Q&A: Kevin Polk, PhD, and Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc, editors of The ACT Matrix

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

Briefly summarize the ACT matrix—it’s purpose and function.

The purpose of the ACT matrix is to engage people and the function is to increase psychological flexibility. People are easily engaged by one vertical and one horizontal line as they are asked to notice two differences: 1) the difference between sensory experiencing and mental experiencing (vertical line), and 2) noticing the difference between how it feels to move toward who (and what) is important versus how it feels to move away from an unwanted feeling like fear or pain (horizontal line). "Noticing the Difference" is an inherently non-verbal activity that almost immediately begins to help a person defuse (get unstuck) from rigid verbal rules that may be interfering with meaningful, valued living. In the presence of this increased psychological flexibility, people are better able to derive and do new behaviors consistent with valued living.

The horizontal line represents behavior, which can usefully be seen as either moving toward who or what is important to us or away from what we don't want to feel or think. The vertical line orients to the difference between five-sense experiencing and publicly observable behavior at the top, which is the immediate experience we can have of the world outside; and inner experiencing at the bottom, which is the world of the mind and emotions. Because of the complex verbal processes we humans swim in, we can get entangled and get stuck when we become unable to recognize the difference between toward and away behavior and five-senses versus mental or inner experiencing. The matrix is a deceptively simple cue that can help people rapidly get clarity about these differences and move toward valued living, which is also known as psychological flexibility.

Why work with the matrix model? Why not just work from the hexaflex?

The matrix is a fun, dynamic, and engaging cue to behavior where the hexaflex is a conceptual representation. They both serve different purposes. For talking to professionals about processes, the hexaflex is a useful tool; for getting clients less stuck and better oriented to clinical work, the matrix is fast, efficient, and effective. The matrix approach is simple at first and only complex when the need arises, if ever. It takes five minutes to sort moving away to the left and moving toward to the right of the horizontal line, and to place publicly observable behavior above and inner experience below the horizontal line. The hexaflex probably takes at least an hour to present to a fellow professional, and the language of the hexaflex is too complex for most clinical settings.

So as I answer these questions I notice that it is important to me to share how effective the matrix can be (lower right), that I am afraid I may not convey properly how useful it can be (lower left). If I bite this hook, I might get wordy (upper left), and I choose to give short answers in simple language (top right). That's all there is to it!

At what point during a session with a new client does the therapist introduce the matrix?  

The creators of the matrix recommend introducing it first thing, describing it as the "psychological flexibility point of view" that will be used during the session. This helps people immediately start telling any 'stuck' stories into the more flexible matrix point of view. Clients respond well to that language and we're soon moving along. That said, there are as many ways to use the matrix as there are clinicians using it, and many introduce it later in the session.

In the history of the matrix, and particularly during the early stages, what are some examples of applications and contexts in which it’s been used? Which populations (i.e. individuals suffering from PTSD, individuals who have experienced trauma) were first exposed to the diagram? And since then, which have responded particularly well to it?

The matrix was first developed and road-tested in groups with two notoriously difficult populations: Kevin Polk and Jerold Hambright who served US army veterans and Mark Webster in the UK who worked with substance users. These very stuck clients were central to shaping the matrix as a streamlined way of engaging people and getting to the heart of how one gets stuck, and then offering a point of view to get less stuck. Soon Benjamin Schoendorff in France, Marie-France Bolduc in Quebec, and many other across the globe started using it with individual clients, including clients meeting criteria for personality disorders, and they found that it was perfectly adapted to individual work. Since then literally thousands of clients have found the matrix a useful tool to get less stuck fast. It is possibly unique in how broadly it has been road tested before being brought to the larger public with this book. Five years of testing on five continents in dozens of languages, with both clinicians and clients loving it. Simple to learn, simple to use, simple to get.

Is the matrix only for ACT practitioners, or can it be adapted to other situations and/or for use in other modalities?

Everyone has senses and everyone has mental activity. Everyone moves toward who and what's important and away from unwanted internal experiencing. Therefore, the matrix has already found its way into many settings far beyond the realm of ACT practitioners. Management consultants use it, teachers use it; sales professionals and more have found a use for noticing the two differences [ex. between mental and five-senses experiences] and deriving new behaviors to move toward who and what they find important.

Clinicians beyond ACT have also found the matrix useful. Benjamin Schoendorff and Marie-France Bolduc have found that it is most adapted to using functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), a relationship-focussed close cousin of ACT. More broadly, it can conceivably be adapted to any form of therapy that puts moving toward who or what is important center stage. So, for example, you can use it in mental health and pain medicine as a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of medication. Instead of measuring if unwanted inner experience goes down, you measure if actions to move toward who or what is important increase, and adapt dosage accordingly. And remember, it's simple to learn and use, so its got the potential to make a difference even in medicine!

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