Narrative Therapy – A contrast of conversations
Have you have ever walked into a room and felt that people weren’t listening, that they already had their minds made up and you were there to fit into their way of doing things. Wouldn’t you rather walk into that same room and greet people who show an interest in getting to know you? I mean, they really listen and pay attention to the words you say and what they mean to you and not what they mean to them?
This is what the narrative experience is like.
Imagine, instead, meeting someone who is completely engrossed in what you have to say. Someone skilled at asking questions that help you develop it further. During this experience, you don’t feel like they are trying to change you or determine if you are right or wrong. They are helping you develop an understanding about yourself, about your relationships, about the world more generally.
Sure, they may add thoughts of their own. And honestly, that would be welcomed so you didn’t feel like you had to figure it all out by yourself. But the difference is that they always come back to you and ask you if you agree with what they are suggesting. They ask you “why?”. They keep you centered in the conversation (a fancy narrative term for ‘it’s all about you’) so that you are making the decisions for your own life.
What does this conversation sound like to you? How would it make you feel?
Let’s take this a step further and put you in the shoes of someone walking into their first therapy appointment.
You are coming in to talk about something you are worried about. You might even consider yourself prone to worry and even call it anxiety since that is the general term for it. This worry could be a collection of things. The point is, they’re keeping you distracted from what you want to be doing and causing a physical disturbance as well. Maybe you feel it in your gut or in your heart or maybe your throat. If it comes in the form of pressure, you might experience as tightness or pressure on your shoulders or back. The body informs you as much as your head – and darn it, you know something isn’t right.
You have reached out to family and friends to talk to and they have been incredibly supportive. Maybe they’ve even shared different perspectives and wonderful ideas. Maybe you’ve talked with your doctor and there is nothing physically going on that would explain what you are experiencing. Unfortunately, that feeling is still not going away.
When you finally walk into the office, you are greeted with a friendly smile and not knowing what to expect, you sit down to start the meeting. The therapist offers different ways to start the meeting. They say that you could start by talking about the worry or you could start by talking about times when the worry has less influence. The therapist prefers the second, as it would give them a chance to get to know you “outside of the problem”.
This all sounds a bit different and strange, but you say that you are up for trying the second approach.
The therapist starts by asking you for a time when the worry has less effect. Initially, it feels that worry is always there, but then you remember that on your recent vacation, you didn’t experience it as much. The therapist showed interest in this and started recording your words on a white board. This was different but cool. And you could tell they were paying attention.
They asked for details about the experience of “less worry” as you called it. You started talking about what you were able to do and think about with it less present. You spoke about the effects of this on your relationships. You identified the shift it had in your body and what you felt in its place. All this time, the therapist was referring to the white board filled with your words, asking about how they related to one another.
You felt incredibly present and in your body in that moment, which is strange because just 20 min before, you felt out of touch with your body and consumed with worry.
As the conversation continues, you started to sit more in the place of “less worry” and appreciate it more. The therapist said this was helpful as they could sit with you now in this position of “less worry”.
The conversation then opened up in significance in ways that you hadn’t expected. You start talking about big things, like values and meaning. You start to talk about how “less worry” allowed you to act in ways that were in support of these values. The therapist also asked you about the past and other times of “less worry”. You hadn’t thought of these times since worry has been so dominant and it consumed your memories of the past.
You could tell the therapist was careful here, making a point of saying that worry could come in at any time and cloud the conversation. When it did, the therapist gently pushed it aside and asked about “less worry” again.
The therapist said that they were initially avoiding the problem as they respected its influence and they wanted an opportunity to carve out space for the “less worry”. They said that this conversation allowed you to place “less worry” at that center of your work together, the way you want to live your life more often.
You barely spoke of the worry itself in that initial meeting, making references to it, but mostly from the lens of “less worry”.
In all likelihood, you feel great about the first meeting. Mainly because the therapist really paid attention and listened. Also because the meeting provided you with a different experience than you had expected. You left feeling more connected to your body, and more centered in all that has been and could be possible with “less worry”.
Can you imagine how powerful that experience could be?
Hopefully, this gives you a sense of a possible initial narrative meeting. While a therapist was referenced throughout, these conversations are by no means limited to that type of relationship- they can take many shapes and forms.
If you’d like to practice this technique for yourself and integrate it into your conversations, CLICK HERE to download my free Martian Exercise.
This free exercise will help you put these principles into practice and will help you take the first step in implementing Narrative Therapy in your life.