Erickson’s Use of Implication*

Steve Andreas

Painting the Sun. When small children paint the sun, they make a circle with rays going out. You’ve all seen that; you probably did it yourself when you were little. A year or so later, they paint the sun partly behind clouds. The next stage is to paint the rays coming out from the clouds, but you can’t see the sun, what a friend of mine calls a “God sunset.” Even subtler is to paint only the scattered reflection of sunlight on water. A really good artist doesn’t paint the sun at all, only suggesting where the sun is by painting a tree with a little more light on one side than the other, with a subtle shadow to indicate where the sun is. I think that’s a good metaphor for implication — indicating something without ever explicitly stating it. One of my favorite quotes is, “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder” (Ralph W. Sockman). Knowledge and wonder are stated; the ocean of ignorance is implied.

On the first page of the first volume of Conversations with Milton H. Erickson, (in which the word implication appears about every third page) Jay Haley says, “I have a whole week, so I suspect I can learn all about psychotherapy in that time. I wouldn’t expect that anywhere else but here.” Erickson laughs and says, “Well, we can have our dreams.” That is a very polite way of implying, “You are wildly optimistic!”

When Erickson worked with an alcoholic, he would often say, “Bring a full, unopened bottle of alcohol with you to the next session.” The implication was, “Don’t drink,” and the deeper implication was that the client can control his drinking.

In working with couples Erickson would often say to one of them, “I want to hear your side of the story.” One implication is, “I also want to hear the other side of the story.” There is a further implication in the word “story,” because it implies a distinction between the story and how things really are. Virginia Satir made the same kind of distinction by asking a family member, “I want you to tell me how you see the problem,” implying that there are other views.

Erickson would often say to a client, “I want you to withhold any information that you don’t want to share with me.” “Withhold” is not necessarily permanent; you can withhold for a while and then you can yield. But the implication is, “Don’t pay attention to all the stuff you’re going to tell me; pay attention to the stuff you want to withhold.” So the client would tell him many sensitive things, and usually by the end, thinks, “Well, I told him all that other stuff, I may as well tell him this, too.”

In the last session before a woman was scheduled for risky surgery, Erickson would gradually lead the discussion around to cooking, and what were some of her favorite recipes? When she would mention something, he would say, “Oh, you know I’ve always wanted a good recipe for that. Would you give it to me?” When she couldn’t give it to him in the session, he’d say, “Oh, that’s all right, you can bring it in when we have our next session,” implying that the surgery would be successful.

I went to see Erickson in 1979, about a year before he died. In the middle of the day, seemingly out of nowhere, I heard Erickson say, “Marry an ugly woman and she’ll always be grateful.” I thought to myself, “What an awful sexist thing to say!” With me was a woman who I — and many others — thought was quite beautiful. The implied message is, “Marry a beautiful woman and she won’t always be grateful.” I didn’t understand that consciously until after we were married.

Erickson worked with a woman he called “Inhibited Ann.” Shortly before bedtime she’d start gasping and choking, which interfered with sex. She insisted that the lights be out, so she could undress in the bathroom, put on a long robe, head to toe, come into the bedroom in the dark and get into bed with her husband. After finding out that Ann loved to dance, Erickson said, “You know, you could dance into the bedroom in the nude.” And then he said, “We don’t want to give him heart failure,” implying, “We do want to give him something else.” Then later in the session Erickson says, “You really could dance into the bedroom in the nude. You’d be in the dark with all the lights out, so your husband can’t see anything, and he’d never know.” She danced in the nude in the dark, and then crawled into bed feeling like a little school girl, giggling about doing something so daring. Giggling implied not gasping, and not gasping implied availability for sex.

Once Erickson worked with a professor of music who fainted any time he tried to go onstage to give a piano performance. Finally he was going to be fired from the university if he didn’t perform. So Erickson said, “OK, ahead of time, put down towels of different colors all the way from backstage up to the piano. Then as you walk onstage, decide which one you’re going to faint on.” Involving the professor in a decision process implies that he won’t be attending to whatever thoughts had made him faint in the past. Since fainting is elicited unconsciously, the implication is he won’t faint at all. And since you have to faint where you are, not somewhere else, thinking about fainting there implies not fainting here.

This same intervention saved Erickson’s life once. When he was working in a mental hospital, he walked into an elevator and locked the door behind him, before realizing that there was a murderous psychopath in the corner, who said, “I’m going to kill you.” As Erickson always did, he first paced what the psychopath said, “Oh, OK, you’re going to kill me,” as he put the key in the elevator door to unlock it. “And the only question is ‘Where do you think the best place would be for you to slaughter me?’ ” As he opened the elevator door, he pointed to the hall as he said, “Would over there be best?” The psychopath looked out in the hall as Erickson calmly walked out of the elevator, saying. “Or, maybe over there in that chair would be better. But then again, over there might be best,” as he walked down the hall toward the nurse’s station, and safety. Since there is not where he can be slaughtered, he distracted the psychopath from killing him where he was.

Learning about implication is like opening another set of eyes and ears, seeing and hearing in a whole new dimension. It’s spooky the things you can become sensitive to, particularly nonverbal implication, and I think that Erickson’s unparalleled ability to “read” people was largely due to his ability to notice and use implication. In earlier issues of the Newsletter I have written more extensively about both verbal and nonverbal implication. (Vol. 23, No. 1; Vol. 24, No. 1; Vol. 24, No. 2)

* Edited from a dialogue between Jeff Zeig and Steve Andreas “Experiential Approaches: The Power of Implication” at the 2014 Brief Therapy Conference. BT14-D02. Published in the Milton Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 35, No. 2 Summer/Fall 2015 p. 8.