Every person's map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. There are no two people alike. No two people who understand the same sentence the same way... So in dealing with people, you try not to fit them to your concept of what they should be.
- Milton Erickson
Want to learn more about Milton Erickson?
Then you’ve come to the right place.
His career spanned more than 50 years and left a profound impact on the world of hypnosis, to the extent that many hypnotherapists use some form of his approach. He was also a major influence on Neuro-linguistic Programming, a field of study pioneered in the 1970’s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.
Note: The Milton Erickson Foundation has an official biography on Milton Erickson.
Milton Erickson was born on December 5, 1901 to Albert and Clara Erickson. He lived in a poor farming community with his 8 siblings. He was one of only 2 boys and had 7 sisters.
From a young age, his life seemed to be filled with trouble. He was late in learning how to speak and had trouble reading, which he believed was caused by dyslexia. Later on, he overcame his dyslexia during an auto-hypnotic experience. He said it was like a “blinding flash of light.” He was also color blind and tone deaf. According to Erickson, he believed his “disabilities” helped him focus on the aspects of communication that other people tended to overlook.
When he turned 17, he contracted polio and was bed-ridden for an extended period of time. In a way, it was like a blessing in disguise. Being forced to lay in bed all day allowed him to be very observant, especially of his family members. He would take notice of their tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and more.
He eventually trained his body to walk again. He embarked on a thousand-mile canoe trip by himself, which was both long and grueling. In the end, he still needed a cane to walk.
Milton’s interest in hypnosis came at an early age. A travelling entertainer had passed through the area and performed some hypnotic techniques. At the time, Milton believed that hypnosis was too powerful a tool to be left to entertainers. He wanted to bring hypnosis into the realm of scientific evaluation and into the practice of medicine.
It was Milton’s family doctor that inspired him to become a physician. He attended the University of Wisconsin and received graduate degrees in psychology and medicine. He began his formal studies of hypnosis under Clark Hull. After a while, he realized that his ideas were somewhat different from Clark’s.
He went on to take a series of positions at various state hospitals to continue his research. This also allowed him to refine his approach to therapy.
Many people are familiar with the idea of a "deep" trance, and early in his career Erickson was a pioneer in researching the unique and remarkable phenomena that are associated with that state, spending many hours at a time with individual subjects, deepening the trance.
He performed mental and physical examinations of soldiers during World War II. To help the war effort, the U.S. intelligence services enlisted him to meet with other experts about the psychological and mental factors that contribute to combat communication. During this time, he met with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, and went on to form lifelong friendships with both of them. Through Gregory Bateson, he met Jay Haley and the future co-founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder.
By the late 1930s, Erickson became renowned for his work in hypnosis. In 1957, he co-founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis with a number of his colleagues. He also served as the Inaugural President. He also established the American Journal of Hypnosis, which is the official journal of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and served as editor for 10 years.
In 1973, Jay Haley published Uncommon Therapy, and for the first time, Milton Erickson's approach was shared with people outside of the clinical hypnosis community. Erickson practically became an overnight celebrity, and people from all over the world wanted to meet him.
Not too long afterwards, he began holding teaching seminars which lasted until his death.
Milton Erickson’s Approach
Milton had a very unique approach to hypnosis and medicine. Even though he was known as the world’s leading hypnotist, he only used formal hypnosis in one-fifth of his cases in clinical practice.
He adapted his approach to each client. And his style was the complete opposite of traditional hypnosis. Unlike traditional hypnosis, which was direct and authoritarian, Milton’s approach was indirect and permissive.
For example, a classical hypnotist might say “You are going into a trance” while an Erickisonian hypnotist would say something like “you can comfortably learn how to go into a trance”.
With the Ericksonian approach, you’re providing an opportunity for the subject to accept the suggestions they’re most comfortable with, at their own pace, and with an awareness of the benefits.
Erickson firmly believed that it was not consciously possible to instruct the unconscious mind. Authoritarian suggestions are likely to be met with resistance. The unconscious mind is responsive to metaphors, opportunities, symbols, and contradictions.
According to Milton, everyone has a healthy, powerful core. It is the job of the hypnotist to help their client re-establish connection with their inner resources and to restore balance between the conscious and unconscious mind.
- He was very interested in the walking styles of people.
- His motto was “observe, observe, observe”. He even kept a notebook to make note of all of his observations.
- He was the first to describe the hand levitation method of induction.
- He could “utilize” anything about a client to help them change, including their beliefs, favorite words, cultural backgrounds, personal history, or even their neurotic habits.