Home PageUncategorizedErickson’s Use of Storytelling  by Jay Haley

Pictured: From L to R Carl Whitaker, John Weakland, Jay Haley and Carlos Sluzki

The following was presented by Jay Haley in December 1980 at the First International Congress on Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy:

I have published my views of Erickson’s therapy extensively, but to me he remains a mysterious person. In hundreds of hours talking together, I explored his life and work; yet I know him less well than other men I have associated with more briefly. Having learned many of his therapy techniques, I applied them in my practice and teaching. Not a day passes that I do not use something that I learned from Erickson in my work.

Erickson was by no means secretive about his work…For many years he gave seminars and workshops to large audiences in this country and abroad. He wrote over one hundred publications. Thousands of visitors came to talk with him, individually and in groups. His lectures, demonstrations, and conversations have been recorded more than those of any other clinician. He gave generously of himself and his knowledge to anyone who was interested. Although Erickson liked to show you that you still had much to learn, he did not attempt to be mysterious or obscure. Often, he was frustrated when his ideas were only partially understood…I don’t know how many times over the years I asked him why he did something in therapy, and he answered, “That’s obvious.” I would say, “Milton, it’s not obvious,” and I pursued him only to find a new and unexpected complexity in his thinking.

It was not only the unusual nature of his ideas that made Erickson difficult to fully understand…His style of therapy and teaching was to converse in the language of the other person; within that framework he suggested new ideas. He could talk in many ideological languages, so that colleagues and patients often had the illusion they shared and understood his theories and were later surprised by an unexpected idea. Erickson’s own beliefs and premises about therapy were not self-evident. When one asked him about a theory, the response was often a case example which was a metaphor with many referents.

Erickson’s use of stories in his conversations gave people of diverse views, metaphors where they discovered their own ideas. Each anecdote was put in such a way that quite different people thought it was designed precisely for them…One of Erickson’s greatest skills was his ability to influence people indirectly. This is one of the reasons so many people were uneasy in his presence…Erickson liked to change people outside their awareness. If they were on guard against his influence and resisted the idea Erickson was offering, it was usually some other idea that Erickson was actually interested in imposing…

Erickson would tell the same case example in different ways to different people. While the essentials of the case remained the same, what he emphasized in the complex story would vary with the analogy he was communicating to that particular listener.…What Erickson said and did had multiple purposes and he taught in complex analogies.…I think Erickson was offering something new in the world – a presentation of the intricacies of interpersonal influence…Yet he had available only a language developed for a quite different conception of people. The language for describing an individual is simply not adequate to describe Erickson’s therapy…

He was elaborating a new way of thinking about people, about hypnosis, and about therapy without a descriptive language that could express that new view. I believe that is why he turned more and more to metaphor, which is not a way to describe an idea rigorously, but it can cover the complexity he was trying to communicate…

I think his success as a therapist was partly the result of the personal power that exuded from him. Not only did his personality have an impact, but his power was increased by his reputation as a hypnotist who influenced people outside their awareness. Quite a number of people were simply afraid of him…

Erickson was always quite comfortable with power. He did not mind taking it or using it… With his willingness to take and use power, I think it is fortunate that he was a benevolent man.

…He would set out to change whomever he thought ought to be changed whether they had requested that in any direct way or not. I have never had a doubt about his ethics or benevolent intentions, nor was I concerned about his exploiting anyone for any personal advantage…

Although Erickson condemned stage hypnosis, he was a really great performer himself at hypnotic demonstrations. He could simultaneously teach a hypnotic technique, give therapy to a subject, illustrate a point at issue with a colleague, and entertain the audience…

It was always a pleasure to watch Erickson do one of his stage demonstrations. Some of his most interesting ones were his demonstrations of dealing with resistance to hypnosis…As always with Erickson, he was managing it so that if the person was resistant, he was cooperating.

Erickson enjoyed showing that inducing a trance could not be described simply. He illustrated the many ways it could be done. I recall one demonstration where he showed that one could induce a trance without saying a word. He asked a resistant subject to come up on stage and a young man came up. Erickson stood there saying and doing nothing. I could see the young man going into a trance. Later I asked Erickson what subtle thing he did to bring that about. He said he induced a trance by not doing anything…“Somebody has to do something…so the young man went into a trance.”

…Besides his power to influence people outside awareness, Erickson had another ability which made some people uneasy in his company. He was an extraordinary observer and could just about read a person’s mind from his or her posture and body movement. He put great emphasis on the therapist being an acute observer, treating posture and responsive movement as a language in itself…

Erickson had high expectations of himself as a clinician and held the same expectations of trainees. He expected a therapist to be an acute observer, but more than that he expected a wide range of skills. He would emphasize how a therapist should use his own movement and posture to influence a patient…He also expected a therapist to control his voice so that words could be given special emphasis when an idea was being communicated…Sometimes the differences he was emphasizing were so subtle they were difficult to grasp.

Erickson expected a clinician to have a thorough knowledge of types of psychopathology, a broad understanding of human beings and their normal social situations, common sense, keen observation, and an ability to use the self in a wide range of ways from being authoritative to being helpless. He also expected a therapist to have an actor’s control of his use of body movement and vocal intonation…

One of the most important aspects of Erickson that permeated his work was his sense of humor. He…enjoyed practical jokes and puzzles, as well as puns and turns of phrase. It was his humor that saved him, I think, from being overwhelming in his power…

He lived quite comfortably with paradox, while most people try to avoid that. When he could, he framed his actions in paradoxical ways. Let me cite an example from one of Erickson’s social experiments.

A unique aspect of Erickson was his interest in experimenting with people and situations. Not only did he do experiments in the laboratory, but, concerned with laboratory bias, he liked to do them in the field in natural situations. Typically, with whatever group he was with, Erickson might be doing an experiment to see how someone would respond to this or that. He once told me that at a party he might choose someone and apply his “ocular fix” just to see how the person would respond. Or, he would set himself the task of having someone move from one chair to another without ever directly asking for that move…At other times he would do more formal experiments in social situations…

…constant experimentation…gave Erickson not only his wisdom about human behavior but led him to new therapy techniques….

What set Erickson apart as a hypnotist was his interest and concern with the interpersonal processes of trance induction, not simply the ritual procedure. He argued that a hypnotic induction needed to vary with the type of person the hypnotist was, the nature of the subject, and the particular situation they were in. He liked to see each hypnotic relationship as unique, just as he did with therapy…

Erickson had his own way of doing therapy with a person diagnosed schizophrenic…he was seeing a woman who was a school teacher and at times she was quite crazy. He persuaded her to keep her delusions locked in the closet of his office where they would be secure and not interfere with her teaching. She did that and saw Erickson irregularly. Then she was going to move to another city, and she was worried because she might go mad in that other city and Erickson would not be available… Erickson said to her, “If you have a psychotic episode, why not put it in a manila envelope and mail it to me.” The woman agreed to do that and in the other city she continued to function well. Occasionally, she sent Erickson a psychotic episode in a manila envelope…he saved all those envelopes. He knew that one day she would return and would want to see them. She did just that…

It was Erickson’s willingness to change his ways and experiment with new techniques that was his greatest asset. He was a pragmatist…The stories and examples he presented were out of life on a farm and the values of small towns…He had a basic understanding of growing up in the United States that clarified for him the stages of family life and the processes of normal living. He knew the different regions of the country and their particular ideas, style, and prejudices. He understood other cultures because he knew this one so well and could contrast it…

…Although Erickson was interested in a diagnosis, his main interest was in producing change. He sharply focused on the subject of therapy as an art in itself, and he emphasized the practical skills needed to carry it out. He was pragmatic and would shift what he did if it was not working, quickly adopting some other procedure rather than continue with a failing method because it was traditional. Not concerned with schools of philosophy, Erickson focused quite specifically upon the real world and real problems. He recommended that a therapist use techniques which worked and discard those which did not, independent of tradition. He did not suggest you look to a prominent person to lend support to your practices, but rather that you defend your work by its results…

In the 1940s and ‘50s the field of therapy was largely prevented from using hypnosis. Erickson was using hypnosis in therapy, developing a wide range of techniques and advocating that it be a basic skill taught to clinicians…

At that time the field of therapy was not symptom-focused…Erickson took the opposite position and based his therapy specifically on symptoms. He argued that you change character structure by centering therapy on the specific problem…He taught that one should not ignore a symptom but learn all the details about it…

In the 1940 and ‘50s the proponents of insight therapy gained their greatest power…therapists made only interpretations. It was generally assumed that a person’s problem was a product of repression and the ideation must be made conscious. Erickson, who had experimented extensively with unconscious repression, slips of the tongue, memories and dreams, had by the 1940s apparently abandoned that notion as relevant to therapy. It was thought that if a therapist did not bring about insight, he was doing shallow therapy. Erickson took the position that insight therapy did not produce change and even implied that interpretations about internal dynamics could prevent real change…

Erickson’s view of the “unconscious” was the opposite of the psychodynamic view of that time. Insight therapy was based upon the idea that the unconscious was a place full of negative forces and ideas which were so unacceptable that they had to be repressed…Erickson took the opposite view and accepted the idea that the unconscious was a positive force which held more wisdom than the “conscious.”

As always, Erickson offered the opposite of insight by encouraging amnesia and changing people outside their awareness. Rather than help patients understand the hidden meaning in dreams or fantasies, he would change them so they dreamed and fantasized differently. He considered an “interpretation” to be an absurd reduction of a complex communication. Similarly, he did therapy with analogies and metaphors differently from the therapists of his time…In the past, clinician worked with the analogies of patients to gain information…they thought that making the patient aware of the metaphorical meanings in his analogies would cause change…Erickson took quite the opposite view; making people aware of the parallels in their analogical presentations would not cause change and would even prevent change…

Consider another example of how Erickson worked outside awareness. If one sees a person caught up in a repeating cycle of behavior with other people, the traditional approach is to make the person aware of the cycle on the assumption that if he becomes aware of it he can stop repeating his behavior. Erickson did not bring about awareness of the cycle but simply set out to change it. He might even induce amnesia for behavior in the cycle so the person would do something and forget he did it. Therefore, he would do it again. This repetition would force the other people in the cycle to respond differently and so the repeating pattern would change.

Although Erickson did not offer the usual insight, he was an educator. He would teach patients that life is more complex than they thought by using riddles and puzzles. Often, he did explicit teaching about medical and other issues. He was teaching people about their sexual organs and instructing them in specific sexual practices long before “sex therapy” became permissible and fashionable. That too added to the controversy about him.

Traditionally, the therapist was an objective consultant to a patient…If we ask what the opposite of the traditional therapeutic posture would be, there we find Erickson. He assumed it was his responsibility to change a patient. If change did not occur, he had failed…He was not an objective observer or a consultant; he was an active intervenor into the person’s life. He assumed that what he did and said was the cause of change, not some objective awareness that the patient achieved. He would visit the home or office of a patient and escort them to places they feared…

Even though Erickson was personal with patients, he was not a pal as many humanistic therapists are. He kept his professional distance while being a friend and confidant. As with many aspects of Erickson, his closeness and distance were paradoxical…

At that time [when Erickson was practicing] it was assumed that long-term therapy was necessary to bring about change Erickson worked in quite an opposite way by doing therapy as briefly as possible…Instead of seeing someone methodically several times a week, he worked intermittently and for different lengths of time. Even the way he talked about brief therapy was paradoxical. He said the way to get a quick change was to proceed slowly…As Erickson put it, if you want a large change you should ask for a small one…

He was familiar with the day-to-day operations of normal living, knew what average families were like and understood what children did at different stages of development. He was familiar with the problems of growing old and knew immediately the difficulties of dealing with pain and physical illness.

Traditionally, it was not proper to see the relative of a patient… Erickson, quite the opposite, was willing to see relatives and was one of the earliest therapists to bring family members together in an interview…Erickson was quite comfortable with families. While Freud said he did not know what to do with relatives of patients, Erickson said he did. More than any other therapist of his time, Erickson defined symptoms as contracts between relatives – not merely the expression of an individual. He was also willing to do therapy with friends and colleagues. Not concerned with maintaining a mystical relationship with a patient, he could see a person both professionally and socially.

…He was an active participant in the lives of patients, used hypnosis, gave paradoxical and straightforward directives, included relatives in therapy, did not make insightful interpretations or do group therapy, encouraged amnesia, and focused specifically on symptoms.


This excerpt is from “Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy” pp. 5-25, Contributions to Therapy of Milton H. Erickson, MD, edited by Zeig, Jeffrey. Published 1982 Taylor and Francis.

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