Feature Interview
Volume 24, No. 3, Winter 2004 (PDF version posted by Erickson Foundation)


 Dan Short, Ph.D., has been a significant contributor to the development and future of Ericksonian Psychotherapy.  From 1996 to 2001, he was the Executive Editor of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.  He was a member of the founding Board of  Directors of the Dallas Erickson Institute.  He recently served as Associate Director for the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, and  Chief Archivist, indexing and preserving more than 1,000 hours of audio recordings of Dr. Erickson’s work.  He worked with Jeff   Zeig, Foundation Director, in creating the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Press, the Pioneers of Psychotherapy Collection, and helped organize the 2004 Ericksonian Congress.  He has participated as faculty for the Erickson Foundation’s Intensive Training Program and has presented at numerous conferences.  Short designed and engineered Milton H. Erickson: Complete Works 1.0, which is the first digital collection of Erickson’s professional papers complete with search engine and over 2,600 pages of text.  He is currently in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He is a member of the Graduate Faculty at the University of Ottawa, and is a training associate at the recently founded Phoenix Institute.  Short is a volunteer examiner for Doctor’s of the World Human Rights Clinic and has recently co-founded a community mental health clinic that acts as a training center for graduate interns and a resource for financially disadvantaged patientele. 


Sharon McLaughlin (SM):  Dan, you’ve written about Erickson’s work in book chapters, journal articles, and the Newsletter.  Now you are working on a new book project, will you tell me about that?

Dan Short (DS):  I am excited about this project, more so than any other in the past.  It is the result of listening to nearly a thousand hours of lectures and demonstrations by Milton Erickson.  My experience as archivist for the Foundation was more intellectually intense than studying for a doctorate degree.  After a decade of researching and being slightly baffled by Erickson’s insights into healing, his clinical reasoning suddenly began to make perfect sense!  After having Erickson enter into my daily consciousness, previously mysterious and complex clinical cases became a matter of common sense.  It was as if Erickson was offering a key to this incredible vault of clinical information.  These insights are something I feel compelled to share with as many people as possible. 

Rather than working alone, I decided it would be better if I put together a team of authors who are equally dedicated to spreading Erickson’s influence.  I am fortunate to have Betty Alice Erickson and Roxanna Erickson Klein assisting me as co-authors for the English version of the book.  In addition to knowing Erickson in the intimate way that only a child knows a parent, Betty Alice and Roxanna are both skillful writers whom I enjoyed learning from while serving as editor for the Newsletter.  Just as exciting, there are approximately a dozen other co-authors from around the world who are helping me write a book to fit their community and culture.

SM:  So it will be translated into several different languages?

DS:  No, not translated.  With the help of an international team of authors I am producing several unique literary works that have been carefully tailored to a specific country and culture.  Each person is working from the same core set of ideas and case examples that will be transformed by the addition of indigenous literature and culturally relevant anecdotes.  These devises are important for communicating the common sense elements of the text.  This way someone from Brazil does not have to learn to think like an American in order to make sense of what they have read.  Furthermore, the project is not restrained by my limited experiences but instead represents the combined resources of a large number of highly talented individuals.  This will allow me to quickly disseminate Erickson’s teaching in an individualized fashion for cultures throughout the world.

The Spanish and Italian texts are the first versions of the book to be completed.  The Spanish version was written by a team of individuals overseen by Teresa Robles, Ph.D., a prolific author and internationally celebrated expert in Ericksonian therapy.  The book, Aprendiendo las etrategias terapéuticas de Milton H. Erickson, is being published by Alom Editores.  All of the proceeds are going toward a scholarship program for training Mexican graduate students in an Ericksonian Masters program founded by Teresa.  The Italian book, Speranza E Resilienza: Cinque strategie psicoterapeutiche di Milton H. Erickson, was co-authored by Consuelo Casula and will be published by FrancoAngeli S. R. L.  Casula is another successful author who has spoken across Italy and abroad.  It has been wonderful to have these and other talented individuals as a part of the global team effort.

SM:  Explain more about what you learned while reviewing hundreds of hours of teaching by Milton Erickson.

DS:  The lectures and demonstrations in these recordings span a large portion of Erickson’s professional career, 1943 to 1980.  This gave me the opportunity to see how his ideas developed and were refined over time.  Even more importantly, I began to see the underlying principles that formed the foundation of his work and made it a unified whole. 

While listening to the recordings, the statement I heard from Erickson again and again was, “You must understand that it is not the therapist who is the important one.  It is the patient!”  The statement seems simple but eventually I came to realize that he was describing a process of healing that is radically different from traditional views of therapy.  In traditional medicine, when you receive a “treatment,” you begin to get better because something external to your being.  In contrast, Erickson emphasized and relied primarily on a process that originates from within the individual.  This included his full acceptance of the patient’s conceptualization of the problem and his or her personal theory of change.  This was how Erickson seemed to be able to invent a new type of therapy for almost every person he met.  He had at his disposal numerous strategies for tapping into hidden resources and potentials thereby enabling patients to achieve by the strength of their own will what previously seemed impossible.  This is a very empowering method of working with people. 

Utilization is just one strategy that Erickson used yet it is the one that is most celebrated.  It is a fascinating strategy that reflects the essence of Erickson’s philosophy of healing.  One of my favorite techniques of utilization is the act of using a minor problem to resolve another more difficult problem.  It is a very efficient way of conducting therapy and doubly rewarding for the patient.

SM:  Will you give an example?

DS:  I recently had a young patient who was in desperate need of connection with a loving parent.  At age 13, a time when boys need affiliation with a male role model, this boy was completely cut-off from contact with his father, who lived out-of-state. In a very humiliating way, his father used the boy’s sexual experimentation as the reason for the abandonment.  His mother was equally devastated by the news of the problem behavior but she was attempting to help her child.  Though there was no more sexual acting-out, during therapy the mother became increasingly upset by what she viewed as an unhealthy obsession with trading cards.  He had amassed hundreds of these cards and was always asking her to buy more for him.  This conflict was driving a wedge between them.  At the same time, the boy was terribly upset that his mother had started smoking again, presumably as a result of his actions.  He had already lost one parent and did not want to see her engaging in unhealthy behaviors. 

I began a process of utilization by asking the mother if she was willing to stop smoking.  She insisted that she did not want to smoke but could not stop herself.  I asked the boy if he would be willing to have less trading cards, in order to help his mother.  He eagerly agreed.  With further questioning, I learned that a pack of trading cards was approximately four dollars, the same as a pack of cigarettes.  The mother bought her cigarettes at the same convenience store where these cards are sold.  So I had her shake my hand and make a solemn promise that the next time she bought herself a pack of cigarettes she would also by him a pack of trading cards.  This accomplished several things all at once.  She could either improve the relationship with her son by supplying him with cards, and thus end the fruitless control battle over his behavior.  Or she could improve the relationship with her son by allowing his “crazy” habit to be the thing that helped her quit smoking.  Either way, it was the recognition of her will and the uniqueness of their situation that made the therapy work.

SM:  Is that family typical of the patients you see in your practice?

DS:  I work with a wide range of individuals.  While most other professionals these days are being advised to specialize in a certain set of problems, I am becoming specialized in getting to know the person behind the problem.  It is a mistake to think that all instances of depression should be treated in the same way.  Or that all instances of any clinical problem should be treated in the same way. 

I do not mean to imply that there is no value in general theories of human behavior.  Furthermore, I know from my previous experience as a specialist in the area of domestic violence, that often specialists are able to recognize certain patterns of behavior and offer a level of care that exceeds the abilities of someone less experienced in that area.  But the overly reductionistic trend toward viewing people through the lens of a single academic construct continues to erode our status from a reasoning practitioner to that of a semi-skilled technician.

A technician does not need to understand why he does what he does.  He simply needs to know which hole to stick the peg into.  In the most extreme instances of standardized therapy, a clinician does not need to know how to use clinical reasoning but instead administers a test, which produces a label, which then fits with a protocol of treatment complete with transcripts designed by someone who has no direct knowledge of the person being treated nor any appreciation of the skills possessed by the therapist.  It is a very dehumanizing process.  By contrast, when informed decision making is brought into practice, then evidence is collected on a case-by-case basis, numerous hypotheses are generated and tested, and new knowledge is developed.  The scientifically informed practitioner is able to learn something new about therapy from every person he encounters.  As Erickson explained to Zeig, with each new session, “I am purely interested in what I can learn” (in the video Celebrating Milton H. Erickson, M.D., 2001, Foundation Press)

SM:  How does that work in practical terms?

DS:  There are many different ways of learning more about the person who has come to you for help.  Scott Miller is an important leader in advocating for the importance of clinicians using data derived directly from the patient in order to arrive at informed decisions.  This type of scientifically informed practice uses single-subject outcome measures and therefore requires much lower levels of inference.  The logic of it is very simple.  For example, if I have a woman standing in front of me and I want to know how tall she is, should I (a) consult a statistical manual in order to determine the average size of females from her category and then infer that this is her actual height, or (b) pull out a measuring tape and take a measurement.  There are some managed-care companies out there that would have us believe that “a” is the correct answer.  Unfortunately, these policy makers are not as interested in whether or not the patient shows signs of progress during therapy as in dictating what type of therapy the clinician is allowed to employ.

In my practice, I routinely collect qualitative and quantitative information on paper using a three part system.  I call this set of assessment protocols the Short Assessment System (SAS).  It is my system so the pun is intended.  I am very fond of efficiency.  Using therapeutic assessment techniques I am able to conduct therapy while I gather information to formulate a treatment plan.  In a few instances, the patient has learned enough new information following the initial assessment that no further therapy is required.  Because I do not like to waste time administering and scoring tests, the two most frequently used SAS forms are designed to be completed in 200 seconds or less.  It is a subjective measure so the raw score is the final score.  There is no need for mathematical computation.  It is a very straightforward means of learning more about the person in front of you.  It also provides good documentation for how important clinical decisions are arrived at.

The information collected through SAS results in the formation of the treatment plan with a signed contract, the selection of therapy methods to meet the needs of the patient, progress monitoring, monitoring of rapport, and final outcome data.  This information helps me know the most important topics to address when I begin each session, in what area the patient is most strongly motivated to pursue therapy, and the emotional and intellectual impact of each session on the patient.  In addition to telling me what to do more or less of, the data from these forms also provide the patient with an opportunity to review their own experiences during the course of each session.  Recently, I have begun training others in using this system and had impressive results.  I am looking forward to speaking about this topic at the 2004 Ericksonian Congress.

SM:  You do a lot of work with graduate students.  Is contributing to the development of new clinicians a priority for you?

DS:  Yes, definitely.  The training a person receives during his or her graduate internship is extremely important because it is these early experiences that form a foundation for all future learning experiences.  Yet this should be a foundation without walls.  I do not believe that the interns I supervise need to learn from me about how to be a therapist.  My goal is to show them how to teach themselves to become a better therapist with every single session they conduct.  This idea of learning how to do therapy from one’s patients is fitting with the individualized approach of Ericksonian therapy. 

SM:  You’re also involved with the recently formed Phoenix Institute?

DS:  Yes, as a training affiliate.  Steve Lankton has taken the lead in formulating some really exciting plans for the Institute.  The outreach from the Institute will be both to professionals and the surrounding community.  Steve has recently negotiated a new program with Barns & Nobles that will allow affiliates of the Institute to come into the stores and speak with members of the public who would like to know more about hypnosis and psychotherapy.  Hopefully this will help debunk some of the myths about hypnosis while promoting the type of care provided by Ericksonian practitioners.  

SM:  You are obviously dedicated to this work.  How did you first get involved in Ericksonian activities?

DS:  Like so many others, I read Jay Haley’s Uncommon Therapy and was fascinated by Erickson’s case work.  When I discovered that his daughter, Betty Alice, was conducting therapy and training in the Dallas area, I immediately sought her out.  Even though I was young and inexperienced, she expressed a strong interest in my ideas and confidence in my developing abilities.  At first, I just thought she was being nice.  But then my career began to develop exactly as she predicted.  Her sister, Roxanna soon became another important resource.  Roxanna, much like her father, has this uncanny ability to quietly lead from behind.  There is no doubt that I would not be where I am today if it was not for the positive influence of these two individuals.  I feel fortunate to have had the opportunities I have been given.  I am especially grateful to Jeff Zeig for allowing me to serve a two-year tenure as Associate Director at the Foundation.  This experience has taught me more than any other and his encouragement has been particularly meaningful for me.  This is the type of thing for which I aspire. Opportunity is best enjoyed when treated as seed, something to be scattered all around you.  That is some of what makes being an Ericksonian practitioner so fulfilling.

SM:  Dan, it has been an extraordinary privilege getting to work with you, and learn with you.  Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.







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