Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy strives to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counseling that centers clients as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from clients and assumes clients have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them in reducing the influence of problems in their lives. Rather than seeing themselves as experts who know what their clients need, narrative therapists try to maintain a stance of curiosity. Their expertise is in exploring the client’s frame of reference and identifying the perceptions that they can use to create a more satisfying life.

The conversations between a client and a narrative therapist are interactive and collaborative. The therapist strives to understand what is important to the client and how the therapeutic journey is suiting the client’s preferences. For example, a narrative therapist frequently asks questions like these:

  • How is this conversation going for you?
  • Should we keep talking about this or would you be more interested in [another identified topic]?
  • Is this what we should spend our time talking about, or is it more important to discuss [another identified topic]?

In this way, narrative conversations are guided and directed by the interests and priorities of the client.

Stories

Stories are central to narrative therapy—they help us make our daily experiences meaningful. We create stories about our lives by linking particular events together in a specific sequence across a particular time period and by finding a way to make sense of those events. This meaning forms the plot of the story. Throughout our lives, we constantly ascribe meanings to our experiences, and we write our stories (or “narratives”) by weaving those experiences together.

Multistoried Lives

“Multistoried” means that there are many stories taking place at the same time. For example, we create stories about our abilities, our struggles, our competencies, our actions, our desires, our relationships, our work, our interests, our conquests, our achievements, our failures, and ourselves.

I might have a story about myself in which I am successful and competent. Or I might have a story that tells a tail of being “a failure at trying new things” or “a coward” or as “lacking determination.” My family might have stories about itself as being “caring” or “noisy” or “dysfunctional” or “close.” All these stories likely are occurring at the same time; and as events occur, they will be interpreted according to the meaning (plot) that is dominant at that time.

We are constantly interpreting our experiences. Whether our stories are happy, sad, interesting, boring, uplifting, depressing, etc. is determined by how we have linked certain events together and by the meaning that we have ascribed to those events. Our stories actually shape reality in that they construct and constitute what we see, hear, feel, and do.

In narrative therapy, conversations are about re-authoring or re-storying client’s stories in such a way that strengths and successes are identified (what narrative therapy calls “sparkling moments”) and increasingly take on the lead roles. This is the re-authoring of an alternative story—a story that is an alternative to the often problem-saturated, dominant story.

This article is an adaptation of this article from the Dulwich Centre, which acts as a headquarters of sorts for research in and practice of narrative therapy.