by Zainal Abidin Rahman
In the NLP and psychotherapy communities, the name
Milton Erickson evokes feelings of awe and reverence.
Steve Lankton, who studied directly with Erickson, said
he used to read a chapter about Erickson at the start of
his trainings and would invariably weep at the memories.
How did Erickson become such a genius? Confronted with
patients and clients who other doctors and psychologists
have given up hope, how did he know exactly what to do
with them that they got better within a short time?
His training as a medical doctor undoubtedly helped. But
there is more to it. It’s what we call the Ericksonian
Approach. It is an approach which has been instrumental
in the development of many therapeutic and human
potential technologies such as Solution Focused Therapy
and Neuro Linguistic Programming.
Taken and adapted from the work of Jeffrey Zeig, PhD,
the Ericksonian Approach can be summarised as follows:
Milton Erickson had a genuine care and concern for the
people he worked with. Erickson’s children reported that
it was normal for patients to move about in the living
room and kitchen of the family home and interact with
them. One patient from out of town was even allowed to
set up camp in the back garden because he could not
afford to stay in a hotel.
Erickson would call to give Christmas greetings or gifts
to former patients even years after they had recovered
just to enquire how they were getting on. Erickson’s
idea of a patient being well was when they had a decent
job, got married with several children and send him
Christmas cards! He enjoyed that.
Unlike many psychiatrist or psychologists, Erickson had
a strong aversion to theories and therefore wasn’t into
analysing the reasons why someone was in a stuck state.
He utilized any behaviour that’s presented to him by his
clients – most frequently by referring or talking about
them. In one case, a patient had been left in a hospital
for many years and no doctors knew how to treat him. The
patient had the unusual affliction of speaking in “word
salad” which was speaking words that were out of normal
syntax. He therefore didn’t make sense to anyone. For
example, instead of saying “There is a cat in my attic”
he could be saying “cat there in is attic a” in a most
After Erickson met the patient, he instructed a clerk to
transcribe the word salad for several days. He studied
the patterns of the word salad and when he was ready he
met the patient and said something like “observing find
you I and interesting you been have.” Soon the two of
them were deep in an animated word salad conversation,
talking to each other with complete conviction. Save for
the uniform, nurses couldn’t make out who was the doctor
and who was the patient!
Over the next few weeks the two of them could be heard
making such exchanges. Over time, the patient started to
talk in normal sentences and nurses and doctors were
able to communicate with him.
The maxim of an Ericksonian is: “Utilise, don’t
3 Sensory Perceptiveness
Erickson was a master of perceptiveness when interacting
with people. There are tons of stories about how
Erickson could detect the smallest cues and could assess
a person’s character barely 5 minutes into meeting him.
This ability obviously was instrumental in helping him
assess the best way to change the client. One of the
best sources of these stories is The Uncommon Casebook –
The Complete Clinical Work of Milton H Erickson MD by
O’Hanlon and Hexum.
Erickson frequently gave tasks for his clients before
they could see him for the first appointment. Such tasks
which are symbolic in nature were intended to help
clients work out their motivation. In Erickson’s time,
it was fashionable to suggest they climb up Squaw Peak ,
a small hill like Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore , but
enough to get the climbers break into a sweat. Or they
were tasked to grow cactus plants and distribute them to
strangers, or observe the different shapes of grasses in
In his younger days, Erickson agonised over such simple
things as the choice of words to use with his patients.
Before meeting a patient, he wrote pages and pages of
scripts, which he would pare down until he had the
essence of his thoughts in only 1 page. If he was still
not satisfied with the script, he would cut that further
to one paragraph, and ultimately one sentence. Such
thoroughness in preparation!
As he grew older, these early rigorous preparation paid
off and he could say the right word to a patient in a
split of a second as the event was unfolding before him.
Despite the insufferable pain which he suffered as a
result of polio in his old age, Erickson had a great
sense of humour. I cannot resist sharing with you a
story Zeig told us.
Once, before beginning a lecture to a group of medical
students Erickson bent forward with a gleam in his eyes
and asked almost in a whisper, “Do you want to know the
secret for longevity?
The students opened up their eyes and together said
Erickson took his time, scanned the room and when he saw
the students were eagerly waiting for the answer, he
intoned, “Wake up every morning.”
There was an audible groan among the students.
After a pause, he continued, “And do you want to know
the secret for waking up in the morning?
The groan stopped and again the students were all ears.
“Drink lots of water just before going to sleep”.
You can imagine the rush for the dorm toilets at 5 every
Zainal is a
business trainer and coach specializing in
personal and organizational change. He has
worked with thousands of clients, individuals
and corporate, and brings with him expertise in
OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions
Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram,
energy psychology and various other effective
modalities that create change at the personal
and corporate levels. Contact:
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