Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Demonstration of the Socratic Method
in Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy
With a Man Who Procrastinates

The Socratic method plays an integral role in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy. In a climate of respect and diplomacy, the therapist is able to secure relevant information, unfold insight, and promote new solutions to problems. To appreciate the value and limits of the Socratic method, it is necessary to place this strategy within the context of a complete therapeutic process, one that addresses cognitive, affective, and behavioral change. Two references provide this perspective: Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice and Adler and Socrates: Similaries and Differences. At the different stages of psychotherapy, eidetic and guided imagery, or role-playing might also stimulate affective or behavioral change. However, all of these strategies lead in the same direction: the development of a deeper feeling of community.

This document is the transcription of a demonstration given by Sophia de Vries, working with a participant of a convention workshop. The bracketed "[.....]" and indented process analysis is by Henry Stein. This material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein.

(T = Therapist, C = Client)

C1-I have problems with procrastinating.

T1-How do you feel about it yourself?

[We need to know how much this problem bothers him. He only states his problem behavior. We don't know if it doesn't bother him, if it irritates him, or if he hates it. The intensity of his feeling about the problem has to be added to the complaint.]

C2-I do it. I wish I didn't do it.

T2-How does it make other people feel?

[We then check to see if he knows the impact of his problem on other people.]

C3-It inconveniences them.

T3-Have you proof of that?

[Is he guessing, or have other people expressed their reactions to him?]


T4-Uh huh, and how do you feel about that?

[How does he react to the feedback of others? Does he take their feelings and their inconvenience into consideration?]

C5-I dislike that very much, because I don't like to inconvenience people, but it happens.

T5-Um hum, and yet you still don't know what to do about it, procrastinating? You don't like to inconvenience people, you know you inconvenience them, (P-yes) and, you haven't tried anything, to do about it?

[How strong is his motivation for change? Is he really ready for change, or is he waiting for it to fall out of heaven without any effort on his part? What has he done about it so far?]

C6-Uh, I've tried. I've often said, "You know, I must organize myself, I must do these things", and then there are still things left undone.

T6-So there must be something the matter with the organizing then.

[His motivation is good, but he may be lacking in insight or knowledge. He doesn't seem to know what to do about this. Since he does not get a good result, his organization may be faulty.]


T7-Well, let's find out. Is it a matter of time?

[We are now fishing for the factors that would contribute to or take away from good organization.]

C8-No, its not a matter of time, because I spend time doing other things.

T8-You deviate from what you originally wanted to do?

[He uses a vague phrase, "doing other things". We sharpen this movement for him by using a stronger word "deviate". This helps him see more clearly the significance of his movement. Clients frequently minimize the meaning of their unproductive actions. We must bring their vision back into focus.]

C9-Uh, I guess so.

T9-If you spend time doing other things, do you want to do too many things at once?

[This is a continued fishing for factors that contribute to poor organization.]

C10-Partly that. Maybe there's things that I enjoy doing more than other things. I think it might be in that area.

T10-How do you feel about having a constant enjoyment?

[To find out what his expectations of life are, an intuitive jump is made from his clue of "things that I enjoy more" to an exaggerated absolute. Does he expect life to be pleasant all the time? The phrase "constant enjoyment" is a way to test an idea by enlarging it.]

C11-I'd like that.

T11-You would?

[The guess hit pay dirt! Asking for a verification draws him deeper into this line of thinking.]

C12-Oh, yes!

T12-You don't think you would get sick and tired of it?

[He has been drawn into a trap. He nibbled the bait of admitting an ideal that he has never examined critically. In a childlike way he imagines a future paradise without an awareness of how an adult would actually feel about living in it. By enlarging a quality that seems harmless in its smaller scale we can dramatize the beneficial or harmful implications.] constant enjoyment I was thinking in terms of...that things were organized so I didn't have a lot of things left over. This is one of the things that stop me from enjoying - is having jobs left undone.

[He feels caught in this exchange, and tries to side-step the issue a little.]

T13-Yes, you talk about jobs left undone as if someone did it to leave them undone.

[His expression "having jobs left undone" is a little impersonal. It is not taking full responsibility. He must see that he is leaving work undone.]

C14-No, I leave them undone...

T14-You realize that you leave them undone.

[It is helpful to confirm an insight. Getting the person to hear what they said from you and verifying its truth provides a needed reinforcement of a correction in thinking.]

C15-Oh, yes.

T15-So you do something to yourself that you dislike very much.

[Now a connection is made from the immediate insight of his responsibility for a symptom, to his earlier expression of how he feels about the symptom. This faces him with the logic of his movement.]


T16-Why would you have to dislike yourself so much? (Long pause.) Have you been punished a lot as a little boy?

[First there is a search for the hidden reason behind this action. When he does not respond with an explanation from his present frame of mind, we explore associations from his past.]

C17-No, I don't think so.

T17-Why do you need that punishment - now?

[This is an unexpected jump using a very strong word, "punishment". The intensification of a quality stimulates or provokes a person to think more fully about it. They may deny or confirm the interpretation. Either way you get more useful information. "Why do you need..." is a very surprising question. It creates a new perspective on a symptom. He has to make sense of what he is doing.]

C18-(long pause) ... I don't know, but that's an insight, "why do I need the punishment now?"

T18-You're the only one who can answer that, you know? (pause) You must be dissatisfied about yourself in one aspect or another.

[He avoids giving an answer, hoping it will come from the therapist who puts the task back in his lap. Since he does not respond at first, another logical question provides him with a general clue to search deeper for a hidden feeling.]

C19-Yes, I am dissatisfied. I have expectations on myself that I don't meet, and that makes me very dissatisfied.

T19-So, then let's go to the root of it... There are expectations that you don't meet. There must be a reason for this.

[Now he is prompted to search for a hidden reason behind what he tell you. You must help the person think deeply and thoroughly about the root of his problem.]

C20-If there is I don't know.

T20-Is it lack of knowledge?

[He is stuck and needs some help. Providing him with a range of probing questions helps him recognize or reject factors, and then refine them. We want to help him think this through and reach a useful conclusion.]

C21-No, not lack of knowledge, I know what I have to do.

T21-And it is not lack of time?

C22-No, no.

T22-So these two things...lack of effort, maybe?

[He is stuck in the middle of the problem. By working around the perimeter logically, we eventually may hit on a factor that he identifies with.]


T23-Uh hum, and how would you like to correct it?

[Having targeted the missing factor, now we need to know if he is willing to do something about it. Is it important for him to correct this now? Does he know how to correct it?]

C24-I guess what I'd like to do is put more effort into the things that I know I should do.

T24-I hear you say, "I would like to put more time into things that I would have to do." I would decision made yet of "I'm going to?"

[By listening carefully and taking the client literally, we can find the cracks in his intentions. He has more of a wish than an decision to put more effort into solving his problem. We want to bring him closer to the doing, rather than just thinking and feeling.]


T25-How much time would you like to take before you come to the decision of - "I'm going to"? You can set a time limit, you can take two years, you can take three years...

[He procrastinates and others generally want him to speed up. You surprise him by doing the opposite of what he expects. You exaggerate his procrastination and test his feeling about extended it longer and longer. In a spirit of gentle playfulness you help him see the foolishness of his tendency.]

C26-...or my lifetime.

T26-...or your lifetime! Yes, sure! ...Nobody pushes you. It's only you who creates your own suffering.

[He does not see the impact of his symptom on himself. He hurts himself with this problem, and must see the consequence of what he has created. By guessing at the intensity of his hidden experience, the therapist has faced him with a feeling that he has become used to.]

C27-And it is suffering.

T27-Oh yes, of course it is! So if you're pleased with suffering, go right ahead, and continue what you're doing.

[By phrasing his suffering in an unusual and dramatic way, he reacts more strongly. He may feel it is an absurd claim. The technique called "pulling the pig's tail" is effective at this point.]

C28-I don't want to.

T28-all right, then we have a contradiction, what are you going to do about the contradiction?

[Now you face him with the tension of a contradiction. He says he wants to get rid of a symptom, and yet he keeps it up. He has been cornered conceptually. Leading another person into a trap of self-contradiction is what Socrates did so skillfully.]

C29-(long pause).... I have said to myself many times, that I don't want the contradiction, I'm going to do something about it, but it doesn't get done.

T29-No, but "something" is such a vague thing, and if I would say the same thing, then also nothing would get done. You know? "Something" is vague. I have to make a decision on what I am going to do about it. I have to make one small decision on what am I going to do. (pause) Do you have an example of procrastination in your life?

[He uses a vague, general word "something" and needs to be confronted with a commitment to a concrete, specific decision. The task is also reduced to a small, manageable step. Now we have to attack the problem using a concrete example of his procrastination. He is now ready to try a new approach.]


T30-No, just one. (Pause)... Getting up in the morning?

[He comes up with too much. The concept of "many" is so much for him that he cannot do anything about it. The scale of his thinking has to be reduced and the complexity simplified. The new task cannot overwhelm him. We ask him for only one example so that he can start somewhere. After waiting a moment for him too offer an example, we start with the first action of his day, getting up in the morning.]


T31-Well, mention one.

[He does not respond to the first question which is designed to get him started, so once again he is encouraged to bring up his own example. The therapist's question suggests a very simple activity. This model may help him scale down his thinking at the moment. He is offered some assistance in thinking, but he must eventually take responsibility for the task.]

C32-My desk at school is very untidy, always. I clean it up but very shortly it gets untidy with things that need doing.

T32-Yes, I hear you say "it" gets untidy. How can a desk get itself...(P-I make it untidy!) (laughter) Oh, now, now you're talking. "I like my desk to be clean and I make it untidy".

[Careful listening is again important as the word "it" suggests that he had no part in the problem. This magical thinking has to be cleared up. In a playful way he is faced with his evasion of personal responsibility and he accepts it in good humor. His corrected statement is then reinforced immediately.]


T33-You are giving yourself punishment all the time.

[He needs to recognize the meaning of his repeated movements of untidiness. The insight of self-punishment will bother him and perhaps stimulate him to conquer the habit.]

C34-I guess so, that's a new idea.

T34-Why are you so angry at yourself, that you need punishment for yourself? You are not used to this, you told me, from early years.

[The guess about anger is a logical connection to what he has been doing. He does not say he is angry at himself, but he must be if he hurts himself. The therapist guess at the hidden feeling behind the action. Then the client is asked to think about the hidden reason behind the feeling.]

C35-I don't know.

T35-But you do it anyhow. (P-yes) You think its worthwhile to find out? (P-yes) and to think about it? (P-yes) Well, I think that next time when I see you I would like you to come with an answer. If you haven't found it we can talk about other things, but in this respect we cannot go further on this subject until you have found an answer, you have to come up with something. I cannot give you a suggestion because you might fall for the suggestion, and that wouldn't help you. Your ideas count for you more than anybody else's.

[His motivation for deeper exploration has to be checked out. Then he is encouraged to do some homework and challenged to bring back an answer on his own. The cooperative working relationship between client and therapist is clarified. He is not going to be given answers, he will be encouraged to do his own thinking and examine the results with the therapist. He will be left with a questions to ponder until the next meeting.]

C36-So the question you're asking me that I should answer is "why am I punishing myself?

T36-Yes, why do you like to punish yourself when you haven't had that happen when you were young? Your parents didn't punish you, and now that you are grown up, and you have your work, and you are happy in your work, you want to punish yourself.

[This question of self-punishment is finally put into the perspectives of his early childhood situation, and his current living situation. It gives him a context for examining his actions.]

OK, is this giving you kind of an idea of what we are doing?

C37-I think so, thank you, and I have something to work on now, and its a new idea.

T37-Yes, indeed.

C38-Yes. Thank you.

T38-OK. Thank you for participating.

(End of Demonstration)

[A few hours after the demonstration, the client came up to the therapist and said, "I have thought a lot about this. Now I don't have to do this any more." It was not necessary to go any further with this issue. The purpose of the brief counseling demonstration had been achieved. The client decided to give up the symptom. If he goes in a different direction that adds to his well-being, that can be enough for the moment.]

This document is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced, in whole or part, without the expressed permission of Dr. Stein.

For Additional Information Contact:
Henry T. Stein, Ph.D., Director
The Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington
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