constructivist theory & practice

personal construct psychology and a constructivist approach – ideas & examples


the ten meter tower

The theory of Personal Construct Psychology makes no particular distinction between thinking and feeling, believing that these things are not easily distinguished from each other, or from other processes such as intuiting, or sensing in the body. We talk of ‘construing’.

‘Ten Meter Tower’ is a short documentary film which shows people construing a very unfamiliar situation.

» show more


The filmmakers, Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, set out with the purpose of exploring the theme of doubt. They invited people who had never been on a 10-meter diving tower before to climb, and to jump. We see a series of volunteers on the platform, living through their moment of choice, and grappling with the meanings of jumping, or not.

Yes, there seems to be a lot of thinking – calculation, and deliberation about logistics, but this appears to be inextricably woven with strong feelings, including fear, even terror, about the height and depth of the plunge, and a powerful experience of the aloneness of the self on the platform.

The volunteers are anticipating what it might mean to jump or to back down, and it seems that core identity is at stake for many participants. Who are they, and who will they be, if they jump, or if they don’t jump?  In their own eyes, and in the eyes of others? A few of the volunteers climb in pairs, and the continuous disruption and reconfiguration of their construing in relation to each other is extraordinary to witness.

As each person arrives on the platform, we see the shiver and the tremble, hear the self-talk, the breathing and the knuckle-cracking. We are witnessing the physical, emotional, cognitive, imaginative, instinctive, gut-flipping moment. This is anticipation, and this is meaning-making. Processes such as thinking or feeling are impossible to isolate from each other. This is construing.

video: ten meter tower

» show less


curious methods

An encouragement to read a fascinating and beautifully illustrated article from Places journal, by two landscape architecture professors who take their bicycles to the mud flat of the Great Salt Lake, in search of a landscape practice that “probes but does not prove”. Their interest is in open-ended, ground-level exploration and the development of “curious methods”. Their aim is to ask questions, rather than to extract meaning.

» show more

Karen Lutsky & Sean Burkholder are curious about mud. Quoting Gregory Bateson, who argued that science never proves anything and that ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ shut down the process of inquiry, they aim to ‘probe’. “Only by probing do we begin to see change. That’s not an easy or automatic process – probing requires patience, repetition, perhaps a little bit of play – but it’s essential if we are to truly comprehend the landscape.”

It is very unusual to read writing so curiously devoted to the practice of practice, and with a highlighter in my hand, I found myself underlining almost everything. From a constructivist perspective, an emphasis on open-ended ‘probing’ has a useful provocative value for many disciplines. It contrasts with research and practice which is more usually directional, and which aims towards closure, resolution, outcomes and specific findings. Valuing emergent impressions and questions, and staying open to continual change, is usually a countercultural move.

When the subject is mud, ‘probing’ has a familiar colloquial meaning. We may have childhood memories ourselves of digging into mud with shovels, riding over it on bikes, making patterns in it, diluting it, drying it, watching it change. The key question for our own practice, which I am assuming is largely a practice without a shovel, is what would such probing look like? In the non-mud world, what are our own practices of exploring and experimenting? And what might we adopt as our own curious methods?

If we anticipate that the starting point might be located in our personal construction of our practice and our purpose, Lutsky and Burkholder offer some valuable clues for all of us.

They quote Kyna Leski : “A creative process comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know .. doubt, insecurity, questioning – these elements of uncertainty become critically important. The unburdening creates an opening.”

And they quote Feyerabend’s notion of knowledge as “the ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairytale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing via this process of competition to the development of our consciousness. Nothing is ever settled, no view can ever be omitted from a comprehensive account.“

The authors are equally imaginative about how to record their probing, aiming for an impressionistic account rather than a complete picture, and including “drawing, collage, photography, the collection of materials, and more radical acts of expression or representation .. our aim is not merely to document change, but to communicate the experience of change .. our impressions are relatively quick and disconnected, each one forging a new narrative, seeking to draw out the “characters” of the landscape in an attempt to understand how they could be re‑choreographed.”

The article is here and I hope you might be similarly inspired.

» show less


iPhoto_jpgargumentation from nowhere

“people who were previously opponents can sometimes come up with ingenious supports and logics for arguments they earlier disagreed with, perhaps because the need to agree has been removed, or because the activity itself is an intriguing exercise in thinking”
revisiting kenneth gergen’s ‘argumentation from nowhere’

» show more

Political campaigns frequently demonstrate an exceptionally poor quality of discussion and debate. Fractious in tone, our politicians, press and broadcast media all indulge in aggressive trashing of opponents’ personalities, and the consequent focus on interpersonal clashes and conflicts presented as entertainment generates a lot of heat but very little light.

So it may be a good time to promote my continuing enthusiasm for variations on Kenneth Gergen’s ‘argumentation from nowhere’. Gergen’s experiment, which I first discovered in ‘Social Construction in Context’ (2001), was derived as “an attempt to remove the grounds for either claiming assertions to be ‘one’s own’, or for viewing counter-assertions as challenges to one’s integrity”.

Gergen and his team invited a wide variety of people to contribute entries to a discussion while setting aside their personal position. The were asked to generate as many arguments as possible for either side of a polarised debate, and then to develop possible criticisms of those views. After contributing their thoughts they were able to read all the other entries, and were subsequently invited to comment again with any new alternatives, or with possible rejoinders to the views already included.

“The result is a multiplex array of discourse surrounding the issue at stake, essentially a map of possible arguments, justifications, citations of evidence and the like, on both sides of the issue”. Participants reported considerable learning and felt that the experiment helped them see the issue in more complex terms. “Of special significance, they indicate that it would be difficult to resolve the issue by simply declaring one side the winner”.

I have since worked with discussions in many groups based on ‘argumentation from nowhere’ as an alternative to oppositional debates. Participants are asked to think of the widest possible range of stakeholders in the issue under discussion (and I think the best definition I ever heard of a stakeholder is ‘anyone who might give a damn’) generating as many views as possible that might be held by each stakeholder group. They are encouraged to consider why those views might matter to people, and what kinds of belief systems they might logically derive from, guided by the question: in what way might each of those views make perfect sense? I will usually add the aspiration that, at the end of the exercise, no-one at the table would be entirely certain of the current personal views of any of their fellow participants.

The outcome has usually been very productive as argument turns into exploration, and condemnation gives way to curiosity. People who were previously opponents can sometimes come up with ingenious supports and logics for arguments they earlier disagreed with, perhaps because the need to agree has been removed, or because the activity itself is an intriguing exercise in thinking. The result has generally been far more openness to alternatives, a much richer discourse to draw on, a greater acceptance of the complexity and ambiguity inherent in most debates, and an increase in sociality between both participating colleagues and and absent stakeholders.

As Gergen says of his experiment: “No, this did not mean a resolution of differences. However, it did allow for productive exploration to take place in a context in which victory and defeat were removed from view”.

» show less


CQ98OlgWgAAlO_v (1)unexpected destinations


Revisiting some of George Kelly’s original ideas about how we might judge the success of our own work – useful thoughts and provocations for anyone consulting with individuals, groups or systems.

» show more


In his exploration of the role of the PCP professional, Kelly presented some interesting thoughts about how we evaluate our work, suggesting that the most direct reward lies in the continuing development of our skills – and it is possibly this process of ongoing learning that attracts and holds many of us in the field. He proposes that we might also achieve success vicariously through the accomplishments of our clients as we see them exercise ‘initiative, originality and independence’, an outcome derived from having located ourselves in the service of their potential without imposing our preferred direction.

But he also usefully highlights the frustration we may feel when our clients opt for solutions which we would not have chosen for them. When we work with larger systems these choices are performed on huge scale and we may feel uncomfortably implicated. He describes that feeling provocatively as having ‘staked our personal system against our client’s, and lost’ – a departure from our theoretical stance of working within the client’s world as opposed to exhorting them to join ours.

To support the wide variety of groups we may work with, our consulting philosophy, theory and practice need enough elasticity to embrace a wide variety of client outcomes, allowing their various achievements to be construed as validations of our role in their service rather than validations of our own preferred construing. Kelly describes this approach as not just ‘tolerance’ of the varying points of view represented in client outcomes, but a willingness ‘to be devoted to the defence and facilitation’ of widely differing preferences, outcomes and consequences’.

The ongoing attempt to work with and defend our clients’ choices does not imply that we adopt their ways of seeing for ourselves, or that we always approve of or agree with the direction they take. It is simply that we understand their constructions as the raw material we have been working with, and we respect them as the leaders of their own lives. Our assumption would be that all our clients’ choices make coherent sense – including their more surprising or uncomfortable choices – and our task continues to be that of understanding more fully what kind of sense they are making: a constant and important challenge.

» show less


Screenshot_08_08_2013_21_28 (1)the creative researcher

an interview with Barbara Simpson – “there’s a flexibility of mind I think which is a real characteristic of creativity. And it’s the flexibility of mind that we can develop by staying open to different possibilities.”

video: the creative researcher


P1020746facilitating groups

George Kelly described groups as intensive ‘social laboratories’ for experimentation. This paper is an exploration of the process of group development through the lens of personal construct psychology, with implications and ideas for group facilitators explored at each stage.

mary frances – stages of group development


Comments are closed.