The One Minute Question: What is Narrative Therapy?

Erik Sween proposes seven "one minute" explanations that seek to elucidate the purpose, foundations, and the basic theoretical assumptions and constructs that underly narrative therapy.


The One Minute Question: What is narrative therapy?
Some working answers by Erik Sween

It is a familiar scenario from almost every public presentation. A well meaning person asks, "What is narrative therapy?" and then glances at her/his watch to indicate s/he only has time for a short answer. It is a dilemma I think every narrative therapist has faced.

There is no answer to the one minute question but I like the challenge. Can I explain what I do in public language? Can I use words that can be understood by non-experts? I feel these ideas have something valuable to offer people who are unfamiliar with the workings of narratives in all of our lives. So, here are my best attempts at responding to the one minute question. Each response is intended to stand on its own. Multiple answers are provided for different days of the week or for different audiences--whichever proves more useful. Order is arbitrary and not meant to signify importance.

1) If narrative therapy had one slogan it would be: "The person is never the problem, the problem is the problem." This phrase captures the importance attached to who a person is regardless of his or her circumstances. Narrative therapy involves exploring the shaping moments of a person's life, the turning points, the key relationships, and those particular memories not dimmed by time. Focus is drawn to the intentions, dreams, and values that have guided a person's life despite the set backs. Often times, the process brings back stories that have been overlooked--surprising stories that speak of forgotten competence and heroism.

2) Every type of psychotherapy designates a different aspect of life as the basic unit of experience. For example, behavioral therapy focuses on behavior, cognitive therapy focuses on accurate thinking, while systems therapy focuses on family interaction as the basic unit. In this way, narrative therapy holds up the story as the basic unit of experience. Stories guide how people act, think, feel, and make sense of new experience. Stories organize the information from a person's life. Narrative therapy focuses on how these important stories can get written and rewritten.

3) Narrative therapy proposes that people use certain stories about themselves like the lens on a camera. These stories have the effect of filtering a person's experience and thereby selecting what information gets focused in or focused out. These stories shape people's perspectives of their life, history, and future. Despite information to the contrary, these stories of identity can be remarkably stable. Narrative therapy provides a means to refocus the lens on this camera and help reshape a person's stories and life.

4) As people, we are inescapably meaning makers. We have an experience and then attach meaning to it. Since time immemorial, and the days around the campfire, we have been telling stories. Stories are our most familiar means of communicating the meaning we find in our experiences. Narrative therapy is interested in the stories we live by--those stories we carry with us about who we are and what is most important. Narrative therapy involves unearthing these stories, understanding them, and re-telling them.

5) Many forms of psychology and therapy place enormous emphasis on the process of individuation. In this way, the individual is believed to construct his or her internal world almost single handedly. Narrative therapy provides a contrast to this perspective. Narrative therapy proposes that identity is co-created in relationship with other people as well as one's history and culture. Thus, being seen by others in a certain way can contribute as much as seeing oneself in a certain way. We come to see ourselves by looking in the mirrors that other people hold up for us. In this way, a person's identity is said to be socially constructed. Narrative therapy focuses on the degree to which that socially constructed identity fits for that person.

6) Narrative therapy consists of understanding the stories or themes that have shaped a person's life. Out of all the experiences a person has lived, what has held the most meaning? What choices, intentions, relationships have been most important? Narrative therapy proposes that only those experiences which are part of a larger story will have significant impact on a person's lived experience. Therefore, narrative therapy focuses on building the plot which connects a person's life together.

7) A person's life is criss-crossed by invisible story lines. These unseen story lines can have enormous power in shaping a person's life. Narrative therapy involves the process of drawing out and amplifying these story lines. Questions are used to focus on what has been most meaningful in a person's life. Common areas of inquiry include intentions, influential relationships, turning points, treasured memories, and how these areas connect with each other.

8)...

Obviously, this list could keep going. But these are my current working answers. The last number is left blank to indicate a "work in progress" as well as the multiplicity of possible answers. While I am not searching for a definitive answer or one that will appeal to everyone, the question keeps alert. It keeps me trying to articulate these ideas without using jargon and to communicate with people outside of the narrative therapy community. It also reminds me of the words of my dissertation adviser from long ago, "If you can't explain the idea in three sentences to your Grandmother, the idea is not clear enough in your own mind."

© Erik Sween 1999. All rights reserved.
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