The Self Confrontation Method as a step beyond the narrative approach

Tom Luken


Until some years ago by far most career counselors used an approach that can be called a 'trait' approach. In the first phase of the counseling process the client underwent a battery of psychological tests that resulted in a description of the client in terms of traits or characteristics. These traits made it possible to diagnose career problems, take stock of career alternatives and choose among them.

In recent years many counselors use a 'narrative' approach to career counseling. One of the authors who described this approach recently is Larry Cochran (1997).

The main points I would like to demonstrate in this part of the symposium are:

First here are some citations to illustrate the correspondence between Valuation Theory and Cochran's narrative approach. Can one tell whether the author is Cochran (1997) or Hermans and Hermans-Jansen (1995)?

  1. "By augmenting techniques that are objective, public, rational, and scientific with methods that are subjective, private, emotional, and literary, the counselor can deal with the person as well as with traits."
  2. "The task of counseling is to help persons tell richer, more continuous, coherent, plausible, and productive stories."
  3. "A counselor is a co-constructor of meaning"
  4. "I can only answer the question, 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"
  5. "Stories acknowledge both the perception of reality and the power of imagination."

Both Valuation Theory and Cochran's narrative approach of career counseling depart from narrative psychology. Both see the person basically as a motivated storyteller. "Narrating a story of oneself creates a distance between a person as narrator and a person as an actor or participant in story" (Cochran, 1997, p. 25) Or, as Hermans says, in line with James: an I as author of and a Me as actor in the narrative.

In telling and (on the basis of new interpretations and/or experience) retelling his story the client creates meaning. The counselor helps the client to improve the quality of his story. Criteria for quality are:

Perhaps most important: a 'good' story contains a future perspective based on a personal vision of life at its best (Cochran, 1997, p. 151). It helps the person to act in order to make steps in the direction of the envisioned future. As Cochran puts it: to be agent instead of patient!


Cochran has made a valuable inventory of narrative methods and techniques that can contribute to:

  1. elaborating a career problem
  2. composing a life history
  3. founding a future narrative
  4. actualizing a narrative

On all four of these the Self Confrontation Method (SCM) offers useful, concrete addings.

  1. Cochran mentions several techniques for elaborating a career problem:

Cochran warns for two possible threats: (1) overload (being overwhelmed by many concerns) and (2) overemphasis on a part or one side (for example the negative).

The SCM uses a procedure that helps to overcome both threats. It offers several standard sets of questions that are discussed between counselor and client. The discussions eventually lead to the careful formulation of 'valuations' that will be the elements of the story.

  1. Cochran describes several useful techniques for composing the life history. For example:
  2. Most central in the narrative approach is the finding a unifying plot or a life theme. As in many similar descriptions (e.g. Wijers en Meijers, 1997; Savickas, 1996) the way to find the life theme is described in a nice and inspiring way that in the same time seems somewhat vague and fallible. Moreover it seems often somewhat counselor- (instead of client-) centered. The counselor should help the client to see something (the theme) that until now is not seen. An artistic inspiration seems needed. "The technique (to connect early recollections with role models - TL) gets its validity the same way a novel does…" (Savickas, 1996, p. 17).

    Personally it is here that I find the contributions of the SCM the most useful. In the course of the procedure the client gives affect scores to each previously formulated valuation. The resulting matrix can be analyzed in several ways. Studying the correlations (which indicate the resemblance of affect patterns) between the valuations makes it possible to suggest connections (for example between valuations concerning the past to valuations concerning the future) to the client on an objective (correlational) basis. This basis can replace the 'artistic' inspiration of the counselor. The client herself interprets the relations and puts her own words to them. Interpreting clusters of valuations in this way (helped but not guided by the counselor) can help the client to discover a or the life theme. A factor-analysis plot of all the valuations can provide a meaningful visual representation of the total story.

    As an example figure 1 shows such a plot. It pertains to an anthropologist (female, age 29), successfully working in a dynamic ICT company. The red spots represent the valuations in a two-dimensional space. For some of them the text is summarized in a few key words. T1 to T6 refer to the tasks in her actual job. A1 to A4 refer to considered altnernatives for her future.



    Figure 1: Factor-analysis plot of a client's valuations

    In short: the SCM takes stock of subjective data (valuations and affect-scores), treats and analyses these in a objective and sophisticated manner and offers methodic steps for the use of the results. This procedure provides more guarantees of finding a theme that is meaningful for the client, than the heuristics of many narrative approaches do.

    1. Also for the founding of a Future Narrative Cochran provides useful suggestions, e.g. drawing a life line and guided fantasy.
    2. The SCM helps here in several concrete ways. Most simple and direct is studying the affect hierarchy: most people are surprised by the position of some of the affects and wish that some affects had a higher and others a lower position in the hierarchy.

      Moreover discrepancies between the affects on General Feeling and Ideal Feeling can lead to concrete wishes and plans.

      Figure 2 shows a simple example.

      Figure 2: Example of discrepancy between General and Ideal Feeling

      Correlations (in a matrix or in a plot as figure 1) between valuations on the one hand and of the Ideal Feeling on the other hand (possibly in contrast with General Feeling) can give concrete ideas of direction.

      Finally, studying the correlational patterns can give insight into the nature of the dilemma of the client and can clarify the relative attractiveness of career alternatives.

    3. Two concepts that Cochran emphasizes for actualizing a narrative are action and decision. In Cochran's opinion several actions prepare for the crystallization of a career decision. The counselor helps by reaffirming, encouraging, helping to formulate a proverb for action and mobilizing a support network etc.

    The story in the form of the valuation system provides a solid founding of a direction of development (see step 3). Once this is established, the SCM emphasizes action in the form of realistic (often small but meaningful) steps.


    The narrative approach is in many ways a reaction to or even rejection of the objective trait approach. In the best case it is a supplement to the trait approach.

    The SCM can be described as a narrative method, but it is unique in providing for both the objective, public, rational, and scientific as well as for the subjective, private, emotional, and literary side of the person and her story. A 'nomothetic' and a 'idiosyncratic' approach are combined in one method and this makes it very efficacious. The SCM supplies concrete hands and feet to the narrative approach.


    Citations page 1:

    1. Savickas in COCHRAN, 1997, p. vii
    2. COCHRAN, 1997, p. 24
    3. COCHRAN, 1997, p. 64
    4. MacIntyre in COCHRAN, 1997, p. 134
    5. HERMANS, J.M. EN HERMANS-JANSEN, 1995, p. 11


    Cochran, L. Career Counseling: A Narrative Approach. Sage, Thousand Oaks (California), 1997.

    Hermans, J.M. en Hermans-Jansen, E. Self-Narratives: The Construction of Meaning in Psychotherapy. Guilford Press, New York/London, 1995.

    Meijers, F., en Wijers, G.A. Een zaak van betekenis: Loopbaandienstverlening in een nieuw perspectief. LDC, Leeuwarden, 1997.

    Savickas, M.L. The Spirit in Career Counseling: Fostering Self-Completion Through Work. In: Block, D.P. and Richmond, L.J. (eds.) Connections between Spirit and Work in Career Development: New Approaches and Practical Perspectives. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, 1996.