Last updated: 17 December 2015
Did you know that storytelling can be a very powerful therapeutic tool?
Stories are not only entertaining; they can help your subjects heal in a non-threatening, indirect and very pleasant manner.
Whereas metaphors, whether they are true or not, allow people to shift their perspective and unlock old ways of thinking that do not work.
Make no mistake: the use of stories and metaphors can convey a very powerful message when used in hypnotherapy.
The Story Of A Horse
The late and great Milton Erickson was known for his colorful stories and use of metaphors.
And one of his most famous stories was the story of a horse.
It goes a little like this…
As Erickson was returning from high school one day, a bridled horse ran past him towards a farmer’s yard looking for water. The horse, which was not a familiar one by the local farmer, was sweating profusely.
Sensing the horse was lost, Erickson and some other bystanders cornered the horse, and then rather bravely, Erickson hopped on the horse’s back and yelled, “Giddy-up!”
Erickson just knew that the horse would go in the right direction, even though he didn’t know which direction that was.
The horse first headed for the highway, but then started to lose his way when he began heading for a field. Each time the horse would do this, Erickson would simply pull the horse back and start aiming him towards the road.
This went on for about 4 miles or so until finally the horse turned into a local farmyard. The farmer instantly recognized the horse, and asked Erickson where he found him.
When Erickson responded that he found him about 4 miles from the farm, the farmer, who now seemed rather astonished, asked, “How did you know you should come here?”
Erickson replied, “I didn’t know. The horse just knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.”
This clever story illustrates the idea of the client-centered approach.
The facts are that the subject typically knows which direction they want to head in, all you have to do is cleverly steer them!
This story also demonstrates that your subjects have the necessary expertise and resources, they may just not know how to use them to make changes.
Your job is to keep your subjects eyes on the road – no matter what.
The single most important idea about Erickson’s approach has to do with utilization. Nothing is wasted, no experience and no words. Each and every experience is used to make a point.
Stories cannot only be therapeutic in nature; they can also help put someone into a state of trance.
A conversational trance can happen quite easily if a story is told well.
By focusing on your subject, and matching pace and leading with your voice, stories can be used in a very therapeutic manner.
Telling a story with sincerity, honesty and vulnerability can help create emotions within the subject.
Erickson was famous for his ability to join the subject in his or her own unique world. Instead of trying to talk a subject into a different way of thinking or doing, he would put himself directly into the subject’s shoes.
The Power Of Belief
The classic tale of how to boil a frog is a great analogy to use for someone trying to overcome a problem.
It is said that by putting a frog into a pot of cold water and slowly turning up the heat that the frog will not necessarily notice the gradual change in water temperature.
On the other hand, throwing the frog into a steaming vat of hot water will elicit an almost immediate reaction of the frog jumping right out of the pot.
The point of this story is that the frog accepts change much better when it is introduced in a gradual manner. The frog does not accept change when tossed into the pot head first.
Changes can be difficult to make, especially for those trying to overcome a longstanding problem.
Another clever analogy to use with your subjects is the idea of a steam ship. Once the ship’s captain decides to turn the ship around, he puts a plan into motion. However, the ship doesn’t immediately make any noticeable changes. The changes occur more gradually, because it takes a while to turn a massive ship around. The same can be said for a subject’s progress.
It’s common for people to get frustrated at a seemingly lack of progress when you can’t see the results. But just like the steam ship, it takes a while to change direction and build enough momentum for significant change.
One of the most important concepts to understand when using metaphors and stories is the concept of the transderivational search.
What this means is that each of us is unique and has our own view of the world. We make a model of the world that is built on all of our stored experiences. With these experiences we often make generalizations.
It is within this model that all of our incoming sensory information is correlated and compared.
We then determine which bits of information fit this model and make sense and which contradict it.
In order to make sense of a metaphor, your subject has to go back through his or her memory bank of experiences. Once they identify the part of it that makes sense for them, they can then start manifesting change.
This process of going back through our individual world model and finding experiences that help us correlate the information is called the transderivational search.
This process of correlating your sensory input with your world model makes the use of stories and metaphors very powerful.
How To Create A Metaphor: A Three-Step Process
1. Gathering Information
- Work to identify a significant person who is involved with your subject in terms of interpersonal relationships
- Identify some events that would help characterize the problem. This helps explain how the problem has progressed over time
- Specify exactly what changes the subject wishes to make. Ensure that these changes are well formed and the results have no unintended consequences
- Ask the subject what previous steps they have made in the past and ask them what they believe is stopping them from making the change
2. Building The Metaphor
- Select and identify a new context that interests your subject
- Plan out the metaphor so it is similar to the context above
- Determine a solution or suitable resolution that includes a calibration strategy, the desired outcome and a reframing of the original event or situation
3. Using The Metaphor
- Describe and tell your subject the metaphor while they’re in trance
- Don’t explain the metaphor, just allow your subject to search for the answers on their own. You might say something to the effect of, “Can you see why?”
- Explain to your subject that he or she may initially be confused as the problem and/or solution becomes clearer. Tell your subject that this is a normal and natural part of the process and this is a good place to be
A great way to build a metaphor is to find out what your subject is interested it, and build from there.
If your subject enjoys gardening for example, you can use a gardening metaphor. For instance, you could tell your subject that a messy disorganized garden is not a healthy garden.
When the garden is properly taken care of it begins to thrive and grow. If the garden represents someone’s life or body, the analogy is that the body does not thrive when it is under stress or it is unkempt.
By eating properly and exercising, the garden or the body, begins to respond in a much more positive way.
Other metaphors for weight loss and health are that of a sport’s car. Your body is the car.
No one would put poor fuel into a car intentionally, because the car would not run well. The same goes for the body; in order for it to run efficiently one must fill it with the proper fuel.
The better you treat your “car” the better it runs.
Sometimes a simple metaphor is really all you need to help your subject make positive changes that last.
Just something to think about the next time you have a challenging subject. Using Erickson’s ideas for creating metaphors can help your subject’s move forward in a positive way.