The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson The Complete Volume – Book Review

Book by Ronald A. Havens, PhD. First published in 1985 then reprinted between 2003 and 2022.

“This book is revelatory and deeply inspiring. I understand why Milton Erickson was so exceptional.”

Andy Hill, Hypnotherapist, UK

Welcome and Overview

Welcome to my Book Review and I hope it may inspire others to read this very great work, about a very great man! If you are interested in the work of Milton Erickson, hypnotherapy, or psychotherapy, I would highly recommend taking the time to read and study this astonishing book.

I say study because there is so much of importance in the book, it would be impossible to gain the most from it by reading it quickly. I say astonishing because, although it is effortful to read, to think about and reflect on, it provides amazing insights and opportunities for learning all the way through. If like me, you may carry the learning and insights into your practice and feel as if the book has changed you for the better.

It is clearly written in engaging, accessible language and has a logical flow through its 3 sections:

As a hypnotherapist, I was of course eager to read Part 3 but on the author’s advice, I resisted this, and was glad I did, because there are significant aspects to Parts 1 and Parts 2 which make the Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy sections even more meaningful, understandable, and profound.

It is not a cheap book and prices in the UK start at about £30 but for anyone interested in hypnotherapy, I would say it is very good value for money and likely to provide a source of inspiration, insight and learning for the whole of your career. It’s a book to keep.

The thirteen chapters are set out as introductions and explanations of particular themes, and these are followed by verbatim comments and quotes by Milton Erickson himself. The chapters conclude with very good chapter summaries.

The book has taken considerable dedication by the author and the quotes in the book were gleaned from 140 records, publications, lectures and books. In my view it is a skilled précis of the way Erickson worked, reflecting many decades of his distinguished career.

The book is particularly important because Erickson did not publish his method or a protocol for us to simply follow, he actively resisted this. Despite this, the author skilfully guides us through to a greater understanding.

Of all the books I have read about psychotherapy, neuroscience and hypnotherapy, this book has taught and empowered me the most. It has also given me a much better understanding of Milton Erickson’s approach. It has both demystified him and raised my level of appreciation for his incredible talents and compassion.

If I were to be critical of the book in any way, it would be that there are possibly too many quotations, but I appreciate the repetition of themes is important in showing how important they were to Erickson himself. My other slight criticism is that the book doesn’t really cover Erickson’s own insights from when his approach didn’t go so well. Perhaps this was because he was successful much of the time?

Erickson was person-centred and intentional

Anyone who has read a little about Milton Erickson, will know that there are many interesting, curious and even wild stories told about him. However, my main revelation from reading the book is that these stories are a distraction from what he was really doing, why he was doing it or what he intended.

Although he sometimes used approaches, language and techniques that went beyond what was considered socially and therapeutically the norm at the time (and would be considered so now), he did this intentionally.

This intention was born out of a firm belief that people are individuals and therapy is most effective when it is tailored to the individual. So, when he prescribed challenges or ordeals, or used confusion techniques or was very direct, even abrupt, these were in response to a deep knowing within him about what would be most beneficial for the particular patient and help them start to change.

Having read the book it is clear that Erickson was significantly person-centred, beyond what most therapists would have, or have had, the confidence or knowledge to attempt. So, if he observed that a patient would benefit most from a particular approach, he felt duty bound, confident and capable enough to follow that approach, however outlandish it may have seemed to others. He even held a person-centred definition of abnormal behaviour, in describing it as ‘any behaviour not useful to the person or at variance with their personality’ and his work with individuals was guided by two important questions:

  1. ‘What is reasonable to expect of the person?’
  2. ‘What is purposeful and useful to them?’

These questions are of course as relevant to any therapy today that is designed around the clients’ priorities and goals (not the needs of the service or state).

Furthermore, it is clear from reading the book that this dedication to the individual and their needs was not driven by his own gratification or need for recognition, they were genuine acts of care, compassion and altruism.

The strength of his conviction about people being individuals seems to be the reason why he never published his approach as a specific theoretical framework and vehemently discouraged therapists from following standard procedures, scripts and protocols – given that everyone is individual. At the same time, although he resisted setting out his approach as a standardised protocol, he was neither random nor arbitrary.

Erickson was known to achieve therapeutic success beyond the ability of most therapists and he often successfully treated patients for whom other professionals had not been successful. It was, and still is therefore, natural for us to want to understand and replicate his methods. Having read the book however, it is clear that in order to emulate Erickson, one needs to adopt certain ways of working, and not attempt to just copy particular methods. This is an important distinction.

Erickson encouraged therapists to recognise their own individuality and to be themselves in the therapy space, instead of blindly following or copying prescribed methods or the approach of others.

I sense from reading the book that the more unusual, unorthodox stories and tales may have been more exceptional for Erickson himself and much of his therapeutic work would seem familiar to other therapists.

On reading the book, these understandings felt like awakenings to me and have left me with an increased sense of empowerment ever since.

Observation and the Conscious and Unconscious Minds

The book draws our attention to Milton’s considerable skills in observing people and infers that that developed, in part, as a consequence of him being paralysed as a child and young man during 2 bouts of polio. He also had a rare form of colour blindness which meant he could only see the colour purple. (This is disputed in another book I have read which says he was just colour blind). He was also said to be tone deaf and to speak in a strange kind of monotone.

During the first bout of polio Milton spent a lot of time observing the people who came and went around him and noticed that people communicated at both conscious and unconscious levels. He noticed that sometimes these communications were contradictory, (at odds with each other) because what the person communicated verbally (and intentionally) could be different from what they seemed to be communicating (more unintentionally) through their body language, breathing, head movements, mannerisms etc.. He observed therefore, that we all possess the ability to have a dual personality at certain times.

Milton developed a deep respect for the Unconscious Mind and described it as the ‘back of the mind’, our ‘self-knowledge’, a ‘vast reservoir of learning and potential’ and many similar descriptions. He attributed important characteristics to the unconscious which included being child-like, literal, direct, uncomplicated, powerful, entirely honest. He considered the unconscious to know things the Conscious Mind did not know, and to know how to solve our problems. He also believed that the Unconscious Mind always protects the Conscious Mind and will keep things out of our awareness if it believes it to be necessary. He also described the unconscious as not always being helpful and able to come to erroneous conclusions, judgements and reactions. (This is clearly evident in practice, for example with people who are experiencing phobic reactions.)

Milton considered emotions to be important signals which were attempting to communicate something important, even if the Conscious Mind were unaware of this. This view of emotions is something I have grown to adopt in my own practice and find that clients are often relieved to have emotions explained in this way i.e. as expressions arising from part of themselves, as opposed to emotions being them.

Milton described the Conscious Mind very differently from the Unconscious Mind and considered it susceptible to adopting rigid biases (called sets), being defensive of our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs and the source of our neuroses. According to Erickson, abnormal behaviour arises from faulty sets or as a defence against something unpleasant.

An important aspect of Milton’s approach was to observe, listen to, consider the need of, and purposely direct his attention to either the conscious or the Unconscious Mind or both. Milton communicated with the Unconscious Mind of his patients in various ways, indirectly, through metaphor, through replicating breathing and body language, both inside and outside of trance states.

One of the many new revelations in the book was that Erickson placed a great deal of importance on thanking the minds, before, during and after hypnosis. He was deeply courteous and caring in this work with clients. There are many quotes from him about the importance of protecting the client, keeping them psychologically safe not probing into matters that the client did not want to disclose at the time. In his view, hidden issues were hidden for a reason. Trust and rapport were considered essential aspects of therapy to Erickson.

The importance of Experience and Learning

Another important aspect of Erickson’s approach was his view that people learn through having an experience which is internalised. He believed that the purpose of psychotherapy (whether it included hypnosis or not) is to set the conditions for, or to facilitate, the person having an experience. This experience then becomes a catalyst or contribution to positive change for the person.

This experience was designed to help the person adopt a ‘new objective perspective and use their experience and learning to develop a more adaptive response’. Erickson saw people as capable and resourceful, and that effective therapy necessitated the patient or client taking some form of action. For some clients this action could usefully take place within the mind during trance, without the distractions of day-to-day life.

Milton considered that people make positive changes when:

  1. They violate (break or fail to comply with) a previously held falsehood
  2. Are presented with truths in a way that they can be accepted
  3. Are able to acknowledge or demonstrate their skills, skills which they had previously not appreciated or not been aware of

According to these principles Erickson considered the role of therapists to be as educators, guides, facilitators and that the actual therapy was always done by and within the person themself and in alignment with the person’s own goals.

How to be Ericksonian

Although the book does not directly set out criteria against which we can use to judge our relative Ericksonianism, the following ways that Erickson worked, do provide some guidelines. To follow an Ericksonian approach, a therapist would:

(1) See patients as unique people, with individual needs and capabilities, despite their limitations.

(2) Consider that all lives are imperfect and have some limitations – Milton called this the roughage of life and important to work alongside these realities.

(3) Maintain a positive expectation of the person and have no doubt that they can change.

(4) Pay great attention to observing the person’s conscious and unconscious communication e.g. their breathing, body language, their language, the meaning of words (to the person, not the therapist), physiological, behavioural, cultural aspects.

(5) Accept and work with the person, where they are and with the emotions they are expressing. Don’t try to convince or dissuade.

(6) Develop trust and rapport with the client. For Erickson this did not mean always agreeing, or being passive. It would sometimes require having the courage to be more frank with a client, if this was in the person’s best interest. It would also require the therapist not to probe or dig around in issues the client was not ready to, or did not want to disclose.

(7) Not rigidly follow a structured school of thought, certain therapeutic dogma or conceptual frameworks.

(8) Be aware that the conscious and Unconscious Minds have their own needs, communications and priorities

(9) Understand that the Unconscious Mind is a vast source of learnt knowledge and power and emotions.

(10) Generally direct the person’s attention to a more positive, preferred future (and pay much less attention to the past).

(11) Tailor the therapeutic response to the person, their goals, communication and what would be reasonable to expect of them. This would include the types of techniques used or not used, the duration and frequency of appointments and whether hypnosis was used or not.

(12) As an integral part of therapy, communicate to both or either the conscious or Unconscious Mind.

(13) Adopt a tone, stance, attitude or response likely to best facilitate positive change in the person. Depending on the person, this could include a wide range: supportive, unsupportive, directing, not directing, celebrating, rebuking, challenging, accommodating styles.

(14) Allow the patient or client to own the change. This could include for example purposefully describing the client’s statements ambiguously so that the client restates and owns their position and intended meaning.

(15) Understand that change requires the client to take some form of action so one of the priorities for the therapist is to facilitate the client taking action.

(16) Understand the importance of small steps and that action by the client in one area tends to lead to action in other areas of the person’s life.

(17) As therapists be aware of our own limited sets and biases.

(18) In therapy sessions with clients, call on and allow our own Unconscious Mind to lead.

(19) To be a successful hypnotherapist requires one to lead a hypnotherapist’s life. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk – my words not his.

Summing up

There is so much I would like to do with the book. There are sections I would like to read again and take more time over. I’d also like to draw together a number of the inspiring quotes from the book as a separate post, develop greater observational skills and experiment with asking my own subconscious to play a greater role in sessions with clients (as advocated by Erickson).

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and broadening book. I am indebted to Ronald A. Havens for his devotion in researching and writing it.

Highly recommended.

Take good care.

Andy Hill – Hypnotherapist (UK)

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