How to Use the Six Column CBT Technique


A Description of the Six Column CBT Technique

In contrast to popular belief, CBT requires counselors to be warm and compassionate. Also, the focus of CBT is on experiential psychoeducation. Aaron Beck emphasized collaborative empiricism. Never forget that term. Collaborative empiricism is the bedrock of good CBT. It emphasizes the process of counselors and clients working together to test the accuracy and usefulness of specific thoughts and behaviors. As a therapeutic process, collaborative empiricism is also central to Person-Centered and Motivational Interviewing approaches. Remember: We want the client to have a central role in determining the usefulness and dysfunctionality of his or her cognitions and behaviors.

The six column technique is simply a procedure that helps clients and counselors organize, explore, and discover how situations, thoughts/beliefs, emotions, behaviors, and emotional/interpersonal/psychological outcomes are inter-related. This is my own particular version of the six column technique. It’s derived from the work of Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Judith Beck, and other cognitive behavioral therapists. You can see a short clip of me using this technique at: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118402537.html

Here’s a description of the six columns:

Column #1: The Situation

BE THINKING ABOUT LINKING EMOTIONS TO SPECIFIC SITUATIONS

It may be that you’ll begin with whatever emotional distress the client is experiencing or reporting. Or you may begin with thoughts and beliefs that are clearly linked to specific client emotions and behaviors. Or you may begin with the situation or “trigger” for the cognitions and subsequent emotions.

Here’s an example of a situation as reported by a client:

“My in laws are staying in my home     .”

“They’re messy and lazy and I have to pick up after them”

Column #2: Automatic Thoughts and Automatic Behaviors

HELP CLIENTS SEE THAT AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS ARE OFTEN THE BRIDGE BETWEEN SITUATIONS AND EMOTIONS

Here are some examples of the automatic thoughts the clients thinks when she faces the previously described situation:

“They’re old enough to pick up after themselves.”

“Sometimes I stand in front of the television they’re watching to block their view as I pick their stuff up.”

Sometimes if “she” says she’ll do the dishes, I say, “No thanks. I want them to get done in the next two weeks.”

REMEMBER THAT AN EXPLORATION OF YOUR CLIENTS AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS AND BEHAVIORS OFTEN WILL SHED LIGHT ON DEEPER CORE BELIEFS ABOUT THE SELF, THE WORLD, AND THE FUTURE.

Column #3: Emotions and Sensations

SOMETIMES IT IS VERY NATURAL TO START HERE BECAUSE YOUR CLIENT’S EMOTIONS AND SENSATIONS MAY BE A WAY THAT THE MIND AND BODY ARE VOICING HIS OR HER DISTRESS (or you may find the best entry point into the six column technique is somewhere else)

Here are the ratings and descriptions the client provided for column #3:

Anger = 75 (on a 0-100 scale with 0 = totally mellow and 100 = explosive distress)

Discomfort = 75

EMOTIONS AND SENSATIONS MAY BE WHAT IS MOST TROUBLING TO CLIENTS AND THAT’S WHY THEY’RE TYPICALLY RE-EXAMINED IN COLUMN #6: NEW OUTCOMES

Column #4: Helpful Thoughts

HELPFUL THOUGHTS ARE ALSO SOMETIMES REFERRED TO AS “COOL THOUGHTS.” THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE WHEN WORKING WITH ANGER AND AGGRESSION BECAUSE COOL THOUGHTS HELP CALM OR COOL OFF THE ANGER AND REDUCE THE POTENTIAL FOR AGGRESSION.

Here are some thoughts that the client identified as helpful. Helpful thoughts are often seen as adaptive or more accurate or more “rational” (which is an Albert Ellis term).

“This is important for my husband.”

“I can see this as a challenge for me to become more direct and assertive.”

“They mean well.”

A WAY OF ASKING ABOUT HELPFUL THOUGHTS IS TO JUST ASK DIRECTLY: WHAT ARE SOME THOUGHTS OR BELIEFS THAT YOU THINK WOULD BE HELPFUL TO YOU IN THIS SITUATION? YOU MAY NEED TO HELP CLIENTS WITH THIS BY PROVIDING EXAMPLES . . . BUT NOT BY TELLING THEM WHAT THEY SHOULD THINK. ENCOURAGE THEM TO FIND THEIR OWN WORDS.

Column #5: Helpful Behaviors

SIMILAR TO THE PRECEDING COLUMN, WE CAN THINK OF BEHAVIORS AS “HOT” OR “COOL” BEHAVIORS. HOT BEHAVIORS MAKE THE SITUATION AND/OR EMOTIONS WORSE; COOL BEHAVIORS MAKE THE SITUATION AND/OR EMOTIONS BETTER.

Here are some behaviors the clients said she thought might be helpful:

“I could sit down and talk with them about picking up their messes at a regular time.”

“I could ask my husband to talk with them.”

“I could go to a Yoga class two nights a week.”

WHEN IT COMES TO BOTH HELPFUL THOUGHTS AND HELPFUL BEHAVIORS, IT’S USEFUL TO THINK OF THEM AS OCCURRING (A) BEFORE, (B) DURING, OR (c) AFTER THE SITUATION ARISES. SOME BEHAVIORS (E.G., GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP) HELP THE SITUATION AS A PROACTIVE OR PREVENTATIVE ACTION. OTHER BEHAVIORS (E.G., DEEP BREATHING) MAY BE CRUCIAL DURING THE SITUATION. STILL OTHER BEHAVIORS (E.G., VENTING TO A FRIEND OR PROVIDING SELF-REINFORCEMENT) MAY BE HELPFUL AFTER THE SITUATION IS OVER.

Column #6: New Outcomes

AFTER IMPLEMENTING THE HELPFUL COGNITIONS AND HELPFUL BEHAVIORS, IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO RE-EVALUATE THE CLIENT’S EMOTIONS AND SENSATIONS (OR DISTRESS).

In this case, the client provided the following ratings:

Anger = 40

Discomfort = 40

ONE OF THE GOALS OF CBT IS TO REDUCE DISTRESS AND REDUCE SYMPTOMS AND MAKE LIFE A LITTLE BETTER. YOU MAY NOT CREATE VAST IMPROVEMENTS, BUT IMPROVEMENTS ARE IMPROVEMENTS. THIS IS ALSO JUST THE BEGINNING OF CBT (OR WHATEVER APPROACH YOU’RE USING) BECAUSE THE WHOLE POINT IS THAT LIFE IS AN EXPERIMENT AND THAT WE COLLABORATIVELY AND INTERACTIVELY ARE HELPING CLIENTS TRY OUT NEW THOUGHTS AND BEHAVIORS THAT MAY (OR MAY NOT) LEAD TO IMPROVEMENT. AND IF THE IMPROVEMENT ISN’T OPTIMAL . . . THE CBT WAY IS TO GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING AND REWORK THE PROCESS TO SEE IF FURTHER IMPROVEMENTS CAN OCCUR.

CBT Tips

Here are a few tips on how to integrate CBT in your work.

Some counselors or mental health professionals resist using CBT and complain that it’s too sterile or too educational or not focused enough on feelings. Basically, I think this is a cop-out similar to CBT folks who say that person-centered therapy is ineffective. My belief (and I think it’s rational and so it must be (smiley face) is that when mental health professionals don’t understand how to implement a particular approach, they blame the approach rather than admitting their lack of knowledge or skill. Instead, I encourage you to try this six column CBT model, but use it with whatever other model you prefer. In other words, you can be a person-centered CBT person or an existential CBT person . . . especially if you just use this six column technique as a means for exploring and understanding different dimensions of your client’s personal experience.

Goal-setting is essential to counseling. From the CBT perspective, goal-setting is initiated by generating a problem list. However, your IR clients may not have a problem listJ. That’s why you may need to use your excellent active listening skills to help your clients focus in on a distressing emotion. Then you can begin with the distressing or disturbing emotion and build the six columns from there.

Good CBT involves adopting an experimental mindset (never forget collaborative empiricism). All you’re doing is helping your client look at his/her daily experiences and identify patterns. It helps to organize the client’s experience into Situation, Automatic Thoughts/Behaviors, Emotions and Sensations, Helpful (Cool) Thoughts, Helpful (Cool) Behaviors, and New Outcomes. You can explore these common dimensions of human experience collaboratively.

It’s very important to know and remember that giving behavioral assignments can be disastrous. This is part of why a good CBT counselor is better than a technician. If you’re brainstorming possible helpful behaviors, your client (and you) may zero in on a behavior that, if enacted, has a strong possibility of a negative outcome. New behaviors expose clients to risk. The risk may be worth it; but there also may be too much risk.

Avoid asking questions like: “Have you thought about talking directly to your in-laws?” This sort of question implies that your client should talk directly to the in-laws. It’s better to step back and brainstorm behavioral options with your client. Then, emphasize that behavioral goals must always be in the client’s control. Then, after your nice list of behavioral options has been generated, you can look at the different options and engage in “consequential thinking.” In other words, you ask your client to explore the possibilities of what is likely to happen if: “You (the client) directly confront the in-laws about their messy behaviors? “ (See sample six column worksheet).

There are many ways you can get to your client’s underlying core beliefs or cognitive dynamics. For example, you could ask: “What stops you from telling them to pick up after themselves?” The client might respond with a different emotion and new content (e.g., I’m afraid of getting into a conflict). You can pursue this further: “What is it about being in conflict makes it scary?” She might say, “I’m afraid my husband will side with them and leave me.” As a consequence, this conflict is viewed as something she needs to manage independently and gets at a deeper schema: “I must keep the peace and deal with everything or bad things (e.g., abandonment) will happen.” There are two problems with this: (a) If she overfunctions she feels angry and acts passive-aggressively; and (b) there may be truth to this schema/belief. This is why we can’t just push her into being assertive. We must always keep the corrective emotional experience rule in mind. New behavioral opportunities need to be free from the likelihood of re-traumatization.

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4 thoughts on “How to Use the Six Column CBT Technique”

  1. Hi John,

    Expertly written…says the CBT therapist. In my office, we call this a “thinking report” and we find it to be very effective for clients to create written records of their negative thinking and underlying unhelpful/irrational core beliefs. I especially like the sample questioning you used to get to her negative schema. 5 stars!

    Aloha,
    Una

    1. Thanks Una!

      I’m glad you liked it. My concern is that sometimes therapists avoid CBT because they view it as too narrow, but this approach can also just be a way to help clients organize their experiences.

      I hope you’re doing well.

      John

      1. John,

        I absolutely agree with you. It can also be a reality check for the client and a means for them to “take responsibility for their actions.” Life is still good in Hawaii and I am so looking forward to the ACA conference next month. Please don’t tell anyone, but the ACA conference is actually better than the APA conference, in my opinion. 🙂

        Aloha,
        Una

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