A Tasty Sample of Reality Therapy


With WubboldingAs far as I know, reality therapists don’t typically use food or eating metaphors. My use of it here might be a leftover from my Gestalt therapy chapter revision, because Gestalt theory happily incorporates swallowing, biting, and other oral dimensions. Then again, maybe it’s just time for lunch.

Choice theory is the foundation for reality therapy. Or, as William Glasser and Robert Wubbolding (featured with me in this photo) put it, reality therapy is the train and choice theory is the track. No gustatory metaphors here either. But I’ll keep looking.

The following is a smattering of tasty revisions for the forthcoming 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice.

What is Choice Theory and Reality Therapy?

Glasser developed reality therapy in the 1960s. Later, recognizing that he needed a theoretical foundation for his therapeutic approach, he began exploring cybernetics and control system theory (Powers, 1973; Wiener, 1948). Initially, following Powers, Glasser used control theory to explain reality therapy. Later, he adapted the theoretical model and shifted to using choice theory (Glasser, 1998).

Choice theory is based on the idea that conscious behaviors are chosen in an effort to satisfy one of five internal basic human needs (Wubbolding & Brickel, 2017). The human mind or brain acts as a “negative input control system,” providing feedback to individuals so that we can correct out behaviors and continue getting what we need and want (Wubbolding, 2012, p. 13).

Reality therapy is a present-focused, directive therapeutic approach designed to help individuals identify and satisfy their needs and wants more consistently and adaptively. As Wubbolding (2012) has written, “If choice theory is the track, reality therapy is the train that delivers the product” (p. 5).

Reality Therapy in Action: Brief Vignettes

Similar to Adlerian therapy, reality therapy involves encouragement and intentional planning. The counselor establishes a positive working relationship and then persistently keeps the therapeutic focus on what’s within the client’s solving circle or circle of control. Maintaining a clear focus on positive actions and thoughts is what makes reality therapy an efficient and brief counseling approach.

Vignette I: Using Encouragement—Not Critical Confrontation

The following is an example of the type of confrontation often inaccurately associated with reality therapy. The counselor is confronting a teenage client on his efforts to find a job.

Counselor: Where else did you go?

Client: I tried a couple other [gas] stations, too. Nobody wants to look at me. They don’t pay too good anyway. [Screw] them!

Counselor: So you haven’t really done too much looking. Sounds like you want it served on a silver plate, Joe. Do you think looking at a couple of gas stations is really going to get you a job? (XXXX et al., 2002, p. 219)

Based on this brief exchange it appears the counselor is trying to help the client be successful in obtaining employment. Consequently, we can assume that having gainful employment (or at least making money) is a “want” (the W in WDEP) and in the client’s quality world. Although this counselor is supposedly doing reality therapy, his critical statements (“you haven’t done too much looking” and “you want it served on a silver platter”) are inconsistent with reality therapy principles. A reality therapist would use a more supportive and encouraging approach. For example:

Counselor: Where else did you go?

Client: I tried a couple other [gas] stations, too. Nobody wants to look at me. They don’t pay too good anyway. [Screw] them!

Counselor (Reality therapy response): It sounds like you really want a job and you feel very frustrated. What else could you do to help get what you want?

Notice that the reality therapist keeps the focus on what the client wants, empathizes with the frustration, and ignores the client’s desire to quit trying. This approach is encouraging because the counselor is expresses confidence in the client’s ability to act and think in ways that will move him toward his quality world.

Generally, when counselors use confrontation, the goal is to help clients engage in self-examination. The process for nearly all therapy approaches is similar—counselors help clients increase their awareness or have insights, which then leads to motivation and eventual change. Consistent with this process, Wubbolding referred to client self-evaluation as a “prelude to change” (1999, p. 196).

In working with this young man on employment issues, the following exchange uses concepts and questions adapted from Wubbolding (1999).

Counselor: Hey Joe, do you think the overall direction of your life is more of a plus or more of a minus?

Client: I don’t know. I suppose it’s kind of a neutral. I don’t have a job and I’m not really going any direction.

Counselor: That’s interesting. No direction. I guess my question about that is whether going no direction is really the direction you want . . . or whether maybe you want something else?

Client: Yeah. I’d love to have some money. Right now the economy sucks, so I don’t really see the point of looking for work.

Counselor: The odds of getting a job right now aren’t great, that’s for sure. Do you suppose the odds are better if you stay home or better if you get out and drop off a few applications?

Client: I see what you’re saying. My odds are a little better if I get out there. But I think my odds of making money are probably better if I just got out there and sold drugs, like some other guys I know are doing.

Counselor: I’m just trying to follow along and track what you want. It does sound like you want money. And you might be right about the drug selling scene, I don’t know much about that. But let’s be serious, do you think selling drugs would genuinely be good for you? I guess another way of asking that is, “Will selling drugs help or hurt you in getting what you want in the long run?” [This confrontation does what a reality therapy confrontation is supposed to do: It directly questions the usefulness of excuses.]

Client: I’m not saying I think selling drugs is a good thing to do. I’m just frustrated and sick of being broke and poor.

Counselor: Yeah. It’s very hard. But I’m your counselor and it’s my job to keep pushing you in positive directions. I’m asking you this because I think you can do better than how you’re doing. Is the way you’re thinking about this—that it’s too hard, the economy sucks, and you’re likely to fail—is that line of thinking helping you get a job or hurting your prospects?

Client: Yeah. I guess having a pity-party isn’t helping much.

Counselor: I’m sure having a pity party can feel good sometimes. But I’m with you on the fact that it’s not helping much. So we’ve got to try out something different.

Because the preceding questions ask the client to look at himself and self-evaluate, they’re inherently confrontational, but also supportive and encouraging. Many additional reality therapy questions that help clients self-reflect and plan are in Wubbolding’s (2000, 2017) publications.

Vignette II: Collaborative Planning

This vignette extends the previous case into the reality therapy collaborative planning process.

Client: Well. What sort of different approach do you suggest?

Counselor: If it were up to me, I’d suggest we make a very clear plan for you to try out this week. The plan would focus on how you can get what you want: a job so you can start earning money. And we’d develop this plan together and we’d be honest with each other about whether our ideas would give you the best chances to get a job.

Client: How about I go down to the Job Service and sign up there?

Counselor: That’s one good idea. It doesn’t guarantee you a job, but nothing will because you don’t have control over whether someone hires you, you only have control over your strategy or plan. Do you know what I mean?

Client: Not really.

Counselor: Thanks for being honest about that. When you make a plan or set a goal, it’s important for it to be completely within your control and not dependent on anyone else. That’s because the only behavior you can control is your own. For example, if your plan is to “get hired,” you can be doomed to frustration and anger because you don’t make the hiring decision. Instead, a good plan involves developing a detailed, step-by-step process. Your plan could be to revise your resume and then submit it along with a well-crafted cover letter to 10 places where you think your skills are a good fit. You have complete control over all that.

Client: Okay. I get it. I could do that, but I’m not very good with writing and resumes and all that.

Counselor: How can you make sure those things are in good shape then?

Client: I could get my sister to look it over.

Counselor: When could you do that?

Client: Next week, I suppose.

Counselor: What would make it possible to do that sooner, like this week?

Client: You know, you’re really kind of pushy.

Counselor: Do you think you’d do better with someone who lets you put things off until next week? Would that be more helpful in getting you a job sooner?

Client: Right. Right. Okay. I call my sister tonight and ask if she can help me as soon as she’s available.

Counselor: That’s sounds like a great start. What time will you call her tonight?

Client: Seven o’clock. I know. Why not six? Well I figure she’ll be done with dinner by seven, that’s why.

Counselor: Good planning. Maybe I don’t have to be so pushy after all.

The preceding dialogue illustrates how counselors can use gentle and persistent questioning to lead clients toward planning that’s consistent with Wubbolding’s principles (i.e., SAMI2C3). It also illustrates how reality therapists function as collaborators to help clients or students plan for success.

Concluding Comments

The mission of the William Glasser Institute is to teach all people Choice Theory® and to use it as the basis for training in reality therapy, lead management, and Glasser Quality School education (http://www.wglasser.com/). The institute has existed for more than 44 years and there are now approximately 8,000 certified reality therapists worldwide and over 86,000 who have obtained substantial advanced reality therapy training.

William Glasser passed away in 2013. Although his advocacy for conscious, noncoercive human choice is missed, there are many other contributors to the national and international dissemination of choice theory and reality therapy. As examples, Robert Wubbolding is the director of the Center for Reality Therapy. Thomas Parish is the editor of the International Journal of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy. Patricia Robey, Nancy Buck, Jim Roy, and John Brickell are prolific contributors to the CT/RT literature (Buck, 2013; Parrish, 2017; Robey, 2017; Roy, 2014, 2017; Wubbolding & Brickell, 2017).

In Dr. Glasser’s eulogy, Wubbolding shared the following anecdote:

Quite recently, a woman approached him at his home and begged him for advice for how to deal with her 3 year-old son. He paused for a long time and then reached deep down inside his soul and gave her 2 suggestions: “Always treat him as if he is good.” And “Set up circumstances where he can only succeed.” These wise words could serve as his suggestions for all counselors. They represent for us a worldview, an attitude toward clients and his perception of all human beings. These two sentiments transcend a particular counseling system in that they summarize his legacy (September 10, 2013; http://www.realitytherapywub.com/index.php/easyblog/entry/dr-william-glasser).  

In support of Glasser’s legacy, we end this chapter with a quotation that reflects his idealism and ambition:

It is my vision to teach choice theory to the world.

I invite you to join me in this effort.

—William Glasser, Unhappy Teenagers (2002, p. 190)

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2 thoughts on “A Tasty Sample of Reality Therapy”

  1. Hello John,

    I enjoyed reading your blog on reality therapy (like I enjoy most of youe blogs :), especially with this beatiful anecdote at the end.

    If we, parents as well as counselors and therapists, could live by Glasser’s wise advise how to treat human beings, small and big, we would do a great service to those we care for.

    However, it’s not easy to put Glasser’s advise always into action as personal and cultural understandings of such a concept might vary widely. I’m a German and I’m married to a Kenyan man, who is quite open-minded, reflective and I’d say a true philanthropist. However, he was brought up very different from my upbringing, in a culture where many believe that emphayiszing someone’s successes and removing obstacles out of their way, might rather be an invitation to relax their efforts to reach higher and eventually touch the sky.

    As I said, he’s an open-minded man, and so I’m injecting him for the last 25 years with sometimes snaller sometimes bigger doses of different views of the world and new ways to look at the human species.

    Oops, that was a little long…

    Warm regards,
    Susanne

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Susanne. Your articulation of the influence of culture on how the different Glasser needs are experienced, valued, and expressed is very interesting and has me thinking about how to best write about that. I hope you’re doing well! John

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