What Aesop’s fable tells us about “Narrative Therapy” And Re-Authoring Conversations
The more each of us learns how to truly hear what others say, the more skilled we become as mediators. One theory of psychotherapy that is uniquely relevant to mediation is identified as “Narrative Therapy” by Stephen Madigan (2010).
The text commences by telling us of an Aesop fable of the sun and wind having a contest to decide who was the most powerful. From above the earth, they spotted a man walking down the street, and the wind said that he bet he could get the man’s coat off. They agreed to the contest. The wind blew and the man held on tightly to his coat. The more the wind blew, the tighter he held. The sun said it was his turn. He put all of his energy into creating warm sunshine, and soon the man took off his coat.
Narrative therapy has an unswerving commitment to a relational/contextual/anti-individualist therapeutic view of people and relationships.
The primary question Madigan raises is based on a rather simple question: Who has the storytelling rights to the story being told?
Re-authoring conversations is a technique by which people connect an event to a timeline – events which they normally ignore – with unique outcomes and unique accounts. Researchers find parallels between the skills of re-authoring conversations and the skills required to produce texts of literary merit. Among other things, texts of literary merit encourage (in the reader) a dramatic reengagement with many of their own experiences of life. It is within this dramatic reengagement that the gaps in the story line are filled, and the person lives the story by taking it over as his or her own.
It has been suggested there are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, and that each provides unique ways of ordering experience and constructing reality. It is believed by some that a good story and a well-formed argument were different natural kinds and that each could be used as a means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: Arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical truth, and the other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.
Narrative therapy places the site of the problem within the relational action of person/culture/discourse/power and, as a result, not inside the person’s body. A narrative approach to problems is isomorphic to the golden rule of real estate buying: location, location, location! When narrative therapists take the poststructural step not to privatize problems inside a person’s body, the person, problem and therapeutic resolutions begin to look relationally quite different. Epston and White’s separating the person from the problem is by no means a trivial step, as it paradigmatically shifts the therapist and client outside the realm of 150 years of psychological “science”. Much in mental health study is from an individualizing perspective – a perspective that situates the site of the self and the problem inside the body of the person.
Since the 17th century, science has owned the study of the body. The helping professions (social work, family therapy, psychology) have welded themselves onto this scientific project and appropriated their slice of its proprietorship. For these disciplines of (pseudo) science to obtain “title” to the body has required that the body’s meaning be rendered utterly transparent and accessible to the qualified specialist (assisted by the proper methodology and technology) and adequately opaque to the client and his or her community of supporting others.
From a narrative therapy standpoint, the concept of identity is cultural, discursive, multisited, multistoried, contextual, and relational. Narrative therapy considers identity not as “one’s own”, as characterized by the Enlightenment’s creation and production of the self-contained individual and its search for a single unifying fundamental governing principle. The alternative view that narrative practice supports is that any identify will build on its relations to other identities so that nothing can be itself without taking into consideration the kinds of relationship by which the “selfsameness” is constituted.
“Re-authoring conversations is a key feature of the practice of narrative therapy. Re-authoring conversations invites clients to help flush out some of the more neglected areas and events of their lives (often covered over by the problem story being told. These may include achievements under duress; survival skills growing up; and personal qualities left out of their story, such as generosity, ethical stances, and kindness. These are very often stories that could not have been predicted through a telling of the dominant story. These untold stories can easily be sadly neglected in the telling of the problem story by both the client and the professionals involved with the client’s story.”
“Narrative therapists ask questions as a way to expand on the alternatives or subordinate story by trafficking in the landscape of action and the landscape of identity. Action questions center on events that happened in a person’s telling of their life and links these events through time, forming a plot line. Identity questions are those that are asked regarding what the client might conclude about the action, sequences and themes described in response to the action questions. Taken together, the questions in both areas assist in re-authoring client lives and relationships by listening in to find the sparkling undergrowth and unique outcomes through the client’s understanding of events.”
“Re-authoring conversations act to reinvigorate a client’s sense and meaning of the story (of the mind) by highlighting the gaps and refined understandings of this information. The newly recollected information results in a change within the problem-saturated story being told. Questions continue to unearth an archive of relevant and preferred local information about the client’s abilities, hopes, dreams, and commitments. The conversation shifts from one of a bored and over told rendition of the story towards a fresh and vibrant retelling – complete with stories of competencies, agency and knowledge.”
That’s a lot to take in. Certainly, we mediators are not therapists or counselors (unless of course we have had that training). But we are constantly intrigued by what influences people and the decisions they make. Much has to do with the vision they have of themselves. Often we talk in terms of “re-shaping” or “re-forming” the discussion. It is hoped that the above excerpts or summary provide a spark within the mediator as to how they talk to the mediation participants and assist them in identifying “gaps” and “unearth” information about themselves that allows their hopes and dreams as they work to Getting To Yes!