Absent but Implicit

People seek therapy for a number of reasons, but often people find these reasons are obscured from themselves. For example, a person may visit a therapist with anger issues. It might seem natural to focus on the anger, but the anger itself is an effect – something else is the cause. If a counsellor helps you to deal with your anger specifically, it might provide some temporary relief, but the underlying cause still exists.

Behind the emotions are thoughts and beliefs that drive the emotions. If you believe that life is unfair to you and this makes you angry, using techniques to manage your anger won’t address your views about a world that seems unjust to you. Sometimes suppressing the anger can lead to another emotional outlet – like depression – as the underlying problem hasn’t been addressed and the person can no longer cope with the feelings through angry outbursts.

In Narrative Therapy, we look at the stories that drive our lives. The angry person in our example is enveloped in stories – stories s/he has told self, stories told from early childhood by family and significant others, and wider cultural stories. The person who feels that life is unjust is constantly maintaining and developing stories that feed into this belief. The founder of Narrative Therapy referred to these stories as absent but implicit.

Anger is driven by expectations. What are the expectations in this example? How have they been developed? How are they maintained? As noted, the causes of the presenting problems in therapy may be unknown to the client. A therapist who only focuses on the anger (or pain) can be further embedding these feelings and potentially re-traumatising the client.

It is normal for us to focus on our emotions and – especially when we are in distress – it can be difficult to understand what is driving our pain. Understanding the thoughts and beliefs that drive us can help us to modify these to better fit our lives and to help us grow and thrive.

“Why” Questions in Narrative Therapy

“Why” questions are used in Narrative Therapy, but many other therapeutic interventions either prohibit them or strongly urge therapists not to use this form of questions. Regarding their use, Michael White, the co-founder of Narrative Therapy stated:

I strongly believe in the resurrection of “why” questions in therapeutic conversations. * * * These “why” questions open space for people to give voice to and further develop intentional understandings about life and about what they accord value to in life. * * * People are defined by their purposes in life, and the defining of this aspiration and this account of what is accorded value constituted a conclusion about Peter’s [client able to determine things he valued in relation to a unique outcome] identity that contradicted the known and familiar negative conclusions that were associated with the dominant storyline of his life. (p 241)

White saw “why” questions as a way to get the client to consider what was important to him or her and they also served to help the therapist (in this case Michael) to understand in what the client placed value. Understanding what the client values helps the therapist in efforts to look at the significance of unique outcomes on the development of alternate narratives to counteract the dominant, trouble-saturated narratives for which the client has sought therapy.


Why did you decide to do this thing that was so out of character [discussing unique outcome]?

Why do you think this event was significant for you?

Why would you attempt this again [discussing unique outcome]?

In Narrative Therapy, the client is the expert in his or her story. The therapist is there to facilitate change, not to drive it. White suggested the therapist walked behind the client on this journey, being there for assistance, but not blocking the way in front and not at the client’s side (as the client understands better what is happening and drives change). The therapist asks “why” to help the client understand his or her motives and to enlighten the therapist.

Why would we want to avoid questions that put clients in charge of changing their narratives?

[White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. W W Norton & Co.]

Unique Outcomes

One of the central tenets of Narrative Therapy is that we focus on events, stories and philosophies (used in the widest sense) to create meaning. This meaning builds up into dominant narratives that we tell ourselves – further cementing them in our own lives and in the lives of those over whom we have influence (power). These dominant narratives only tell part of the story, however, and often a quite skewed one.

Although life is rich in lived experience, we give meaning to very little of this experience. The aspects of lived experience that are rendered meaningful are those that we take into the known and familiar storylines of our lives; these aspects are highly selected. The myriad experiences of daily life mostly pass like a blip across the screen of our consciousness and into a historical vacuum. Many of these experiences are “out of phase” with the plots or themes of the dominant stories of our lives and thus are not registered or given meaning to. However, these out-of-phase experiences can be potentially significant, and in favourable circumstances they can be constituted as “unique outcomes” or “exceptions”. The identification of such out-of-phase aspects of lived experience can provide a point of entry for the development of alternative storylines of people’s lives. (p 219)

Within Narrative Therapy, the person seeking therapy discusses the stories of their life. The therapist listens to these stories, looking for events, thoughts and other things that might suggest other possible stories that aren’t in agreement with these “problem-saturated” dominant narratives (those narratives for which counselling was sought). Once alternate narratives are identified, the client and therapist consider these stories in greater detail – eventually hoping to develop these alternate narratives into dominant stories preferred by the client.

Michael White, in Maps of Narrative Practice, notes that these efforts to actively consider their own narratives are sometimes the first time in clients’ lives in which they are overtly asked to consider and create their stories.

Conversations that highlight unique outcomes support a decentered therapist participation, which privileges the authorship of the people seeking consultation. These conversations assist people in rendering specific out-of-phase aspects of their experience significant; they support people in the characterization of, and in reflecting on, these aspects of their experience. This is very often novel for people who consult therapists, as these people often have been simply subject to the meanings given and the positions taken by others on the development of their lives. Among other things, conversations that highlight unique outcomes provide people with the opportunity to give voice to intentions for their own lives and to develop a stronger familiarity with what they accord value to in life. This provides them with a springboard for action in addressing their problems, predicaments and dilemmas. (p 220)

Within this context of dominant narratives and unique outcomes, the client begins to consider other possible stories for life and learns to give these more personally desirable stories power in the client’s life.

[White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. W W Norton & Co.]

Definitional Ceremonies

Definitional ceremonies are about allowing a person (or persons) to discuss their narratives – especially preferred narratives – with an audience present. The purpose of the audience is to ultimately witness, strengthen and support the evolving preferred narratives of the person(s) in therapy.

These ceremonies generally follow a format of:

  1. Person in therapy discusses their preferred narrative and supporting details in front of audience, with no overt participation of the audience
  2. Audience reflects on what was said by the person in therapy, including which comments affected them most profoundly (there is a general format for these questions – perhaps the topic of another post)
  3. Person in therapy reflects on audience comments
  4. Person and audience reflect together (note this step is not mentioned in original citation below, but has since been added to ceremony – it can be considered optional)

[White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. W W Norton & Co. (p 185)]

These definitional ceremonies can focus on the audience helping to support the evolving preferred narratives of the client, on Re-membering Conversations, or on other significant sessions in which the client needs to share with an audience. There is an understanding behind such ceremonies that reality is a collectively created construct.

Outsider Witness Registers

Michael White, the co-creator of Narrative Therapy, used outsider witness registers and when I first read about these, I could see that they could be a profound experience, both for the person who has come to Narrative Therapy (the client) and for those who have previously had Narrative Therapy (former clients). Basically, after working with someone, Michael might ask the client if they were willing to help others in future, serving as “witnesses” to therapy.

As an example, say a person has come to therapy and through the session(s), it is realised that a major concern for the client is the suicide of his mother (this was an actual example Michael gave and it was powerful – I had tears on the train when I first read it). During therapy, Michael asks if he can bring in a family whose experience, while not the same, might be of help. The other family had come to Michael for therapy after the single mother of three had attempted suicide. In this example, the mother had agreed to be an outsider witness for future clients. When Michael asked if she would come and speak with the young man whose mother had suicided, she agreed, asking if she could bring her three pre-teen children, too. What followed was a powerful definitional ceremony, in which the young man told his story, then the other family (mum and children) reflected on what had been said and then client was able to comment on their reflection. What an incredible opportunity for the family to create something helpful for another from their own pain!

So, definitional ceremonies using outside witnesses not only has something to offer to the client in therapy, it also allows the former client(s) to further reflect on their own journey and further strengthen their own evolved narratives. Sometimes, the best way to help yourself is to help others.

Outsider witness registers are definitely something I am going to consider using in future Narrative Therapy!