Contradiction and Direction Holding

Contradiction and Direction Holding

This is the technique that I most often use, in my own time as client, to change how I’m feeling and how I’m behaving. It’s what I was taught on my fundamentals (by Peter Burgess), and you’ll find it in the manuals, for instance Rose and Richard’s. It is the central technique of Re-evaluation Counselling. My own practical experience confirms it really does work (for at least some people at least some of the time, which is as much as we can ever prove without a major research project). In some co-counselling communities “find a direction” is a common mnemonic for how to end a session.

That doesn’t mean it invariably works, or works without effort. You need to use it with all the other techniques about re-experiencing emotion, and releasing emotion when it comes near the surface. I think that’s probably why John Heron calls Direction Holding a “further-on” technique.


What is it?

Once we have identified a pattern (not necessarily clearly, but as an area of constraint and distress), if we say a contradiction to it, something is stirred up inside: our mind struggles to cope with the conflicting statements, and this struggle releases feelings – which means discharge, leading to clarity, re-evaluation and change...

“Contradiction” can mean just that, a logical opposite of the pattern-belief. For instance I’ve recently been using “I’m connected” to contradict feelings of isolation from other people and from the world around me. But it often seems to work best if we exaggerate the words, end up with something preposterous: for instance I have a pattern of seeking perfection, which has its good side but can become compulsive – and means I sometimes find it hard to listen to criticism. So my contradiction to that is “I really enjoy screwing things up!”.

That also illustrates something else – a contradiction is the opposite of a pattern, so many of them tend to be positive statements, but this may not be obviously the case. If in doubt, the guideline is ”does the client react to it?”, “do they find it liberating?”. Laughter is a common positive response.

How to do it

Often the client will do it for themselves, unprompted or in response to the intervention “would you like to contradict that?”.

But it can also work well for the counsellor to suggest a contradiction to he client – this is for the usual reason, the counsellor is more likely to be outside the distress so may have more of a chance to spot a useful phrase. This is of course subject to the client’s requests as to what kinds of interventions they want: suggesting specific words is rather more intrusive and risky than other kinds of interventions. Listen and watch the effect! If the client collapses in uncontrollable giggles as soon as you suggest it, it’s doing something – if they are reluctant, suggest they try saying it. “You don’t have to believe it”. If they sit there in stony silence then maybe that one didn’t work after all. Often the client, with the counsellor’s help, will work towards a powerful form of words. This more than any other is a technique where lots of trial and error is part of the process.


Use the client’s words so far as possible, but search for the exaggerated but even more the short phrase which cuts across the pattern-belief. And search for one without the word “not” in it: not “I’m not isolated”, which suggests what it is trying to get away from, but “I’m connected”. If the client has said “I can change so I’m happy speaking in public” then maybe suggest “I am changing…”, or move on to simply “I love public speaking”.

Doing this effectively takes practise – don’t worry if your first attempts don’t work.

And as I’ve said already, there may be lots of possible contradictions, and only trial and error can tell which one works best for this client: if the distress is a fear of making mistakes, the contradiction might be “I really enjoy screwing things up!” but it might also be “It’s easy for me to get things right”.

What can go wrong

Sometimes the words just skate over the surface, or stay in the intellect, without touching the emotions – I’ve sometimes found this when working with a counsellor who is very keen for me to get to a contradiction very early in my session. What I do to avoid that is to go through all the re-experiencing techniques first, to connect with the distress: repetition, exaggeration, present tense, owning, and so on; perhaps just talking about it. A contradiction is often something I get to about half way through my session – sometimes right at the end.

Contradiction is not simply saying the opposite of the previous sentence - sometimes I find I’ve generated a contradiction internally, then my counsellor wants me to “contradict” my contradiction. But that is simply a case where I will ignore the intervention.

The strongest phrase is not invariably the one that works best – the pattern may be so strong that the client simply cannot connect with the words. A partial contradiction may be a necessary first step.

And some clients just don’t like the technique – respect this!

Physical contradictions

So far I’ve just talked about words, but contradicting the patterned posture can be just as important, or more so. If the client is looking down, it may work for them to look up. If they are rigid, maybe suggest they add some movement, or exaggerate what is already there. If they are very quiet, it may work to speak more loudly – this is very close to the “Exaggeration” technique.

Though if they are very loud in a rigid way, quietness might be what works: more trial and error!

Direction Holding

Once the client has found a contradiction that works, they can repeat it. That is Direction Holding: the client repeating (holding) a short phrase (direction) that contradicts a pattern.

How to do it

Again the client might do this for themselves or the counsellor might suggest they do it. The client may ask for a contract in which the counsellor keeps on asking them to return to the direction for the duration of the session.

In between, the client lets out emotion, follows up thoughts, uses whatever other techniques they want. Non-verbal ways of releasing emotion can combine well with direction-holding: this is often a good moment for the intervention “breathe” or “keep breathing” from the counsellor.

Write it down

Once found, a powerful direction (contradiction) is worth writing down, otherwise I find that I often forget it - patterns are good at defending themselves!

The same phrase may remain powerful through more than one session – especially for those stubborn patterns!

Life changes

The initial effect of a contradiction or a direction is simply to release distress – discharge. And it’s possible to leave it there and go on to something else.

But the particular form of this technique means it does move on very naturally to life-changes. The phrase represents a “direction” we want to move in – in my case (above), I want to move in the direction of more tolerance of my own mistakes.

That does not mean we necessarily want to arrive – I am not actually trying to make more mistakes! And we are still going for short phrases, not long legalistic specifications – a direction leaves out all the special cases, timescales, completeness checks and so on – it is not the same thing as a specific goal or commitment.


Some directions, after being much worked on, can come to feel like celebrations. If it happens, that’s wonderful! But let it happen, don’t force it.

Alan Trangmar 10/7/02 (formatted for printing 24/9/06)