Personal Constructs - the method (with an example)

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Personal Constructs - the method (with an example)

Post by miriam » Sun Apr 15, 2007 8:05 pm

I use Personal Constructs quite a lot, having read Richard Butler (Chuck) and Dave Green's book when I worked in Leeds. I find it really helps to get a view of the situation through the young person's eyes and ties in neatly to CBT approaches and family work. I have taught my adapted version of the technique to others, and I have even used it in legal work. So it gets a full thumbs up from me.

Personal Constructs use the person's own vocabulary and constructs to compare and contrast them with how they would want to be, how they think others perceive them, and how they view other important figures in their life. This lets you get a client's eye view of their world, and work with their vocabulary and their perceptions which works quite nicely as a way to get people engaged and see what they consider to be the main issues, and links quite nicely into therapeutic work to make changes they have selected....

I see it as a good way in, in that people who won't readily talk to fill the space we provide might like having something more structured and visual, that often provides really interesting material for CBT later on. It also helps me to keep up to date with the meaning of the current phrases and words that young people use. I'm not so "down with the street" any more!

Example from a volunteer:

So, I've asked her to name some people she knows that she likes and dislikes, a hero and villain from fiction and a celeb that she either likes or despises (with a client you can prompt with friends, family, fiction, celebrities, peers, past carers, whoever you know is relevant or might get them talking). Then for each person, I asked her to describe them, in particular their distinctive characteristics.

She said (and we've kept to first names without saying who the people are to her on the board to keep it confidential):

Angela: a really nice girl. she's a laugh and is fab in small doses, but takes some getting used to. motivated and headstrong, but can rub people up the wrong way

Annette: someone who tells lies and doesn't seem to have many social skills. she's one that winds people up and is very hard work. i find it very difficult to get along with her. Maybe she's an acquired taste?

Rob: someone I've known for a few years who is like my little brother. i would trust him with my life and he gets on really well with my fella too which is a bonus! he's been through some hard times but is coming through the other side and is all the more mature and determined for it

Gary: a lad i've known for years and years who's a year older than me and who my dad hated for years because he used to get me drunk on heineken when i was at school. a bit of an oddball but all the more respected for being what he is

Louise: a reliable and trustworthy colleague. i don't know her all that well but i think we'd be friends even if we didnt work together.

Ellie: talkative and knowledgeable but was completely unaware of when people were trying to concentrate at work. i dont doubt that she was very competent but we got off on the wrong foot

jack: firm but fair, mysterious and sexy. knows exactly what he's doing and follows his instinct which is usually right. i'd want him on my side

ethan: evil twisted nasty piece of work who's got wicked eyes.

noel: a bit of alright really!! people think he's a minger but i disagree totally. smooth sexy voice, songwriting talent and the indie world wouldn't be the same without him!

my fella: who's surprising, quiet and supportive. we've been together for such a long time that he knows me inside out and most of the time knows exactly what to say to calm me down/cheer me up when things arent going accoring to plan

So, now I want to pick out each descriptive word and write them in a list.

If there are very few forthcoming you can prompt by asking things like "how is X different from Y?" or "how would I know X if I met them?" or "Are you like X?" or ask about favourite TV characters, musicians, soapstars, a school bully, a teacher, etc. I would pick people who are both liked and disliked, preferably of different ages, genders and backgrounds. You can even referring back to people previously mentioned when drawing a genogram or during the initial assessment to ensure we have a good range.

If the client hasn't generated any words that are to do with the core feeling states (sad/happy, angry/calm, feels good about themselves/feels bad about themselves) or about constructs that normally come up (like attractiveness, popularity, intelligence, warmth/kindness) then I might cue particular areas, or even say "when I think of [person] I also noticed that they are [omited characteristic] what would you call that?". It would very much depend on how well I knew the person, and how many constructs were spontaneously forthcoming.

So from our example I could pick out....


a laugh

fab in small doses

takes some getting used to



can rub people up the wrong way

tells lies

not socially skilled

winds people up

very hard work

difficult to get along with

an acquired taste

been through some hard times



bad influence



true to themselves



a good friend



lacks social insight


firm but fair



knows what they are doing

follows their instinct

would want them on my side



nasty piece of work

has wicked eyes.

a bit of alright



sexy voice





knows me inside out

knows exactly what to say

Evidently my volunteer was more eloquent and insightful than the teenagers I tend to do this with!

So, now I want to explore each descriptive word and get her to pick an opposite or contrast for it. I'd ask "if someone wasn't X at all, what would they be?" It is also often helpful to get the person to expand on their term, or clarify it, so I know what she means. It is important however, that they are the person you are working with's words, not yours, so I need to be careful in case I paraphrased wrong, or am not familiar with the word. BTW, its okay to use one word from the list generated as the opposite for another, or to tell me the words mean the same, if I have duplicated.

I think although I use the word "opposite" rather than "contrast" I do tend to ask about it in a way that makes it clear to the young person that I don't mean the dictionary opposite, but their own idiosyncratic opposite pole. So for example if a person gives the word "smart" I'd ask them "what should go at the other end?" and if they struggled I'd give prompts like "what would a person who is not at all smart be like?" The answer could be dumb, stupid, boring, popular, works hard, scruffy, minger, troublemaker, skiver, or a million other alternatives. There are no right or wrong answers and every grid is different!

I tend to write the words or phrases down the left hand side of a piece of poster paper, one at a time, asking the opposites/contrasts as I go down and writing those on the right hand side. I am aiming to fill the page, and to have about 20-30 constructs without too much repetition.

So, now we have a personalised rating scale!

nice ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ nasty

a laugh ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ miserable

fab in small doses --------------------------------------------------------------------- integral

takes some getting used to --------------------------------------------------- instantly likeable

motivated ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- lazy

headstrong --------------------------------------------------------------------------- weak

can rub people up the wrong way --------------------------------------------------- sensitive

tells lies ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ truthful

winds people up --------------------------------------------------------------------- mature

very hard work ---------------------------------------------------------- easy to get along with

an acquired taste ------------------------------------------------------------ instantly likeable

trustworthy ------------------------------------------------------------------------- dishonest

been through some hard times --------------------------------------------------- had an easy life

mature --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- childish

determined ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- careless

bad influence -------------------------------------------------------------------------- mentor

oddball --------------------------------------------------------------------------- mainstream

respected ---------------------------------------------------------------------- unappreciated

true to themselves ------------------------------------------------------------------- false

reliable ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- unreliable

trustworthy ------------------------------------------------------------------------- flaky

a good friend ----------------------------------------------------------------------- enemy

talkative ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ quiet

knowledgeable --------------------------------------------------------------------- ignorant

lacks social insight ---------------------------------------------------------------- perceptive

competent ------------------------------------------------------------------------- useless

firm but fair ------------------------------------------------------------------------ rash

mysterious ------------------------------------------------------------------------- open

sexy -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ugly

knows what they are doing --------------------------------------------------- ignorant

follows their instinct ------------------------------------------------------------ scientific

would want them on my side --------------------------------------------------- would want them to stay away from me!

evil ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------- good

twisted ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ sensible

nasty piece of work ---------------------------------------------------------------- moral

has wicked eyes ------------------------------------------------------------ puts you at ease

a bit of alright ------------------------------------------------------------------- unattractive

minger ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ gorgeous

smooth ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ rough

sexy voice ------------------------------------------------------------------------ shouting

talented ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- useless

surprising -------------------------------------------------------------------------- predictable

quiet --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- loud

supportive --------------------------------------------------------------------------- dismissive

knows me inside out --------------------------------------------------------------- stranger

knows exactly what to say -------------------------------------------------------- insensitive

I can then get the person to make a mark through the line to show where they would place themselves on each construct, where they would be if they could do magic and change whatever they wanted (ideal self), where they would rate significant others (friends, family members, people they want to be more like). The person can then predict how others would rate them ("how would mum score you on this scale, can you guess?") or how they think others would want them to be. I can also give them a photocopy of the scale and ask them to take it away and get others to rate them, or invite parents into the session to rate them (we tend to hide the key, and have used several colours by then)....

It is a great step into CBT, as you can look at what would take you one step closer to the ideal self from the perceived self on any factor, or try experiments of being more like others in certain ways.... You can also come back to it after a period of time and see whether the person's ratings have changed.

The theory says that large gaps between actual and ideal self show poor self-esteem, but it also gives a detailed insight into the young person's view of themselves and the world. Its an analogue rating scale, though you can use squared paper and make it likert. Richard Butler has published a standardised rating scale based on the most common constructs from doing this with a lot of young people as a Likert scale, if you want a short-cut. I'd recommend it, but I like the process of doing it from first principles with individual clients, as its accessible, and yet gets people reflecting and thinking, and revealing a bit more about themselves. It helps with engagement as it is less like a difficult conversation and more like a co-creation....

Why not try it on a colleague or tame loved one? I'm happy to answer further questions.

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Content checked by a qualified Clinical Psychologist on 17/04/2018
Last modified on 17/04/2018

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