Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson, (1901 – 1980) was an American psychiatrist specializing in medical hypnosis and family therapy. He is noted for his approach to the unconscious mind as creative and solution-generating. He is also noted for influencing brief therapy, strategic family therapy, family systems therapy, solution focused brief therapy, and neuro-linguistic programming.

During the 1960s, Erickson popularized a new branch of hypnotherapy, known as Ericksonian hypnotherapy, primarily characterized by indirect suggestion, “metaphor” (actually analogies), confusion techniques, and double binds in place of formal hypnotic inductions.

Trance and the Unconscious Mind

Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was always listening. Hypnotic suggestions could be made even if the patient was not in a trance, as long as those suggestions found some resonance at the unconscious level. The patient could be aware of these suggestions or completely oblivious to what was happening.

Erickson would first see if the patient would respond to indirect suggestion and allow the unconscious mind to actively participate in the therapeutic process. In this way, what seemed like a normal conversation could induce a hypnotic trance, or a therapeutic change in the subject.

Erickson maintained that trance is a common everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise. It’s quite normal to become so immersed in an activity that a peson will go into a trance state, removed from all other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common that most people do not consciously recognize them as hypnotic phenomena.

The same state occurs whenever attention is fixated on a question, an amazing or unusual experience, or anything that holds a person’s interest. At such moments, people experience the common everyday trance. They tend to gaze off to the right or left, depending upon which cerebral hemisphere is most dominant and get that faraway or blank look.

Their eyes may actually close, their bodies tend to become immobile (a form of catalepsy), certain reflexes (swallowin or respiration) may be suppressed, and they seem momentarily oblivious to their surroundings until they have completed their inner search on the unconscious level for the new idea, response, or frame of reference that will restabilize their reality orientation.

Everyday life consciousness is in a continual state of flux between the general reality orientation and the momentary microdynamics of trance.

Because Erickson expected trance states to occur naturally and frequently, he was prepared to exploit them therapeutically, even when the patient was not present in the consulting room. He also discovered many techniques to increase the likelihood that a trance state would occur. He developed both verbal and non-verbal techniques, and pioneered the idea that the common experiences of wonderment, engrossment and confusion are, in reality, just kinds of trance. (These phenomena are of course central to many spiritual and religious disciplines, and are regularly employed by evangelists, cult leaders and holy men of all kinds).

Clearly there are a great many kinds of trance. Many people are familiar with the idea of a “deep” trance, and earlier in his career Erickson was a pioneer in researching the unique and remarkable phenomena that are associated with that state, spending many hours at a time with individual test subjects, deepening the trance.

That a trance may be “light” or “deep” suggest a one dimensional continuum of trance depth, but Erickson would often work with multiple trances in the same patient, for example suggesting that the hypnotized patient behave “as if awake”, blurring the line between the hypnotic and awake state.

Erickson believed that multiple trance states can be utilized. This resonates with Charles Tart’s idea (put forward in the book Waking Up) that all states of consciousness are trances, and that what we call “normal” waking consciousness is just a “consensus trance”. NLP also makes central use of the idea of changing state, without it explicitly being a hypnotic phenomenon.

Indirect Techniques

Where classical hypnosis is authoritative and direct, and often encounters resistance in the subject, Erickson’s approach is permissive, accommodating and indirect. A classical hypnotist might say “You are going into a trance,” but an Ericksonian hypnotist would be more likely to say “you can comfortably learn how to go into a trance.”

In this way, the hypnotist provides an opportunity for the subject to accept the suggestions they are most comfortable with, at their own pace, and with an awareness of the benefits. The subject knows they are not being hustled, and takes full ownership of, and participation in their transformation. Because the induction takes place during the course of a normal conversation, Ericksonian hypnosis is often known as Covert or Conversational Hypnosis.

Erickson maintained that it was not possible to consciously instruct the unconscious mind and that authoritarian suggestions were likely to be met with resistance. The unconscious mind responds to openings, opportunities, metaphors, symbols, and contradictions. Effective hypnotic suggestion, should be “artfully vague,” leaving space for the subject to fill in the gaps with their own unconscious understandings, even if they do not consciously grasp what is happening. The skilled hypnotherapist constructs these gaps of meaning in a way most suited to the individual subject, in a way which is most likely to produce the desired change.

For example, the authoritative “you will stop smoking” is likely to find less leverage on the unconscious level than “you can become a non-smoker.” The first is a direct command, to be obeyed or ignored (and notice that it draws attention to the act of smoking), the second is an opening, an invitation to possible lasting change, without pressure. It is less likely to raise resistance.

Confusion Technique

A confused person has their conscious mind busy and occupied, and is very much inclined to draw upon unconscious learnings to make sense of things. A confused person is in a trance of their own making and goes readily into that trance without resistance. Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad of other techniques to incite transderivational searches.

Scottish surgeon James Braid, who coined the term “hypnotism”, claimed that focused attention was essential for creating hypnotic trances. His theory was that hypnosis was in essence a state of extreme focus. But it can be difficult for people racked by pain, fear or suspicion to focus on anything at all. Thus other techniques for inducing trance become important, or as Erickson explained:

“… long and frequent use of the confusion technique has many times effected exceedingly rapid hypnotic inductions under unfavorable conditions such as acute pain of terminal malignant disease and in persons interested but hostile, aggressive, and resistant…”

Handshake Induction

Among Erickson’s best-known innovations is the hypnotic handshake induction, which is a type of confusion technique. The induction is done by the hypnotist going to shake hands with the subject, then interrupting the flow of the handshake in some way, such as by grabbing the subject’s wrist instead. If the handshake continues to develop in a way which is out-of-keeping with expectations, a simple, non-verbal trance is created, which may then be reinforced or utilized by the hypnotist. All these responses happen naturally and automatically without telling the subject to consciously focus on an idea.

This induction works because shaking hands is one of the actions learned and operated as a single “chunk” of behavior; tying shoelaces is another classic example. If the behavior is diverted or frozen midway, the person literally has no mental space for this. He is stopped in the middle of unconsciously executing a behavior that hasn’t got a “middle”. The mind responds by suspending itself in trance until either something happens to give a new direction, or it “snaps out”. A skilled hypnotist can often use that momentary confusion and suspension of normal processes to induce trance quickly and easily.

Various descriptions of Erickson’s hypnotic handshake, including his own very detailed accounts, indicate that a certain amount of improvisation is involved and that watching and acting upon the subject’s responses is key to a successful outcome.

Richard Bandler was a keen proponent of the handshake induction, and developed his own variant, which is commonly taught in NLP workshops.

Any habitual pattern which is interrupted unexpectedly will cause sudden and light trance. The handshake is a particularly good pattern to interrupt because the formality of a handshake is a widely understood set of social rules. Since everyone knows that it would be impolite to comment on the quality of a handshake, regardless of how strange it may be, the subject is obliged to embark on an inner search (known as a transderivational search, a universal and compelling type of trance) to identify the meaning or purpose of the subverted pattern.


Erickson recognized that many people were intimidated by hypnosis and the therapeutic process, and he took care to respect the special resistances of the individual patient. In the therapeutic process he said that “you always give the patient every opportunity to resist”. Here are some more relevant quotes pertaining to resistance:

“Whatever the behavior offered by the subjects, it should be accepted and utilized to develop further responsive behavior. Any attempt to “correct” or alter the subjects’ behavior, or to force them to do things they are not interested in, militates against trance induction and certainly deep trance experience.”

“If the patient can be led to accept one suggestion, they will more readily accept others. With resistant patients, it becomes necessary to find a suggestion they can accept. Resistance is always important, and should always be respected, so if the resistance itself is encouraged, the patient is made to feel more comfortable, because they know that they are allowed to respond however they wish.”

Although the idea of working with resistance is essentially a hypnotic one, it goes beyond hypnosis and trance. In a typical example, a girl that bit her nails was told that she was cheating herself of really enjoying the nail biting. He encouraged her to let some of her nails grow a little longer before biting them, so that she really could derive the fullest pleasure from the activity. She decided to grow all of her nails long enough that she might really enjoy biting them, and then after some days, she realized that she didn’t want to bite them anyway.

Ericksonian Therapy

Erickson is most famous as a hypnotherapist, but his extensive research into and experience with hypnosis led him to develop an effective therapeutic technique. Many of these techniques are not explicitly hypnotic, but they are extensions of hypnotic strategies and language patterns. Erickson recognized that resistance to trance resembles resistance to change, and developed his therapeutic approach with that awareness.

Jay Haley identified several strategies, which appeared repeatedly in Erickson’s therapeutic approach.

Encouraging Resistance

For Erickson, the classic therapeutic request to “tell me everything about…” was both aggressive and disrespectful, instead he would ask the resistant patient to withhold information and only to tell what they were really ready to reveal:

I usually say, “There are a number of things that you don’t want me to know about, that you don’t want to tell me. There are a lot of things about yourself that you don’t want to discuss, therefore let’s discuss those that you are willing to discuss.” She has blanket permission to withhold anything and everything. But she did come to discuss things. And therefore she starts discussing this, discussing that. And it’s always “Well, this is all right to talk about.” And before she’s finished, she has mentioned everything. And each new item – “Well, this really isn’t so important that I have to withhold it. I can use the withholding permission for more important matters.” Simply a hypnotic technique. To make them respond to the idea of withholding, and to respond to the idea of communicating.

Some people might react to a direction by thinking “why should I?” or “You can’t make me”, called a polarity response because it motivates the subject to consider the polar opposite of the suggestion. The conscious mind recognizes negation in speech (“Don’t do X”) but according to Erickson, the unconscious mind pays more attention to the “X” than the injunction “Don’t do”. Erickson thus used this as the basis for suggestions that deliberately played on negation and tonally marked the important wording, to provide that whatever the client did, it was beneficial: “You don’t have to go into a trance, so you can easily wonder about what you notice no faster than you feel ready to become aware that your hand is slowly rising…..”

Providing a Worse Alternative (The Double Bind)

Example: “Do you want to go into a trance now, or later?” The Double Bind is a way of overloading the subject with two options, the acceptance of either represents acceptance of a therapeutic suggestion.

“My first well-remembered intentional use of the Double Bind occurred in early boyhood. One winter day, with the weather below zero, my father led a calf out of the barn to the water trough. After the calf had satisfied its thirst, they turned back to the barn, but at the doorway the calf stubbornly braced its feet, and despite my father’s desperate pulling on the halter, he could not budge the animal. I was outside playing in the snow and, observing the impasse, began laughing heartily. My father challenged me to pull the calf into the barn. Recognizing the situation as one of unreasoning stubborn resistance on the part of the calf, I decided to let the calf have full opportunity to resist, since that was what it apparently wished to do. Accordingly I presented the calf with a double bind by seizing it by the tail and pulling it away from the barn, while my father continued to pull it inward. The calf promptly chose to resist the weaker of the two forces and dragged me into the barn.”

Communicating by Metaphor

This is explored extensively in Sydney Rosen’s My Voice Will Go With You, but an example is given in the first chapter of David Gordon’s book Phoenix:

“I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle on sped past a group of us into a farmer’s yard looking for a drink of water. The horse was perspiring heavily. And the farmer didn’t recognize it so we cornered it. I hopped on the horse’s back. Since it had a bridle on, I took hold of the tick rein and said, “Giddy-up.” Headed for the highway, I knew the horse would turn in the right direction. I didn’t know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on the highway and start into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact the highway was where he was supposed to be. And finally, about four miles from where I had boarded him, he turned into a farm yard and the farmer said, “So that’s how that critter came back. Where did you find him?” I said, “About four miles from here.” “How did you know you should come here?” I said, “I didn’t know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.”

Erickson’s metaphorical strategies can be compared with the teaching tales of the Sufis (those of for example the Nasreddin) and the Zen tradition of Koans, each also designed to act on the unconscious mind.

Encouraging a Relapse

To bypass simple short-lived “obedience” which tends to lead to lapses in the absence of the therapist, Erickson would occasionally arrange for his patients to fail in their attempts to improve, for example by overreaching. Failure is part of life, and in that fragile time where the patient is learning to live, think and behave differently, a random failure can be catastrophic. Deliberately causing a relapse allowed Erickson to control the variables of that failure, and to cast it in a positive therapeutic light for the patient.

Encouraging a Response by Frustrating It

This paradoxical approach acts directly on the patient’s own resistance to change. Obese patients are asked to gain weight, or in a family therapy session, a stubbornly silent family member is ignored until the frustration obliges them to blurt out some desperate truth. Once again, this approach has its roots in Erickson’s hypnotic language patterns of the form “I don’t want you to go into a trance yet.”

Utilizing Space and Position

Hypnosis and therapy are experienced subjectively by the patient, and any part of their total experience can be used to reinforce an idea. The physical position or even the posture of the patient can be a significant part of the subjective experience. Manipulating these factors can contribute to a therapeutic transformation.

“If I send someone out of the room, for example, the mother and child, I carefully move father from his chair and put him into mother’s chair. Or if I send the child out, I might put mother in the child’s chair, at least temporarily. Sometimes I comment on this by saying, ‘As you sit where your son was sitting, you can think more clearly about him.’ Or, ‘If you sit where your husband sat, maybe it will give you somewhat of his view about me’. Over a series of interviews with an entire family, I shuffle them about, so that what was originally mother’s chair is now where father is sitting. The family grouping remains, and yet that family grouping is being rearranged, which is what you are after when changing a family.”

This may be directly compared with Fritz Perls’ use of an “empty chair” as a context for imagined interactions (where the client was often invited to occupy the chair and thus take on the role of the person imagined to be sitting there.) Bert Hellinger’s approach, which requires the client to arrange family members (played by volunteers) in a row or pattern which matches the client’s internal understanding, and then to reorganize the row; and Virginia Satir’s work with tableaux and posture.

Emphasizing the Positive

Erickson claimed that his sensory “disabilities” (dyslexia, color blindness, being tone-deaf) helped him to focus on aspects of communication and behavior which most other people overlooked. This is a typical example of emphasizing the positive.

“Erickson would often compliment the patient for a symptom and would even encourage it, in very specific ways. In one amusing example, a woman whose in-laws caused her nauseous feelings in the gut every time they visited unexpectedly was “taught” to vomit spectacularly whenever the visits were especially inconvenient. Naturally the in-laws would always sympathetically help her clean up the vomit. Fairly soon, the annoying relatives started calling in advance before turning up, to see if she were “well enough” to see them.”

The subject of dozens of songs, “emphasizing the positive” is a well known self-help strategy, and can be compared with “positive reformulation” in Gestalt Therapy.

Prescribing the Symptom and Amplifying a Deviation

Very typically, Erickson would instruct his patients to actively and consciously perform the symptom that was bothering them, usually with some minor or trivial deviation from the original symptom. In many cases, the deviation could be amplified and used as a “wedge” to transform the whole behavior.

INTERVIEWER: Suppose someone called you and said there was a kid, nineteen or twenty years old, who has been a very good boy, but all of a sudden this week he started walking around the neighborhood carrying a large cross. The neighbors are upset and the family’s upset, and would you do something about it. How would you think about that as a problem? Some kind of bizarre behavior like that.

ERICKSON: Well, if the kid came in to see me, the first thing I would do would be to want to examine the cross. And I would want to improve it in a very minor way. As soon as I got the slightest minor change in it, the way would be open for a larger change. And pretty soon I could deal with the advantages of a different cross – he ought to have at least two. He ought to have at least three so he could make a choice each day of which one. It’s pretty hard to express a psychotic pattern of behavior over an ever-increasing number of crosses.

Seeding Ideas

Erickson would often ensure that the patients had been exposed to an idea, often in a metaphorical form (hidden from the conscious mind) in advance of utilizing it for a therapeutic purpose. He called this “seeding ideas”, and it can be observed to occur at many levels both coarse and fine grained, in many of his case histories. In a simple example, the question “Have you ever been in a trance before?” seeds the idea that a trance is imminent, the presupposition inherent in the word before is “not now, but later”.

Avoiding Self-Exploration

Erickson was entirely uninterested in analyzing the patient’s early psychological development. Occasionally in his case histories, he would briefly discuss the patient’s background, but only as much as it pertains to the resources available to the patient in the present.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t feel that exploring the past is particularly relevant? I’m always trying to get clear in my mind how much of the past I need to consider when doing brief therapy.

ERICKSON: You know, I had one patient this last July who had four or five years of psychoanalysis and got nowhere with it. And someone who knows her said, “How much attention did you give to the past?” I said, “You know, I completely forgot about that.” That patient is, I think, a reasonably cured person. It was a severe washing compulsion, as much as twenty hours a day. I didn’t go in to the cause or the etiology; the only searching question I asked was “When you get in the shower to scrub yourself for hours, tell me, do you start at the top of your head, or the soles of your feet, or in the middle? Do you wash from the neck down, or do you start with your feet and wash up? Or do you start with your head and wash down?”

INTERVIEWER: Why did you ask that?

ERICKSON: So that she knew I was really interested.

INTERVIEWER: So that you could join her in this?

ERICKSON: No, so that she knew I was really interested.