Much of NLP was developed from the study of Milton Erickson, probably the greatest hypnotist and therapist who ever lived. He was justly famous for his handshake interrupt, in which he would greet someone by saying, “Hello,” and reach out his right hand as if to shake hands. Then as the other person’s hand rose automatically and unconsciously to shake his hand, instead of shaking hands, Erickson would reach out with his left hand, grasp the back of their right hand gently, raise it and turn the palm toward their face, and point to it with his right forefinger to direct their attention to it, and say, “Look at your hand.” This interruption of an automatic unconscious habit made them very receptive to this command and any further direction. Erickson would continue with an induction, gently lifting their hand a bit to nonverbally suggest catalepsy, and then gradually releasing their hand, so that they usually went into trance with their hand and arm suspended in front of them. Then he would suggest positive changes or intervene in any other way.

When he was through with the induction, he would use his left hand to gently lower their right hand, complete the handshake with his right hand in the usual way, and continue the greeting that had preceded the interrupt, “I’m Dr. Erickson; what is your name?” Usually the person would respond with their name, and have no memory whatsoever of what had taken place in the “middle” of the handshake. Since a handshake is a totally unconscious motor pattern that usually begins when you meet someone and they raise their hand to shake hands, and ends with releasing the handshake, the entire sequence typically remained unconscious, including the trance induction in the middle.

Erickson had many other ways of interrupting someone’s conscious thinking and expectations in order to induce confusion and elicit receptiveness to suggestion, and many of these have been mentioned in the various books and articles. I would like to describe a few that have not.

As most NLPers will know, Erickson preferred the color purple because he was mostly color-blind as a result of two episodes of polio, and purple was the only color he could see well. A new woman came to his group session in Phoenix one day, literally dressed from head to toe in purple—from the bow in her hair, scarf, dress, stockings, to shiny purple shoes—and sat at Erickson’s left. Even without the purple outfit it was pretty obvious at a glance that she was a “people pleaser” who could use a bit more internal direction.

At one point Erickson mentioned to the group that since he was color-blind as a result of his polio, he couldn’t see most colors, but sometimes he could guess them. Then he started at his right, and began to go around the circle of ten people, accurately describing the colors of the clothing of all the people in turn—even to the faint narrow stripes in a plaid shirt. When he got to the woman in purple, he paused, looked her in the eye, and said, “But I have no idea what color your dress is; would you please tell me?” She looked like she had been hit with a sledgehammer, and dropped into a profound trance. Given her assumptions, and fact that Erickson had just named so many colors that he “couldn’t” see, she had no way to process what Erickson had said. His asking her to tell him what color she was wearing added to the interruption, catching her between her utter confusion and his request to respond to his question. Erickson then offered her some useful suggestions involving pleasing herself, rather than others.

Many years ago, Steve Gilligan, after thoroughly learning all the verbal and nonverbal patterns that Erickson used to put people into trance, once asked Erickson a question, fully prepared to process and recognize all these patterns. However, for once in his life, Erickson used none of the patterns that Gilligan was expecting, so he had nothing to process, and went into trance.

In a videotaped session, Milton Erickson asked a woman, “Can you shake your head ‘No’?”

When she nodded her head up and down, Erickson said, “That’s not ‘No.’ ”

Then the woman shook her head from side to side, and Erickson said, “You can’t?”

At this point she looked very confused and slipped into trance. Let’s explore this a bit more.

The common question “Can you tell me the time?” can be answered in two ways. One is to do what is requested by the embedded question by looking at your watch and telling someone the time, which is something many people do several times a day. The other way to respond is to nod or say, “Yes,” indicating that you have the ability to do it (or shake you head or say “No” if you don’t have the ability because you don’t have a watch and don’t know the time). Since the question can be answered in two very different ways, it is ambiguous.

This will be true of any question of the general form “Can you _____?” which linguists call a “conversational postulate,” and which is a generally accepted gentle and indirect way to ask someone to do something. Since the literal answer to, “Can you answer the phone?” is usually “Yes,” this creates a “Yes set,” eliciting a willingness to do it. Usually the person will respond behaviorally, by doing the action requested, rather than answering the literal question.

But in other contexts, people will answer the literal question in a conversational postulate, rather than doing the activity indicated. In another session, Erickson asked the group, “Can you tell when someone is in a trance?” Several people offered answers like, “The breathing slows, the facial expression first becomes asymmetrical and then symmetrical and more relaxed,” etc. After listening very attentively to several of these answers, Erickson turned to his right and asked a woman, “Mary, where are we?” The woman answered in a very high, childlike voice, “Up in the apple tree.” Then Erickson asked her, “And what’s my name?” Again she answered in a thin voice, “Tom-my.” Erickson had “zoned her through the floor” into a very deep trance—without any of us noticing.

Erickson was always trying to get students to pay attention and observe—in contrast to conscious intellectual understanding—and he was quite willing to “rub our noses” in our incompetence in order to convince us how important that is.

What makes Erickson’s question, “Can you shake your head ‘No’?” very interesting is that a “Yes” answer, meaning “Yes, I have the ability,” is the opposite of the “Yes” answer of doing it, and vice versa, and this is true whether the person answers verbally or nonverbally. No matter how she answers, Erickson can interpret the ambiguity in the other way, and “misunderstand,” creating confusion.

If he had asked her, “Can you nod your head ‘Yes,’ ” a “Yes” answer meaning ability would be congruent with doing it, and a “No” answer would also be congruent with both meanings, so there would be no ambiguity.

Notice how hard it is to understand this communication trap, even when it is written down and you can go over it slowly and review it. In the normal flow of conversation, this would be much harder. Only a very skilled linguist or logician would be able to unpack it “on the fly,” recognize the trap, laugh, and say, “You got me,” and then comment on the structure of the trap, which is a way out of it—other than going into trance.

It would take an even more skilled linguist to respond. “Nice trap; can you indicate your agreement with me by shaking your head ‘No’ ” (I’ll let you unpack that one!)

I wish I had had the skill to respond like that 30 years ago; I can vividly imagine Erickson enjoying it immensely.

This article is adapted from Six Blind Elephants: Understanding Ourselves and Each Other, by Steve Andreas, © 2006, Real People Press.

To Read an Erickson Story from Connirae’s experience visiting Milton Erickson, click here.