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  • Robert Farago

The Hypnotic Voice

Wherein the author learns that a touchy-feely voice is half the story

Thirty years ago, I founded The Friendly Spider Program at London Zoo. The program combined hypnosis with cognitive therapy, peer pressure and rapid desensitization. We cured thousands of people of their morbid fear of spiders. The FSP is still going. And for good reason…

When an arachnophobic sees a spider, the insect triggers a fight or flight response. Rapid heart beat, sweating, dry mouth, shaking, screaming, crying – sufferers experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms. Not to mention psychological distress that lasts for hours, if not days. Arachnophobes are also a pain in the ass for the people in their life, who know that spiders aren’t a deadly threat.

About two years in, I had a strange thought: why are there so many arachnophobics? From an evolutionary point-of-view, there had to be some advantage. Otherwise they wouldn’t exist. I didn’t have a clue.

And then I saw a BBC documentary on baboons. I was struck by the many parallels with human behavior. So, is there such a thing as a phobic baboon?

I tracked down the researcher hanging out with the baboons and put the question to her. “A phobia is an inappropriate survival response,” I explained. “Is there a baboon like that?

“One that freaks out at a stick thinking it’s a snake?” she asked. “Exactly. A baboon that cries wolf,” I added, referring to the Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf (and paid the price).

It turns out that baboon troops have at least one “scout." A smaller simian who travels ahead of the troop to scout for danger.

If it sees something dangerous – a leopard, lion, hyena, crocodile, snake, rival troop or film crew that hasn’t secured video rights – it screams bloody murder. The troop either escapes (ascending into the trees where available) and/or mounts some kind of defense.

A “phobic” baboon would be a scout that screams at something that isn’t dangerous. Does that happen? Yup. Then what? “The alpha beats the shit out of it,” she replied. “Either it desensitizes the scout – sometime fatally – or forces it to give up its role.”

Got it! A phobic is the human version of a scout baboon responding to the wrong danger stimulus. (If spiders were deadly, arachnophobia wouldn’t be a thing.) More than that, I realized that my hypnotic technique lacked oomph.

I was relying entirely on the touchy-feely, loving “Mother” voice familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to or seen a hypnotist at work. The same slow, soothing, honey-toned voice you hear on self-hypnosis tapes and at the end of yoga class.

To increase my success rate, I decided to add a major element of intimidation. Lull arachnophobes into a relaxed trance state with the Mother voice, then beat the shit out them. Vocally speaking. Using the “Father” voice.

Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket) is the perfect example. Commanding. Authoritative. Inflexible.

Perhaps it’s my nature, but I reckon a hypnotist using the Father voice needs to deploy the voice from a place of love. D.I. Hartman is a bully and asshole, sure. But he uses his Father voice to keep his Marines alive. It’s fully justified and highly effective.

Implementation was simple enough. After talking therapies and a good 15 minutes of relaxing hypnosis, I’d change gears and literally scream at my charges.


I’d get the eyes-closed phobics (who are genetically pre-disposed to hypnosis) to imagine a cloud and put their fear into the cloud, turning it blacker and blacker.

“That’s the dark cloud that’s been hanging over your life. I’m going to count to five. The cloud will get smaller and smaller with each number. On the number five, I’m going to clap my hands loudly. A thunderclap. The cloud will be gone. The fear will be gone.”

I’d count to five and clap my hands as loudly as I could. I’d remain silent for a few seconds, then switch back to the Mother voice. “Gone.” I’d tell them all the wonderful things that will happen now that they’re free from the fear. We’d take them to hold a tarantula and practice capture and release on house spiders.

We cured a greater percentage of arachnophobes and I learned a valuable lesson about effective communication. You need two distinct voices – Mother (relaxing) and Father (commanding). And you need to know how, when and where to use which one.

The first is best for establishing trust, making suggestions and asking questions. The second is best for getting people to do shit. As with the FSP, it’s best to start with Mother, transition to Father and return to Mother.

To know when – and if – to make the switch, you have to read your audience. Their body language is the best cue. If they seem resistant or uncooperative, the Father voice is off the table. Not to put too fine a point on it, you have to seduce people before you, uh, bend them to your will.

Mastering these voices is a lifelong pursuit, requiring variations in tone, emphasis, word choice and, especially, silence. It’s totally worth it.

Sales? Debate? Parenting? Training a dog? Returning an item? Making a friend? Sustaining a relationship? When isn’t it a good time to be mindful of your voice and adapting it to the situation at hand? And continuing to adapt it as the conversation progresses.

I know it seems manipulative. It is. But manipulation is the root of human communication – establishing rapport, making your point and getting shit done (whether commercial or emotional).

One more thing: the bifurcated voice technique is invaluable for self-talk. Be mindful which voice you use for your thoughts. Because one voice is not enough, and the wrong voice at the wrong time – especially an over-critical Father voice – will turn you into your own worst enemy.

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