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How Values and Experiences Appear in Narrative Therapy

I have often used the metaphor of a compass to describe the values and experiences that people hold and use to direct their lives (Stillman, 2010). I like it because a compass is an object that shows direction, and the person has the choice to follow it or not.

Some can be deliberate and chart out a course ahead of time, centering the compass in their journey. Others can carry it in their possession and can choose to use it when they become lost or when they come up against obstacles to their path and need to find a different way to go.

Also, some people are very familiar with their compass. This can be based on having had a fairly easy hike without much challenge, allowing them to go in somewhat the same direction.

This path and the compass don’t require much attention, and they get comfortable with their journey.

Others, in contrast, have had a much harder trek, and have had to examine their compass on a regular basis, sometimes relying on it, even when the experience of their journey has been so challenging that is hard to see the path before them.

Some of these people have had to make decisions on taking a harder path because of their belief in their compass.

I could go on, but as you can see, the metaphor of a compass is full of ideas for how people travel through their lives.

It is a useful metaphor for me when meeting with people since it allows me to ask questions about their compass or in other words, the values and experiences that guide their lives.

When I ask people about values I get a wide array of answers.

As with the metaphor, some are very familiar with discussing values, and they have talked often about the experiences that have shaped their lives.

Others are not as familiar or as comfortable discussing values and experiences. This may be because they just haven’t had the opportunity before or it may be because they have been so busy facing challenges that they haven’t had the time to step back and assess.

It’s not that these people don’t have values, it’s just that they have been so busy using them that they don’t have time to think about them.

One of the things I do know when someone walks in the room is that they continue to hold on to their values and influential experiences (their compass) in spite of the problems they currently face. And I appreciate a line of questioning that can discover this fact.

I readily appreciate hearing a person’s struggles and am careful to be too quick to ask about their response or resistance to these struggles. I find it disrespectful to not appreciate the pain the problems cause people.

But I also know that people are not passive in their response to problems.

I learned this phrase from Michael White, one of the founders of narrative therapy.

While a person discusses problems, I also listen for their resistance. In narrative language, this is called “double listening”.

When I meet with a person to discuss a problem, I know that, just by their ability to talk to me, that the problem has not completely overtaken them.

My line of questioning can start by an appreciation of the effects of the problem and then I can start asking about resistance.

It may go something like this:

“You have told me about the overwhelming effects of the problem in your life, and I can see that. You also mentioned that you don’t want it to be this way. How have you not allowed the problem to take over 100% of your life? What values do you hold, what is important to you that helps you stand against the powerful effects of this problem? What life experiences have you had that give you a sense there can be something different?”

I realize that I wouldn’t ask all of these questions back to back, and the person’s response to one may take the conversation in a different direction.

But the idea and hope are that while appreciating people’s struggles, we also allow space for them to discuss resistance and resilience. And it is often their compass (the values and experiences) that help them to keep direction when facing obstacles.

I find it remarkable how people face the challenges of life and I appreciate giving them a space to articulate both how they do this and the basis for these actions.

Intentionality is a narrative principle, and it suggests the importance of articulating these values and experiences so that they can be used to face current and future challenges.

If these values and experiences (a person’s compass) are made more visible, they can be a helpful guide in the present and will be readily available to the person when facing future dilemmas. People can then take their lives back from the problems they face and live according to what they value.

Want to learn more about Narrative Therapy? Sign up for the upcoming Narrative Therapy Level 1 Certification course!

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