An integration of cognitive, existential, psychodynamic and systemic perspectives, Adlerian counseling theory is a holistic, phenomenological, socially oriented and teleological (goal-directed) approach to understanding and working with people. Furthermore, Adlerian counseling theory is a relational constructivist approach and affirms that people must be understood contextually because it is in our relationships that we understand ourselves, others and the world around us.
Counseling theories tend to focus on either the individual or the collective. Adlerian counseling is a healthy balance between these two perspectives. Adlerian counseling theory affirms that knowledge is socially embedded and relationally distributed but also affirms that humans are creative, proactive, meaning-making individuals who have the ability to choose and be responsible for their choices. Because Adlerian counseling is a relational constructivist approach, it accounts for both the social-embedded nature of human knowledge and the personal agency of creative and self-reflective individuals within relationships.
Given that Adlerian counseling is a relational constructivist approach, it makes sense that it shares significant common ground with various constructive perspectives on counseling, including cognitive constructivist and personal construct therapies, solution-focused brief therapy and narrative therapy. (For further discussion of this significant common ground, please see the suggested readings on page 52). Beyond the many theoretical points of resonance, it is noteworthy that both Adlerian and constructive approaches to counseling strongly affirm the importance of the client-counselor relationship; are optimistic and present/future oriented; and focus primarily on clients’ strengths, resources and abilities rather than on their weaknesses, deficits and disabilities.
Given this common ground, it is not surprising to find that interventions discussed in the constructive therapy literature are either similar to or congruent with interventions used in Adlerian counseling. Nor is it surprising to see significant opportunities for technical integration between the two. This article presents a brief, encouragement-focused counseling process that integrates the Adlerian acting “as if” technique with procedures drawn from constructive approaches to counseling.
Expanding the acting ‘as if’ technique
One specific area Adlerian and constructive therapies share is that both see value in using the “as if” quality of human experience in counseling and psychotherapy. Humans act as if the constructs by which they engage in everyday activities are facts or absolute truths rather than social constructions that are contextually situated.
Using this perspective, Alfred Adler developed the acting “as if” technique, which encourages clients to begin acting as if they were already the person they would like to be — for example, a “confident individual.” The process asks clients to pretend and emphasizes that they are only acting. The purpose of the procedure is
to bypass potential resistance to change by neutralizing some of the perceived risk. Acting “as if” affords clients the opportunity to enact alternative or preferred outcomes and possibly restory oppressive aspects of their personal metanarrative (or “style of life” in Adlerian parlance).
I really like the acting “as if” technique but have found that some clients are reticent to follow through on the enactment due to discomfort with potential ambiguity and a desire for more structure. In addition, I am reticent to ask some clients — for example, those who tend to act impulsively — to go out and act “as if” because I have concerns about their well-being and the well-being of others who might be affected by their choices. Thus, I developed the reflecting “as if” (RAI) counseling process to address my concerns as well as the concerns of my clients.
The integrative RAI process expands the Adlerian technique by having counselors ask clients to take a reflective step back prior to stepping forward to act “as if.” This process encourages clients to reflect on how they would be different if they were acting as if they were who they desire to be. By using reflective questions, counselors can help clients construct perceptual alternatives and consider alternative behaviors toward which they may begin moving.
The RAI process has three phases. In phase one, the counselor uses reflective questions to access the creativity and imagination of clients. In phase two, the client and counselor co-construct an “as if” plan of action on the basis of the client’s reflective thinking. In the final phase, clients implement the “as if” behaviors and then discuss that experience in session with the counselor. As with most action-oriented procedures, the use (and success) of the RAI process is predicated on the development and maintenance of a solid client-counselor relationship.
In the initial phase of RAI, counselors use reflective questions such as the following:
- If you were acting as if you were the person you would like to be, how would you be acting differently? If I were watching a videotape of your life, what would be different?
- If a good friend saw you several months from now and you were more like the person you desire to be or your situation had significantly improved, what would this person see you doing differently?
- What might some initial indicators be that would demonstrate you are headed in the right direction?
In phase one, counselors write down clients’ responses to these or similar questions without judgment or critique. On the basis of what has been shared in prior counseling sessions, counselors can contribute ideas as well. Sometimes clients may offer responses that are too broad; in such cases, counselors will need to ask for more specificity (“What, specifically, will you be doing differently to make that happen?”). Once it appears the initial reflective process has been completed, the counselor and client are ready to move to phase two.
In the second phase of the RAI process, the client and counselor co-construct a list of “as if” behaviors that indicate how the client will act in moving toward his or her desired goals. As part of this co-construction process, the client and counselor discuss the viability of each item on the list and eliminate items that are not realistic.
Subsequent to developing the “as if” behaviors list, the counselor asks the client to rank the items from least difficult to most difficult. After the client has ranked the behaviors, the counselor engages the client in a dialogue about the difficulty level of the items and their position on the list. Once the ranking process and dialogue are completed, the client is ready to begin the enactment process.
Phase three starts with the client selecting a few of the least difficult “as if” behaviors to enact for the coming week. Beginning with the least difficult behaviors increases the potential for client success because success is typically encouraging for clients and often increases their perceived self-efficacy. Success typically increases the client’s motivation to courageously engage the more difficult tasks on his or her list. In the sessions that follow, the client and counselor discuss the enactment of the “as if” behaviors selected for the previous week. Enacting new behaviors often helps clients to perceive themselves, others and the world differently.
Clients can grow frustrated and discouraged as they attempt the more difficult tasks on their “as if” behaviors list because progress no longer comes so easily or consistently. Clients may be more patient and find the process less frustrating if counselors use encouragement to help clients frame success in terms of effort and incremental growth rather than final outcome. Helping clients understand “positive movement as success” is a key element of the Adlerian understanding of encouragement.
Although encouragement is crucial throughout the counseling process, it is particularly important in phase three of RAI. Let me diverge for a moment and briefly clarify the Adlerian understanding of encouragement. Encouragement is often misunderstood as merely an Adlerian “technique.” Actually, encouragement is a way of being with others, and Adlerians view counseling as a process of encouragement. Alfred Adler and subsequent Adlerians consider encouragement a crucial aspect of human growth and development. Stressing the importance of encouragement, Adler stated that throughout the counseling process, “we must not deviate from the path of encouragement.” Similarly, Rudolf Dreikurs affirmed that therapeutic success was largely dependent on the counselor’s “ability to provide encouragement,” while failure generally occurred “due to the inability of the therapist to encourage.” Encouragement skills include:
- Accepting clients unconditionally and without judgment
- Demonstrating concern for clients through active listening, respect and empathy
- Focusing on clients’ strengths, assets and abilities, including identifying past successes and communicating confidence in the same
- Helping clients to generate perceptual alternatives for discouraging fictional beliefs and oppressive narratives
- Helping clients distinguish between what they do and who they are (deed vs. doer)
- Focusing on clients’ efforts and progress
- Communicating affirmation and appreciation to clients
- Helping clients see the humor in life experiences
Using imaginary reflecting teams in RAI
When clients are immersed in difficult situations, they sometimes have difficulty with the RAI process. They struggle to see beyond the problem and need help stepping away from or out of the problem so that alternative perspectives can emerge. The use of imaginary reflecting teams is one way to help clients create dialogic space for reflection in the RAI process.
When clients have difficulty responding to reflective questions, counselors can invite imaginary team members into the session. To begin, counselors can ask clients to think of one or more persons whom they respect and view as wise. The client and therapist then create a list of team members. To amplify the imagery, the therapist may provide chairs for each team member, similar to the use of an empty chair in Gestalt therapy. I often put name tags on the chairs for identification purposes and to anchor the team member imagery.
Once the team is created, the counselor may call on team members for assistance by asking clients questions from constructive therapies. For example:
- Suppose you are talking to this person in the future after you have made significant progress in overcoming the problem. What changes will he or she say are evident? What, specifically, will he or she say is different about you?
- What specific steps would he or she identify that you took to make this significant change?
- What suggestions might he or she make for responding constructively to the problem?
- What might he or she say you do when (the problem) attacks you?
- How would he or she describe times when the problem isn’t a problem for you?
- How would he or she explain your ability to accomplish this great success?
- How will he or she know when you are starting to move in the direction you want to go as a person?
After the team has been “heard,” the counselor can proceed to phase two of the RAI process, helping the client to develop a list of “as if” behaviors and rate them in terms of difficulty. If the client has difficulty ranking the behaviors, the therapist may again invite imaginary team members to help the client with this process.
In phase three, when the client and counselor discuss the enactment of the “as if” behaviors selected for that week — and any resulting perceptual alternatives or enactment difficulties — imaginary team members can be invited in to discuss areas of improvement or areas for growth. As the client attempts the more difficult tasks on his or her behaviors list, imaginary team members can be invited to positively reflect on the client’s efforts and forward movement, as well as provide encouragement when progress is slower. The types of questions previously offered as examples are easily adapted for use in this phase of the process.
RAI is a brief, encouragement-focused counseling process that integrates Adlerian and constructive theory and practice perspectives. Because of the Adlerian and constructive theoretical and practice underpinnings, I believe RAI can be useful for work with diverse populations and in a variety of settings. With the increasing emphasis on multiculturalism and social justice in the counseling profession, many counselors have been drawn to constructive/postmodern approaches because of their focus on the social embeddedness of humans and, consequently, human knowledge. Adlerians and Adlerian theory addressed social equality issues and emphasized the social embeddedness of humans and human knowledge long before multiculturalism became a focal issue in the profession. Thus, because of its integrative Adlerian/constructive foundation, RAI is congruent with the cultural values of many minority racial and ethnic groups.
In addition, RAI strongly resonates with evidence-based perspectives in counseling. John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan recently reviewed the literature addressing RAI in the second edition of their book Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice and offered the following evaluation:
“The RAI procedure is simple and straightforward. It’s also a good example of not only the theoretical compatibility of Adlerian approaches, but also of their empirical base. Specifically, RAI employs several evidence-based techniques, including (a) collaborative goal-setting; (b) collaborative brainstorming as a step in problem-solving; (c) a focus on concrete and measurable behaviors; and (d) concrete behavioral planning.”
For more information about the theory and practice of RAI, please see the sidebar on suggested readings or contact me directly via email.
- Adlerian Therapy: Theory and Practice by Jon Carlson, Richard E. Watts & Michael Maniacci, 2006
- Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2012
- “Reflecting ‘As If’: An Integrative Process in Couples Counseling” by
- Richard E. Watts, The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, January 2003
- “Adlerian Therapy as a Relational Constructivist Approach” by Richard E. Watts, The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, April 2003
- “Using Children’s Drawings to Facilitate the Acting ‘As If’ Procedure” by Richard E. Watts & Yvonne Garza, Journal of Individual Psychology, Spring 2008
- “Expanding the Acting ‘As If’ Technique: An Adlerian/Constructive Integration” by Richard E. Watts, Paul R. Peluso & Todd F. Lewis, Journal of Individual Psychology, Winter 2005
- “Adlerian Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Relational Constructivist Approach” by Richard E. Watts & Kati A. Phillips, in Studies in Meaning 2:Bridging the Personal and Social in Constructivist Psychology, 2004
- “Adlerian ‘Encouragement’ and the Therapeutic Process of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy” by Richard E. Watts & Dale Pietrzak, Journal of Counseling & Development, Fall 2000
- “Using Imaginary Team Members in Reflecting ‘As If’” by Richard E. Watts & Jerry Trusty, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, October 2003
- Opening Space for Reflection: A Postmodern Consideration” by John D. West, Richard E. Watts, Heather C. Trepal, Kelly L. Wester & Todd F. Lewis, The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, October 2001
“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at American Counseling Association Conferences.
Richard E. Watts is distinguished professor of counseling and director of the Center for Research and Doctoral Studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. A licensed professional counselor and supervisor in Texas, Watts is a fellow of the American Counseling Association, a diplomate in Adlerian psychology and president of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology (alfredadler.org). Since 2005, he has presented on reflecting “as if” throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Lithuania, Romania, Switzerland and Turkey. Contact him at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
I think that this approach would be very useful working with college students in career, student affairs, and personal counseling. I plan to further study how to and then operationalize doing so with my graduate students in counseling. Thank you, Dr. Watts, for writing and sharing. MAS
Thanks, Merrill. I appreciate your encouraging words. I’ve received similar comments from folks in various brief counseling settings. If I can be of assistance, please feel invited to contact me. I often talk to colleagues’ classes via Skype or conference call and will me happy to do so with your students if you think it might be useful. rew
I love this technique. I have utilized “Acting as if” especially with clients struggling with anxiety. The integrative RAI process opens the technique up to a wider range of clients who are not in the place to step out and “act as if” immedicately. This allows them to explore the possiblities prior, which will help clients develop a vision for the benefits and possible consequences of changed behavior. I will definitely share this technique with my colleagues.
I work with troubled teens in a residential treatment center, I can see this approach working well with young people who just find temselves stuck. Thank you for this article!
I agree with Dr. Hamm in his comment that this approach could be useful with troubled youth. Specifically, my thoughts went immediately to incarcerated and juvenile justice involved youth. It seems as though this approach would be well suited for the multicultural presence in this population, as well as a means for youth to identify the discrepancies between their delinquent behavior and their desired lives.
Hi Dr. Watts! I really liked your article on reflecting as if and I am going to read your article in the Family Journal. I am taking AP Psychology this year and my dad suggested I read some of your articles for my class. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book the Great Gatsby last year for English and see how reflecting as if is somewhat like Gatsby’s acting like the person he wanted to be. Gatsby fooled people for a short time. Counselors on the other hand can use reflecting as if to teach clients new ways to act and “be” so they can get rid of their bullying, anxiety, depresision, or whatever and try new ways of being psychologically healthy and to practice these new psychologically healthy ways of acting. i don’t know Adler. I probably will read about him and Adler psychology in class. I liked your article! Thanks for writing it! Bren