The Masters of Psychotherapy: Personal Reflections

Sep 30, 2011 by Tom Dellner

A Conversation With Dr. Jeffrey Zeig

Dr. Barbara Grimes and Dr. Jeff Zeig
Barbara Grimes and Jeff Zeig

To say that Dr. Jeffrey Zeig’s career has been extraordinary is far from hyperbole. In fact, it may be an understatement. He is a renowned psychologist and marriage and family therapist with a private practice based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Dr. Zeig travels the world, conducting workshops on experiential psychotherapy, hypnosis, and brief therapy with various clinical problems. A prolific author, Dr. Zeig has edited, co-edited, authored, or co-authored more than 20 books (appearing in print in more than a dozen languages). A current topic of interest to Dr. Zeig is extracting implicit codes of influence from various arts, including movies, music, painting, poetry, and fiction that can be used to empower professional practice and everyday communication.

Dr. Zeig is the founder and director of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, having studied with Dr. Erickson, intermittently, for six years. He is the architect of the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conferences, internationally recognized as the most important conferences in the field. He also organizes the Brief Therapy Conferences, the Couples Conferences, and the International Congresses on Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy.

Dr. Zeig’s clearly has been a singular career in terms of his remarkable accomplishments and international impact on psychotherapy. But it’s also exceptional for the relationships he has forged with the most preeminent psychotherapists of our time. Through his travels and work with the Evolution Conferences, Dr. Zeig has had the opportunity to learn from—and form friendships with—most of the masters of psychotherapy.

We had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Zeig for a conversation during which he discussed his personal experiences with five of these masters of psychotherapy: Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir, Carl Whitaker, Carl Rogers, and Viktor Frankl. He also offered his thoughts on the keys to understanding their work, and his opinion regarding their most significant contributions to psychotherapy.



Milton H. Erickson, MD

CalSouthern: What is your most powerful or meaningful memory of your personal experience with Dr. Erickson?

Dr. Zeig: In 1972, I was a marriage, family and child counselor in California, having recently earned my master’s degree from San Francisco State University. A psychiatrist named Charles O’Connor was supervising me on my internship. One of his areas of expertise was hypnosis, which was of interest to me. So, one Saturday, he had me come into his office so that he could hypnotize me.

Not knowing anything about hypnosis, I was nervous, subconsciously drumming my fingers on the arm of the chair in which I was sitting. Dr. O’Connor suggested to me that if I would drum my fingers faster and pay attention to the movement of my fingers, it would lead me into a trance. This was an Ericksonian technique called utilization, utilizing aspects of the total environment to advance the hypnosis or therapy, rather than analyzing the particular aspect.

I was fascinated and asked, “What can I read on this topic?” And Dr. O’Connor said “Read Milton Erickson.” So I got a book—now long out of print—called Advanced Techniques in Hypnosis and Therapy. I was stunned. It was light years beyond anything I had conceptualized about psychotherapy. From that point, I devoured anything I could find by or about Erickson.

Around this time, I wrote a somewhat frivolous letter to my cousin who was studying nursing in Tucson. In it, I mentioned to her that if she ever traveled to Phoenix, she should visit Milton Erickson, because he’s a genius. She wrote back, “Don’t you remember my old college roommate Roxanna Erickson? She is Milton Erickson’s daughter.”

So I then wrote to Roxanna and Dr. Erickson, enclosing a paper I had written which was an explication of his utilization method working with psychotic patients (I was working with schizophrenic patients at the time). And I asked if I could study under him. He wrote back and declined, saying that he wasn’t taking students because of his age and declining health. But I was stunned that he would even write a personalized letter to an admiring student. I wrote him again, mentioning that I would be glad just to visit with him.

In December, 1973, I drove to Phoenix after attending a hypnosis workshop in Southern California. That was when I first encountered Milton Erickson. I thought that I was going to learn about his genius. But more impressive was his exuberance about life. This was a man who was confined to a wheelchair, who was breathing by virtue of half a diaphragm and a few intercostal muscles, his vision was doubled, and his hearing was impaired. He had many other medical problems, including constant chronic pain and the residual effects of post-polio syndrome.

But he perfumed the atmosphere with his joy at being alive, and he was fascinated with me and what he and I could learn. He was so passionate and charismatic. At one point on the second day that I was there, I was so moved by him spending his energy on educating me—and not really about psychotherapy, but rather on how to live—that tears began streaming down my face. I said, “Dr. Erickson, you are the most impressive human being I have ever met.” And he said, “Oh, Jeff, I am just another old bozo along the path of life.” He didn’t want to be placed on a pedestal.

That is one of my foundational memories of my time with Dr. Erickson. It is more a memory of how to be, rather than a memory of any specific case or specific method that he taught me (although I have many powerful memories in these areas, too).

CalSouthern: In your opinion, what is the key to understanding Dr. Erickson’s approach to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: I believe the key is in utilization. Utilization is a philosophy of efficiency. It says that whatever exists in the total therapy situation can be utilized to advance the therapy. It’s utilizing the patient’s style and values, utilizing the therapeutic environment, and the patient’s living situation. So whereas Freud pivoted his therapy on transference and Rogers pivoted his therapy on empathy, Erickson’s cases—and I think there are more than 300 that he added to the literature—are all based on this concept of utilization. And almost everything that I have written in the past 25 years has been an explication of Erickson’s utilization method. It’s certainly the central component Ericksonian practice.

CalSouthern: What do you believe is his most significant contribution to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: Well, if you were referring to the technical side, he would have mentioned his interspersal technique—an associative technique of multi-level communication where you present messages both on the social level and the psychological level—getting people to drive and reorganize associations leading to constructive behavior, either in coping or in changing.

The second technique that he developed was the confusion technique, which is a destabilizing technique. So these are two sides of the coin. You would destabilize a little bit and disrupt the conscious set, the habitual set, and then you would use an associative technique to begin to develop a reservoir of constructive associations that would drive effective behavior.



Virginia Satir, MSW

CalSouthern: What is your most powerful or meaningful memory of your personal experience with Virginia Satir?

Dr. Zeig: I invited Virginia Satir to the 1985 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference. She was so powerful in her particular kind of charisma. Virginia was the kind of person who just made you feel connected. When you were with her you felt like she was intently focused on you and intently interested in you; the human connection was an incredibly important value to her.

After that conference, she stayed a couple of days and had lunch with me and my wife at the time. At that conference, Carl Rogers, Salvador Minuchin, Rollo May, Jay Haley, Carl Whitaker, Murray Bowen, R.D. Laing, Zerka Moreno and many other luminaries of psychology were present; it was an incredible panoply of the present and future psychotherapy leaders of the day. I was more than a little bit awestruck and she—at the lunch—kindly, thoughtfully explained to me that all of these brilliant people—like all of us—had feet of clay and their own strengths and weaknesses. She left me with no illusions that there were psychotherapeutic demi-gods. I thought this was a remarkably kind thing of her to do.

In another incredible act of kindness, she volunteered her time to do a family reconstruction with me; I was offered a marathon session with Virginia Satir. But unfortunately, I was a little naïve and when she called me and asked me to come on a particular weekend, it was a Thanksgiving holiday, and I didn’t go. I didn’t realize she was going to bring in a potpourri of experts to help with this family reconstruction—which would essentially have been like re-doing your psyche from the inside out with Virginia Satir. So I missed that opportunity, and I have lived to regret it.

CalSouthern: In your opinion, what is the key to understanding Satir’s approach to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: From my perspective, the key to understanding her approach is about connection, how to help people to bring out, in a non-hierarchical way, the kind of human dignity and human connection that empowers relationships.

CalSouthern: What do you believe is her most significant contribution to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: She was a pioneer and leader of family therapy, one who brought family therapy into prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. In the literature, you simply can’t study family therapy without studying Virginia Satir.



Carl Whitaker, MD

CalSouthern: What is your most powerful or meaningful memory of your personal experience with Dr. Whitaker?

Dr. Zeig: Carl was an inspiration to me and I modeled much of my family therapy after his techniques. He supervised my family therapy; I would put my families on the speaker phone in Phoenix, and he would do consultations from Wisconsin where he was living. He was a wizard—probably on my list of the top-three therapists that I have ever seen work.

When he was on, he was incomparable in his perceptiveness and his provocations. Whitaker was a man with abnormal integrity. He just said his truth, but had a way of doing it that was so filled with an aesthetic. He would speak his truth and do a kind of psychological strip tease in a way that other people would fantasize about but never dare attempt. But he would do it, and if you spent any time with him you were going to be a better person by virtue of it.

After one of the Evolution Conferences, he invited me to his rural Wisconsin home. I was able to just hang out with him and his family. He was tremendously family-oriented and tremendously people-oriented. When you were around him, you got the sense that he just loved the connection and loved being with people. I remember my time with him with great fondness.

CalSouthern: In your opinion, what is the key to understanding Dr. Whitaker’s approach to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: He was an experiential and provocative psychotherapist. His way of doing family therapy was called symbolic experiential psychotherapy, and he was one of the people who really interested me in how to make psychotherapy into an experience. Carl was more of a right-hemisphere person, not so strategic and intentional in his moves, but more wise and spur-of-the-moment. He always had an interesting perspective. He was one of those people who could recite the telephone book and find a way of doing it that you had never considered before and that would cause you to learn something about yourself in the process.

CalSouthern: What do you believe is his most significant contribution to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: Like Virginia Satir, he was one of the leaders of family therapy. If Satir could be considered the mother of family therapy, Carl could be considered the father. Or, on second thought, one of the fathers of family therapy.



Jeffrey Zeig and Carl Rogers, PhD

CalSouthern: What is your most powerful or meaningful memory of your personal experience with Dr. Rogers?

Dr. Zeig: I met Carl Rogers on just two occasions, both in 1985. One of these occasions was an American Psychological Association conference, and Dr. Rogers was addressing Psi Chi, the national psychology honorary society. It was at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, which is an old, historic hotel, in a classic, ornate ballroom filled with young students who were eager to be in the presence of Carl Rogers.

He was on stage and was thoughtful and wise and very considerate in his speech. He patiently answered all the students’ questions about empathy, genuineness, and positive regard. Finally, at the end of the hour, a student screwed up his courage and asked, “What about death?” And Rogers laughed and made a joke that I don’t even remember now. But then he said, “When I was a boy it was predicted that I would die young. And now that I am 83, I am certain that prediction will come true.” And you could just hear the hush through the audience, with the students awestruck at how profound, wise, and thoughtful he was.

He was such a beloved psychotherapist. I remember a poll that asked clinical psychologists who they revered the most. Rogers was first and Freud was second.

CalSouthern: In your opinion, what is the key to understanding Dr. Roger’s approach to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: Empathy was certainly something that he championed. Also, his reflective listening style serves as a foundation for humanistic psychotherapy, as does his understanding that human beings have a nascent growth potential, and given certain core conditions, that nascent growth potential will propel people forward. You can’t do psychotherapy without understanding the empathic basis that was so foundational to Rogers’ work.

CalSouthern: What do you believe is his most significant contribution to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: He was one of the founders of humanistic psychotherapy. His contributions were so great, it makes this is a difficult question to answer. His research and his theoretical explorations are impossible to pigeonhole into a singular contribution. Rogers was a person who, during his era, simply dominated the field.



Jeffrey Zeig & Viktor E. Frankl

CalSouthern: What is your most powerful or meaningful memory of your personal experience with Dr. Frankl?

Dr. Zeig: In August, 1990, I traveled to Vienna for a teaching engagement.  I wrote to Viktor and asked whether I could visit him. He replied that he had sciatica and wasn’t really accepting visitors, but said that I should call him when I arrived at the airport.

When I arrived and cleared customs, I called Viktor immediately, even before I claimed my luggage. He said, “Come over now.” So I stored my baggage, and I visited the diminutive Austrian man with such an indescribable presence and charisma. We went to his office where we exchanged books, and he showed me some of the memorabilia he had on display. He must have had close to 30 honorary doctoral degrees, from prestigious universities from around the world, such as the University of Berlin and the University of Argentina.

But in the middle of this collection was a certificate from a San Diego flight school for soloing a Cessna sometime in the 1970s. Being a pilot, this interested me. I asked him why this nondescript certificate was displayed in the midst of all of these prestigious degrees. He explained that when he was a young man, he climbed mountains (in fact, there are still trails named after him because he had been among the first to explore them). But eventually he developed an aversion to heights. And despite that—or because of it—he decided to solo a plane.

He then explained how and why he was able to do so, despite his nervousness about heights. He did so with a beautifully poetic German phrase: Ich lasse mir nicht alles von mir gefallen. Roughly translated into English, this means, “there are some things about myself I don’t have to tolerate.” I can’t even say to you how many times I’ve recalled this phrase at moments when I was about to diverge from a standard that I have for how I should behave.

Frankl also said, “Act as if you are acting for the second time, about to avoid the mistake that you are about to make.” He had these wonderfully pithy ways of framing things, and this indomitable spirit that infused the atmosphere with a passion for meaning. You got the sense that everything he did was done intentionally because of the subjective meaning that it had, and that if it didn’t have subjective meaning to him, he didn’t time for it.

CalSouthern: In your opinion, what is the key to understanding Dr. Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: He invented the therapeutic school of logotherapy and his exploration of meaning—rather than, for example, transference or empathy or utilization as a central fulcrum for moving people in therapy—has been incorporated into modern cognitive behavior therapy. Frankl’s work with meaning profuses and is foundational to psychotherapy, much like Roger’s work with empathy. It has reverberated through many different schools of psychotherapy and is an important component of a wide variety of approaches. For example, one facet of Donald Meichenbaum’s work with trauma involves how to create meaning from moments in which you were traumatized, and hopefully return to be resilient.

CalSouthern: What do you believe is his most significant contribution to psychotherapy?

Dr. Zeig: I have to return to the notion of meaning. It’s about meaning being active in human reality, the notion that the human heart is a meaning-making organ. Everything became very easy for him when he pivoted on the fact that even though every dignity could be taken away from him in concentration camps, they could not take away his will to be meaningful.

When I met him he was suffering from macular degeneration. He would reference back to the concentration camp saying that if he had to choose between blindness and being in a concentration camp, he would have chosen blindness. So he was able to endure the loss of his central vision. He found such elegant ways of making moment-to-moment existence transcend the immediacy of the circumstances by profusing it with meaning.


Dr. Zeig reflected on the masters of psychotherapy in even greater detail during a presentation delivered as part of CalSouthern's Master Lecture Series.



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