Home PageBlogThe Most Remarkable Communication Skills of Milton Erickson

By Jeffrey K. Zeig

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes, 1 second 

In December of 1973, when I was 26 years old and had recently earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology, I met Milton Erickson. I was working in the San Francisco Bay Area as a couples and family counselor and serendipitously the opportunity to visit Dr. Erickson presented itself. (The transcript of this initial meeting is in my book, Experiencing Erickson, Zeig, 1985.)

Since I had been immersed in the world of academic learning and regurgitating information, I thought Dr. Erickson would teach me his techniques in a traditional manner and then test me. But that did not turn out to be the case. For more than six years, from 1973 to 1978, when I intermittently visited him, he never once explained any of his signature techniques or watched me offer a session and give
a critique. He never once explained the confusion technique or the interspersal technique, both of which he created. And he never explained how storytelling could be used to convey a concept in therapy (another one of his signature methods that was not commonly used by therapists at the time), or how therapeutic suggestions could be embedded in a hypnotic induction. Instead, he offered me experiences to elicit conceptual realizations, and this shook my world. Erickson was like a Zen master giving his student a koan. It was as if he were asking me: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And I would have to reflect on the koan to experientially reach enlightenment.

On my first visit to see Erickson, he told a story so that I would realize that the following day was his birthday. He was a master raconteur and obviously enjoyed telling anecdotes. The story began with him in a restaurant in New Orleans, a place renowned for its world-class seafood, especially oysters. When the waiter came to the table, Erickson ordered two dozen oysters on the half shell. Now, this was probably not that unusual until he ordered a third dozen. And after he finished the third dozen, he ordered a fourth dozen. And having consumed 48 raw oysters, he asked the waiter for another dozen. Now at this point the waiter was cataleptic, and recognizing this, Erickson casually said, “Sixty oysters for 60 birthdays.” That was how Erickson celebrated his 60th birthday.

What was even more perplexing than one man sitting down to a meal of 60 oysters, was Erickson’s way of telling me that December 5th was his birthday, and that experience stuck with me. He had oriented me toward a realization I would never forget. I had no idea why he was not teaching me like all my other teachers, where I would memorize facts and then be tested, but I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Here’s another charming story of Erickson’s:

Erickson once worked with a young boy who refused to use the public restroom at school. Erickson discovered that the boy was interested in rockets, so he drew a picture of a rocket with a small compartment for the space travelers, and then talked to the boy about how being an astronaut would involve limited personal space and sharing conveniences. Erickson spoke to the boy in parallel. He did not offer a direct suggestion, such as, “You need to learn how to start using the boy’s restroom at school,” but rather he developed in the boy an understanding of what it would take to be an astronaut. Erickson utilized something the boy valued — rockets — to create parallel communication that would lead to the desired outcome: having the boy use the restroom at school through his own initiative.

In his interpersonal communication, Erickson did not often use a direct didactic approach, explaining something and how it could be useful. Rather he used an evocative approach. Sometimes he would tell me story after story until he saw a response indicating that I realized the message. On occasion, I would interrupt him by saying, “Dr. Erickson, you just told me several stories and they all seem to share a similar theme. What is it that you’re saying to me?” But it was rare that he directly answered me. Instead, he would tell me another story – until I got it. If Erickson had something in mind that he wanted the patient or student to realize, he would weave stories and use methods derived from hypnosis until the patient or student would have a realization, which could then be used as a reference experience to develop a more adaptive identity. Erickson could communicate something directly when he wanted to, but he was primarily evocative in his communication, especially in his later years. He was direct in the articles that he wrote for publication, but he could be evocative in his letters.

A female patient came to see Erickson because of intimacy problems in her marriage. She told Erickson, “I can’t kiss my husband.” So, Erickson created a situation where the woman could not physically kiss her husband. He instructed a student who was in the session to open a door and put a piece of paper under it, centering the paper. Erickson told the husband to stand on the paper on one side of the door with his nose touching the door, and he instructed the woman to do the same on the other side of the door. Then Erickson said to the woman, “Now you’re in a situation where you are a few inches away from your husband and you can’t kiss him. Why put limitations on something when there are no limitations?”

Erickson worked to change inflexibility. He often told me stories about restrictive behavior. But he told more stories about people who learned to be flexible. In the many hours that I spent with Erickson, individually or in groups, about half the time he was telling stories about flexibility. He told stories about the innate flexibility of children, about animals being flexible, and how there was flexibility in some cultures, which did not exist in others. He wanted me to think with a beginner’s mind. But rather than saying, “Jeff, you’re inflexible when it comes to ______ Here’s how you can be more flexible…” he instead told me stories that would prompt flexibility.

Erickson also worked to increase his students’ perceptual acuity, especially in an area that he felt they were lacking. For example, I was not astute at being visually perceptive. I have always been more in tune with what I hear rather than what I see. So to hone my visual perception, he would offer me exercises. He once said, “Jeff, let’s say you’re walking down the street and a man is walking toward you.
He’s a policeman in his street clothes. What would you see in his behavior that suggests his occupation?” He also once asked me that if I were a passenger in a car and the driver was going to make a turn, how would I know which way the driver planned to turn before signaling or changing lanes. And, he suggested I watch children playing and predict which child would leave the group first, or which child would speak next.

When first offered to me, I did not know why Erickson gave me these exercises. But later I realized his intent was to sharpen my visual perception. He did not explain the purpose of the assignments, and I did not need to know it. I remember the moment I realized his reason though. I was with another student who was visually perceptive and Erickson gave him assignments to strengthen his auditory perception. He wanted to bypass the brain’s left hemisphere process of using working memory and go straight to the right hemisphere’s procedural memory. He wanted us to learn like children who learn intuitively.

Erickson was radically experiential and he utilized whatever was in the situation, both in the therapy room and in his personal life. He added 300 cases to the literature, more than any therapist in history, and all of them are based on utilization. Erickson once worked with a businessman who had been hospitalized. The man had experienced many ups and downs in his work life, which could explain
why he compulsively moved his arm up and down vertically. Instead of trying to get the man to stop or interpreting how this man’s symptom could be correlated with his stressful job, Erickson got the man to move his arm faster. Then he got the man to gradually move his arm on a diagonal; then horizontally. Eventually, Erickson took the man down to the hospital’s woodworking shop, put sandpaper in his hand, and had the man sand a piece of wood. Erickson had a natural talent for finding virtue in a “fault.” He would find utility in things that seemed useless. And there didn’t seem to be anything that Erickson couldn’t utilize.

A friend of mine, who was one of the first to make Erickson’s contributions available to professionals in Germany, once visited Erickson and told him about a case he was working on that involved a couple. The woman had curvature of the spine — scoliosis — and her husband was avoiding intimacy with her. The husband claimed that this was not due to the scoliosis, but his wife did not believe him. My friend asked Erickson how he would handle this situation. Without missing a beat, Erickson said he would tell the man privately, “Men are biologically designed to love curves. Your wife has curves. Women with curves are intriguing.” Again, Erickson found something to utilize in the situation; he utilized the very problem, the woman’s physical “flaw,” to help the husband alter his perception of what is attractive.

Erickson was also strategic in his teaching and therapy. He would set up, intervene, then follow through with interventions, establishing a momentum in which small steps could more easily lead to the targeted outcome. Erickson once used this process with me when I was organizing the first Erickson Congress in the late 1970s. This was the only time I saw him even come close to what could be considered anger.

It was early evening and both of us were tired, but I wanted to keep working. I was young and hyperactive and talking quickly, shooting questions at him about the format of the congress and the composition of the faculty. I wanted everything to be just right because the congress was my way of thanking him for teaching me for more than six years at no charge. Erickson said to me slowly and softly, “Jeeeeff, it’s almost 6:00.” And I brushed him off, replying, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” He went on, “Well, you know that I’m confined to a wheelchair.” And I said, “Yeah, of course, I know.” “Weeell, you also know I grew up on a farm…” And I said, “Yeah, yeah.” “…and I love the outdoors. But because of my infirmities, I can’t really get out much.” And I impatiently said, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” He continued, “And I watch television because my vision doesn’t allow me to read much anymore.” And I said, “Okay. Yeah.” And he said, “You know, I like to watch nature shows and animal shows. And at 6:00 my animal program comes on, and this is my way of getting outdoors.” And I replied, “Okay, I know.” And he finally said, “You know, if I don’t get to watch my animal program, I get angry.” I said, “I’m leaving.” To this day, that experience stands as my reference for effectively expressing anger.

Erickson is the most remarkable communicator I have ever met. He was incredibly precise in everything he said and did. Each word and gesture were exactly what he intended for what he was trying to communicate. And the effect that had on me was that I felt loved and really seen. He worked hard to communicate, and the result was that he helped me become a better Jeff Zeig.

 

References:
Zeig, J. K. (1985). Experiencing Erickson. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.

 

Volume 40, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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