Learning Ericksonian Hypnosis

Sheldon Bilsker, HT, RCC is the Director and founder of Orca Institute, Canada's longest running hypnotherapy school.
You can contact him at 604-808-3703

Milton Erickson was an American psychiatrist and the founding president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis born in 1901 and died in 1980. At 17 he was paralyzed by polio. This event started a process of exploration to discover what he was capable of, which eventually would lead him to become the modern-day father of hypnotherapy. He revolutionized the field. 

In earlier days and still used is what is referred to as direct approaches in hypnosis.

An example of a direct approach would be “close your eyes, breathe deeply, relax and let go,” in other words, a series of benevolent orders for the client to do certain things that will hopefully produce a state of deep relaxation or hypnosis. An indirect approach [Ericksonian hypnosis] can involve a variety of different types of phrasing such as, “and sometimes we can wonder, isn’t it nice to know that we can just let go at our own pace in our own time, I’m not sure when you’ll choose to relax, but it doesn’t really matter, and whether you choose to move into trance this way or another way it doesn’t really matter which way, as we can move all the way into trance [another term for hypnosis].”

The advantage of an indirect approach is that the client has more metonymy in choosing his or her own experience during the hypnotic session, so they do not feel as locked in. However, like anything else in this field, sometimes a direct approach is precisely what the client needs at that time. Also, some clients are more comfortable with the direct approach. It is a matter of choice, and most importantly what works.
Sometimes Milton Erickson was very direct in approach, but most of the time not. He did whatever was appropriate according to the client’s needs at that moment, and typically, he had no idea what he was going to do until that moment. His intent was always to empower the client and create an environment where they felt safe in making their own choices and finding their own resolutions.

My Story

Sometime in 1990, I was teaching classes in Vancouver on hypnosis. At the time, I was teaching very traditional and directive ways to do hypnotherapy. That is all I knew. One day I met Mahmud Nestman RCC, M.ED who happened to be teaching in the same school as me. He was a counsellor and hypnotherapist, and in our discussion, he asked me if I had ever heard of Ericksonian hypnotherapy. I said I had not.

From that time whenever I would run into him, I would ask Mahmud to tell me more about this new therapeutic approach to hypnosis. The more I heard, the more questions I had and the more fascinated I became. In one particular week, I was teaching two classes, and I asked Mahmud if he would teach my class Ericksonian hypnosis. He agreed, and enthusiastically, I scheduled him in for both classes in which case I would become one of the students as well.

The day came, and I could not wait to see what Mahmud what was going to demonstrate. I observed him working with students, and myself included, demonstrating indirect phrasing, arm levitation, utilizing stories, using anecdotes and metaphors, pacing and leading and more. What I found particularly fascinating was that this approach was almost the polar opposite of what I had been doing and had learned.
Previously, I would, in effect, “prepare” for a client that I was about to see.

Much my preparation would involve wording that I was going to use in the hypnotic induction and specific suggestions that I thought might benefit the client. I look back at that and find it slightly absurd that I believed I had to prepare in that way. The chances were that my assumptions would be way off base when it came to the particular needs of the client at that moment. As I came to this realization, I knew that I could not use my “old” approach again in my practice.

I hypnotized my first person in 1968. It was my friend’s girlfriend, and we wanted to see if we could contact spirits. I just read a book on hypnosis and decided to put it to the test. She was a willing and very good hypnotic subject and went into trance deeply. We contacted something because she was in distress for a short time until she came out of trance although I’m not entirely sure what created her anxiety. That was a long time ago, and I’ve learned much since then. The hypnotherapeutic approaches I used since then until I met Mahmud were very direct and slightly authoritative in approach.

Now, I had so many more ways of creatively and non-intrusively, helping people move into trance easily, safely, and effectively. I knew it would take a great deal of practice as these approaches were not necessarily easy to learn, although I found myself taking to this new approach as if my subconscious always knew it was there and had just chosen to reveal it. As I felt more confident in this new approach, I began to incorporate it into my classes until eventually, it became a mainstay of our training.

Many years later, this approach is still the most important thing I do when working with the client. Simply put, I allow the client to “come to” me rather than go to the client. I choose a position of openness and neutrality, which allows me to really listen to what the client is offering me. This tells me all that I need to know and what to do next. One of the things I enjoy doing with students is to put them in a position where they have no idea what they will do next in a counselling session. Most students, especially novices, will feel various stages of discomfort. It’s a wonderful place to be. It is a place of infinite creativity and choice. It also forces one to be entirely in the moment with that person in front of you.

Erickson always said that he had no idea what he was going to do or say next when working with the client, but he knew that the client had an extraordinary ability, as we all do, to access their own inner resources and with encouragement, support and insight, resolve their own issues.
Very few things in my professional career as a teacher has given me more satisfaction than watching a student in the situation I just described, climb out of the abyss and discover that they knew exactly what they were going to do next, because verbally, or nonverbally, the client let them know. In my opinion, that is the pivotal process of becoming a therapist. Erickson taught me that, maybe not in person, but through everything he left.

I encourage all hypnotherapy students to learn Ericksonian hypnosis and broaden their perspective on this fascinating field.


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Saturday, 03 December 2022