Creating Connection in hypnosis: Building on an Ericksonian approach
(7 min read)

Robert McNeilly

Robert McNeilly

My favourite Ericksonian joke is: 'How many Ericksonian therapists does it take to change a light bulb? It takes 19! One to change the light bulb and 18 to say how they think Erickson would have done it differently'. I'm just one of the 18. In this article, I offer my translation of what I learned from this amazing human being.

Milton Erickson
Milton Erickson.

When I first learned about hypnosis, I was taught that it was dangerous and weird. After my time with Milton Erickson, this completely changed.

Erickson spoke to me of 'the everyday trance' where we get lost in reading a book, watching a movie or walking in nature. He offered the idea that hypnosis could be thought of as an extension of this familiar and normal experience. This made sense to me and was a huge relief.

To me, this spoke to what hypnosis IS. Textbooks were filled with different definitions which were often not helpful. Instead, I now understood that when we see someone have an engaging experience, deeply focused and absorbed, we can mutually agree that is a state of hypnosis. Understanding this allows us to help our clients into a hypnotic state by being focused and absorbed in an enjoyable experience.

Erickson transformed the context of psychotherapy from:

  • an exploration of past causes to one of creating a better future,
  • searching for insights to inviting actions that would allow that preferred future to be realised, and
  • the medical model of gathering information to make a diagnosis leading to treatment and to connecting each individual with their unique resources.

Erickson spoke about a woman who rang him saying she'd been washing her hands obsessively for 15 years and that he was very interested to discover what she did with her hands 16 years ago—no mention of causes or treating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Just an opportunity for her to reconnect with an experience that she had forgotten about.

Human problems often happen in a mood of resignation: 'I'm stuck with this, I can't fix it, I'll always have it'. No client tells us that they have a problem and believe that at any moment it's going to solve itself!

Moods are so infectious. We can catch a client's mood of helplessness and overwhelm, and we can all too easily feel it with them. One of the biggest contributions we can give our clients is for us to be in a mood of expectancy and possibility ourselves, so the client can catch our mood. Catching moods works both ways.

Erickson told me, 'When a client comes to see you, they always bring their solution with them, only they don't know that they do. So, have a very nice time, talking with your clients, helping them discover the solution that they brought with them, that they didn't know that they did'. I found this to be charming, but it raises the question, 'How might we do that?'

A breakthrough appeared when I realised that when we are enjoying something, we are focused and absorbed and, in this time, we have all the resources we need to manage any interruption. My son likes to ride his bike each morning and if the chain comes off, or if he falls off, or it rains, he takes care of the interruption and continues his ride. He doesn't give up. He just does what he needs to do so that he can continue riding.

According to Erickson, we can explore with each individual client what is missing for them, that if they had it, they would be okay. They would have their solution. My Irish ancestors say, 'If you don't know where you are going, you might end up in a different place'. Asking, 'What's missing?' gives us a potential new direction and clarifies what we, and the client are looking for. This creates a cooperative and respectful relationship.

I have also found that if we invite a client to remember or re-experience doing something they like, they are usually eager to accept this invitation. We human beings are always willing to experience something we like. This can provide a respectful way into hypnosis.

We invite the client to recall or imagine something they like doing. We then invite them to focus on some aspect of this experience, allowing them to become increasingly absorbed in their experience. There is then no need for a standard 'induction', but rather a simple invitation that will work perfectly for them in their own individual way.

As we continue to observe the client, we may notice a slowing of their blinking or perhaps they have even closed their eyes. Often there is a subtle slowing and deepening of their breathing, a smoothing out of their facial muscles and a stillness in their body. We speak to the client noting these changes, which results in enhancing their relaxed state as well as reassuring them that they are becoming deeply relaxed, naturally, easily.

I have found that it's important to offer the idea that there is no right or wrong amount of focus and absorption. I let the client know that they will only be as focused and absorbed as will be useful to them. This can avoid any concern they might have about doing the 'right' thing.

We then ask the client to look within their experience for what is missing in their problem, letting them know the missing piece or resource is there, waiting to be found. I have found that most people can find this easily, experiencing great relief, often with an 'aha!' moment. The next step is to invite them to get to know it, learn it, soak it up. The final step is to assist them to bring this resource to the problem.

I have noticed that some clients, when they find their missing resource, are able to spontaneously make the connection. This is wonderful but somewhat uncommon, as most clients need some assistance. I have found that there are four methods that can help:

  1. We can say, 'The problem is the same as what you like'. This sounds weird but some people find they can see the connection.
  2. We can ask, 'What is it about, doing what you like that could be helpful with your problem?'
  3. We can introduce learning: 'You learned how to like what you like, and in the same way, you can learn what is going to be useful for resolving your problem'. Learning takes away the pressure to immediately resolve their issue and transforms it into a process.
  4. We can invite the client to not have to make the connection here and now, but rather, being curious about when and how the connection will be made, suggesting, maybe the answer will pop up as they are eating breakfast, watching a movie or walking their dog. This creates a preposition that the connection will happen. There is then only some uncertainty about when.

It can be so useful to then allow the client to sit with their experience in their relaxed hypnotic state, to let them ponder. Then, when they are ready, they can come out of hypnosis in their own time.

Usually, a client emerges from this hypnotic experience feeling relaxed, happy and perhaps with a sense of relief. It is useful to ask them, 'What's different now compared with when we started?' Most clients will report relief, and when they articulate this, it becomes more real. Occasionally a client will respond with 'Nothing is different'. Although we don't want to hear this, it is so important that we find out, so we can adapt our future approach.

The final step is to thank the client. Thank them for trusting us. Thank them for allowing us to be a part of their resolution.

A teacher in his late 50s liked to go to a different country each long vacation. He enjoyed having no plan or itinerary. This was an adventure. His presenting problem with me was that he was uncertain about his future as a teacher. Should he get a business degree so he could be promoted? Should he upskill to become a special teacher? He'd never been in this position before. As he spoke about his holiday adventures, he began to see connections, and to our surprise he said, 'OK, I'll be alright now'. He made the connection spontaneously.

A young man enjoyed horse riding. He liked the connection with the horse, and he liked the mutual trust. He came to me for help with his fear of flying. In hypnosis, when I stated that perhaps, flying in a plane was the same as riding a horse, he said that the statement sounded strange, but it made some sense. When I asked about what his experience of riding a horse could be useful for his fear of flying he became pensive and said there was something there but, he couldn't quite get to it. I offered the idea that when he first started to ride a horse, he may have been frightened, and over time he learnt to trust the horse so, in the same way he could learn to trust flying. This consolidated the connection, and he was able to enjoy several flights and was amused to say that each flight was like a giant jump on a horse. He was happy and relieved.

I offer these examples as an illustration of how we, as therapists, can assist our clients to reconnect with resources that they had become disconnected from.

Thank you for reading about this approach. It is offered as an opportunity to contribute to your effectiveness and satisfaction.

If you are interested in exploring this further, you might be interested in downloading a small eBook that I wrote

Dr. Robert McNeilly was in a suburban Melbourne general medical practice for 10 years, had the privilege of learning directly with Milton Erickson, was inspired by his human approach to therapy, and created his own interpretation to assist clients in a respectful, dignified way with the human dilemmas that affect individuals, couples and families. He founded the CET in l988 to introduce Ericksonian Hypnosis and the Solution Oriented Approach to hypnosis, counselling and coaching in Australia.

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