Narrative Therapy

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“Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of life.” (Epston, D.,1995, Cowley & Springen, p. 74, as cited in Freedman, J. & Combs, G., 1996, p. 113) Without questioning, most people continue to “accept” and acquiesce to the life that is before them, despite deep dissatisfaction, incredulity and unhappiness, and even to the point of dysfunction sometimes. As such, we need to differentiate between “resignation to” and “true acceptance” of a life that must be lived anyway. The Chinese commonly utter, “Whether one laughs or cries, one still has to pass through this life; better then to laugh through it.” But to be able to accept and laugh, we need first to have a reason, or a perspective – a way of seeing, believing and knowing - that will enable us to do so. We need to have a different version, a different story - one that is no less true than the one we have always accepted and taken for granted as the only possible story, the story that is “problem-saturated”. To the extent that questions are creatively asked, to that extent are new stories and more satisfying outcomes created. And so, “we ask questions to generate experience rather than to gather information. When they generate experience of preferred realities, questions can be therapeutic in and of themselves” (Selvini Palazzoli et al., 1980, as cited in Freedman & Combs, 1996, p. 113). Counselors ask questions to rouse the stored-away memories of their clients, to bestir the dormant layers of side-stories that have been tucked away because they did not fit into the social, religious and familial landscapes – either tacitly or overtly. “We knew that by asking questions we could help people access and relive “resourceful” experiences.” (Freedman & Combs, 1996, p. 116). It is these backgrounded stories which need to be recalled to allow for different and better versions of life to emerge, which until now has not lisped a single syllable. Thus, when counselors ask questions, they do not do so merely believing that their clients will recall experiences with their old, attendant and unuseful meanings. Rather they do so with the clear intention to recruit a co-author to script new stories. Questions are asked to which the answers necessarily lie on the plane of useful, empowering, favorable and satisfying outcomes. It must be said though that while there are categories to these questions, there are no fixed sets of question templates, simply because clients come with unique personalities, history and a myriad of idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the questions asked develop serendipitously sometimes as a consequence of the client’s manner of delivery as well as the content of their answers. Counselors use “a technique we call analytic bracketing to allow us to focus on one aspect of narrative practice while temporarily suspending analytic interest in the others” (Gubrium & Holstein, 1997, as cited in Gubrium, J.F. & Holstein, J.A.,1998) where the counselor pays attention to the “how” and “what” of the client’s stories separately, foregrounding one and backgrounding the other at different points in the session, in order to draw out patterns of meaning. Creative, vigilant and incisive listening and questioning is at the heart of narrative therapy. Clients come with their stories suffused with problems. Not uncommonly, their outlook is pervaded with an almost permanent sense of hopelessness, entrapment and unhappiness from which they can’t seem to burrow their way out. Oftentimes, their stories have been percolating within them from their earliest years, with incremental beans of familial vignettes thickening the story threads through the years. This inevitably gives birth to their “problem-saturated stories” today. Their problems and they are fused together as one. Michael White and David Epston talks about “externalizing the problem” and “separating their lives from the problems” in their book “Narrative Means to Therapeutic...
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