Types of disputing

Posted by Rex Alexander on Sat 3 Feb 24 in ABC Technique, Disputing |

Will Ross, REBT extraordinaire, explains the different types of disputing . . . 

The late Will Ross was a colleague and one of the moderators of the old Yahoogroup REBT-CBT Forum. He ran the excellent website REBT Network, a public service, news organization designed to provide self-help information, news updates, historical background and educational essays about REBT.  In my opinion, Will is one of the best in the business at getting right down to the nitty-gritty about HOW do do REBT, making it clear and accessible even for newbies and veterans alike.

Will has graciously gave us his permission to repost his elaboration on the various types of disputing.  Thanks, Will!



Here’s Will . . .

At first glance, the disputing process looks rather simple. It’s easy to see why any beginning therapist would assume that s/he only needs to ask, “Where’s the evidence?” or “Why must you…?” But in reality, disputing is much more complex than that.

It’s probably easiest to explain the process if we have a working example, so let’s assume that a client says, “I’m depressed. I need a man in my life, but I’m so unattractive and unlovable, I’ll never find a man who will want me.”

Dispute the belief – not the inference

Before you begin disputing, it’s important to ensure that you are disputing an irrational belief as opposed to disputing a faulty inference. In the example I’ve provided, “I’ll never find a man who will want me” is an inference, whereas “I need a man in my life” is an irrational belief. It’s tempting to show the client that she has no way of knowing that she’ll never find a man, but it is a temptation the therapist is advised to resist. The initial target of the dispute is the irrational belief, “I need a man in my life.”

Types of belief

Our irrational beliefs usually come in multiple ‘flavors.’ These flavors include the following:

Demanding: “I must have a man.”
Awfulizing: “It’s awful if I don’t have a man.”
I Can’t Stand It-Its’: “I can’t stand being alone.”
Damnation: “Not having a man shows that I’m worthless.”

Comprehensive disputing involves the disputing of each of these variations of the original belief.

Types of dispute

As Micah has already noted, there are different types of dispute:
Empirical: This type of dispute involves checking the irrational belief against the facts of the real world. “Where is the evidence that you need a man?”
Logical: Logical disputes are aimed at pointing out that needs do not follow from desire. “Just because you want a man, does it follow that you need a man?’
Pragmatic: Pragmatic disputes are aimed at showing the client that the irrational belief she holds is not helpful. “How does it help you to believe that you need a man?”
Alternative: Merely seeing that a belief is irrational is not enough. It is important to help the client develop an alternative, rational belief. “What could you tell yourself instead of ‘I need a man’?”

Styles of dispute

Just as there are different types of dispute, there are also different styles of disputing:
Socratic: Socratic disputing is based on the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates’, habit of asking probing questions that encourage clients to think about their thinking. “I can see why you would want a man in your life, but why do need one?”
Didactic: Instead of asking the client a question, as in Socratic disputing, the therapist can tell the client why her belief is irrational. “You may want a man in your life, but that doesn’t mean that you absolutely need one.”
Storytelling: The therapist tells a story or provides a metaphor or analogy that highlights the irrational nature of the client’s beliefs.

Humorous: The therapist can make use of humor by exaggerating the client’s belief to the point of absurdity. “You’re right, you do need a man. I don’t understand how you’ve lived as long as you have without one. Quick, let’s call a mortician now!” (Important: make sure that the humor is directed at the belief and not at the client).


Specific and general

Irrational beliefs can have varying levels of specificity. In our example, the client’s irrational beliefs may cover a range from demanding the love of a particular man to demanding that life give her everything that she wants.

“I need John.”
“I need a man.”
“I need love and approval.”
“I need what I want.”

In most cases, it’s best to begin by disputing the most specific belief and working your way up to the more general beliefs.


Disputes can take a number of different forms:


Cognitive disputes are ones that focus on directly challenging the client’s irrational philosophies. The examples above are all cognitive disputes.
Emotive: Emotive disputes are aimed at changing the way that the client feels. Rational emotive imagery is an example of an emotive dispute.


The therapist can have the client do something that shows her that her belief is irrational. For example, he could have her attend a concert without being accompanied by a man to show her that a man is not necessary for her happiness.

You may find it helpful to prepare a list of disputes, using the different methods, styles, and modes for the major irrational beliefs:

I must be loved or liked by the significant people in my life.
I must always be competent and mustn’t make mistakes.
Other people should always do the right thing.
Things must be the way I want them to be.
My unhappiness is caused by what happens to me and by what other people do.
I must worry about unpleasant things or else they will happen.
I can be happier by doing nothing.
I need someone to depend on.
I should be upset when other people have problems or behave badly.
Life must be easy and comfortable.
Every problem should have a perfect solution.

As you can see, there is a wide variety of disputing methods and styles. The more of them you use, the more effective you’ll be as a therapist. Not only that, but you’ll maintain your interest, and your client’s interest, in the disputing process without either of you becoming bored. I hope this helps.


Will Ross “

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Originally posted 2013-02-07 19:47:55.

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