April 2011

Why Milton Erickson is the king of behaviour change

18th April 2011 by John Drummond

Milton Erikson

One summer day, Milton Erickson walked into a farmyard about five o’clock with the aim of selling some books to pay his way through college. In the yard, the farmer told him he didn’t read anything. He didn’t need to read anything and he was far too busy feeding his hogs.

As they talked Erickson crouched down beside the pigs, picked up some stones and started scratching the hogs backs as he was talking. The farmer looked over, stopped and said: “Anybody knows how to scratch a hog’s back the way hogs like it, is somebody I want to know. How about having supper with me tonight and I will buy your books.”

Erickson, who went on to become a famous hypnotherapist, uses the story to illustrate the importance of starting where the person is not where you want them to be. He uses it to invite us to embrace the need to trust the unconscious. And he uses it to illustrate the power of storytelling.

The importance of rapport runs through all his work. He said: “first you model the patient’s world. Then you role model the patient’s world.”

Probably the best source of his stories is “My Voice Will Go With You”; a collection of the teaching tales of Milton Erickson edited by Sidney Rosen. In it are recounted many of the stories of how he helped patients eat well, give up smoking or win Olympic medals.

Why do stories work? For several reasons to paraphrase Jeffrey Zeig from his work “A Teaching Seminar with Milton H Erickson”. Anecdotes are non-threatening. They are engaging. They play to the specificity we like of space and time. They communicate beliefs without articulating them. They foster independence because we take from them the meaning that works for us. They provide us with models and they tag the memory to make ideas more memorable.

For all these reasons my conviction is that Milton Erickson should be a seminal source for anyone with an interest in people, marketing, social marketing, collaboration or behaviour change. An hour of his anecdotes has more resonance than a term at business school.