Ericksonian Hypnosis

What is Ericksonian Hypnosis?

A black and white photo of a street sign.

Ericksonian hypnosis is the name given to the particular style of hypnotherapy used and taught by psychiatrist, Milton Erickson. It describes a very specific form of hypnosis. Unlike traditional hypnotherapy, Ericksonian hypnotherapy uses indirect suggestion, metaphor, and storytelling to alter your state. During Eriksonian hypnosis, a trained hypnotherapist induces a state of intense concentration or focused attention. This is a guided process with verbal cues and repetition. The trance-like state you enter may appear similar to sleep in many ways, but you’re fully aware of what’s going on. While you’re in this trance-like state, your therapist will guide you through a process that uses the positive language and memories of the patient. Because you’re in a heightened state of focus, you may be more open to reprogramming your subconscious to create the behavioral change that you desire. When the session is complete, your therapist will guide you from the trance-like state, or you will exit it on your own. Hypnotherapy may place the seeds of different thoughts in your mind during the trance-like state, and soon, those changes take root and prosper. Hypnotherapy may also clear the way for deeper processing and acceptance.

The Milton Model

The Milton Model focuses on three aspects:

  1. Rapport – Building an empathetic connection with the patient. In addition to verbal communication, this may include “mirroring” the subject's body language while avoiding “mimicry” which could have the opposite effect.
  2. Overloading conscious attention – By distracting the conscious mind with vagueness and ambiguity, one is able to open the unconscious to change. See also, the confusion technique and handshake induction.
  3. Indirect communication – Patients can only meet a direct order in two ways: acceptance or dismissal (most likely the latter). Indirect suggestion is a more subtle and successful way to invoke change

Ericksonian Hypnotherapy Techniques

Encouraging Resistance

Again in a departure from classic psychotherapy, Erickson discouraged the authoritative use of “tell me about…” Instead, he would encourage the patient to withhold information and only discuss what they wished to. This passive method helped patients ultimately share more information with him. The patient was empowered rather than the therapist. They felt that they needed to save this special ability to withhold information for something important later. By the end of the conversation, they had told him everything.

A famous example of using resistance and a “double bind” occurred when Erickson was a boy. One day Erickson was helping his father coax a stubborn calf into the family barn. Try as they might to pull the calf into the barn, it didn’t budge. He realized that the calf wished to resist, accepted it, and pulled the opposite end on its tail – away from the barn. The new input of the boy pulling on the tail negated the father pulling on the head and the calf went into the barn.

He used this as a classic psychological example of a double bind – where the subject becomes overwhelmed and is emotionally “pulled” in two conflicting directions. Thus, the confused individual successfully accepts one form of resistance and fails to respond to the other.

In the context of family therapy, if a family member is resisting engaging in conversation he might ignore that member until they finally respond out of frustration.

Seeding Ideas

Using indirect hypnosis Erickson would “seed ideas” into the unconscious mind via metaphors and stories. A less subtle example would be, “Have you ever been in a trance before?” Now, the idea of a trance is in the mind even though the subject is not in one yet.

Handshake Induction

One of the most famous hypnosis techniques is the handshake induction. As the first interaction with a patient, and a common everyday occurrence Erickson proved it was a subtle way to change the mind’s accepted behavior. When someone performs a handshake their mind is virtually on autopilot – you may have never realized it’s a trance. It is the most widespread social norm in the world to shake hands at the beginning of a meeting; we don’t even think about it. By interrupting this subconscious process, Erickson was able to open the mind to suggestion. This is a classic example of “pattern interruption.”

Erickson’s handshake technique is well documented in his books and by those who have met him. He began with a strong, normal shake to begin the induction. Then he would interrupt the process by loosening the strength of the grip and brushing specific fingers against the subject’s hand. It’s quite complicated to learn, but a powerful induction.

Emphasizing The Positive

Erickson always found the good side of a patient’s disability. After all, he was color blind, dyslexic, tone deaf, and partially paralyzed. Yet these seemingly negative disabilities were the very things that allowed him to become an expert at reading body language.

But, this does not only apply to disabilities. A more common example would be a child who refuses to go to bed. Here a parent might combine two Ericksonian therapy techniques – emphasizing the positive and encouraging resistance. First, they might compliment the child on their energy and then encourage them to stay up later. This would end resistance in the child as they no longer need to prove that they can stay up late. If they do accept the suggestion and stay up later, they will be even more tired the next day and go to bed early.

Confusion Technique

By distracting the conscious mind, Erickson was able to open the unconscious mind to hypnotic language. According to Erickson, nearly every one of his techniques employs confusion in some form. For example, he would intentionally use vague language patterns, complex topics, confusing words, metaphors, and jokes to distract his patient’s conscious train of thought.

Shock Therapy

In some cases, Erickson would use psychological shock therapy to help a patient face their fear directly. For example, he once shocked a man with a fear of riding the elevator by convincing an elevator attendant to attempt to kiss the man in a stopped elevator (he was married). The man denied the kiss, and asked her to turn on the elevator and bring him to the lobby! He had overcome his fear of moving elevators.

In one instance, he actually stepped on a woman’s foot who refused to leave her home because she thought she had small feet! The shock caused her to open her mind to the induction which followed. He exclaimed, “How’s a man supposed to marry a woman with such big feet?” Thereafter she was cured.

Source: British Hypnosis Research & Training Institute