Vincent Kenny

DATE - October 1, 1984.



What Personal Construct Therapy is Not

I. Not Directive and Not Non-Directive:
2. Not Suspicious but Credulous
3. Not Repair but Creativity
4. Not Past but Future Oriented
5. Not Dogmatic Realism but Constructive Alternativism

What Personal Construct Therapy Is

Direction of Change
Definition of Disorder
Easier Done than Said
Aim of Psychotherapy

Levels of Personal Change

'The Sunny Side of the Street?'
'Name- the- Ways'
'I have often walked down this street before, but ...
Summary: Levels of Change

Five Conditions for Creating New Constructs

1. The Cycle of Validation
2. The-Introduction-of-New-Elements
3. Experimentation
4. Absence-of-Threat
5. Avoiding preoccupation With Old Material







The focus of personal construct psychology is personal change through psychotherapy. For Kelly the objective of -therapy is nothing less ambitious than the psychological reconstruction of life. What Kelly means by the term "therapy', and how this differs from some current definitions of ‘therapy' is the subject of this article. Along with Rogers, Kelly abandoned the term "patient" (because of its overtones of passively and patiently submitting to treatment), and also would have liked to have abandoned the term "Therapy' altogether. "We even considered using the term reconstruction' instead of therapy If it had not been such a mouth-filling word we might have gone ahead with the idea." (1)

Central to personal construct psychology (PCP) is the model of 'man the scientist'. (2) Within this model each individual is seen as personal scientist continuously engaged in attempting to make sense of the world by a process of composing theories about what the world is like and then taking behavioral action to test the viability and accuracy of these theories. Through such behavioral experiments one's theories remain fluid and updated over time. The PCP therapist must therefore integrate the roles of both the scientist and the clinician. "The basic position of the psychology of personal constructs calls for seeing psychotherapy as an application of basic scientific methodology, not merely as an exploitation of "scientific findings'.' (3)

For the person-as-client / scientist the objective is to increase his 'control’ over personal events through the experimental evolution of a fertile prediction system. Here we see Kelly's insistence on experimental action taken by the client. Conversations between the therapist and client are a prelude to, and a structuring of, experiential experiments in the real world. Kelly's view of learning and change is that "a person is what he does". (4) The emphasis on the person as a scientist exploits the proposition that one's state of being follows after one's acts. That is, man changes himself through his actions.

What Personal Construct Therapy is Not

The following passages outline five areas where personal construct therapy may be seen contrasting with other approaches which operate on the basis of different philosophical assumptions.

I. Not Directive and Not Non-Directive:

Kelly did not wish to be constrained by having to construe the therapeutic relationship as being "directive versus non-directive" which he felt limited the possibilities of therapists being able to change their own style or procedures. The alternative was to develop the 'man-as-scientist' model with special implications for the therapist dyad.

‘It is not always easy to approach therapy from a scientist’s point of view and see it as a means of helping the client formulate and test out hypotheses without being overly ego-involved in them. It is easier to take the position that either the client or the therapist must decide what is the "right" thing to do. If it is the therapist, then the method is "directive". If it is the client, then the method is ''non-directive" or "client-centered". But is not the scientist's point of view something quite different from either of these? Is not his point of view that the fact must be manipulated into making the ultimate decision rather than assigning the responsibility to either person? Does he not formulate his hypotheses in terms of make-believe and then see what happens to them in the white light of experience?" (5)

Kelly characterizes the therapeutic dyad as the same type of relationship that exists between a research supervisor and a research student. The supervisor must subsume crucial aspects of the student's research interest if he is to, help him design the optimal methodology through which he hopes to answer his questions. The supervisor's talent lies in the methodology of how to ask a good experimental question. The student's level of expertness lies in his specialist knowledge of his subject matter. The client's subject matter is himself, but he has become a client because he finds himself uselessly repeating a fragment of a larger experiment the point of which he has forgotten. Thus, whatever outcome there is to his experimentation he is no longer in a position to learn from it. The therapist's task is to help the client to formulate the questions he needs to ask himself, and to get him 'unstuck' from his useless, piecemeal, incomplete cycle of experimentation. This model of the therapeutic relationship is one of active co-experimentation rather than one of submitting patiently to the ministrations of a clinician who may believe in either a directive or non-directive style of working.

2. Not Suspicious but Credulous

The PCP therapist begins by taking al] the client's utterances and dispositions at face value. His first task is to subsume the constructs of his client by accurately describing the highest levels of abstraction in the client's construct system at the lowest levels of abstraction in his own. In other words, taking what he observes at face value means dealing concretely with the client's abstractions. By accepting the 'going system' of the client the therapist "never discards information given by the client merely because it does not conform to what appear to be the facts! From a phenomenological point of view, the client like the proverbial customer - is always right. This is to say that his words and his symbolic behaviour possess an intrinsic truth which the clinician should not ignore." (6) Should the client be telling lies, the PCP therapist is as equally concerned with such "lies" as constructions of events, as he is with the events so construed.

Acceptance of the client is defined as "a willingness to see the world through the other person's eyes." (7) This is a precondition for the setting up of role relationships because the PCP therapist seeks to understand the intrinsic sense-making of the client’s channeling constructs and not merely how he has behaved.

"Our view of acceptance is that it involves not so much the approval of the client's view of himself as it does the readiness to utilize the client's modes of approach his system of axes, his reference points, his ways of approaching problems. The therapist attempts to employ the client's construct system, though not to be encapsulated by it." (8)

Acceptance is not merely trying to establish commonality of ideas between the therapist and client but rather seeking ways of subsuming the client's construct system without trivialising or distorting it. In order to reduce the imposition of one's pre-existing personal construct system on the client, Kelly recommends that the therapist first compile a lexicon for dealing with him in his own language and explore the idiosyncrasies in his use of words, initially by examining their sequences and contexts. The therapist must strive to become expert in communicating with the client in his own language terms rather than teaching the client his particular brand of psychotherapeutic jargon.

The importance of accurately subsuming the client's system becomes more clear when one considers the crucial nature of experimentation for clients and the need for the therapist to clearly evaluate how much the client is wagering on the outcome of any given exploration. Very often experiments are designed with far too much at stake resulting in personal disaster for the client.

"A good director of graduate study will make some effort to discover what his students are covertly staking on the outcome of their experiments." (9)

By trying to subsume the client's outlook, by trying it on himself experimentally, the therapist must reproduce his client's system rather than classify or label it. In this way the clinician may anticipate and appreciate his client's predictions, meanings and investments in experiments. , Of course, some construct systems are more difficult to subsume than others.

"Whether or not the clinician despairs of being able to construe a given client's behaviour meaningfully is another issue. But the inadequacy, in that case, is the clinician's and not nature's." (10)

This echoes Frieda Fromm-Reichmann's statement that:-

... psychiatrists can take it for granted now that, in principle, a workable doctor-patient relationship can be established with the schizophrenic patient. If and when this seems impossible, it is due to the doctor's personality difficulties, not to the patient's psychopathology." (11)

3. Not Repair but Creativity

Kelly defines the psychotherapeutic venture as an inventive, creative process. He draws a strong parallel between the creative thinking needed in therapy and that needed in scientific reasoning where both enterprises form hypotheses as predictions which "are designed to embrace the future rather than to embalm the past." (12)

Psychotherapy must therefore focus on the creation of new hypotheses/ predictions which form a major step towards the invention of a new construct system, rather than attempt to repair or patch up the flaws in the going system.

"As long as any client is inclined toward undoing the mistakes of his past rather than creating a constructive system which does not call for the repetition of those mistakes in the future, very little psychotherapeutic movement is likely to take place. The psychotherapist who allows his client to become wholly embroiled in his past on the theory that catharsis, abreaction, purging, punishment, expiation, or any of the exorcistic devices is, by itself, an efficacious act, is indulging in primitive thinking." (13)

The model of the therapeutic relationship as a creative, co-operative, experiential and experimental process clearly implies that therapy is not something the therapist 'does’ to the client. There are no 'skilled techniques' nor any mechanical technologies of influence 'applied' to the client.

4. Not Past but Future Oriented

Since the Kellian person is oriented to the anticipation of events then psychotherapy must also be. The therapist's task is not merely to structure or diagnose the client's past experiences but rather to construe these in such a manner as to be able to predict what may happen to the client in the future. Most nosological systems fail to live up to this criterion. Many clinicians do not attempt to encompass the multivariant structure of problems and, instead of construing their client within the framework of several dimensions, they attempt to reduce him to a single "diagnosis". It is within this reductionistic method of operating that one tends to see the therapist "doing" to the client things that are recommended for this "type of case". Many therapists fall into the same dilemma as the clients they are supposed to help, namely, their outlook or professional construct system leads to a pessimistic formulation of the problems being confronted with consequent feelings of helplessness and despair. The widespread habit of identifying clients by the name of their diagnosis (e.g. "he is a manic/schizophrenic/depressive") reflects the more localized but equally pessimistic habit in medicine of reducing incurables to their disease label (e.g. "epileptic", "diabetic", "paraplegic" etc.)

In PCP, diagnostic constructs must manifest a degree of optimism in relation to the client's future. They must provide a set of axes along which one may plot the client's experience, not so as to fix him statically in space but rather to provide avenues alone which movement may be possible.

Kelly tells us that it makes a large difference -

''whether the axes are designed to catch our fellow men like a fly in a spider's web or are conceived as a system of streets and highways along which he can be encouraged to move in an orderly fashion ... The coordinate axes we set up should represent many different lines of movement which are open to him and not a labyrinth of one-way passages from which he can never escape." (14)

One aspect of therapy therefore is the creative construction of diagnostic constructs and hypotheses which form a predictive framework of channels leading to the future. Within his analysis of the client's construct system the therapist seeks out those constructs which seem "permeable", i.e. flexible enough to be capable of embracing future events, rather than being limited in use to certain specific past phenomena. Within PCP the "Modulation Corollary" states that construct system change is controlled- by the permeability of relevant (superordinate) constructs, i.e. the amount of change that the system will tolerate depends on the 'elasticity' of certain key constructs which hold other constructs in place. The therapist is keenly interested in locating such permeable constructs since these "bespeak the capacity for change!" (15)

5. Not Dogmatic Realism but Constructive Alternativism

Although confrontational approaches have their place for the PCP therapist there is no place for the notion of confronting the client with "stark reality". The therapist, like anyone else, must perceive reality through the "goggles" of his own personal theories and hence can never be sure that there is anything "stark" about the piece of "reality" he has grasped. Central to PCP is the philosophy of constructive alternativism which proposes that "whatever exists can be reconstrued" and that there is no perfect way of "capturing" or depicting reality. This being so, there is no obvious basis for being dogmatic about one's own versions of reality. Instead PCP encourages both therapist and client to create meanings and portrayals of events which have not hitherto existed. The idea of dogmatic confrontation is not only ruled out on this philosophical basis but also on the more obvious clinical basis that

"A client who is confronted with what are conceded to be
stark realities can be as badly immobilised as one confronted with a thick-headed therapist. Even the presumed realism of his own raw feelings can convince a client that he has reached a dead end."

Kelly is also of the opinion that

"Dogmatism produces a kind of mental rigidity that replaces thought with word, stifles the zest for free inquiry and tries to seal the personality up tight at the conclusion of the last psychotherapeutic interview." (17)

Kelly recommends that the therapist takes a circumspect approach to the client, starting as it were, at the periphery of his construct system and working inwards to more core issues. When the client is put under pressure (for example, by a frontal attack on the core of his construct system) he is unlikely to develop new avenues of approach to his problem. When introducing fresh elements the therapist is careful to focus on contexts which initially do not involve the client too intimately and do not require him to make judgements which deeply implicate himself. Of course, ultimately, therapy is about the development of new core constructs, that is, the constructs central to one's personal identity.

In the previous passages we have seen how, through constructing a scientific model of the therapeutic enterprise, within the philosophy of constructive alternativism, Kelly avoids the directive versus non-directive dichotomy, while emphasising a credulous, creative, future-orientated, re-constructive approach to therapy. At this point we turn to a more detailed look at what the personal construct therapy approach consists of.

What Personal Construct Therapy Is

"The psychotherapeutic approach of the psychology of personal constructs is experimental. The whole system is built upon the modern science model. Constructs are hypotheses. Prediction is the goal. Systematization extends the range of anticipation. Experiments are performed. They are carefully designed to yield definitive results.

Only small samples are committed to experimentation at a time. Abortive undertakings are avoided. Hypotheses are revised on the basis of empirical evidence. Hostility is avoided, for the scientist seeks to learn from nature rather than extort from her a confirmation of his prejudices." (18)

Diagnosis is the planning stage of therapeutic experimentation where a major task is to identify the construct pathways and directions which could provide the best opportunities for client movement and change. The therapist is primarily interested in the client's overall persona] construction system with which he structures his world in particular ways and, further, with which he structures the type of roles he may play in relation to such a world. The secondary interest is where he locates himself with respect to the particular axes or dimensions which go to structure his world. Thus, one is more interested in the construct discriminations which the client has chosen as viable maps of the world than in where he may locate himself on the map from time to time, since he must find himself on it somewhere. Of least interest to the PCP therapist is where the client might locate himself in a world mapped out according to the therapist's perceptions. The PCP therapist begins with an elicitation of the client's system of construing, and having subsumed it attempts to work and communicate within it.

Direction of Change

The client reveals aspects of his construct system every time he describes people and events. The terms used for such descriptions are bipolar constructs which have contrasting features (e.g. "nice" versus "nasty"). A construct predicts that certain events will transpire and that certain other (contrasting) events will not.

Such contrasts may exert a profound influence on the client's experience.

"Often in clinical work the therapist overlooks the specific negative implications of his clients' forecasts. When he does he is likely to be unduly surprised and confused by the clients' reactions to what appear to be extraneous events'' (19)

By seeking for the client's, contrasting worlds the therapist begins to locate the dimensional channels through which the person's "psychological processes flow in search of the future." (20)

A future which the client is desperately avoiding is often revealed by exploring his contrast or opposite to being 'psychologically distressed'. Frequently, this contrast is a particular implication of not having the presenting problem. For example, the 'anorexic' who fears she will become 'obese' if she stops being anorexic. Each construct is a set of paired alternatives between which the person must choose. The act of choosing sends one travelling in one direction or the other along these two-way streets', for example, towards increasing thinness or fatness. The client is the cumulative result of his choices of direction over time, ending up in a ‘cul-de-sac' where positive elaborative choices are no longer likely and personal movement is constricted. By exploring contrasts the therapist may come to understand why taking up residence in a psychological 'cul-de-sac' may seem desirable to the client. We can better understand a person's development by appreciating what else he might have become. There is a Figure-Ground relationship between the person's choices as he actualized them and his range of potential choices which remain unactualised.

... we have chosen to emphasise the fact that one's choice of a form of behaviour ought to be understood, first, in terms of what alternatives one has to choose from. If a man commits suicide, one can best understand that act only by knowing what he conceived to be the practical alternative to suicide." (21)

Once the therapist has mapped out the client's dimensional system he can begin to make predictions as to the likely directions in which the client will have to move (within his system) if under pressure. It is sometimes important for the therapist to avoid the client merely reversing his position particularly when the client's opposites are potentially catastrophic (e.g. from being 'depressed' to being 'manic'). The fact that the person is a client means that his previously established pathways of movement are inadequate for positive healthful growth and hence precipitating movement within this system may be at best futile and at worst dangerous. Preliminary diagnostic work must include an outline of the client's existing channels of movement .

... one of the contributions of the psychology of personal constructs is the development of a way of predicting how a person will behave if he suddenly throws his present pattern of behaviour overboard. By seeing a client's constructs and their opposites as channels of potential movement for him, the clinician has some basis for forecasting what adjustments will appear to the client to be available when he finds himself up to his ears in people." (22)

This is not to say that the therapist will always have a clear mapping of the client's system. As in all areas of human endeavor this is a continuous process of understanding involving degrees of ambiguity, confusion, miscommunication, etc., but as long as the therapist is open to the corrective feedback of the client then their mutual enterprise may go forwards.

The PCP therapist also seeks to establish if the client has any constructs which may encompass movement, the presence of which augers well for therapy. If the person can construe a developing, changing, emerging self then the sense of threat which therapy poses in terms of 'becoming someone else' or 'being different' is significantly diminished.

Definition of Disorder :

"From the standpoint of the psychology of personal constructs we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation." (23)

The person who runs into psychological difficulties can be seen as one whose theories of the world have become relatively obsolete. Therapy is designed to give a new freedom of movement and new ‘control' to a person thus circumscribed. Insofar as our construct systems can be viewed as 'radar' scanning patterns which one continually projects onto the world, psychotherapy can be seen as a 're-tuning’ of the client's scanning pattern. His world-view can be diagnosed as not 'lighting-up' in appropriate places when scanning certain events, or as being 'blind' to such events. Each scientist must be concerned with what his theory excludes as well as with what it can encompass. Psychological 'breakdown' can be defined as occurring when one's theory can no longer encompass a critical number of exigencies. In severe depression the person has virtually abandoned his external scanning of the world thus excluding most current events from his consideration.

Disorders arise either in relation to the structural qualities of the construct system or in relation to the actual content (construct meanings).

Easier Done than Said

One area in which construct system disorder is often self-evident is in the client's use of language.

"It is not easy to find words and sentences to express the deeply rooted constructs by which the self is fixed into place. In the more crucial moments of a psychotherapeutic series, for example, syntax, grammar and orthology all take a bad beating." (24)

Many constructs do not have any verbal label attached to them making it impossible to communicate them unless they are 'acted out', mimed or hinted at in some other loose form. Attempting to communicate precisely how one feels is often an elusive task where the preverbal constructs in operation remain just beyond one's grasp. Preverbal constructs fall within the system of diagnostic constructs used for describing covert construction. These may often represent the client's core construction system, i.e. they form a matrix for understanding oneself.

Even when a client appears to be extremely articulate, the words used may not be effectively linked to his preverbal constructs. In such a case Kelly warns that

"The client's verbal quicksand is no ground upon which experiments can be erected to test the preverbal construction or to expose it to validating evidence. Yet the illusive preverbal constructions continue to govern the over-all aspects of the client's behaviour." (25)

Constructs which operate outwith language may be new constructs which the client first becomes aware of as amorphous feelings or sketchy understandings. Alternatively, they may be very longstanding constructs created in infancy before the client used language, which remain unlabelled until the therapeutic encounter begins to focus on them. In this case only the verbal symbol arrived at in therapy is new.

Aim of Psychotherapy

In the same way that paradigmatic changes are possible in science (26) so the individual client/scientist can alter previously shared world views by reconstruing the past with a variety of structures (theories) and thereby increase his personal control of the future. Kelly says that "a person is not the victim of his biography but that he may be enslaved by his interpretation of it." (27)

The broad aim is to aid the client in precipitating a healthful psychological process at a more rapid rate of change than he might achieve from his own efforts. This is not to say that we aim to create a fixed state of mind or well-being by the end of therapy, but rather that the client has resumed his own growth process. The therapist's role is not to provide for people a blueprint of what they must eventually become but rather his role is to guide them in (1) what immediate experimentation they may try out in an effort to clarify and answer some of their burning issues. The idea is not merely to get people back on their feet again, but rather to get them moving.

... the purpose of therapy is not to produce a state of mind but to produce a mobility of mind that will permit one to pursue a course through the future." (28)

Levels of Personal Change

Personal change is seen in terms of increasing the freedom of movement and choice. More specifically, all personal movement is achieved through changing constructs to one degree or another. Kelly often uses the metaphor of the construct as a two-way street which, by choosing one pole or its opposite, the individual is led off in different directions. He outlines eight different types of therapeutic change strategies in which the client and therapist can engage. (29)

'The Sunny Side of the Street?'

1. "The two of them can decide that the client should reverse his position with respect to one of the more obvious reference axes."

Kelly dubs this first level of change "contrast reconstruction" whereby the person attempts to change his outlook simply by moving from one extreme of a bi-polar construct to the other. This is a popular human strategy often observed, for example, in the behaviour of a jilted woman who switches abruptly along the "lovable -hateful" construct from feeling love for her ex-fiancé to hating him. This rapid reversal is often an unstable arrangement and may be perceived by others as superficial particularly when the lady in question reverses her position once again to that of "loving" and "missing" her absconded partner. Kelly called this "slot-rattling" because, notwithstanding the spectacular changes that may be observed in the individual's behaviour, she has not changed anything of significance in her construct system but has merely tried to relocate herself within the existing system. However, this strategy does not always have this 'seesaw' quality and, within the context of changes in the wider construct system, it may represent more enduring change. To use the "street" metaphor, we may say that the person has attempted to change his address, but only to the extent of moving to the other end of the same street. He has not really gone anywhere or widened his horizons. Kelly remarks that

"A study of so-called marked personality changes, such as the manic-depressive cycle, confirms the fact that most of the radical movements that we see appearing in people's behaviour do not represent basic changes in their blueprints of life, but rather an attempt to shift within the rigid frameworks which provide their only cues to the understanding of human relationships."


2. "Or -they can select another construct from the client's ready repertory and apply it to matters at hand"

This change strategy involves trying to understand an issue by switching from using one construction of it to using another. Most clients will have attempted this long before they seek professional help. At increasing levels of personal disintegration during crises, one can observe the person casting desperately about within his system for a viable construction of the events he is facing. With the failure of each successive construction selected from his repertoire the person's anxiety level increases. Within PCP, anxiety is a signal that one has no effective construction for the events at hand. The therapist must elicit all previously attempted solutions in order not to lose time and credibility by uselessly repeating already invalidated constructions. It is an everyday experience, that we find ourselves shifting our outlook on the same individual in differing circumstances. For example, while golfing with a colleague we may view him as a "good sport", but when at work we see him as an "ambitious swine". In our earlier example, we may imagine the wounded party attempting to switch from .-,, the ‘lovable-hateful’ perspective to seeing her partner in terms of being "frightened of commitment versus welcoming commitment ."

To return to our metaphor of the 'street map', when a person's usual route is blocked by road works, i.e. is getting him nowhere he is forced to move towards his destination by less familiar avenues or relatively untravelled laneways. He may discover some new and better shortcuts or he may get completely lost and have to try again.

'Name- the- Ways'

3. "They can make more explicit those preverbal constructs by which all of us order our lives in considerable degree."

Here there is an attempt to clarify and verbalize the client's preverbal constructs which operate pervasively within the system. Human construals or discriminations are made at many different levels of awareness from the 'cognitive' to the ' physiological'. Much of therapy can be occupied with the process of finding approximate verbal labels for preverbal constructs. The object of the exercise is to help the client come to a better understanding of his own behaviour. This is done by increasing his level of awareness regarding the tacit structures he uses to order his experience.

In terms of the terminated love affair , the task would be to help the lady in distress to verbalize aspects of her 'churning emotions' so that she sees more clearly why she is acting as she is. By making her tacit approach more clear the client has more choices to make, such as, "is this the best way of dealing with my situation in the long run?" Preverbal constructs operate at a low level of awareness, and if we were to extend the city traveler analogy further, we could compare the psychological underground of preverbal constructs with travelling by 'underground tube'. The task in this case would be to map out above ground the route one follows while on the subterranean channels. We know we will arrive at our destination, but we do not quite know how.


4. "They can elaborate the construct system to test it for internal consistency."

As with the previous strategy, this one focuses on the internal workings of the construct system with the aim of 'tidying the system up'. This is done by highlighting the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies of the system and by clarifying the implications these have for the functioning of the overall system. However, the 'Fragmentation Corollary' allows that a certain degree of incompatibility may exist between alternative constructions to the advantage of the system. While the previous strategy may be construed as 'dredging the unconscious', this approach to change in attempting to reorganise the client's system more precisely may be seen as leading the client to "insight" (although it must be pointed out that neither of these concepts have any place in PCP). The emphasis is on the hierarchical restructuring of the existing constructs rather than attempts to revise the actual constructs themselves. Even though the client's level of 'integrity' increases he may not become a "better" person.

The woman in our example using her construct "rejecting-possessing" may come to perceive her fiancée's rejection of her as part of a complementary relationship she creates with men where, by acting in an over-possessive and stifling manner, she precipitates her own rejection by others. Back with our street map we attempt to untangle the interconnections between a maze of streets and avenues and by efforts at tidying up the areas of traffic chaos we bring clarity and an improved traffic flow.


5. "They can test constructs for their predictive validity."

This is another system-oriented strategy, focused not on internal events (as do strategies 3 and 4), but rather on external 'reality' contact. How accurate is the person's outlook on life? Can we verify the way he sees things? This approach involves checking the person's construct map against external reality, in an attempt to validate his way of seeing things. The therapeutic enterprise is concerned with collecting data in order to test the client's specific hypotheses. By collecting evidence in this manner we aim to improve the correspondence between the client's map of the world and the world itself. What type of map does the client have for relationships? Can she accurately predict what will occur in given circumstances? Why do her anticipations go wrong if, for example, she predicted that her last boyfriend was 'perfect' for her and would never reject. her?

In terms of our street map we want to know how reliable it is. The person anticipates arriving at his desired destination by using this or that avenue, but until he actually drives along the route he will be unable to prove whether his anticipation is correct or not. He may find for example that an otherwise perfectly planned route is rendered useless because one of the streets turns out to be one-way.

'Highway Extension and Lane Closures'

6. "They can increase the range of convenience of certain constructs, that is, apply them more generally. They can also decrease the range of convenience and thus reduce a construct to a kind of obsolescence."

This technique uses the principle of changing the way constructs are applied. There are two separate projects which aim either to expand the explanatory power of constructs or, conversely, to reduce it.

Constructs are useful for applying to a limited range of elements only. For example, it makes little sense to use the construct "argumentative versus conciliatory" for describing trees. Sometimes it is important to try to restrict the use of a construct to a smaller constituency.

To continue our lovelorn example, we may wish the client to change her statement "all men reject me" to "certain specific men reject me" or, better still, reduce it further to "certain past behaviours of these men were experienced by me as rejection." In this way we attempt to reduce the construct's usage to relative impermeability. We try to exclude many who are now included. On the other hand, there may be constructs whose usage we would like to see expanded to a wider constituency. For example, we may wish to see her statement "I only know one man who is worthwhile", extended to include many who are obviously excluded at the outset.

Thus, the person uses the same avenues to reach new destinations, or uses an existing street for less and less activities. A literal example of the first technique was when M. Ferdinand Lop, a Parisian author, ran for government on the eccentric platform of extending the Avenue Des Champs-Elyseès all the way north to the English Channel. Obviously for him, this is a very important avenue, to be used for encompassing more and more.

'I have often walked down this street before, but ...

7. "They can alter the meaning of certain constructs; rotate the reference axes."

This is the first of the creative change strategies, where the approach is to recreate new meaning by redefining the present meaning of existing constructs. Although the same words may be used to describe the construct in question, its meaning has altered in a subtle fashion during the therapeutic process (as a result of the therapist changing the context of the construct by introducing new elements into it). The overall result is for the construct to be realigned in such a way that its relationship to other constructs is changed. Thus, where previously the construct "hateful versus lovable" was seen to be closely related to her taking "revenge versus forgiving", "hateful" now comes to be understood or defined as "misguided versus mature".

The person's construct avenues are now seen to lead to different interconnections and ultimately different destinations. The street map looks different insofar as a favorite avenue is seen in a new juxtaposition with other avenues which had been hitherto unnoticed. One discovers link-roads to other routes with superior utility for the construct system.


8. "They can erect new reference axes."

To attempt to create new dimensional channels is the most creative change strategy of all and is likely to constitute the most significant type of movement in psychotherapy. The task is to create new outlooks and new meanings while abandoning previously held outlooks. Destinations are now approached from radically different directions. Moreover, such new approaches hold great benefits for the client, enriching his life experiences. The "rejecting versus possessing" construct comes to be abandoned because it is not sufficiently discriminating. The person comes to see her relationships from an entirely different perspective (e.g. "fulfilling versus stifling") which has advantages that did not exist before. To get a last bit of mileage from our street map analogy, the person transcends the available interconnecting system of routes and cuts off directly across town reaching his destination by helicopter.

Summary: Levels of Change

The eight levels of personal change outlined above can be summarised within the following three categories. Firstly, those techniques which shift the person along existing channels within his personal construct system. That is, the person reconstrues himself and his world within the original system. Secondly, the system can be 'fine-tuned' or organised more precisely by increasing internal consistency, clarifying construct implications, etc. Thirdly, new constructs can be created to replace others now abandoned by the system. Thus, Kelly comments that we can change our psychological processes "either by rerouting through the same system of dichotomous constructs, or by reconstruction of the system of channels." (31)

This latter type of movement is the most significant from the PCP point of view. With this in mind the next passages will focus on procedures which facilitate such an enterprise.

Five Conditions for Creating New Constructs

The special focus of personal construct therapy is the radical task of self-reinvention. In order to attempt such an ambitious undertaking there are certain minimum conditions which must obtain.

1. The Cycle of Validation: Within the model of man-the-scientist the concept of the 'Cycle of Validation' refers to the degree of compatibility between one's predictions and the actual outcome of events. The more clearly one's predictions are formulated, and the more commitment one makes to acting on them, then the more adamant will be the effects of validation. The availability of validating data within the therapeutic context is extremely important in generating new constructs. Kelly emphasizes role playing as a method the client can use to 'try out' new constructs which can be immediately validated. This is usually seen as a first step leading to larger scale experimentation in vivo where the client exposes himself to different degrees of validating evidence.

The therapist uses invalidation to demonstrate just where the client's system breaks down. Experiments are designed which will produce validating and invalidating evidence which in turn provides the basis for the abandonment of defunct constructs. If there is nothing to take the place of an abandoned construct, anxiety is produced signaling this lack of adequate structure for dealing with immediate events. Thus, anxiety is a precondition for change and therapy should be marked by its being present at a tolerable level. If it is markedly absent from the therapeutic sessions, then it may well be the case that both parties are wasting their time since it probably means that the client is working well within his existing system and thereby evinces no obvious need to change. He is not being 'stretched' by therapy or by the role he is enacting with the therapist, and is therefore unlikely to be in a position to learn anything new.

2. The-Introduction-of-New-Elements The provision of a fresh set of elements is important in forming a novel context out of which a new construct may emerge.

Initially, the type of new elements selected omit the client's 'self' and 'significant others' and focus on the rarefied and psychologically safe climate of the therapy situation. The therapist will frequently use himself as a fresh element around which the client can erect wholly new constructs. In relation to the going system of the client, the therapist must be careful to continually extricate himself from the client's attempts to transfer onto him parts of his outmoded construct system. In this manner the therapist presents himself as a continually fresh puzzle to the client and invites him to create some novel construction rather than continue to work comfortably within his current system. This contrasts sharply with those approaches which foster transference and thereby propagate the existing system requiring the client to learn nothing new. If the client succeeds in dressing up the therapist as a figure from his past or present life the therapist may well find that he has unwittingly donned a strait-jacket and is now severely constricted in his therapeutic effectiveness. To further ensure flexibility in playing different roles in relation to the client, the PCP therapist does not initially engage in much self-revelation.

3. Experimentation: The third condition favorable to the formation of new constructs is

the existence of an atmosphere of experimentation. This is already implied in the discussion of validation and the confrontation with new elements. The therapy situation is a laboratory context within which low risk experiments can be structured enabling the client to try out new constructions on a propositional basis, "trying them on for size" as one might with a new suit without feeling any obligation to buy it. One aim of such exploration is to realize the personally invented nature of one's representations of reality. It is only by experimenting that the client can generate the experiential data out of which new constructions can be created, and new avenues of approach to life be forged.

4. Absence-of-Threat: Threat is one of several commonly used terms which Kelly completely redefined within PCP. Other terms include fear, anxíety and guilt, all of which are reformulated as indicators of particular 'dysfunctions' in the construct system. Threat is experienced when the events we face must be construed in a manner which is incompatible with the rest of our going system.

''... one controls his system by maintaining a clear identification of the elements which the system excludes as well as those which it includes. The moment one finds himself becoming involved in any way with the excluded elements of his system, he becomes aware of the onset of incompatibility and sees these new clutching associations as threats. Like a wounded animal, he keeps facing his enemy." (32)

There are many opportunities in therapy for such a problem to emerge, From the PCP point of view, threatening clients with unwanted elements is counter-productive since they cannot be used for the formation of new constructs and "the effect of threat is to compel the client to claw frantically for his basic construct." (33) Threatening someone forces them to mobilize their resources, and a client's resources are likely to be impoverished or self-defeating in certain ways. When we note 'childish' or 'regressive' behaviour in our clients, the chances are we have allowed threatening elements to enter the situation and, therefore, at best we are wasting time or, at worst, we are re-affirming the client's sense of entrapment and helplessness within his self-defeating construct system. To minimize threat and maximize free experimentation, many PCP techniques are based firmly in a sense of 'playfulness' or 'make-believe'. This is a direct result of the emphasis on propositional thinking, viz. that the only limits to our construals are the limits of our imaginations. Children are particularly fluent in construing everyday, mundane objects as if they were entertaining, exciting and fantastic. Such ‘flights of fancy' have a large role to play in 'loosening' rigid adult constructions which have become redundant. According to Kelly, the mask of make-believe "is probably man's oldest protective screen for reaching out into the unknown. The test tube and the scientific laboratory are outgrowths of this cautious approach to life. They enable man to explore his world without wholly and irrevocably committing himself." (34)

5. Avoiding preoccupation With Old Material

The formation of new constructs is obviously hindered when a client shows persistent and repetitive preoccupation with old material. The more familiar the client is with such events, the more likely it is that these events are 'glued' firmly in place by long-standing and childlike constructs. Only by interweaving these past events with more recent events is there any prospect of updating his construct system.

"The interlarding of new material with the old calls for new sorting of old material into new categories that will fit both the old and the new material." (35)

Habitual ways of construing old material are often of little use in construing fresh events. However, Kelly points out that such habits do have an indirect usefulness insofar as they lend stability to certain constructions and in doing so leave one somewhat more free to be creative with new material.

"A habit may be considered as a convenient kind of stupidity which leaves a person free to act intelligently elsewhere. Whether he takes advantage of the opportunity or not is another question. Some people fail to seize the advantages offered them by their stupidity." (36)

In general people cannot change because they are too close to the ultimate effects of their everyday behaviour on others. To use a boxing analogy, a boxer will react spontaneously (and not necessarily correctly) in the furious interchanges with his opponent who in turn responds with further spontaneous reactions. The only immediate hope of changing his behaviour lies in the 'time-out' between rounds when the coach attempts to 'cognitively' drum in a message such as "keep your right up". Therapy provides a 'time-out' opportunity for clients to step back from their spontaneous interactional constructions and the effects of these on others. The therapeutic relationship is the context of posing alternative approaches to interpersonal influence. Very little new learning is likely to take place in the boxing ring since it is a threatening context where low risk experimentation is impossible. As we have seen above, the optimal conditions for facilitating change stress the importance of validation, the existence of an experimental laboratory, the provision of new elements, and the avoidance of both threat and the exclusive focusing on old material.

''The task of the therapist is to join with his client in exploring, by the only means available to man - by behaviour - the implications of the constructions he has devised for understanding reality. From this point of view therapy becomes an experimental process in which constructions are devised or delineate and are then tested out. Psychotherapy is not an applied science, it is a basic science in which the scientists are the client and his therapist." (37)


In this article I have avoided mentioning any of the wide-ranging PCP techniques of precipitating change. As with any client, I have chosen to deal with areas which have "enough uncertainty to make exploration interesting and enough structure to make it meaningful."(38)

Furthermore, I am wary of any "how-to-do-it handbook for counselors who want to make people behave themselves without having to go into the grubby business of understanding them." (39)

Instead, the article focused on fundamental conceptual issues concerning ways of approaching therapeutic movement. The most central issue for PCP is that of constructive alternativism. This outlook opposes dogmatism and invites optimism in the face of oppressive events. Kelly reminds us that neither the client or therapist has to "lie down and let facts crawl over him." (40)

Even 'stark reality' can be reconstrued. We have seen the psychology of suspicion - where clients are assumed to be 'suspects' until they prove their innocence (e.g. by .'appropriate' response on psychologists' "lie-scales" replaced by the psychology of acceptance. This is not the Rogerian view of acceptance which assumes a process of unfolding inner potential, but rather is based on the subsuming of the client's construct system. The therapeutic relationship does not attempt to "bring the client's thinking into line" nor does it attempt to create Rogerian-type conditions which, per se, will induce the client to "bring his own thinking into line." Kelly's approach "assumes neither the position of judge nor that of the sympathetic bystander " (41) but is rather framed in a scientific research model which is oriented to open-ended self-invention.

A sharp contrast may be seen with behaviorism where PCP emphasizes the subsuming of the client's system at its highest level of abstraction. While PCP deals concretely with a client's abstractions, behaviorism does the opposite, namely, it creates "elaborate public abstractions out of minute personal concretisms." (42)

Another parting of the ways is marked by Kelly's orientation toward the future. In contrast to Freudian approaches there are only three defensible reasons for looking at the past, viz.,

(1) to clarify important constructs with a view to being better able to judge their future implications,

(2) to reduce a construct to impermeability, i.e. inoperative for future use, and

(3) to generate a range of elements out of which the client may create new constructs.

Finally, 'Creativity versus Repair' is a further dimension which separates the PCP approach from many others. This not only stresses the experiential and inventive capacities of the co-experimenters, but it also demolishes the notion of psychotherapy as a form of "treatment" which one person "does" or "applies" to another.

In conclusion therefore, the PCP view of therapy is not one of "treatment and management" of clients but rather one of co-experimentation. Let Kelly have the last word recounting his experience with his own clients :

"At last they were somehow able to demonstrate that what I did to them did not make them well or compel them to conduct themselves with propriety. It was their behaviour that eventually made them well, just as their original distress had been an ill-fated undertaking of their own contrivance. They were not patients who submitted to my treatment - at least the ones who got well weren't - but clients who made some use of me." (43)



1. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York. Norton. 1955. p.187.

2. Kenny, V. An Introduction to the Personal Construct Psychology of George A. Kelly. Irish Journal of Psychotherapy 1984; 3: 24 - 32.

3. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York. Norton.

1955. p.400.

4. Ibid., p.403.

5. Ibid., p.393.

6. Ibid., p.3241.

7. Ibid., p.373.

8. Ibid., p.587.

9. Ibid., p.500.

10. Ibid., p.198.

11. Fromm-Reichmann, F. Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Chicago. The University

of Chicago Press. 1959. p.177.

12. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York. Norton.

1955. p.381.

13. Ibid., p.380.

14. Ibid., p.453

15. Ibid., p.335.

16. Kelly, G. A. Personal Construct Theory and the Psychotherapeutic Interview. In:

Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher,

B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p.226.

17. Ibid., p.225.

18. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York. Norton.

1955. pp. 940 - 1

19. Ibid., p.124.

20. Ibid., p.337.

21. Ibid., p.522.

22. Ibid., p.237.

23. Ibid., p.831.

24. Ibid., p.334.

25. Ibid., p.462.

26. Kuhn, T. S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago. The University of

Chicago Press. 1970.

27. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York.

Norton. 1955. p.208.

28. Ibid., p.649.

29. Kelly, G. A. Personal Construct Theory and the Psychotherapeutic Interview. In:

Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher,

B. New York. Wiley. 1969.p.231.

30. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York.

Norton. 1955. p. 134.

31. Ibid., p.187.

32. Ibid., p. 167.

33. Ibid., p.167.

34. Ibid., p.373.

35. Ibid.,p.168.

36. Ibid., p.169

37. Kelly, G. A. The Psychotherapeutic Relationship. In: Clinical Psychology and

Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley.

1969. p.220.

38. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York.

Norton. 1955. p.334.

39. Kelly, G. A. Sin and Psychotherapy. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The

Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p.187.

40. Kelly, G. A. Personal Construct Theory and the Psychotherapeutic Interview. In: Ibid.,


41. Kelly, G. A. Man's construction of his Alternatives. In: Ibid., p.82.

42. Kelly, G. A. the Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1 & 2. New York. Norton.

1955. p.173.

43. Kelly, G. A. Ontological Acceleration. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The

Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. pp.18 - 19.


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