Ericksonian Hypnosis and NLP

If you explore the varied offerings from NLP training organisations around the world or have attended a NLP practitioner training, you might gain the impression that hypnosis is an integral part of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Is there a relationship between Hypnosis and NLP? What are the differences between the two disciplines and how specifically are they related, both historically and today? To answer these questions, we will define both fields and review the history of hypnosis and NLP. We shall elaborate the key features, patterns and pertinent differences of each discipline and relate the benefits of each field to the other. Finally, we will explore the potential future benefits for you through developing skill and knowledge in either or both fields.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline which, at its core, involves the capture, coding and transfer of models and patterns of exceptional effectiveness. It was originally created by John Grinder, Richard Bandler and Frank Pucelik in the early to mid-1970s in Santa Cruz, California. Since its inception, a broad range of models and patterns have been developed and designed for application to other disciplines, including psychotherapy, management and leadership, sports, acting, negotiation, sales, meetings, parenting, organisational change, and financial trading. This aligns with John Grinder’s definition of NLP as

“…a meta-discipline which focuses on the discovery and coding of patterns which distinguish the most capable of the practitioners of some particular discipline (managerial practice, medical practise, sports, therapy…) from the average practitioner. These distinguishing patterns are the substance of NLP” (Collingwood & Collingwood, 2001). 

Of course, some key people in the NLP world think of NLP as simply a set of techniques for personal change. For example, co-creator of NLP Richard Bandler defines NLP as

“NLP is an attitude and a methodology, leaving behind a trail of techniques.”

Plenty of people who have attended NLP training think of NLP as a collection of techniques for psychotherapy or coaching. Of course, coaching and psychotherapy is one area of application of NLP technology. It’s important to keep in mind the difference between NLP and applications of NLP. There are many other disciplines where NLP can be applied. Business is one example of a context where NLP has been and continues to be successfully used.

Remember, the core function of the discipline of NLP is to create transferrable models of human excellence. And since its inception, there have been some excellent models developed for psychotherapy, including hypnotherapy, sports performance, leadership, coaching, financial trading, negotiation, effective meetings, parenting and management consulting.

In the field of clinical hypnosis, the most famous exponent was the psychiatrist Dr. Milton H. Erickson. Erickson radically transformed the field of clinical hypnosis and his approach is known as Ericksonian Hypnosis. Erickson’s work challenged many of the previous assumptions, associations with mysticism and ritualistic traditions of hypnosis and helped to make that field a legitimate form of clinical psychotherapy.  

Erickson was renowned for his ability to develop and apply patterns of hypnotic communication. This is designed to elicit and utilise trance to harness the conscious and unconscious minds of the patient so that they can resolve their problems and achieve their desired futures more effectively.

He developed patterns in the use of language and non-verbal communication, metaphor, therapeutic tasks and the manipulation of context to assist his patients in making the changes in their lives that they desired.  

Some History

In 1957, Erickson founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and throughout his life, he published numerous papers on his approach to clinical hypnotherapy. If you are a serious aficionado of Erickson’s work, I recommend reading his Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy; Selected papers of Milton H. Erickson, M.D Edited by Jay Haley. 

In the late 1970’s, two of the originators of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, embarked on a major project to model Erickson. Their intention was to capture and describe in a transferrable form some of the key patterns that informed the activation and development of hypnotic trance and the utilisation of trance states. These patterns and the resultant models have become a significant part of the historical repertoire of NLP patterns and models. Bandler and Grinder published some of these patterns and models in their books Patterns of the hypnotic technique of Milton H. Erickson M.D. Vol 1 & Vol 2., and Transformations; neuro-linguistic programming and the structure of hypnosis. As a result of modelling Milton Erickson, some of the patterns they discovered and the models they created were incorporated into their first practitioner of NLP programme. 

One key creation is the Milton Model of language. This is a linguistic model of the language patterns that Erickson used to elicit hypnotic trance, to communicate to the unconscious mind and to elicit hypnotic phenomena. Interestingly, after training in the Milton Model, NLP students are often delighted to recognise some of the Milton Model patterns used in the wider world by organisational leaders, politicians and advertisers. You will find Milton Model patterns in contexts where there is a premium value on being able to influence others. This is one indicator of the utility of Milton Model language patterns to influence a recipient outside of their conscious awareness.

I remember being astounded to observe a variety of NLP language patterns in a television advertisement for natural gas in 1981. I raised this with my university lecturer for a subject I was doing in consumer behaviour. He stated that he knew that NLP patterning was being incorporated into advertising. He had discovered this at a dinner he attended in New York before returning to Australia to lecture at the business faculty. A leader of a major advertising agency based in New York had recommended that he read two NLP books, The Structure of Magic; A book about language and therapy Volume 1., a book that introduced the Meta Model of Language and Patterns of the Hypnotic Technique of Milton H. Erickson MD Volume 1., where Bandler and Grinder introduced the Milton Model.

The Milton Model is unparalleled as a tool for communicating with another person’s unconscious mind. If you are well trained in the model and paying attention, you will recognise some of these patterns in the verbal communication of influential people.

Another pattern modelled from Erickson is called pacing and leading. This is taught in NLP training to be applied in two forms, non-verbally and with language. To give an example from hypnosis, the hypnotist makes a series of statements of fact that are in the subject’s sensory experience. They link the statements using the simple conjunction ‘and’ or a causal linkage, ‘as X then Y’. For example, “…you are sitting on the chair, AND you are aware of my voice AND the quality of light in the room” etc…  These are called pacing statements. After a number of linked pacing statements, the hypnotist then links the last pacing statement to a leading statement. This is a statement of a desired response that the hypnotist wants to elicit in the subject. For example “…AND you are beginning the process of going into a trance…” While making pacing and leading statements, the hypnotist pays attention to the response of the subject and adjusts the ratio of pacing and leading in response to non-verbal feedback from the subject. As the subject goes into trance they will show features indicative of trance and hypnotic phenomena. 

This same pattern of pacing and leading can be observed and used in non-hypnotic situations. A skilled negotiator or salesperson will often begin an interaction with a client or customer by making a series statements of fact before leading the person’s attention to some desired state. Pacing and leading, when done well, (both verbal and non-verbal communication), gently influences the other person towards a desired state that you or they want for them.

As we move forward from models developed in NLP from Grinder and Bandler’s modelling of Erickson we take a larger view of the relationship between NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis. Then it is useful to examine hypnotic trance and its relationship to states in the field of NLP. 

What is Hypnotic Trance?

According to Erickson;

“Hypnotic trance…is a psychological state which effects a break in the person’s unconscious and habitual associations, so that creative learning can take place”.
– Milton H. Erickson M.D.

To explore Erickson’s definition, trance is a psychological state which interrupts a person’s unconscious and habitual associations. This presupposes that people have patterns of habitual associations that they run unconsciously. I think this will be apparent if you examine your own or others’ behaviour. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming, we define a state as;

“The set of specific values in a person’s physiology, neurology and biochemistry that gives rise to their behavioural expression and their subjective experience of themselves and the world in a given moment”.
– Jules Collingwood

In the New Code of NLP, we treat state as the most useful frame for the manipulation of our subjective experience. This has important implications for the quality of our performance in the world. When we have sponsored seminars with Dr. John Grinder, he has stated the following when addressing people’s experience of problems; “The problem is not the problem – the problem is the state that you use to approach that context” (that is the context where the person subjectively experiences the problem). Certainly, activating an appropriate flow state and applying it to a challenging context can make an extraordinary difference to the person’s experience and the results they can achieve in that context.

Manipulation of State in the New Code

There is a class of interventions in the New Code of NLP that are used to promote significant change. That change creates dramatic improvements in performance. This class of intervention is manipulation of the person’s state. The manipulation of state, that is, removal and replacement of a state, activation or modification of a state, produces effective change to an individual’s performance.

In Ericksonian Hypnosis, the psychological state that effects a break in a person’s unconscious and habitual associations; the hypnotic trance state, is just one of a class of states that can do this. When we activate a ‘know nothing’ state when engaged in modelling an exemplar, the ‘know nothing’ state is one in which our habitual unconscious associations are broken. When we drop a high performance state into a context where we perceive a limitation in our thinking or performance, we gain access to new internal resources. Thus, we can learn something from outside our current ‘maps’ of the world, our current frameworks. 

This begs the question, are we engaging in self hypnosis when we bring a flow state into a particular context to generate a change in our experience?

The trance state is an opportunity for creative learning, due to the breaking of habitual unconscious associations during hypnosis. Ideally, the hypnotic trance state allows us to develop new ways of organising our perception of our world, the states we bring to the contexts we inhabit and our repertoire of behaviour for those contexts. Interestingly, there is a similar idea in Erickson and Rossi’s definition of therapeutic trance;

“Therapeutic Trance is a period during which the limitations of one’s usual frame of reference and beliefs are temporarily altered so one can be receptive to the patterns and associations and modes of mental functioning that are conducive to problem-solving” (Erickson & Rossi, 1979 p.3).

In the New Code of NLP, we do not limit ourselves just to problem solving. In fact, our orientation is towards assisting others and ourselves to achieve the outcomes we desire congruently. We refer to this as generative change. Many of the games and activities in the New Code are designed to produce useful, generative high-performance states that people can apply to any context they choose where they want to improve their performance. 

So called (deep) trance phenomena

In the field of hypnosis, there are a number of interesting features called (deep) trance phenomena. These are associated with hypnotic trance and are not typically experienced in so-called ‘normal states of consciousness’. There is a belief in traditional hypnosis, which is erroneous, that these phenomena can only be accessed through a deep trance. These phenomena include;

Sensory distortion

In sensory distortion, the person experiences a change in how they perceive the following; their kinesthetics, for example, the person may experience themselves as being larger or smaller. In their auditory perception, the hypnotist’s voice is perceived to be closer or further away. To quote a client, “It seemed like your voice was distant and coming through a tunnel”.

With open eyes, the world may seem brighter or duller, monochromatic or more colourful. Distortions in sensory perception are common features of hypnotic trance and something that people can experience in non-hypnotic contexts. For example, many rock climbers experience an interesting sensory distortion of potential hand and foot holds which seem larger than life. This is a useful distortion to experience if you are climbing rock. 

You may have the experience of extending your kinaesthetic attention to encompass the edges of the car when driving. This common and useful experience is another type of sensory distortion. We take these experiences of sensory distortion in daily life for granted. We are more likely to consider the experience of feeling like a block of granite while in a hypnotic trance as something unusual. And yet we have plenty of experiences from everyday life of distortions in our perception of the world that we take for granted.

Post-hypnotic suggestion

Erickson describes post-hypnotic suggestion as:

“…an idea during a moment of receptivity that is later actualized in behavior…receptivity can occur during a formally induced trance or during the common everyday trance in which attention is fixated and absorbed in a matter of great interest” (Erickson & Rossi; 1979 p.85).

Obviously, Erickson’s definition of post-hypnotic suggestion includes contexts outside of formal hypnosis. 

One of the main contexts outside formal hypnotic trance, where people received post-hypnotic suggestions was in childhood. There, we received post-hypnotic suggestions from our parents, teachers, and religious affiliates. These childhood post-hypnotic suggestions are sometimes referred to as ‘injunctions’. Often, they become beliefs or perceptual filters and continue to restrict a person’s behavioural choices in adult life. One of the benefits of high quality NLP or Ericksonian Hypnosis, when applied to personal change, is the opportunity for people to update outdated beliefs, states and behaviours so that they have more choice in their current life contexts. This can have a profound impact on their quality of life and their abilities to achieve their chosen outcomes and fulfil their values. 

Hypnotic dreaming

An interesting phenomenon in hypnotic states, one is hypnotic dreaming. Arrangements can be made with the unconscious to generate one or more dreams, which the hypnotist may link to process instructions, a change in the depth or quality of the trance state, problem solving, or resource generation. Dreaming is, of course, a natural phenomenon that we all experience when we sleep. 

Many years ago, I worked with a client who is now a well known script writer. She would come in for a hypnosis session where I elicited a hypnotic trance and hypnotic dreaming to assist her to generate ideas for the film script she was writing. At the end of each session, I left her in the office for half an hour to write. Later, she arranged an invitation from the director of the film for a visit to the film set to watch the film being shot. They even gave me credit on the film. 

Age regression

Age regression is an experience in which a person reactivates the experience of being at a younger age and may include the emotional affect of that age, a specific memory or the maps and frames of that age. In the classic code of NLP (the original NLP), we routinely have clients reactivate past experiences using sense memory. In contrast to age regression, in the hypnotic state, the person is consciously aware that they are reactivating a past experience. When age regressed in trance, the person is typically not consciously aware of their current present time self and has the experience as if they really are the particular age that has been activated. You may have observed an adult throwing a tantrum and typically they are regressed. They are unlikely to be aware that they are operating in a regressed state. Age regression is far more common in people’s experiences and, unfortunately, often goes unrecognised. Cleaning up maladaptive, regressed states can have a profound impact on the quality of a person’s life. There are also contexts where the activation of regressed states that include creativity, playfulness, and other generative states is both wonderful and useful. 

Pseudo-orientation in time (age progression)

Pseudo-orientation in time is the experience of going into a future time without awareness of the actual present. After inducing a trance, the hypnotist will use confusion techniques in respect to time to take the client into a future where for instance, they have resolved their problem. With the client in that future, the hypnotist will interview the client to find out how the problem was solved. The client is then reoriented to the present with amnesia and awakened from trance. The hypnotist can then instruct or give the client a task that will resolve the problem. In NLP both classic and new code, we routinely invite clients to step into potential futures as useful reference points during coaching. Successful entrepreneurs typically envision desirable futures to inform their decisions and often enlist stakeholders to their vision for the company and its products. 


In the discipline of clinical hypnosis, dissociation refers to the separation of psychological processes, parts, or aspects of oneself, such as sensations and states. For example a person in trance could be, to paraphrase an Erickson suggestion, ‘a mind floating in space without a body’. This creates a dissociation from body sensation and could be useful for applications such as surgery, reducing a phobia and pain control. In a trance state, the experience of  watching yourself, watching yourself is another example of dissociation. You are dissociated from the representation of yourself that is dissociated from the representation of yourself that is reliving an unpleasant memory. People trained in NLP will recognise this as the basis of the NLP phobia reduction pattern.

A pattern of dissociation is a common cognitive process used in everyday life. If you replay a memory where you watch and listen to yourself in that memory, you are dissociated from the experience. If you have feelings, they are feelings about the experience and are of a different logical type from reliving the experience. When associated, with seeing, hearing, and feeling as if inside the memory, sensations will be those of being there, not thinking about it. Whenever we are dissociated from something, we are associated with something else.

When we are associated with something, we are dissociated from something else. The terms associated and dissociated are relative words. In hypnotic work, we are guiding the client actively to associate and dissociate in systematic ways to support the client’s outcomes. It is the same in the discipline of NLP. Instructing or influencing the client to associate or dissociate at specific moments are part of NLP patterns. In the non-hypnotic world, some people routinely dissociate from pain. The full gamut of skill in associating and dissociating that a client may use in a hypnotic trance can be developed and applied with or without a trance. 


Amnesia is a skill that we all experience. It’s the ability to forget. For most people, it’s a phenomenon that occurs without deliberate application. In a hypnotic context, the hypnotist suggests and applies amnesia systematically to support the therapeutic outcome. A good piece of psychotherapy may be temporarily ‘covered’ with amnesia to prevent the conscious mind from interfering with or accidentally undoing the work. The hypnotist might use amnesia to prevent premature understanding by the client’s conscious mind, with a post-hypnotic suggestion for a change to become conscious and a new understanding formed at a predetermined and appropriate time in the future.

It can be a useful strategy for a client to become conscious of the workings of a significant change only after experiencing the benefits of the change in their life. This demonstrates the value of enabling changes to behaviour, state and frames before gaining insight, as a counter example to the common and erroneous idea that insight must precede change. Conscious insight is not necessary to create change and if insight is wanted, it will be more useful after the change has taken place. Do you remember all the key ideas in the preceding paragraph? 

There is a set of patterns that will create Amnesia. These patterns may be employed by a hypnotist and they are patterns that can be detected in many everyday experiences. Briefly, some of the patterns include conscious overload, a rapid state shift, conscious distraction and one specific to hypnosis; post-hypnotic suggestion. 

Positive hallucination

Positive hallucination is the phenomenon of seeing, hearing or feeling something that is not there. 

Negative hallucination

The opposite of perceiving something that is not there, negative hallucination, which is overlooking or deleting something that is there. It’s quite a common experience to be searching for something, (maybe your keys or phone) and the object can be right in front of you but not seen. Another common example is not hearing someone speak to you, especially if your attention is fully engaged on a matter. A joke among some hypnotists is the man who has negative hallucination for his partner’s requests.

Time distortion

We all have had the subjective experience of time seeming to pass very quickly or slowly or even seeming to stand still. This human capability is usefully applied by a skilled hypnotist to support desired changes and outcomes therapeutically. I did a piece of work with a client without formal hypnosis in which I assisted her in activating both extremes of time distortion. This was done one at a time to create the experience. It included making arrangements with her unconscious to explore, refine and apply time distortion to various contexts to enhance her performance and functioning. We achieved this without any formal hypnotic trance using the same patterns a skilled practitioner in Ericksonian Hypnosis would apply with trance to assist a client in achieving this outcome. 

All these phenomena can occur naturally in people’s experiences outside the hypnotic context. They are human cognitive processes. They are found in people’s experiences of life and at various times in their personal history. All these so-called ‘deep trance phenomena’ can be elicited by someone skilled in NLP without resorting to the use of hypnotic trance.

I will follow up this article with a series of articles further exploring the similarities and differences between the field of Ericksonian Hypnosis and the meta-discipline of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. I encourage you to do your own exploration of these two very interesting and useful disciplines.

In summary

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a meta discipline that focuses on the creation of models of expertise and expert performance by discovering and reproducing the patterns of excellence used by exceptional individuals from various fields. Subsequently, there are are growing set of models and applications of NLP to a variety of contexts including therapy, business, parenting, and sports performance. One of the early applications of NLP is a set of models for Ericksonian hypnosis that was developed by Grinder and Bandler through the modelling of the psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson M.D.

Some of the patterns and models discovered through modelling Erickson have been incorporated into the body of NLP and some NLP training. These patterns pertain to communicating to the unconscious and include verbal pacing and leading, cross-pacing, the Milton model, unconscious signals, some metaphor models. Other patterns include patterns for eliciting deep trance phenomena with or without the use of trance.

Modelling is the fundamental strength of NLP and distinguishes it from psychology. Models constitute a set of patterns, each of which consists of the minimum sequence of steps to reliably achieve the outcome that the pattern is intended to achieve. When creating a model, this principle of minimalism is called elegance. This sometimes results in the ‘modeller’ becoming more skilled that the expert that was modelled. The intelligent modeller will also test the discovered patterns in other contexts to find the limits of the pattern and how far the pattern can be generalised. Note that the pattern of testing and generalising patterns to other contexts is one of the critical patterns for innovation. 

The models and constituent patterns that make up the application of NLP to Ericksonian hypnosis is simply that. Just as the map is not the territory it represents, a model is not the territory. However, the test of a model is its usefulness. Can a person who is well trained in the model get similar results in the same time frame as the expert who was modelled. 

The modelling of Erickson is in the past. Some useful patterns were captured and codified by Grinder and Bandler and these patterns live on in the neurology of well trained people in the NLP community. World-wide, hundreds of thousands of people have been trained in some of the patterns that were modelled from Erickson. 

In short, there is a relationship between NLP and hypnosis. There is a multitude of patterns of excellence that have been subjected to NLP modelling of a range of top performers in different fields. Many of these patterns generalise across multiple contexts and one of these contexts is hypnosis. Therefore, it can be argued that applying suitable NLP patterns to the outcomes normally associated with hypnosis and obtaining high quality results from those applications constitutes a relationship where NLP patterns can inform the practice of hypnosis to useful effect. 

I personally enjoy doing Ericksonian hypnosis and appreciate having the option to combine various patterns to assist my clients with or without formal trance in a therapeutic, business or personal setting. 


Bandler, Richard., Grinder, John. (1975). Patterns of the hypnotic technique of Milton H. Erickson M.D. Vol 1 & Vol 2. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications.

Bandler, Richard., Grinder, John. (1981). Transformations; neuro-linguistic programming and the structure of hypnosis. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Collingwood, Jules., Collingwood, Chris. (2001). The NLP Field Guide Pt 1; A reference manual of NLP patterns. Double Bay, Sydney: Emergent Publications.

Collingwood, Jules. (2016). Aegis; Patterns for extending your reach in life, work and leisure. Double Bay, Sydney: Emergent Publications.

Erickson, M.H., Rossi, E.L. (1976/1980). Two-level communication and the microdynamics of trance. In E. Rossi (Ed.), The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis. 1. The nature of Hypnosis and Suggestion (pp. 430-451). New York: Irvington.

Erickson, M.H., Rossi, E.L. (1979). Hypnotherapy; An exploratory casebook. New York: Irvington.

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