Unlimited Possibilities: An Interview with Bill O’Hanlon

I am happy to share with you all a very brief interview I conducted recently with Bill O’Hanlon, a good friend and one of my mentors. Bill is a renown psychotherapist and an acclaimed international workshop presenter. He is also a prolific author writing over 36 books (one of which got him on Oprah!). Bill was the only work-study student of the late Dr. Milton Erickson and has authored several books on Erickson’s unique approaches toward healing. Bill is a Licensed Mental Health Professional, Certified Professional Counselor, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is clinical member of AAMFT (and winner of the 2003 New Mexico AMFT Distinguished Service Award), certified by the National Board of Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists and a Fellow and a Board Member of the American Psychotherapy Association. Bill is someone who deeply understands the importance of a resource directed approach to helping clients.


Bill, you are known for being a therapist who works from a resource focused, solution oriented perspective. What started you on the path toward viewing therapy this way?

Meeting Milton Erickson. I met him when he visited Matthews Art Gallery at Arizona State University, where I worked as a work study student. I learned who Dr. Erickson was that day, read an article about his worked and become intrigued.

As I learned more, I sensed at first, then later learned more, that he had a very different approach to change. He viewed people as having “the answer within,” only much of the time the answer was non-conscious – that is, the person knew it but they didn’t know they knew it.
So, Dr. Erickson taught me to approach change as evocation rather than instruction (as an approach such as Cognitive Therapy takes) or correcting deficits or damage (as much psychodynamic work or trauma work attempts to do). He believed each person had inner and social/environmental resources that would provide the seeds for solution or fully formed solutions.
I developed the first iteration of my extraction of those ideas and called it “Solution-Oriented Therapy,” but changed the name when Steve deShazer co-opted a similar name for his Solution-Focused Therapy. I began to call my work “Possibility Therapy.”

Can you define what “Possibility Therapy” is and what specifically it offers? 

Possibility Therapy has two main components: Acknowledgment and Possibility.

The first comes from the influence of Carl Rogers on my work. I think people rarely follow therapists into the change process until they feel accepted, understood and validated. But often those elements, while important starting points, are not enough to create change.
So, I added the second aspect of Possibility Therapy: Inviting people to change their patterns, their viewpoints and their contexts to move forward. And because only that person/couple/family/company knows what is right for them, the task of the Possibility Therapist is to get people unstuck and open possibilities, not to tell people the right way to live, express themselves, etc.
So, this is not a normative model that defines what is psychologically, emotionally or relationally healthy, aside from a few common sense ideas (It’s not okay to hurt people). Possibility Therapy doesn’t rely on diagnosis to guide treatment, but instead on clients’ expressions of concerns and longings: What does this client want to stop or get away from or have less of (The Concern) and what does the client want to have or where do they want to be in their lives when therapy is done (The Longing).
What three qualities do you think are most important for any therapist who is interested in working from a “possibility” perspective?
1. Being optimistic about the possibilities for change.
Some therapy models see people as damaged or incapable. Possibility Therapists see clients as capable and able and as having resources, not as being damaged or having deficits.
2. Being flexible
Because Possibility Therapy has no set normative/diagnostic model and is willing to use any method that is respectful and helps relieve suffering, no dogmatic theories or methods are used.
We are generally guided by four ways to the change process:
1. Accepting and respecting the client and his/her viewpoints, interests and felt experience without trying to fix, correct or change who they are;
2. Changing the Viewing: Helping the client(s) shift their perspective,interpretation or focus of attention by telling stories or gently challenging the truth or reality of their current unhelpful perspectives and meaning attributions;
3. Changing the Doing: Helping clients try action, interactional and language experiments to shift what is happening in their lives.
4. Changing the Context: Getting the person to shift their environments, the people and places they spend time around, the parts of their backgrounds and influences (family, cultural, spiritual, religious, gender training and orientation, etc.) they draw upon or identify with.
We use stories, non-conscious change methods such as hypnosis, small language changes, and other methods to accomplish these four things.
3. Ability to connect
Research shows that the quality of connection between client and therapist makes a big difference in the positive outcome in treatment. This includes listening, respect, a sense of one’s one competence and the competence of the clients.
Over the past few years it appears that in some ways psychotherapy has moved back to looking at human behavior through the lens of the disease model. What advice do you have for other therapists who may be discouraged by the present state of the profession?
The disease model is one way to look at things. Some “alcoholics” have used this model to save their lives by switching to seeing themselves as having a disease rather than a moral weakness, so that model, when used in the service of change, can be useful.
The problem comes when therapists develop what I call delusions of certainty or hardening of the categories and they actually believe their own theories. This is akin to psychotic delusions in that often the clinician believes that the ideas they have projected on reality are the one and only truth.
If that or any other theory is acceptable to the client, helps empower rather than disempower him or her, fine. If not, there are many other theories that are just as valid and may help more.I tend to lean away from the pathologically-oriented, disease models, except when I don’t. (Hence the name Possibility Therapy.)
What recent developments in psychotherapy have made you most excited?

Actually research outside of psychotherapy on the brain that shows peoples’ brains can change all through life: that brains and nervous systems are plastic (changeable). I was taught the “fixed” brain model when I learned neurological psychology and it was discouraging. If an adult got brain damage, there was little to be done.

Also, research showing that genes, which give the broader limits of what is possible and not possible for human beings, are not where the action is, but instead gene expression (or epigenetics), which can be changed by thinking, environment, actions and interactions, is where thing are more dynamic and changeable.
I believe Milton Erickson discovered these phenomena clinically before science found evidence of them and he infused me with this “change-oriented” and “possibility-infused” point of view.Using hypnosis for some 30+ years has shown me how mutable what looks like fixed experience and physiology actually is.
In your forthcoming book, you outline and discuss non-medication ways to deal with depression. What motivated you to write about this particular subject?

I experienced a severe depression when I was younger and almost killed myself. Having survived that to live a happy and productive life made me committed to helping others, which I have done for years in my therapy practice.

But it is “depressing” to see an entire culture hypnotized by the unscientific claims of pharmaceutical companies that depression is a “brain disease,” so I thought I would write about six non-medication ways of relieving depression that have clinical validity as well as research evidence to help challenge this fixed and pervasive view. The book will be out next year and is titled: Out of the Blue: Six non-medication ways to relieve depression. It will be published by W.W. Norton.
In addition to your books and international speaking, what other areas are you presently working on that might be of interest to your fellow therapists?

I teach and coach people (mostly online these days) about how to become authors at www.GetYourBookWritten.com. I have coached over 100 books into publication (including yours soon, I think, Paul) and my goal within the next few years is to have coached over 1000.

I also teach and coach people to be paid public speakers, and to use the Internet to spread their work, become known as experts in their topic areas and earn passive income online while helping others.

 Is it true that you secretly want to be known as the “James Taylor” of psychotherapy?

I do play guitar most every day and James Taylor was one of my early guitar heroes and I admire his ability to have longevity in his career. Sting and Paul Simon are some other musician heroes that show how to have a long career and keep growing and reinventing oneself.

I think that being a therapist is very much akin to being a musician. One has to learn the craft and rules of the skill and then be able to improvise!

Absolutely! Thanks for your time Bill.
I highly recommend Bill’s work to any therapist who is interested in finding practical methods to assist his or her clients in changing their lives for the better. As Bill stated he has been coaching me in writing a new book on the work of Milton Erickson through his book course. The course has been excellent and very helpful to me. For more information on Bill O’Hanlon, his books, audios and trainings go to his website www,billohanlon.com

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