What is narrative therapy?

Written by Alice Morgan,

Dulwich Centre Publications  Adelaide South Australia

A summary by Paul Berkers, Holland

Friday, 22 October 2004





Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counseling and community work, which centres people as the experts of their own live.


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 in 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.


What is meant by the “narratives” or “stories” of our lives?


For narrative therapists stories consist of


*linked in sequence

*across time

*according to a plot.


As human beings we are interpreting beings.  We all have daily experiences of events that we seek to make meaningful. The stories we have about our lives are created through linking certain events together in a particular sequence across a time period, and finding a way of explaining or making sense of them. This meaning forms the plot of the story. We give meanings to our experiences constantly as we live our lives. A narrative is like a thread that weaves the events together, forming a story.

We all have many stories about our lives and relationships, occurring simultaneously.













For example: the steeling of a son (Sean) was interpreted as ‘attention seeking’. This dominant plot occurred through a gathering together of many other events in the past that fitted with this interpretation. More and more events which supported the story of ‘attention seeking’ began  to be selected out. As more events were added to this plot, the story of Sean as an ‘attention seeker’ became stronger.


These meanings often consist of what narrative therapists call ‘thin description’. Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life.

And thin descriptions often leads to thin conclusions about people’s identities and these have many negative effects. This thin conclusion about Sean as a person was having negative effects, not only in relation to Sean’s experience of himself, but also on the relationships between Sean and his parents.

Once thin conclusions take hold, it becomes very easy for people to engage in gathering evidence to support these dominant problem-saturated stories.


Narrative therapists are interested in conversations that seek out alternative stories, stories that are identified by the person seeking counselling as stories by which they would like to live their lives. The therapist is interested to seek out stories of identity that will assist people to break from the influence of the problems they are facing.

Alternative stories can reduce the influence of problems and create new possibilities of living.

For Sean it can be a story of how he overcame troubles in earlier times in his life, or ways in which he gives attention. All of these might be alternative stories of Sean’s life, and they might create space for change.

The key question for narrative therapists becomes: How can we assist people to break from thin conclusions and to re-author new and preferred stories for their lives and relationships. Within the new stories, people live out new self images, new possibilities for relationships and new futures.


Is is not enough to simply re-author an alternative story. Therapists are interested in finding ways in which these alternative stories can be ‘richly described’.  Rich description involves the articulation in fine detail of the story-lines of a person’s life.



Externalising conversations:

Naming the problem.


One of the first things that a narrative therapist is interested in doing is to separate the person’s identity from the problem. They therefore begin speaking about the problem in ways that situate it separately from the person and their identity. This is bases on the premise that the problem is the problem, as opposed tot the person being seen as the problem.

Externalisation is the foundation from which many narrative conversations are built. Externalisation requires a particular shift in the use of language. It is an attitude and orientation in conversations, not simply a technique or skill.


So instead of  “I’m unmotivated, I can’t do anything” the therapist might say “So, the problem has affected your energy”, or instead of saying  “I’m a depressive person”, the therapist could say: “So, the depression had made it hard for you to go out”.

Within externalising conversations, problems are always spoken of as separate from people.

One way of doing so is to speak about the problem as if it is a person: “The” depression. It is not you who is depressive, but it is “the” depression that is doing things with you.

So you can give the problem an identity or even a name (the Anorexia) (sometimes it is good to let children draw what the problem looks like, of let them pick a figure/miniature that represents the problem.

Importantly is that the language and name for the problem comes from the person consulting the therapist and is selected by them. The therapist would be extremely tentative to be sure that the name is one that appeals to the person consulting them.


What can be externalised?

*Feelings (the Fear, the Jealousy)

How has the fear tried to convince you that it is unsafe to go out of your own house?


*Problems between people (The Blame, the criticism, the fighting)
What have the fights talked yu into about yourself as a partner?

What does the blame have you doing with each other?


*Cultural and social practices (mother blaming, parent blaming, racism, heterosexual dominance).


*Other metaphors (the dream, the wall of resentment)


In the course of a conversation it is possible that there will be more than one problem externalised. The therapist might name and list all of the externalised problems and ask the client to prioritise them.


It is important that the context of a person’s life is always addressed in externalising conversations. The contextual factors have their influence on the name and the interpretation of the problem. It is therefore very important to take care to explore the social context in which the problem is occurring, and that the name for the problem appeals to the client.


Why do we choose to engage in externalising conversations?


Problems appear less fixed and less restricting when spoken of in externalising ways. When people are separated from problems, ther skills, abilities, interests, competencies and commitments become more visible.

The more visible these skills become, the more available the are for people to access. Externalising conversations reduce guilt and blame and yet leave room for responsibility.

Externalising conversations begin to disempower the effects of labelling, pathologising and diagnosing that are commonly experienced by people as impoverishing of their lives. They open possibilities for people to describe themselves, each other and their relationships from a new and non-problem-saturated story that once dominated their lives. In this way ‘the problem becomes the problem’ and then the ‘persons relationship with the problem becomes the problem’.







A thorough investigation and exploration is then possible.


The therapist is interested in exposing and finding out as much as possible about:


As we discuss all these facets the problem gradually develops its own persona.

All problems can be externalised. Fear, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, voices of schizofrenia, racism, habits, illness, self-doubt, all have particular methods of operation.

For example, many women have told me that the voice of anorexia nervosa is a male voice. However, some say it speaks in a soft and subtle voice, whilst others say that it speaks in a bossy and booming voice.

It is helpful to explore carefully all aspects of the problem as this can further assist the person to separate themselves from it. Throughout the conversations, it is up to the therapist to listen for signs of the tactics of the problem.


In the next fase it is now possible to explore the relationship between the person and the problem. This opens possibilities for re-authoring conversations.

Questions may sound like: Is there a name you could give to how things are between you and Perfectionism?, or What words would you use to describe your relationship with this problem?

What type of relationship would better suit the person? This allows people to begin to state their own opinions and ideas.


Tracing the history of the problem.


This history may include anything from the distant past (perhaps before the problem entered the person’s life) through to the nearer past (the day before).

Some questions might include:

Questions that begin with What, Where, When and Who can facilitate conversations that provide more specific details.


Relative influence: helpful when tracing the history of the problem. The therapist can ask the person to imagine they were to think about their life as a total number of ten. You can ask: How much of your life out of ten would you say the problem had six months ago and how much of your life did you have?


Why is it helpful?

Tracing the history of the problem in the person’s life begins to open space for the consideration of other stories about the problem. When the problem is placed in a context over time, it is seen as changing and less static or fixed.

Asking questions that trace the problem’s history may also begin tot identify some of the problem’s tactics and methods of operation.


Exploring the effects of the problem.


It is important to explore in some detail the effect that the problem has had on a person’s life.

Again, the problem is spoken of as external to the person’s identity and the therapist can ask  a series of questions about the ways in which the problem has affected

·        The person’s sense of self : what they think of themselves as a person

·        Their view of themselves as a parent, partner, mother, wife, brother, worker

·        Their hopes, dreams, sense of the future

·        Their relationships with children, parent, partner, community members, colleagues

·        Their work

·        Their social life

·        Their thoughts

·        Their physical health

·        Their spirits

·        Their moods or feelings

·        Their everyday life


Questions might sound like: How has the Bulimia affected your moods and feeling?

How has the Fear affected your beliefs about other people and the wider world?


It is important to map these effects widely so that an understanding of the impact of the dominant problem story in the person’s life is fully appreciated.

Without these explorations of the effects of the problem on the person’s life, it can feel as if the therapist has not really understood or listened to the experience of the person seeking consultation.  When more than one person is present at a meeting, each family member can be consulted about the effects of the problem on their own life.

Exploring the effects of the problem may also lead to the discovery of unique outcomes – times in the life of the person when the problem has not been influential. It is important that therapists are constantly oriented towards listening for these times.

The exploring is also helpful in exposing some of the tactics and tricks that problems use against people. By exposing the tactics and effects of the problem, these conversations strengthen the person’s voice and opinions.


Next the therapist asks the person to consider each effect and asks their opinion on them. The person is given time to state their position on each effect.

Questions like:

What is that like for you and your family?

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Does this please you or not?


When the client (Rosy) answers that it doesn’t please her to be moody and tired the conversation can go on like this.


Then the therapist asks simply: “Why?”

Rosy says: ‘Because I used to be such a happy person and nice to be around and people liked to be with me’.


The client gives a justification and from this justification it is possible to develop a different story about the client and his interests, ideas, beliefs, skills, preferences. Drawing attention to these opinions and hopes can assist a process of reconnection with them. The person is invited to take a position in relation to the problem, and this in itself can contribute to a reduction of the influence of the problem.


Situation the problem in context



From a narrative therapy perspective, problems only survive and thrive when they are supported and backed up by particular ideas, beliefs and principles. Acts of men’s violence and abuse against women, for example, can only exist when they are supported by ideas of patriarchy and male dominance that serve to justify and excuse for violence (criminogenic needs). Anorexia can only survive in cultures that value thinness, where success and competence are judged in terms of body shape and size.

Narrative therapists are interested in discovering, acknowledging and ‘taking apart’ (deconstructing) the beliefs, ideas and practices of the broader culture in which a person lives that are serving to assist the problem and the problem story. Through questions and conversation, therapists can work with the people consulting them to examine these ideas and practices, define them, pull them apart and trace their history.

They listen for and ask themselves:


The pulling apart and examining of ‘taken-for-granted’ truths is known as deconstruction.

Deconstruction conversations are another central component of narrative therapy.


For example, two people who have come to consult a counsellor to talk about ‘sexual difficulties’ in their relationship.

There are many questions the therapist could ask to open a discussion of these:


The therapist listens for any assumptions about life or relationships that may be in the interest of the problem and seeks to inquire about them.

The therapist might ask questions about the history of these beliefs and their effects on the life and relationships of the person consulting them.


Deconstruction can lead to the challenging of ‘taken-for-granted’ ideas and open alternative stories that assist people to challenge and break from the problem’s views and to be more connected with their own preferred ideas, thoughts and ways of living.


Deconstruction conversations help people to ‘unpack’ the dominant stories and view them from a different perspective. How these stories have been constructed becomes more visible.

The dominant story becomes situated culturally and historically. These conversations often enable people to break further from a sense of guilt or blame as they come to see that the problem no longer speaks of their identity.

When the dominant ideas and beliefs that support the problem are exposed and discussed, times when the person has stood against or challenged them may also become visible. If this is significant to the person, it is a unique outcome that will open possibilities for the discovery of an alternative story.

By exploring the ideas and beliefs and seeing the history of them it is possible that the client feels more separated from these ideas in the present.

In deconstruction conversations it is important to note that therapists are not trying to impose their ideas or thoughts on the person, they are asking questions that they do not know the answers to, and they remain curious.


Discovering unique outcomes:

Listening for times when the problem has had less or no influence.


Narrative therapists are interested in bringing forth a  new or different story about people’s lives and relationships. The beginnings of these stories are times or events that do not fit with the dominant story. Is is assumed that a problem will never be 100 % successful in claiming a person’s  life. These times of difference are known as ‘unique outcomes’.

A unique outcome can be anything that the problem would not like, anything that does not ‘fit’ with the dominant story. They are events that would be difficult to achieve in the light of the problem. Many clients consider the act of making an appointment and coming to speak with a therapist about a problem as a significant unique outcome.

Unique outcomes can be doorways to alternative stories.






                                                                                                                              Dominant plot/story





Alternative plot/story





It is up to the person who is seeking counselling to determine whether something is or not is a unique outcome.


There are some back-up questions that a therapist may consider using.











                                                                                                                     Paul Berkers

                                                                                                         Holland / Nijmegen

                                                                                                         Friday, 22 October 2004