There are many different themes which make up what has come to be known as ‘narrative therapy’ and every therapist engages with these ideas somewhat differently. When you hear someone refer to ‘narrative therapy’ they might be referring to particular ways of understanding people’s identities. Alternatively, they might be referring to certain ways of understanding problems and their effects on people’s lives. They might also be speaking about particular ways of talking with people about their lives and problems they may be experiencing, or particular ways of understanding therapeutic relationships and the ethics or politics of therapy.

Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.

There are various principles which inform narrative ways of working, but here are two: always maintaining a stance of curiosity, and always asking questions to which you genuinely do not know the answers. These two principles inform the ideas, the stance, the tone, the values, the commitments and the beliefs of narrative therapy.

We have included below an extract from Alice Morgan’s influential and highly popular text, What is narrative therapy? An easy-to-read introduction.

Possibilities for conversations

When I meet with the people consulting me, I sometimes think of the possibilities for the directions of the conversation as if they are roads on a journey. There are many cross-roads, intersections, paths and tracks to choose from. With every step, a new and different cross road or intersection emerges – forwards, back, right, left, diagonal, in differing degrees. With each step that I take with the person consulting me, we are opening more possible directions. We can choose where to go and what to leave behind. We can always take a different path, retrace our steps, go back, repeat a track, or stay on the same road for some time. At the beginning of the journey we are not sure where it will end, nor what will be discovered.

The possibilities described in this book are like the roads, tracks and paths of the journey. Each question a narrative therapist asks is a step in a journey. All the paths may be taken, some of the paths, or one can travel along one path for a time before changing to another. There is no ‘right’ way to go – merely many possible directions to choose from.

Collaboration

Importantly, the person consulting the therapist plays a significant part in mapping the direction of the journey. Narrative conversations are interactive and always in collaboration with the people consulting the therapist. The therapist seeks to understand what is of interest to the people consulting them and how the journey is suiting their preferences. You will often hear, for example, a narrative therapist asking:

  • How is this conversation going for you?
  • Should we keep talking about this or would you be more interested in …?
  • Is this interesting to you? Is this what we should spend our time talking about?
  • I was wondering if you would be more interested in me asking you some more about this or whether we should focus on X, Y or Z? [X, Y, Z being other options]

In this way, narrative conversations are guided and directed by the interests of those who are consulting the therapist.

Summary

So, before we dive into this exploration of narrative ways of working, let’s quickly summarise what we have considered so far:

  • Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives.
  • It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to change their relationship with problems in their lives.
  • Curiosity and a willingness to ask questions to which we genuinely don’t know the answers are important principles of this work.
  • There are many possible directions that any conversation can take (there is no single correct direction).
  • The person consulting the therapist plays a significant part in determining the directions that are taken.

It seems appropriate to begin any exploration of narrative therapy with a consideration of what is meant by the ‘narratives’ or ‘stories’ of our lives.

Read more of this excerpt by heading to The Dulwich Centre website.