Milton Erickson’s Use of Implication
By Steve Andreas
When children paint the sun, they often draw a circle with rays coming out. You’ve all seen that; you probably did it yourself when you were young. A year or so later, a child might paint the sun partly behind clouds. Several years later, they might paint rays coming out from the clouds, but the sun is not visible — what a friend of mine calls a “God sunset.” Even subtler is to paint only the scattered reflection of sunlight on water. An accomplished artist doesn’t paint the sun at all but suggests where the sun is by painting a tree with a little more light on one side than the other, and a subtle shadow to indicate the sun’s location. I think that’s a good metaphor for implication: indicating something without ever explicitly stating it. One of my favorite quotes is: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” (Ralph W. Sockman) Knowledge and wonder are stated; the ocean of ignorance is implied.
On the first page of the first volume of Conversations with Milton H. Erickson, (in which the word “implication” appears about every third page) Jay Haley says, “I have a whole week, so I suspect I can learn all about psychotherapy in that time. I wouldn’t expect that anywhere else but here.” Erickson laughs and says, “Well, we can have our dreams.” That’s a polite way of implying, “You are wildly optimistic!”
When Erickson worked with an alcoholic, he would often say, “Bring a full, unopened bottle of alcohol with you to the next session.” The implication was, “Don’t drink,” and the deeper implication was that the client can control his drinking.
In working with couples, Erickson would often say to one of them, “I want to hear your side of the story. One implication is: “I also want to hear the other side of the story.” But, because of the word “story,” the further implication is a distinction between the “story” and real story. Virginia Satir made the same kind of distinction by saying to a family member, “I want you to tell me how you see the problem,” implying that there were other views.
Erickson would frequently say to a client, “I want you to withhold any information that you don’t want to share with me.” “Withhold” is not necessarily permanent; you can withhold for a while, and then you can yield. But the implication is: “Don’t pay attention to all the stuff you’re going to tell me; pay attention to the stuff you want to withhold.” So, clients would tell him many sensitive things, and most likely by the end of the session, would think, “Well, I told him all that other stuff, I may as well tell him this too.”
Erickson was in session with a woman right before she was scheduled for a risky surgery and she had doubts if she would be okay. He gradually led the discussion around to cooking and asked about her favorite recipes. When she would mention something, he would say, “Oh, you know, I’ve always wanted a good recipe for that. Would you give it to me?” Of course, she couldn’t give it to him in that session because she was due to have surgery, so he’d say, “Oh, that’s all right, you can bring it in when we have our next session,” implying that the surgery would be successful.
I went to see Erickson in 1979, about a year before he died. In the middle of the day, seemingly out of nowhere, I heard him say, “Marry an ugly woman and she’ll always be grateful.” I thought to myself, ‘What an awful sexist thing to say!’ At the time, I was with a woman who I — and many others — thought was quite beautiful. The implied message is: “Marry a beautiful woman and she won’t always be grateful.” I didn’t understand that consciously until after the woman and I were married.
Erickson once worked with a woman he called, “Inhibited Ann.” Shortly before bedtime, she’d start gasping and choking, which interfered with her having sex with her husband. In order to be physical with him, the woman insisted that the lights be out so that she could undress in the bathroom, put on a long robe, and then, covered head to toe, she’d come into the bedroom in the dark and get into bed with her husband. After finding out that Ann loved to dance, Erickson said, “You know, you could dance into the bedroom in the nude.” And then said, “We don’t want to give him heart failure,” implying, “We do want to give him something else.” Then, later in the session, Erickson said, “You really could dance into the bedroom in the nude. You’d be in the dark with all the lights out, so your husband can’t see anything, and he’d never know.” So Ann took his suggestion, danced in the nude in the dark, and then crawled into bed feeling like a schoolgirl, giggling about doing something so daring. Giggling implied not gasping, and not gasping implied availability for sex.
On another occasion, Erickson worked with a professor of music who fainted whenever he tried to go on stage to give a piano performance. He told Erickson he was going to be fired from the university if he didn’t perform. So Erickson said, “Okay, ahead of time, put down towels of different colors all the way from the backstage up to the piano. Then, as you walk onstage, decide which one you’re going to faint on.” Involving the professor in a decision process implied that he would not be attending to whatever thoughts made him faint in the past. Since fainting is elicited unconsciously, the implication is he won’t faint at all. And since you have to faint where you are, not somewhere else, thinking about fainting there implies not fainting here.
This same intervention saved Erickson’s life once. When he was working in a mental hospital, he walked into an elevator and per regulation, locked the door behind him before realizing that there was a murderous psychopath in the corner, who said, “I’m going to kill you.” As Erickson always did, he first paced what the psychopath said, and then replied, “Oh, okay, you’re going to kill me…” as he put the key in the elevator door to unlock it, “and the only question is, ‘Where do you think the best place would be for you to slaughter me?’” Erickson opened the elevator door, pointed down the hall and said, “Would over there be best?” The psychopath looked out into the hall as Erickson calmly walked out of the elevator, saying, “Or, maybe over there in that chair would be better. But then again, over there might be best.” Erickson continued walking down the hall toward the nurse’s station, and to safety. Since there is not where he can be slaughtered, he distracted the psychopath from killing him where he stood.
Learning about implication is similar to opening another set of eyes and ears; seeing and hearing in a whole new dimension. It’s spooky the things you can become sensitive to, particularly nonverbal implications. I believe that Erickson’s unparalleled ability to “read” people was largely due to his ability to notice and use implication.
In earlier issues of the Newsletter I have written more extensively about both verbal and nonverbal implications. (Vol. 23, No. 1; Vol. 24, No. 1; Vol. 24,
* Edited from a dialogue between Jeff Zeig and Steve Andreas “Experiential Approaches: The Power of Implication” at the 2014 Brief Therapy Conference. BT14-D02