Provocative Therapy - Frank Farrelly

Provocative Therapy – Frank Farrelly


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Provocative Therapy created by Frank Farrelly

I trained in Provocative Therapy with it’s creator Frank Farrelly for many years until he passed and left me his archive of materials as well as his original site.

Provocative Therapy is named from the latin-provocare-to “call forth from”. It is effective in its ability to call forth new and useful behaviors from clients who have previously exhibited negative behaviors and beliefs. Provocative Therapy works with the client within their bio-psychosocial world to assist them to develop more effective behaviors and strategies.

Originally developed in 1963 by Frank Farrelly while working with chronic schizophrenics, the techniques used in Provocative Therapy, with its sensory rich language, are applicable to the full range of client issues, groups and family work .

Historical Context

provocative therapyFrank Farrelly was trained in 1956 in the School of Social Work. He worked with Carl Rogers for many years at Mendota Mental Health Institute, Madison, Wisconsin, and was a therapist on Rogers’ research project with chronic schizophrenics

He took part in therapy listening sessions where client interviews were taped and presented for discussion in weekly meetings with colleagues. In 1963 he began to develop Provocative Therapy.

He found that by confronting his own feelings in response to a client, and using counter transference as a tool, he could build trust very effectively and rapidly. The level of honesty, self awareness and flexibility required of the provocative therapist in an interview may be quite challenging for an aspiring provocative therapist to achieve, and supervision is required during this process.

Provocative Therapy was eventually used in individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and within the therapeutic community work at Mendota.

Farrelly subsequently became a Clinical Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin.

In the 1970s he was one of the individuals that Richard Bandler and John Grinder modeled when they were developing Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

He also worked in private practice and gave seminars and lectures around the world until his death in 2013. Provocative Therapy continues today, and provocative techniques have also been subsequently incorporated by his students into Provocative Coaching, as well as into Nick Kemp’s Provocative Change Works.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Provocative Therapy shares many of the existential-humanistic theories, in that it assumes that people can change at any point in their lives, and that choices people make impact on others and society.

Additionally, it embraces post-modern beliefs in the importance of understanding the nature of communication and language, and that solutions can be found relatively quickly. Given these theoretical underpinnings, 12 assumptions that drive the theory include

1.Growth occurs in response to challenge. If a challenge is not overwhelming, a “fight” rather than “flight” response is stimulated, and people develop coping strategies and new and useful behaviors. Farrelly would say “when the pain begins the learning starts” .

2 .People can make major change in their lives, and maintain this ,regardless of the duration or degree of the problem state.

3. Change doesn’t have to take a long time.

4. If individuals receive useful feedback they can make changes themselves.

5. Clients need to recognize the choices they make impact on society and take responsibility for their behaviors. As Farrelly would say,”some people need boundaries taking out, and some people need boundaries putting in”.

6. People are treated as they are subjectively perceived.

7. Therapists have the responsibility to have their client hear feedback given to them, and to have their clients act on this feedback, by taking responsibility for their actions, and developing their own solutions to their problems.

8. People have more ability than is generally assumed, and can develop new coping strategies and useful behaviors.

9. All experiences, including those in adulthood, are very important for the change process, and growth can occur at any point in a person’s life

10. The client’s behavior with the therapist is a good approximation of their habitual behavior.

11. Non verbal communication is significant; it’s not what is said but how it is said.

12. People can be understood

Major concepts

Most of the major concepts are incorporated in the twelve assumptions and the techniques listed that follow. In general, the approach tends to focus on demonstrating acceptance of the client non-verbally, and producing change in the client with appropriate provocation and humor.


Although many techniques taken from person centered, and other humanistic and post modern therapies can be used, some techniques specific to Provocative Therapy include talking as if talking to an old friend, use of sensory rich language, use of non verbal communication to demonstrate acceptance, use of humor, playing devil’s advocate, and being in charge.

Talking as if talking to an old friend.

The therapist talks to the client as if they are talking to an old friend, with a twinkle in the eye and affection in the heart, putting aside their professional dignity on behalf of the client. In addition the therapist uses the language of the client, in the present, and avoids professional jargon.

Use of sensory rich language and non verbal demonstration of acceptance

Using sensory rich, varied language, with metaphors and story-telling, verbal and non verbal responses, the therapist gets the attention of the client, and conveys their reactions effectively to, and on behalf of, the client, demonstrating their acceptance of the client non verbally.

This enables the client to confront their issues not avoid them.

Use of humour

Humor, exaggeration, and mimicking are used to lampoon the problem, not the client.

Humor is a key tool to assist the client to make insights and increase their understanding in an acceptable non overwhelming fashion.

Playing devil’s advocate

The therapist plays devil’s advocate on behalf of the client’s problem thus provoking the client to “do the work” and take responsibility for themselves.

Being in charge

The therapist uses all these devices to remain in control of the interaction, responding to what comes back from the client, rather than letting the client control the interview and avoid change.

Therapeutic Process-

Provocative therapy has 4 stages, the duration of therapy being 20-25 sessions on average, but can range from 2 through 200 sessions. The stages include:-

1)Assisting clients to confront their issues,

2) having clients acknowledge that change is required by themselves,

3)assisting clients in clarifying their self image and the development of adaptive behaviors, and

4) consolidation and integration of new behaviors.


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