A Brief Review of the Key Hypnotic Elements of Milton H. Erickson’s Handshake Technique
By Mark S. Carich, PhD and Mark Becker, MA
Milton H. Erickson was no doubt a master of masters in inducing hypnotic responses for clinical purposes. Dr. Erickson was instrumental in developing a number of indirect hypnotic techniques and strategies, including interpersonal and nonverbal or pantomime tactics (Erickson, 1958, 1964, 1966; Haley, 1967). One fascinating technique that stands out was the “handshake hypnotic induction technique.” The purpose of this article is to outline the key elements and a procedure of the therapeutic hypnotic handshake induction technique.
What is a Trance Experience?
Controversies over the nature and definition of trance phenomena often involve the contextualized experienced “state” vs. nonstate. The present authors consider a trance experience as a contextualized state with multiple levels, expressions, and facets. The central aspect includes an intense focusing and sense of detachment (dissociated response). One particular behavior directly associated with the handshake technique is the dissociative cataleptic response.
Dissociative Cataleptic Response
Inducing a cataleptic response is the key to the handshake technique. Edgette & Edgette (1995) categorize the handshake technique as a method of inducing hypnotic catalepsy. Catalepsy is the induced immobility of various limbs and/or entire body. Edgette & Edgette (1995 p. 173) define catalepsy as, “…immobility in one or more parts of the body.” Catalepsy has been defined as an involuntary tonicity of the muscles (Kroger, 1977), and a suspension of voluntary movement and condition of well-balanced tonicity (Erickson & Rossi, 1981). Muscles are felt as being in balance and comfortable, neither too tense nor too limp. The client/subject maintains or sustains a suspended state or immobilized position for a long period of time.
Handshake Technique Procedure
Therapy involves communication within a change-oriented context in which the therapist engages the client in conversation, forming interactions, which can start with a simple handshake. This handshake can be utilized to facilitate the hypnotic elements in these therapeutic conversations.
Erickson and Rossi & Rossi (1976) describe the handshake technique by starting with a firm hand grasp, then slightly adjusting the operator’s fingers, creating momentary confusion by refocusing the subject’s attention with the different sensations felt, as the operator withdraws their hand. As the operator withdraws their hand, the subject’s habitual framework is interrupted, thus creating a hypnotic touch.
This procedure can be detailed into the following steps:
- Engage with client or subject.
- Gaze into the client’s or subject’s eyes (as part of the initial exchange via eye contact).
- Slowly reach out to shake or grasp the
- Grasp the client’s hand in a normal
- Slow the handshake down by pacing and leading the client’s hand during the clasp.
- Shift the touch and pressure, slowly releasing the
- Slowly release the hand from the handshake; slide hand
- Meanwhile, if/or when speaking, use a slow, smooth, monotone relaxing voice.
- Maintain a gaze, looking into the client’s or subject’s eyes, leaving the client’s hand buoyant, as in arm
- Direct the client therapeutically, thus utilizing the
- If necessary, for reorientation, provide suggestions.
A similar process naturally occurs when taking vitals. Carich and Junge (1990) noticed pantomime hypnotic experiences when taking vitals, particularly pulses. By taking a pulse, for longer than required, the subject’s arm can be suspended in mid-air, forming a cataleptic response. This experience is similar to the handshake technique in developing cataleptic responses.
There are several key hypnotic elements involved in the technique:
- Fixation of attention or refocusing the client’s attention by:
- Eye gazes.
- Touch and
- Inducing behavioral suspension or buoyant response (creating a dissociative response).
- Developing a rhythmic pattern during the process, which includes reduced respiratory rate.
- Interrupting the subject’s habitual framework, by refocusing one’s attention on different sensations of the
A key point while engaging the subject/client, is that the individual’s internal focus is fixated on some selected stimuli involving the level of pressure of the grip. Slowing down the movement and touch during the clasp can initiate this. Also, during the initial engagement, eye gazes create another source of client fixation. By slowing down the shaking of the subject’s/client’s hand, an arm levitation response is induced or created, thus leaving the hand/arm buoyant and totally immobilized. In some cases, the subject or client may be totally immobilized. Finally, the process entails a rhythmic pattern or integration between the therapist and client. The depth depends upon several factors or conditions:
- Context of the interaction.
- Skill and rhythmic pattern of the
- Level of receptivity and responsiveness of the client.
This is a form of an informal, indirect technique, in which the hypnotic suggestion or induction is delivered through the interaction manifested in the hand- shake.
The authors further recommend discovering nonverbal touch situations in everyday life, whereby one can utilize and help the subject fix and focus attention inwardly.
Milton H. Erickson was a brilliant therapist and hypnotist who provided different ways, including the handshake technique, to induce and create trance-like therapeutic experiences. In his handshake technique, he utilized the client’s responses and behavior to further enhance hypnotic responses and therapeutic experiences. He used his ability to notice minimal cues or define moments of responses and receptivity, and he learned to access these movements to facilitate the hypnotic handshake technique.
There are a number of applications of the handshake technique, ranging from enhancing rapport to inducing calming responses to relaxation. Upon inducing hypnotic responses, several paths can be taken. Therapeutic messages can be interspersed in the moment. Other ways include bypassing “resistant” responses, or client goal inhibitory responses, creating a window of client receptivity.
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