Again in a departure from classic psychotherapy, Erickson discouraged the authoritative use of “tell me about…” Instead he would encourage the patient to withhold information and only discuss what they wished to. This passive method helped clients ultimately share more information with him. The client was empowered rather than the therapist. They felt that they needed to save this special ability to withhold information for something important later. By the end of the conversation they had told him everything.
A famous example of using resistance and a “double bind” occurred when Erickson was a boy. One day Erickson was helping his father coax a stubborn calf into the family barn. Try as they might to pull the calf into the barn, it didn’t budge. He realized that the calf wished to resist, accepted it, and pulled the opposite end on it’s tail – away from the barn. The new input of the boy pulling on the tail negated the father pulling on the head and the calf went into the barn.
He used this as a classic psychological example of a double bind – where the subject becomes overwhelmed and is emotionally “pulled” in two conflicting directions. Thus, the confused individual successfully accepts one form of resistance and fails to respond to the other.
In the context of family therapy, if a family member is resisting engaging in conversation he might ignore that member until they finally respond out of frustration.
Using indirect hypnosis Erickson would “seed ideas” into the unconscious mind via metaphors and stories. A less subtle example would be, “have you ever been in a trance before?” Now, the idea of a trance is in the mind even though the subject is not in one yet.
One of the most famous hypnosis techniques is the handshake induction. As the first interaction with a client, and a common everyday occurrence Erickson proved it was a subtle way to change the mind’s accepted behavior. When someone performs a handshake their mind is virtually on autopilot – you may have never realized it’s a trance. It is the most widespread social norm in the world to shake hands at the beginning of a meeting; we don’t even think about it. By interrupting this subconscious process, Erickson was able to open the mind for suggestion. This is a classic example of “pattern interruption.”
Erickson’s handshake technique is well documented in his books and by those that have met him. He began with a strong, normal shake to begin the induction. Then he would interrupt the process by loosening the strength of the grip and brushing specific fingers against the subject’s hand. It’s quite complicated to learn, but a powerful induction.
Emphasizing The Positive
Erickson always found the good side of a patient’s disability. After all he was color blind, dyslexic, tone deaf, and partially paralyzed. Yet these seemingly negative disabilities were the very things that allow him to become an expert at reading body language.
But, this does not only apply to disabilities. A more common example would be a child that refuses to go to bed. Here a parent might combine two Ericksonian therapy techniques – emphasizing the positive and encouraging resistance. First they might compliment the child on their energy and then encourage them to stay up later. This would end resistance in the child as they no longer need to prove that they can stay up late. If they do accept the suggestion and stay up later, they will be even more tired the next day and go to bed early.
By distracting the conscious mind, Erickson was able to open the unconscious mind to hypnotic language. According to Erickson, nearly every one of his techniques employs confusion in some form. For example he would intentionally use vague language patterns, complex topics, confusing words, metaphors, and jokes to distract his patient’s conscious train of thought.
In some cases, Erickson would use psychological shock therapy to help a client face their fear directly. For example, he once shocked a man with a fear of riding the elevator by convincing an elevator attendant to attempt to kiss the man in a stopped elevator (he was married). The man denied the kiss, and asked her to turn on the elevator and bring him to the lobby! He had overcome his fear of moving elevators.
In one instance, he actually stepped on a woman’s foot who refused to leave her home because she thought she had small feet! The shock caused her to open her mind to the induction which followed. He exclaimed, “How’s a man supposed to marry a woman with such big feet?” Thereafter she was cured.