Ericksonian Solution-Oriented Approach to Hypnosis

I have recently listened to a lecure by Bill O’Hanlon on Solution-Oriented Hypnosis:

Beyond finding his confidence inspiring, I was taken by his passion for the Solution-Oriented approach to hypnosis, a passion we most definitely share.

First of all I was pleased to hear that – like me – this internationally renowned hypnotherapist was at first a little wary of hypnosis and worried that somebody would manipulate him or control him in some way. It was Milton Erickson himself that taught him how gentle, relaxing and empowering hypnosis can be!

It was also interesting to learn that when O’Hanlon was a psychology student, he thought that the brain and its neuro-pathways were fixed and that after childhood one’s brain didn’t grow any more, it solely lost brain function over time, and or through damage. Thankfully, over the last 25 years, there has been a revolution in the understanding of how the brain works, in a field called neuroplasticity and brain plasticity. It’s now known that new brain cells can grow, new connections can be made, and the brain and its neurology changes all through life.

Before this discovery, Milton Erickson was already convinced of the possibility of positively changing people’s brain through hypnosis. He already knew that:

Their physiology was changeable.
Their emotions were changeable.
Their thinking was changeable.
Their personalities were changeable.
Certainly their behavior and their interactions were changeable.

I have no intention of dying. In fact, that will be the last thing I do! – (Milton Erickson)

Traditional psychotherapy, basically said people were damaged in their childhood or somewhere in their past, and that set them in a certain way so they had functional problems in the present. Erickson was much more optimistic. He thought people could change any time in life and that solution-oriented hypnosis was a terrific tool to facilitate change happening.

But this solution-oriented approach is different from traditional hypnosis. Traditionally, the hypnotherapist is the authority who tells you what to do and controls you in some ways with suggestions and with the power of their hypnotic ability.

The Solution Focused Approach however is cooperative and permissive – that is, we’re not trying to assert control. Instead, we’re trying to actually give people options and possibilities, which are essentially a way to make changes themselves, and which are an individual perfect fit.

So this permissive approach uses a different kind of language than the traditional approach
to hypnosis.

It uses language like “You could do this,” “You might do this,” “You can do
this,” “It’s okay,” “You may do this,” and gives multiple choice options.
So that’s different from the traditional approach which uses language such us: “You will go into trance”, “You won’t be able to open your eyes”, “You won’t be able to come out of trance” kind of thing.’s basically trying to be the controller of that person’s internal experience and external behavior: “You’ll no longer want cigarettes” …”You’ll avoid buying cigarettes.”
Traditional Hypnotherapists are giving instructions, while we – Solution Focused Hypnotherapists – don’t give instructions. We instead evoke, make gentle suggestions.

Another fascinating point of the lecture was on the “resources within”. Erickson had this idea about how you get people to change: people already have the resources and the answers to their problems within and all Hypnotherapists need to do is evoke those resources and answers.

The third distinction O’Henlon makes between Solution Focused and Traditional hypnosis, is that the therapist in the traditional approach is an expert, while in the solution-oriented approach, we’re more collaborative.
We are giving the client multiple choice possibilities, and they are going to tell us (and themselves) what is right for them.

I enjoyed the story O’Henlon told about his former father in law. His former father-in-law
used traditional hypnosis. And what he would typically do is to send people back to the past to figure out where they had some sort of trauma that was buried deeply in their subconscious, get inside it, and then they would resolve the problem (or not).

Now in solution-oriented approach, we’re interested in discovering and connecting with people’s innate power and wisdom. We’re not looking for the causes of the problem. We may go back to the past, but we’re looking in the past to help people discover or connect
with their resources which were left somewhere in the past.

And the last thing is, in traditional approaches, as in most psychotherapy, there is an assumption of pathology:
There is something wrong with the person.
There is something off about the person.
There is something broken or traumatized about the person that needs to be fixed.

O’Henlon explains how Erickson had this very contrarian view that people had incredible resources and abilities. If he’d see someone having a panic attack, he would say something like:
“Wow, you have an amazing ability to control your heart rate, to get racing thoughts, to make your hands start to sweat. That’s an incredible ability!”

He didn’t see it as a disability or a dysfunction. He thought it was maybe being used in a non-helpful way.

He thought that even when people were having problems, that was evidence of their resourcefulness and their abilities, and you just have to capture those abilities, connect with them, and then direct them in a way that’s appropriate for the person in their current circumstances. Erikson thought a new therapy and a new approach to hypnosis should be created for each person, an approach that truly resonates with me as I believe that each person is unique.

Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy –  (Milton Erickson)

What is probably the most radical difference between an Ericksonian or solution-oriented hypnotherapist and a traditional hypnotherapist is that, they can spend a lot of time right at the beginning, giving permission for whatever is going on with the person. Erickson called this the utilization approach.
So if the person was giggling, he would say, “That’s a fine way to go into trance. You can giggle your way into trance.” If they were tense, he’d say, “That’s fine. You can be tense and you can go into trance.” So he would give permission for whatever they were experiencing.
For example, if they would say: “I can hear sounds outside,” he would say, “You can listen to the sounds outside” and so on.

Another difference is that Erickson would presume positive developments and change. So he’d say, “After you go into trance, before you lose that anxiety, before your depression lifts…”. He would presume results, and he would just embed that in his language and in his behavior. That made me reflect on the power of words. So if I said, “Okay, the next time you binge eat,” I’m presupposing my client is gonna binge eat again. But if I say, “The next time you felt the urge to binge eat, I wonder how you’re gonna stop yourself “.

The final point I wanted to mention about this lecture is Dr. Erickson’s view that the unconscious is really wise.

Trust your unconscious. Your unconscious knows a lot. (Milton Erickson).

Now that’s different from Freud. Freud had this view of the unconscious as having some kind of primal urges you had to guard against, so he had sort of a more negative or a pathological view of the unconscious. Erickson had a more benevolent view.
He really thought that the unconscious is great.

But if it’s so smart, why doesn’t it just solve our problems automatically? Well it doesn’t on its own, but we can unlock its problem solving and healing powers through hypnotic trance.

It is really amazing what people can do. Only they don’t know what they can do – (Milton Erickson)

When we learn to do something, such as walking, talking or driving, after a while, that became really an unconscious ability.
Sometimes however, we learn the wrong thing – for example, if a dog barks at us, we learn that all dogs are dangerous and bad and we stay away from them. Now that stops us from visiting all our friends who happen to have dogs. So how can trance help?

Solution Focused Hypnotherapy uses trance for non-voluntary, out-of-conscious-control experiences.
During trance the hypnotherapist find the place where automatic patterns that lead to unwanted results occur and introduces changes in those pattern by evoking different resources or different experiences.

Solution Focused Hypnotherapy does change life.

Bill O’Hanlon is a US based Clinical Hypnotherapist, Board Memebr of the American Psycotherapy Association and author and co-author of thirty-six books including “Solution Oriented Hypnosis”, “A Guide to Transland” and “An Uncommon Case Book”. He has published sixty articles or book chapters. His books have been translated into sixteen languages. He has appeared on Oprah and a variety of television and radio programs. Since 1977 Bill has give over 3,500 presentations around the World on hypnosis and has won several awards for his contribution to mental health.