Q&A: Editors of The ACT Matrix, Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second half of a two-part Q&A with the editors of The ACT Matrix: A new Approach to Building Psychological Flexibility Across Settings and Populations

Helping clients and trainees to adopt a functional contextual viewpoint is an important goal of ACT. Can you briefly explain what that means and why it’s so important?

The functional contextual viewpoint is important because it is different than the mechanistic viewpoint that currently dominates most of Western thinking. From a functional contextual viewpoint we notice an action (behavior) within context and also notice how it works for some stated purpose. With each moment comes a new context. By noticing behavior in context and asking how it works, a person can learn what behaviors work in a variety of contexts. Behaviors that don't work become less and less likely. From a mechanistic view, we are looking for the cause of an action. Once that is found, we try to fix the cause. For example, some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) emphasizes identifying irrational thoughts that cause depression and problematic behavior. One then works on "fixing" the irrational thoughts.

 It is important to note that the functional contextual viewpoint is an expanded way of looking at the workability of behaviors. In this regard, one can try the CBT mentioned above and test it for workability under the functional contextual view. So if finding and replacing irrational thoughts worked in the greater scheme of one’s life, then one would probably keep doing just that.

 The matrix diagram was originally a diagram of functional contextualism. The vertical line represented the context that the behavior (horizontal line) was occurring within. This gave students a visual metaphor for noticing a behavior and asking if it works (for some stated purpose) in this context.

 What the somewhat scary phrase "functional contextual viewpoint" refers to is simply a standpoint from which you judge the "goodness of fit" of ways of looking at the world and events, and interventions through the lens of "what works in a particular situation.” It is at root a pragmatic approach that can help get unstuck from thoughts about how things should or should not be and orient toward what works. You could say a functional contextual point of view is what can get us out of our minds and into our lives. And with the matrix, clients can get it in a few minutes.

Your new book includes chapters on a variety of applications of the matrix, including in the treatment of clients with addiction, PTSD, eating disorders, chronic pain, interpersonal problems, etc. In your opinion, what makes this diagram so flexible in terms of the areas in which it can be applied?

The diagram represents the common human activities of sensing, mental activities, moving toward wanted experiencing, and moving away from unwanted experiencing. Therefore, every human can use the diagram to "notice" being human and to discover behaviors that work. It is this simplicity that makes it so flexible. Extensive road testing has allowed to present a comprehensive functional contextual viewpoint with these two lines on a piece of paper. That makes it highly adaptable as each person, population, or clinician can then flesh out with the particulars of each person, situation or population. And it isn’t just adaptable to clinical populations. As we illustrate in the book, the matrix has already jumped out of the clinical box to spread to schools, communities, prisons, and so on.

In Annick Seys’ chapter about using the matrix in business settings, she talks about why the matrix is particularly useful in the workplace setting. What are some of those reasons?

Number one is the matrix does not assume that people are sick or troubled. It is an unthreatening model of normal human functioning. So when setting up the matrix point of view in a group, everyone can soon recognize something of their own experience in the diagram, and start sorting their own experience through the point of view. Next, it is scalable. Temporally, through it you can look at an event, a life, a given period of time, or an area of life, say work. Then you can also scale it from the individual to the group to the team, project, or organization, and start sorting at whatever level is most appropriate. So both flexibility and creativity are cued by the matrix. Finally, in organizations, effective, no-nonsense approaches are valued, and the matrix is thus ideally suited.

In one of the final chapters of the book you (Polk) discuss Ostrom’s eight core design principles for understanding group behavior. Groups are a context where psychological flexibility is limited by fears that are inherent to being a member of a group, and you discuss the difference between high group flexibility and low flexibility in light of this. Can you briefly describe what this means and how the matrix can be applied in group settings to increase the level of flexibility?

The term most often used for "low group flexibility" is low psychological safety. Most of us have been in a group where we were afraid to speak up because we feared retribution. Once psychological safety begins to decrease, communication decreases, stress increases, and creativity suffers. And once low psychological safety has taken root, a vicious cycle takes hold. People don't speak up because they are afraid, and the less they talk, the more they imagine what's wrong, leading to more fear and less psychological safety.

We use the matrix to break this cycle by engaging people in the simple "noticing the difference" tasks and equally imple language of the matrix. Individuals quickly notice that it's safe to notice the stuff of the matrix in regards to the self. Then we do a second matrix exercise regarding the group's shared purpose and the kind of stuff (like fear, anger, and ego) that can show up and get in the way of the shared purpose. Rather than talk about the group in the room, we talk in hypotheticals about any and all groups. Since we have all been members of difficult groups, the talk is easy. Once this is done, the low psychological safety is on the matrix for all to see, and now it can be talked about. The increased psychological safety and flexibility is almost palpable.

From this beginning it's then relatively easy to talk about Ostrom's eight. The first [of Ostrom’s eight principles] is shared purpose, and we already covered that during the second (workgroup) matrix exercise.

In your opinion, what is the most crucial place for the matrix to be adopted or utilized?

Number one would be the school setting. It appears that psychological flexibility promotes learning in many ways. Second, workplaces would be a great place for the increased creativity that comes with the matrix. That said, we do not know of any place where the matrix could not make a significant difference to help individuals, organizations and communities more effectively move toward valued living and ends.

What is the future of the matrix diagram?

Currently we are focusing on showing the matrix in schools and workplaces. We are also seeing an increased interest in advanced matrixing called Verbal Aikido where people practice "flexing" words and phrases. Due to its simplicity, the matrix has been spread a bit like a virus (though it's never "gone viral”). We're excited to watch as more and more clinicians and people in a broad range of fields catch and spread that virus!

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