George Kelly and Personal Construct Theory’s Top Ten Conflict Tips

I have always found George Kelly’s (1905-1967) Personal Construct Theory useful in thinking about conflict, and so I have created one of our Top Ten Conflict tips around his work. My posts vary in how much thinking they require and this one is at the hard end of the spectrum. I am not sure the Top Ten stand alone so see 


And also Don Bannister and Fay Fransella’s great book on the subject ‘Inquiring Man’ from which the tips and explanation below are derived. It is worth some effort as PCT throws some very interesting light on life, as well as conflict. 🙂

  1. A person’s unique psychological processes are channeled by the way s/he anticipates eventsKelly believed that anticipation and prediction are the main drivers of our mind. “Every man is, in his own particular way, a scientist,” said Kelly, in that he is always building up and refining theories and models about how the world works so that he can anticipate events. We start on this at birth (a child discovers, “if I cry, mother will come”) and continue refining our theories as we grow up. We build theories -often stereotypes- about other people and also try to control them or impose on others our own theories so that we are better able to predict their actions.
  2. All these theories are built up from a system of constructs. A construct has two extreme points, such as “happy-sad” and we tend to place people at either extreme or at some point in between. Our mind, said Kelly, is filled up with these constructs, at a low level of awareness. Kelly did not use the concept unconscious, instead he believed that some constructs are preverbal, ‘their lack of verbal labels often being because they were developed before the person had the use of words’ . A given person or set of persons or any event or circumstance can be characterized fairly precisely by the set of constructs we apply to it and the position of the thing within the range of each construct. So Fred for instance may be just half between happy and sad (one construct) and definitively clever rather than stupid (another construct). The baby above may have a preverbal construct “Comes… doesn’t come when I cry”.
  3. Constructs are applied to anything we put our attention to, including ourselves, and also strongly influence what we fix our attention on. We construe reality constructing constructs. Hence, determining a person’s system of constructs would go a long way towards understanding him, especially the person’s essential constructs that represent very strong and unchangeable beliefs; and also the constructs a person applies to him/herself.
  4. Anxiety is the awareness that the events with which one is confronted lie mostly outside the range of convenience of one’s construction system. We become anxious when we can only partly construe the events which we encounter and too many of their implications are obscure. Unknown aspects of bumps in the night are what get to us.
  5. Hostility is the continued effort to extort validational evidence in favor of a type of social prediction which has already been recognized as a failure. There are times when if our construct system is to be preserved intact, we cannot afford to be wrong. If we acknowledge that some of our expectations are ill founded, we might have to modify or abandon the constructions on which the expectations are based. But if these constructions are central to the whole of our system, we might well be faced with chaos if we abandon them, as we have no alternative way to view the system. In such a position we become hostile, to extort evidence, bully people to behave in ways that confirm our predictions. We may provoke the behavior we predict or deny the validity of the source of evidence or see a conspiracy theory. Hostility is a self preserving function for the individual who is hostile, rather than as a largely inexplicable antagonistic emotion.
  6. Guilt is the awareness of the dislodgement of the self from one’s core role structure. Core role structure means the system of constructs which deals specifically with the self. Those by which we evaluate the central aspects of our own behavior. If we find ourselves doing things in important respects that would not be what we would do if we were the kind of person we always thought we were, then we suffer from guilt. Not to do with alignment with others. To live in a world where we cannot understand and predict others can be terrifying. Imagine what it is like to live in one where we find we cannot understand or predict ourselves. Ritualistic or rule bound behavior occurs when we start becoming a mystery to ourselves.
  7. Threat is the awareness of an imminent comprehensive change in one’s core structures. Just as we have core constructs to try to understand ourselves, so we have constructs which subsume the most important aspects of the external world to us and which invalidated produce a feeling of threat. We are threatened when our major beliefs about the nature of personal, social and practical situation are invalidated and the world around us appears to become chaotic. Changing a client in psychotherapy may plunge the client into over hasty experimentation and threaten to overwhelm them so they become hostile and resist all change or plunge in chaos and psychosis.
  8. Fear is the awareness of an imminent change in one’s core structures. When only a more peripheral part of our world becomes meaningless and unpredictable we experience fear. Our super-ordinate constructs are not invalidated so we have no sense of being overwhelmed but an area of darkness opens up before us and we feel fear at impending change.
  9. Aggressiveness is the active elaboration of one’s perceptual field. Defined in terms of what is going on inside the individual not other’s reaction to it. We are being aggressive when we actively experiment to check the validity of our construing: when we extend the range of our construing in new directions, when we are exploring. This can be very uncomfortable to others around us and they may well see it as an attack on them. But in terms of the aggressive person’s construction systems it is essentially an extending and elaborating process and thereby the opposite of hostility.
  10. Conflict is over Constructs. Ultimately, how we frame reality has a massive impact on how we handle conflict, which often boils down to a conflict between rival ways to construe the world, which are perhaps the hardest to unpick.

This is George:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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