Theoretical Principles of Narrative Therapy
A narrative approach to counselling examines the stories people have constructed to define their lives and identities. Using narrative techniques, the counsellor assists the client in modifying narratives (stories) that are unhelpful or ineffective. If, for example, I have a dominant narrative that says that I am simply no good at cooking, it is likely that I have had many experiences over the course of my life to create and reinforce this narrative.
- I may have judged my cooking negatively by my own standards,
- I may have achieved poor grades in high school cookery,
- I may have had friends avoid eating meals I prepared and so on.
As my story (or plot) of cookery incompetence thickens over the course of my life, it becomes less and less likely that I will find evidence to discount this story. If I manage a successful dinner dish, it is likely I will consider it luck or a once off. It is unlikely to alter my dominant narrative. Yet incidences that support the narrative (like burning toast or having a cake flop) will be remembered and selected to thicken the plot and reinforce the dominant narrative of my cookery incompetence.
If my (perceived) limited cooking ability was a concern for me, it would be the role of my narrative counsellor to help me identify an alternative story and assist in thickening the plot of the new story by:
- searching for alternative explanations (e.g. the eggs that I put in the cake were bad – that’s why it flopped),
- searching for unique outcomes (e.g. remember the time I made a fabulous beef pie),
- encouraging me to envisage a future in which I am a competent cook,
- finding ways to create an audience who will perceive and support the new, alternative narrative (eg. telling people of my cookery success stories; inviting brave friends for a home-cooked breakfast)
By creating an alternative story of cookery competence, I am opening my life to the possibility of alternative ways of behaving and potentially re-shaping my entire identity. A number of guiding assumptions underlies narrative practice. These assumptions are listed below and provide an important overview for the study of narrative concepts.
Assumptions that underlie narrative ways of working:
- The problem is the problem (the person is not the problem).
- People have expertise on their own lives.
- People can become the primary authors of the stories of their own lives.
- By the time a person consults a professional, they will have already made many attempts to reduce the influence of the problem in their lives and relationships.
- Problems are constructed in cultural contexts. These contexts include power relations of race, class, sexual orientation, gender and disadvantage.
- The problems for which people seek consultation usually cause them to reach thin conclusions about their lives and relationships. Often these conclusions have encouraged them to consider themselves as deficient in some way and this makes it difficult for them to access their knowledge, competencies, skills and abilities.
- These skills, competencies and knowledge can be made available to them to assist with reclaiming their lives from the influence of the problem for which they seek help.
- There are always occasions in people’s life upon which they have escaped a problem’s influence. Problems never successfully claim 100% of people’s lives or relationships.
- Ensuring an atmosphere of curiosity, respect and transparency is the responsibility of the professional.