The Therapeutic Genius of Milton Erickson and How He Positively Influenced the Fields of NLP and PsychotherapyOnce upon a time in a far way land called Phoenix, there lived an old man in a wheelchair, who many called the Wizard of the Desert., This old man had sparkly eyes that shimmered liked the ocean and he lived inside the body of one who had polio. He was racked with physical pain day and night, yet had the magical ability to outthink the pain and forge the pathway for a generation of gifted healers – who would forever remember him – long after he was gone, and his dust filled ashes spread out upon the Arizona desert. His name was Dr. Milton H. Erickson, and he was one of the greatest psychotherapists who ever lived.
Because of his frail health, many young college students who were studying psychology, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy – along with many seasoned psychotherapists of the day would make the journey to the old man’s simple home in the desert to pay homage to him, and to quietly sit and learn from him – and let him mess with their minds…
Some called Erickson a healer, others called him a trickster and a shaman – and millions of people around the world consider him to be one of the greatest psychiatrists and hypnotherapists of our time. He wrote prolifically about what he did, worked with tons of patients – and freely gave his knowledge and wisdom away. He influenced a whole generation of brilliant young thinkers, change agents and psychotherapeutic geniuses who would go on to change the world in a big way…
Three of those people included:
Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, who has authored and edited more than 20 books on psychotherapy and the work of Milton Erickson; Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D, who is considered by many to be a modern day genius in the use of trance and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy – and has written a number of books on trance and psychotherapy; and Robert Dilts, one of the primary developers of NLP, who has written more than 25 books on NLP, psychotherapy and Success Factor Modeling.
It’s interesting to note that the three of them made multiple trips to see Erickson in the later part of his life – and these trance filled trips helped shape them into becoming the brilliant men they are today. The focus of this article will be on their thoughts and understandings of what made Milton such a therapeutic genius, and what made him so incredibly special.
And now we can step back in time to the mid-1970s into the dusty-hot desert of Phoenix, Arizona – and imagine what it would have been like to be a young university student studying with a great master like Erickson… a master who was color blind, arrhythmic, tone deaf, dyslexic – and always wore the color purple, with a bolo tie covered in purple shells that came from the sea…
Milton Erickson and the Power of Having a Beginners Mind
“Whenever we went to Phoenix, Arizona to study with Dr. Erickson in the 1970s, we had a lot questions for him,” said Robert Dilts, as he reflected on what it was like to be a 19-year old studying with Erickson…
“The other students and I would ask him questions such as: “If you use this particular approach with a person who has that particular type of issue, will it produce a certain result?” and Erickson would invariably reply, “I don’t know.”
We would then ask him, “Will it work to use this process to address that problem?” And again, Erickson would respond, “I don’t know.” We ended up with pages and pages in our notebooks saying, “He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know.”
Milton Erickson’s approach to problem solving is a classic example of the power of having a beginner’s mind, proclaimed Dilts. It wasn’t that he was trying to be evasive. It was that he simply did not operate from a lot of pre-held beliefs and assumptions…
Interestingly, every situation was unique to Erickson, every person was “one of a kind”, and his relationship with that person was also unique, said Dilts.
So when asked about the probability of a particular outcome, Erickson would always say, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” And then he would add, “But I am very curious to discover what is possible.”
“I believe that state of not knowing combined with curiosity is at the essence of true generative and transformational change, and contributed to Erickson’s therapeutic genius”, explained Dilts.
According to Stephen Gilligan, who was also a long-time student of Erickson – Milton had many different identities such as: psychiatrist, father, researcher, journal editor, mentor, practical joker, lover of nature, and more. He had a keen intellect; was an exceptional communicator, and a therapist without peer. He taught in medical school, founded and edited an academic journal, and worked tirelessly with psychiatric patients for close to five decades. But along with these rational and worldly achievements, Milton Erickson was also a great healer, said Gilligan.
Erickson was renowned for drifting in and out of a trance state during his therapy sessions with clients and trusted his unconscious mind to understand his patient’s unconscious mind in a way that intellect and logic could only attempt to make sense of afterwards (and fail massively to fully understand). One of his most accomplished students, Jeffrey K. Zeig, (Psychologist, author, director of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation in Arizona and inheritor of Dr. Erickson’s therapy practice) has often stated that even the most perceptive and intelligent person could still only catch onto about 50% of what Milton was doing, and for a disabled man with paralysis of the mouth, tongue, arms and legs, Milton never wasted an ounce of energy doing anything or saying anything that was not entirely purposeful.
“It is Erickson’s work, in fact, that is most at the foundation of the principles and techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)”, said Robert Dilts. While much has already been written on Erickson’s processes, there is always much to be gained by the re-examination of his work.
According to Dilts, the most fundamental and important strategy employed by Erickson was the process of “pacing and leading.” Erickson was a master at meeting his clients at their own impoverished model of the world, pacing their way of thinking and then elegantly leading them to a more resourceful way of organizing their experience. This process of ‘pacing’ was also a powerful way of establishing a deep rapport with the patient.
According to Jeffrey Zeig, “If you were to ask Erickson what his biggest contribution was to the field of psychotherapy, he would have mentioned two of his technical contributions. The first one being the “interspersal technique” (an associative method)… Meaning that on the social level, you are talking about one thing, while on the psychological level, you are inferring to other things.
And the second technical contribution being the “confusion technique” (a dissociative method)… where you destabilize and then orient the person towards the resource. These techniques, associative techniques and dissociative techniques, were used hand in hand by Erickson.”
But besides the technical contributions, one of the unique contributions that Erickson made was “utilization”, said Zeig. Utilization is a philosophy of response readiness. The therapist responds constructively to whatever exists in the total weave of the situation. Rather than analyzing things, you utilize things. So if the person is tall, utilize that. If the person is short, utilize that…
“For example, Erickson autographed a book to me because when I went to see him for the first time, it was the end of my counterculture days and I had long hair that was braided in back of me and parted down the middle,” explained Zeig.
And when I went to see him the second time, I changed my style completely, to a style that’s somewhat similar to the way that I dress today, and I have curly hair, and Erickson autographed a book, “To Jeff Zeig, just another book to curl your hair.” And so Erickson would utilize anything, and if you gave him whatever it was that you gave him, he would find a way of utilizing it.
According to Stephen Gilligan, one of Erickson’s greatest skills was his capacity to operate in two “realities” simultaneously: the interior world and the exterior world…
His “inner work” (with a dazzling array of naturalistic trance experiences) showed the infinite possibilities of consciousness; his “outer work” (with all sorts of directives to act differently in the social world) showed many creative paths for shifting a person’s identity; and his skill at holding both worlds simultaneously gave him a special capacity as a healer, added Gilligan.
“But while he had dazzling technical prowess and mesmerizing presence, at the heart of his healing capacity was his love and compassion for his patients. I believe that his exceptional, ability to enter and gently affirm a person’s deepest identity was responsible for much of his success,” said Gilligan.
In spite of his remarkable impairment due to polio and the residuals of post-polio syndrome that stripped him of some of his muscular strength over the years and caused tremendous pain, Erickson transcended his pain and perfumed the air around him with the spirit of being glad to be alive. Erickson was also the most precise communicator that I have ever encountered, explained Zeig…
So every word was chosen, every gesture was chosen, the meaning of the words were chosen, the meaning of the gestures were chosen, and he was really working assiduously to reach your heart – and this is one of the many things that made him so special.
Kristine Hallbom is an internationally recognized NLP trainer, author and professional coach. She is the co-founder of the NLP Coaching Institute and has been actively working in the field of NLP for over 30 years. She is the co-creator of the WealthyMind™ Program, which has been taught to live audiences in over 20 countries and has helped thousands of people create more of what they want in their lives.
Kris is also the co-author of the book, Powerful Questions and Techniques for Coaches and Therapists, and has published numerous articles on wealth consciousness, NLP Coaching and systems thinking for a variety of psychology journals and magazines.
Kris can be reached through her website at: https://www.krishallbom.com
Please visit the Milton H. Erickson Foundation website at: https://www.erickson-foundation.org to learn more about the therapeutic genius of Milton Erickson.
- According to Jeffrey Zeig, The New York Times first called Erickson the Wizard of the Desert in a small feature article around the mid 1970s.
- Wizard of the Desert Video Documentary: An Alexander Vesely Film (2014)
- John E. Bradshaw, The Genius of Milton Erickson, John Bradshaw Media Group (2008)
- Robert B. Dilts, Erickson and the Importance of Having a Beginners Mind. Date unknown.
- Stephen Gilligan, I Was Without A Face And It Touched Me: Milton Erickson As A Healer. Published by Leete’s Island Books and authored by Bradford Keeney PhD and Betty Alice Erickson MS (2006)
- David Fairweather, The Passing of Greatness: Milton H. Erickson – The Wizard of the Desert (2015)
- Robert B. Dilts, Strategies of Genius “Milton Erickson”. Date unknown.
- R. Dilts, Strategies of Genius “Milton Erickson”. Date unknown.
- Kris Hallbom, Jeffrey Zeig Interview. Phoenix, AZ (April 2019).
- K. Hallbom, Jeffrey Zeig Interview. Phoenix, AZ (April 2019).
- S. Gilligan, I Was Without A Face And It Touched Me: Milton Erickson As A Healer, 2006, et al.
- K. Hallbom, Jeffrey Zeig Interview. Phoenix, AZ (April 2019).