Back to beginnings with Ericksonian hypnosis


“It is really amazing what people can do. Only they don’t know what they can do”

- Milton Erickson, Psychiatrist

Last Sunday I spent the day at a workshop put on by The Australian Hypnotherapy Association. As a regulatory requirement, and a commitment to ongoing professional development, I am required to attend at least two out of four of these workshops per year. Each workshop is presented by a different therapist or presenter and I was particularly interested in this one.

The presenter was Rob McNeilly; hypnotherapist with some 40 years’ experience in the profession, and one time mentee of the renowned Milton Erickson. Back when I was studying hypnotherapy, Erickson was made out to be some sort of a legend in the world of hypnosis, and Rob McNeilly; one of his protégées.  Rob had actually taught one of the days of my diploma and I unfortunately hadn’t been able to attend that particular day. I really felt that I had missed out on something special, so I certainly wasn’t going to miss the opportunity again.

Ok, so a bit of background. Dr Milton Erickson (1901 –1980) was an American Psychiatrist who specialised in medical hypnosis and family therapy. Born colour blind and dyslexic, Erickson’s keen interest in hypnosis arguably began around the age of 17, after contracting polio. His family were told that he would not recover, however Erickson had different ideas. It was said that it was at this time that Erickson became strongly aware of the significance of nonverbal communication, body language and tone of voice. He developed a highly attuned awareness of his body and began to concentrate on his body’s ‘muscle memories’. By concentrating on these memories, he began to regain control of his body to the point where he was slowly able to talk and use his arms again. Though he suffered crippling disabilities in his life, this did not stop Erickson in his career which spanned more than 50 years.

Erickson’s interest in hypnosis was unique, deviating from the standard approach to hypnosis of his day. It was traditionally assumed that a therapist should issue direct suggestion to a passive client; a sort of ‘top down’ approach. Erickson believed the opposite in fact. He believed in a client-centred approach. He believed that therapy should be tailored to each client individually, capitalising on all of the clients individual strengths. Summed up in this quote:

“Each person is a unique individual. Hence, psychotherapy should be formulated to meet the uniqueness of the individual’s needs, rather than tailoring the person to fit the Procrustean bed of a hypothetical theory of human behaviour.”

– Milton H. Erickson

So we can understand why back in the 1970’s, before Erickson passed away, Rob seized an opportunity to be mentored by him.

After spending Sunday with Rob and getting to know his style, I believe that he would attest that this time with Erickson greatly influenced his practice, his methods and the way he conceives of hypnosis as therapy.

And what can I say. Spending the day with Rob was nothing less than insightful and inspiring, as well as calming and refreshing. There is something about being in the presence of someone with little to no ‘ego’ about what they do which creates such a safe and inviting place to learn and to just be. Rob is a wonderful therapist. Intuitive, articulate, gentle in his approach and highly attuned to what is happening for his client. However don’t try to tell him that. Any mention of the skill with which he operates or the results that ensue for his clients, will quickly engender a response along the lines of, “Oh no, I know nothing. It was the client who did the work”.

Because this is what lies at the heart of Ericksonian therapy. Belief that each and every client is the expert in their own life. Knowledge that every person will know the answer to their problem better than anyone else possibly could. Faith in the inherent resourcefulness that lies at the heart of humanity.  What an utterly refreshing idea.

Rob’s teachings promote the ideal of creating a space where the client is safe to explore the solutions which work for them. A space where the therapist assumes that they know nothing and it is the client who will teach them. A space where the therapist has confidence in the client, rather than confidence in themselves.

This is a radical notion to some of you no doubt. However it is a notion that I find resonates at such a deep level. You may have heard the saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I believe that this concept plays in to this type of therapeutic approach. What better gift could a therapist give their client, than the opportunity to be the expert in their own life? To not only experience that expertise, but to also teach it? I can’t help but feel that the humility involved in putting aside ego and listening to another person in a way that maybe they’ve never been listened to before might be one of the most beautiful gifts that a person can give.

Rob spoke about the core themes of therapy that make for a successful therapeutic relationship. Respect. Trust. Listening. The granting of legitimacy to another person and their experience.

As part of any therapy workshop, there were the usual components of the day; theory, discussion, demonstrations and practice. I had the wonderful opportunity of working with an old friend and classmate from when we were studying together, Roberta. During our practice sessions, I believe that both Roberta and I had such eye opening experiences with Rob’s approach to therapy. I personally found that as soon as I ‘got out of my own head’ and simply listened to my client; instinct and intuition took over. The session was then free to go wherever it needed to go. The therapy was easy, simple and effective. It still blows my mind just how easy it was.

Now, I understand that up until this point, I have been speaking in very abstract terms. You may be still questioning, but what is this therapy?? I can understand that. We live in an impatient world; a concrete world where we all want answers, definitions and clear direction as to where we have come from and where we are going. Unfortunately in this world of the human experience however, some things must remain abstract by design, and have to be experienced to be fully understood.

Rob’s model of therapy works on the principles of respect, trust, listening and having the patience and the faith to know that the client does have the solution to their problem, even if they don’t know it themselves. We are all more resourceful than we could ever imagine. And for me, I think that’s a really nice note to leave on.

To hear a little more about Rob McNeilly and his time with Milton Erickson, CLICK HERE.

Or to find out a bit more about Rob McNeilly, CLICK HERE.

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