If You Meet Bill OHanlon on the Road...Kill His Metaphors!

An Interview with Bill OHanlon

Bill OHanlon, a former acolyte of Milton Erickon, and author of many excellent books on psychotherapy visited the UK in 1994 to present for the Brief Therapy Practice. While Bill was in London Harry Norman took the opportunity to interview him.

Harry N I notice that you gave a keynote address at a NLP Conference in Boulder Colorado entitled, "If You Meet Erickson On The Road Kill Him",

Bill OH Maybe I should have said "Microwave him"?

Harry N Would you tell me what that was about? ...and how was it received?

Bill OH It was received very well I think, basically what it was about was ...How do you study with these gurus? ...the Ericksons of this world, or the Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls ...How do you study with these people and learn from them, but not get stuck in trying to do it the way they did it, or just having to endlessly reproduce? Picasso learned painting, and after he learned perspective, and after he learned colours ...after he learned his medium, he began to break all the rules, he let his creativity come through ...his weirdness come through ...his uniqueness come through. If you, as a therapist, are always under the sway of some guru, then it disempowers you in some way! So I was talking about the challenge of having studied with this person or that person, this model that model, and having always to challenge it so that you realise ...no particular model ...no particular Guru has all the answers. Ultimately you are going to be back on your own resources, and though you can glean things from those models, don't get stuck in them! Erickson was the hardest model, which is why the sub title ...like the Buddha ...if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! ...like that Zen story. Erickson was the hardest one, because basically he said don't make me a guru, and don't follow me, but that's pretty compelling!..."Don't follow me" and yet he was so compelling as a creative genius and an amazing fellow ...and mystifying in some ways ...perplexing in other ways ...and just totally fascinating ...and also disempowering in some ways, because he was so powerful, he was so creative! ...Jay Haley stopped doing therapy and would only do supervision because he said that he saw Erickson and he saw Sal Minuchin work, and he knew he would never be as good as that! ...that's pretty disempowering! So you have got to make sure that the Gurus don't disempower you, and that was what that talk was about at the NLP conference.

Harry N How was that received?

Bill OH Pretty well I think ...they laughed in all the right places and people said afterwards that they felt validated ...and I learned some new things ... and got clear on some things.

Harry N You also delivered a presentation, "Frozen in Time", to the NLP Comprehensive, how was that received?

Bill OH I got a little more of the NLP flavoured question than I normally get. People also told me that I have to go and read Connirae Andreas's book, and said that it was similar to the model that I was teaching. But I think that this work is a bit different from the NLP work. I was certified in NLP in 1975 by Richard Bandler and Leslie Cameron and Judy deLozier ... and I edited the first NLP newsletter in 78 to 80 ...but I haven't been around for a while and I got very turned off by the politics and some of the ethics and the rudeness of the movement ....and the threats. Richard Bandler threatened to break my legs one time, but I declined the offer. It really was a turn-off for me and I got much more interested in Erickson. It was interesting going back to NLP land for a little while.

Harry N Do you have any opinions about NLP?

Bill OH I think it's like AA or something, it's a really interesting and good model, but the way it gets applied though is a little limited and closed down. I'll tell you my take on NLP in the mid to late 70s. When I first started it wasn't called NLP, just Bandler and Grinder teaching Patterns of Communication. I came across an advert in the back of a Virginia Stir book for "The Structure of Magic" ...and I was amazed to see it was endorsed by Milton Erickson, Gregory Bateson and Viriginia Satir in glowing terms ... three people who had influenced me saying that this is the greatest stuff to come down the pipe ...these guys are brilliant and you oughta know about it! So I went out and got the book and couldn't make head or tail of it. I was intrigued but I couldn't quite get it, but by the time I had read it a second time, I could see how brilliant ...I was just blown away ...it became so clear how important it was! After a couple of months I heard that Bandler and Grinder were coming to Tucson ...thirty five dollars for a two day course, sponsored by a consortium of drug and alcohol agencies. I went with a friend of mine, and they weren't teaching the language pattern at first, they were teaching the visual auditory and kinesthetic systems, that V-A-K model, and they taught that in the first fifteen minutes, and I turned to my friend and said, "I've thirty five dollars worth in fifteen minutes!" These guys were fantastic, and they went on and included the language patterns and hypnotic patterns. They encouraged me to go visit Erickson and study with him, but I was way too shy back then. But eventually I worked up my courage and went and visited Erickson and traded gardening for studying with him. Anyway I started riding the NLP circuit, or what was to become the NLP circuit. I started to go to every Bandler and Grinder workshop all round the country, I was as poor as a church mouse ...they were such good teachers so funny, so clear, irreverent, energetic and I really loved what I was learning. Then In 1978 I went to a training in New Orleans with Steve and Connirae Andreas, back when Steve was still John O Stevens ...before they married. It was a ten-day certification programme in Neuro Linguistic Programming and I had never heard of it, but Bandler and Grinder were teaching it and that was good enough for me. At the beginning Bandler stood up and said "How many of you know what Neuro Linguistic Programming is?" and a couple of people put their hands up and Richard said, "You can't because we have just made it up! We were sitting on our back porch, having some drinks and we said, what shall we call this bullshit?"! ...and we decided that Neuro Linguistic Programming sounds clever enough, "That ought to sell!" ...and they were joking about this, but they said it would be a ten day competency based certified training, indeed I got certified ...and I did my Masters Degree in this sort of work! What happened for me was that something shifted as it got turned into Neuro Linguistic Programming. First of all Bandler and Grinder said, "We are going to study the Master Chefs of the World, and we are going to model the Master Chefs of the World, and teach you how learn faster to be a Master Chef yourself. We will give you tools to study the best you can find, plus the patterns that we extracted from the Master Chefs so you can be a Master Chef a lot quicker". Then the second thing is that they came out with Neuro Linguistic Programming and along with Neuro Linguistic Programming came a bunch of more formulaic stuff ...more like recipes saying, "here's Six Step Re-framing, here's the Fast Phobia Cure, here's VK Dissociation, here's Change History", they came up with all sorts of formulas and it seemed to me they were saying "OK so we studied the Master Chefs and here are some really great recipes we've come up with based on our study of the Master Chefs," "Oh, that's kinda neat I'd like to have some new recipes, that's terrific", and it was a little more closed down than, "You can become a Master Chef", it was like "here's the master recipes". The next category was, "OK were going to certify everybody ...now we cancel all certifications!" So I had just paid a lot of money and spent a lot of time getting certified and they said, "all certification are cancelled, were going to do it all over again, only this time we are going to franchise it so you can only have certain key people in the country are going to do the training, and they are all going to pay a royalty to us." So then it became Kentucky Fried NLP for me, it was like a money making venture that was franchised and trying to generate money. I didn't really think it was a quality issue and I still don't think it was a quality issue, although it is sometimes said it was. ...and it seemed more and more closed down and what finally just turned me off was the violence. I didn't appreciate the violence in speaking, I didn't particularly appreciate the violent metaphors that Richard Bandler used, and I found it a bit disrespectful and a bit manipulative in the way it was practiced. The attitude came over as "We are going to be able manipulate everybody and get what we want, and achieve any outcome that we want", and there was a disrespect to that. ...and especially in the trainings which had started to get much more hostile! ...then John Grinder did some work with me during a workshop and I was very disillusioned because he'd say, "Go inside and do this..." and I would go inside and start to do it, but I really wasn't doing very well, and he'd say "OK great!" and I'd say, "No, I don't think I did it." and he'd say, "Yeh! You did." So I thought, "Maybe I did, maybe he can see something I can't see, that's fine so long as I got the outcome, that's OK", but it was a bit intrusive and a bit mystifying. So I went away and I didn't get the outcome! ...and I thought, "Fuckin' thing's just bullshit! ...or he was wrong! ...or the model's wrong!", ...and meanwhile I had started to use it quite a bit in my practice and it wasn't producing those instantaneous results that were touted in the trainings and other people were saying they were getting. I would get 'em on occasions ... and they magical! ...BOOM BOOM CHANGE! ...and then sometimes people either wouldn't do it, or couldn't do it, or it didn't work even when they did it! I thought, "This is strange ...this stuff was supposed to work with everybody, all the time!" ...and then you find the limitations of the model, nothing works for everybody all the time! So, ya know, other people can get results with some of the things that I never really got results with, they never really resonated with me. I never really got really good results with those things. So I got a little disillusioned and then the politics got worse. I was friendly with Steve Lankton and he told me that Richard threatened him with a gun and when he told me this I thought, "Whoa that's getting serious." ...and, of course, there was that whole scandal about murder and stuff and things like that, but that was long after I left! So I had this unreasoned prejudice against NLP since that time ...and I thought I learned a whole lot from the early work on patterns and I loved that, but NLP doesn't really appeal to me greatly, but then people come to my workshops and they say, "Bill this is NLP!" ...and, "NLP has moved on Bill" ...and, "You can't really hold that early stuff against us." Well you know in America, as here, someone is innocent until proved guilty and Richard had his day in court and was let off. What I read he said in an interview when someone said, "You are well known to threaten people in the past, so when this happened some people had you tried and convicted before you even had a trial" and he said "Yeah, but threatening people is different from doing something." ...and I think he is right about that ...and he was tried in a court in the United States ...and he got off ...so you can't hold that against him ...so ...that's that! It doesn't matter to me ...that was a whole different legal matter. ...what turned me off was that basic disrespect, and as you know, I have been talking about respect for two days in the workshop. One of the things I hold as a principle is "Respect People" ...and we each have a different idea about what that respect is ...Richard has his own ideas, and I have my ideas ...it struck me, and I think it struck other people, and I don't use that metaphor lightly ...as disrespectful.

Harry N You said that people say NLP has moved on and it was interesting to visit NLP land again, what differences have you noticed?

Bill OH I think it is more open than it was, and more concerned with ethics, and there's new patterns that have been developed and new ideas ...and I have kept in contact with some people in the NLP field over the years ...Ed and MaryAnn Rees and with Steve and Connirae and other people I've known over the years from old NLP days like David Calof and Steve Lankton, Tony Heath ...I still see these people. I think that some people have always done NLP in a respectful way, and always done it in a way that honours people and isn't manipulative ...and that gives me hope for it. I've known Steve and Connirae for years and like them, they're nice people ...good people, we've kept in touch despite the differences in theory and method and all that stuff. So I know some people do NLP in a good way, in a way that is respectful, and I also hear that they are getting great results with it as well. I see it is a little less arrogant, a little less like a snake oil claim ...of curing everything in five minutes and a little more concerned with ethics ...and also having developed some new ideas ...new patterns ...not as many as I expected! Coz when I went along to the conference I was surprised I could understand the jargon and stuff. One of the things I don't like about most movements, including NLP, is the jargon. I also found in a surprising way that I wasn't very interested, because temperamentally I'm not very orientated towards making micro-perceptual interventions. I think that most people in NLP are fascinated these small neurological shifts.

Harry N Tell me more about the O'Hanlon Gardening Service.


Bill OH Well, I worked as a gardener on an estate between undergraduate school and graduate school I just couldn't afford to pay Erickson and I wanted to work with him, so almost as side comment, I offered to barter gardening for learning from him, and he took me up on it ...unfortunately! ...because he spent most of the time having me stay out in the garden and just talking to me. I really wanted to observe him doing cases and get supervision ...of course as the years went on I realised that he was doing many things to me, and with me, out in that garden while he was sitting there talking to me, but I didn't have a clue, even though I had studied with Bandler and Grinder for a while, I couldn't get what he was doing, it was much too sophisticated and complex. Actually, he got very turned off Bandler and Grinder near the end of his life, very alienated from them. In response to a question someone asked him about what he thought of NLP, he said, "Bandler and Grinder spent four days with me and they thought they got my technique in a nutshell ...what they got was a nutshell!" I must admit I came in a little arrogant and I thought, "This stuff should be a breeze". But what Erickson was doing wasn't a breeze, it was more complex than the microanalysis they had done. I had really come to believe that they had what he did, analysed ...totally sorted out. They had pieces of it that nobody else had gotten ...more explicit than anybody else had got it. But they didn't get Erickson, he was operating on a much richer metaphor.

Harry N You said something about taking five years to get over Erickson and the value of clarity?

Bill OH "Clarity begins at home", that's what I always say. It was very confusing, very discombobulating, I did not find it at all a comfortable experience. I didn't find myself worried about whether he was manipulating, or hurting me or anything like that. In fact I did not understand most of what he was telling me, I didn't remember most of what he did with me ...I had amnesia for this I got a feeling of benevolence around him, I didn't get a feeling that I get from tapes of Erickson in the fifties ...almost like a power crazed Richard Nixon. But I got a sense, sitting with him in the seventies, that he was a benevolent person, that he was powerful but didn't need to have power over you and I liked that but it wasn't comfortable for me to be so confused. The good news is that it shook my certainty about some of the things I was certain about. I was a true believer in Family Therapy, I was true believer in Systems Theory, and it shook me from that true belief to, "That's one way to think about things." So that was good! The bad news was that I had read everything I could get my hands on about Erickson, all his work, all his papers. I was obsessed with that ...I loved it ...and I had read other people's work about it ...Haley's ...Steve de Shazer, so I had read everything that I could and still didn't know what the heck he was doing, and was five years before I got it clear and I wrote the book, "Taproots" which was to me a way to de-mystify and clarify, without closing him down, just organised in a way that makes sense.

Harry N You wrote two books on Erickson...

Bill OH "Taproots" and "Uncommon Casebook", which I wrote with my stepdaughter, Angela Hexum. I spent years obsessing, I made all these lists of places he went and the numbers in his inductions, I was just fascinated with his life and his work ...and I'm still sure that there are patterns there that nobody has got yet!

Harry N How satisfied are you with the books you wrote about Erickson?

Bill OH Very satisfied, in fact I'm pretty well done with the obsession. It was time to move on and kill the guru ...and I really have incorporated and mastered some of what I got from Erickson. Jay Haley says that everyday he still use something he learned from Erickson, and that's true for me ...and like Jay Haley I still have a sense that I only understood 50% of what Erickson said to me, and if I understood more, I'd be a better therapist.

Harry N You once said that you invented the Solutions Approach, but Steve de Shazer can write faster!

Bill OH I think I did, I think the record would show this, I gave a presentation on Solutions Orientated Therapy at the Erickson Congress in 86, and I don't recall that Steve's presentation even had the word "Solutions" in the title. I talked about Solutions Orientated Therapy and the next thing I knew there was all this stuff about Steve doing Solutions Focused Therapy ...and that sorta fits, Steve and his colleagues in Milwaukee have a more single minded and more focused approach and I have a little looser approach, a solutions orientation! But hey, we're in the same ball park and we're all trying to move the field in this direction!

Harry N Tell me more about how Solutions Approaches got invented.

Bill OH I think it was a co-evolution, Steve and I used to correspond, and I think mostly it came out of Erickson's work. Steve once said that his whole approach to therapy is just a way to do Pseudo Orientation In Time, or Crystal Ball Technique, without trance. I think the part that I articulated really early on was, "What do people do well?" ...and that came right from Erickson, he was really orientated to what people did well. The story that crystallised this for me was the African Violet story ...Erickson told me this story in 1977 and it resonated with me for years ...eventually I was able to put it into words ...and Jim Wilk and I wrote about it in our book, "Shifting Contexts". Actually, there was a precursor to both Steve de Shazer's and my articulation of the Solutions Approach ...there was a guy called Don Norom who in 1978 gave a presentation called "The Family Has The Solution" in which this guy talked about asking the family about their solutions!

Harry N Tell me a story about identity narratives and someone changing their identity.

Bill OH The first one that comes to mind is my story about how, "I'm shy". I was told when I was a kid that I was a shy kid and I was quiet and shy ...and I told myself that story for years, and after some time I grew dissatisfied with the results of that story. It was an inhibiting story, not a nurturing story, not a possibility story ...a frustrating story. But I was still living in the story, under the domination of it ...to use the phraseology of Michael White and David Epston and crew ...and at a certain point I came across the idea that maybe, I act shy or do shy rather than I am shy. I had a sense, all of a sudden, that this was an expression of who I was, rather than just who I was ...and that was a freeing moment. "This is what I have done, and this is what I am doing, but it isn't who I am!" ...and I started to do some not-shy things, and started to recognise some times when I hadn't been shy. I also came across the Susan Jeffers book, "Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway" and that was helpful. So I started to resurrect parts of my life that were more consistent with the story of not-shy. So that, over time, the shy story was challenged well enough, so I really don't see myself as shy. I still have a narrative that I am lazy and unmotivated, but after seven books it doesn't bother me ...I guess I'm working so hard so that I can be lazy later on! People develop identity stories, and they carry them on, and other people buy them, or other people give them to them ...and I think that there is the possibility of changing those identity stories ...or core beliefs. I think they are specifically about, who we are, what our limits are, what our characteristics are, and I think it's pretty much made up! There are some biological or neurological preferences, but basically, one's identity story is pretty much created, and co-created as part of a tradition of action, and traditions in a culture. For instance there are traditions in our culture that there are certain personality traits ...certain identity stories are preferred in a culture. It's what Heidegger called the "Thown-ness" ...like clay gets thrown by a potter, you get thrown certain personality traits or certain likelihoods of identity stories, and in other cultures you could be thrown other things.

Harry N Hey! Don't give me no Heidegger shit!

Bill OH Don't throw you that Heidegger shit huh! It's OK! I don't know that much Heidegger, Being and Somethingness ...huh?

Harry N Whose work do you consider worth checking out, these days?

Bill OH David Epston from New Zealand, Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola from Finland, and Steve Gilligan. Sometimes I teach with Steve Gilligan and I love, and hate, to teach with him. I love him and I think he is a great guy and a great therapist and I hate to teach with him because he throws me in to discombobulation, but for months after something shifts for me ...and he says that I'm weird and, from Steve, that is a great compliment! Steve Gilligan is full of possibilities and so are David Epston and Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola, and they are fun and human and they just love possibilities!

"If You Meet Bill OHanlon on the Road...Kill His Metaphors!" an interview with Bill OHanlon, first published in Context and Rapport 24, p 62 (1994)

Bill OHanlon's presentation was sponsored by

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