has taken Erickson’s work a step further. He observed that there was no need to induce any trances in his clients — they were already in a trance. The problem the client brought in the door (a damaging shyness, a violent temper, a lack of emotion) was itself a trance, complete with narrowed focus, the feeling that it was happening to them, and various Deep Trance Phenomena, from age regression and sensory distortion to amnesia and dissociation.
Wolinsky (author of Trances People Live  and Quantum Consciousness ), helps his clients recognize that their problem is, in fact, a kind of trance. Then he helps them discover how they construct the trance — what are the necessary pieces, and how do they put them together to create this state of mind? In the process, they gain control of the trance. They discover that they can step outside it if they want to, set it aside, or change its flavor. The trance is no longer autonomous, the behavior no longer automatic.
Change is similar at different scales. Often, insights gained at one level (personal psychology, say, or organizational dynamics) can be used to explore change at a different level (political changes or family interactions). Here we can take an insight from psychology and apply it to organizations.
Organizations have trances, too. They have autonomous states of mind, ways of thinking that seem to come from nowhere, that seem impossible to change. They have automatic behaviors — ways of meeting, building of bureaucratic structures, interactions between departments. If organizations had knees, we might call them “knee-jerk reactions.” Or communal habits. Or organizational trances.
Recently, BART (the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system) experienced a strike. The unions wanted to end a two-tier pay system to which they had agreed in the early 1990s during a financial crisis. The negotiators on both sides of the table were new — both the BART management and the union leadership had come into office since the previous settlement. Yet both sides, as if on robotic command, acted out the frustrations, posturings, and beliefs about the other side left over from the previous settlement, or in some cases left over from the previous strike a generation before in the late 1970s. Despite mounting public anger, for a week the two sides seemed unable to find any way out of their impasse — and in the end, management essentially caved in. The strike is over, but many of the issues remain.
Organizations display the full range of Deep Trance Phenomena.
For many years after Walt Disney’s death, the Walt Disney Company acted much like an age-regressed person. Unable to reach important decisions, Disney managers repeatedly asked themselves “what Walt would have done,” casting themselves back to a time when the company had a decisive father-like founder at the helm. Apple Computer held onto a “hypnotic identity” as a company on the cutting edge of innovation for years while its true rate of innovation lagged far behind that of its competitors.
Organizations that have undergone major layoffs, or the loss of corporate identity in a merger, often drift in a kind of “grief trance” for years, in which the employees operate at less than full capacity, as if stunned and fatigued by their incapacity to deal with the sudden change.
Many organizations successfully use a kind of self-induced trance to narrow their focus and galvanize their employees. Hewlett-Packard employees, for instance, think of their company as a great home for engineers to pursue innovation.
Individuals often fall into identity trances in which they identify with their problem: “I am an alcoholic,” “I am a loser,” “I am the guy who can’t control his anger.” Organizations fall into similar identity trances, rarely expressed in words, such as, “We are the mediocre organization in this market,” “This is the workplace where we stifle creativity and reward political maneuvering,” or “We are the people who work to the rule book, and not one step further, because we have been wounded so long and deeply by management.”
The first step, in dealing with organizational trances, is simply to be curious, to ask yourself: “If we operate in a trance sometimes, what is the trance?”
People often operate in a “professional” trance: “I am (my profession). I must think the way (a person in my profession) would. No other modes of thought are allowed.”
People in not-for-profit or government organizations often operate in a “do-good” trance. The “do-good” trance has a number of flavors, such as, “We work so hard doing all these important things. People (taxpayers, donors, the community) should support us.” Or, “We work so hard doing all these important things, we don’t have the time to step back and look for better ways of doing them. Sorry, gotta go!”
Look for the elements I have mentioned: When an organization is in a trance, it will have a narrowed focus in that particular area, like a hiker walking with his head down. It will think and behave automatically. It will feel to the organization as if these behaviors and ways of thinking are somehow imposed from the outside. The trance will be a habit, a repeated syndrome. And it will be accompanied by such trance phenomena as amnesia (in which the organization forgets the lessons learned in the last crisis, for instance) or dissociation (in which, for instance, an organization struggles to remain disconnected from the community, the industry, or the world in which it operates, drawing firm mental boundaries at the front door of the institution).
Next ask yourself: What is the shape of that trance? Is it a useful one? In what ways? Is it limiting? How?”
Ask yourself: How do we build this trance? If I wanted to induce this trance in another organization, what would I have to do?
Let’s take an example: an organization with a mediocrity trance: people in the organization believe it to be just middle-of-the-market, the organization that doesn’t do anything particularly well.
Listen to the organization’s self-talk, for instance (“We don’t have the top engineers they have at LottaBux Inc.”), expectations (“Of course Gargantua Telecomm will get the big MagnaCorp contract. Let’s try for the Chamber of Commerce small business package. We can handle that.”), even the jokes (“High cost, low quality: we guarantee it.”).
If the trance is a harmful one, how can you loosen its grip? By building up parallel realities. For instance, if the organization in the mediocrity trance were to do any one thing unarguably better than anyone else around — and if everyone in the organization knew about this success — the trance would begin to waver and crumble. If it put together the best customer service program in the market, in ways that were obvious, with results that were clearly superior, the trance would lose its automatic nature. Until the trance is broken, you cannot put together a superior organization no matter how much you spend, no matter how hard you try. If you have amazed yourself at anything, it becomes harder for the “We’re mediocre” trance to get a grip.
Sometimes an organization doesn’t need to change its reality, it just needs to re-sort its beliefs about reality. One organization I visited spent six months in a grief/victim trance about some layoffs that had been handled badly. The trance included a number of beliefs about the insensitivity of management. Then the management invited two outside consultants to interview a number of the employees. In a large employee meeting, the consultants presented quotes from the interviews, along with the results of a survey of employee attitudes, with the CEO who had botched the layoffs sitting on stage, hearing all the pain and anger. He apologized — not for the layoffs, which were necessary, but for the unnecessarily brutal way in which he had carried them out. He told them how he would handle layoffs in the future. And he invited feedback. The process was very hard for the CEO, but the trance lifted, and the organization got on with its life. And the administrator did not have to deal with those issues any more. He could truly call them “history.”
In your organization and your life, when do you drop into a trance? What are you doing that is “on automatic?” How well does that serve you? Could you break out of it if you wanted to?