by Rachel Berko
The Therapist Seeing the Clients as the Experts
The research on narrative therapy, spearheaded by Michael White and David Epston, has struggled to find an approach that would relate to clients in a meaningful, positive way. The development of narrative therapy has moved away from advice giving, diagnosis and labeling, and away from the therapist being in the position of the expert. Narrative therapy aims to center people as the experts in their own lives (Morgan, 2000). While doing research for this paper and working in narrative therapy, I found this idea of centering clients as the experts in their lives and the therapist viewing the clients as the experts during the therapy sessions to be very important and powerful in my development as a counselor. Since the clients are the only ones who know about their lives and how they feel while experiencing something, it makes them the experts in the therapy session. The narrative approach is therefore about centering the clients as the experts in their own lives and, in turn, the therapist’s viewing the clients as the experts during the therapeutic conversation.
Narrative therapy aims to create a working environment where the clients know there is room for their experiences, knowledge, and skills in the therapy and that their presentation of self is given considerable weight in the conversation. Through seeing clients as experts in their own lives, the therapist tries to understand the problem based on the clients’ personal experiences and how clients view problems as affecting them. During the conversation, the therapist will hopefully use each client’s personal definitions of what the problem is and use this to move the conversation forward towards helping clients expand a vision of their dreams and hopes.
When working with clients, in order to give substance to their definition of the problems and their experiences with their problems, the therapist is collaborating and consulting with the clients to understand the problems based on the clients’ definitions. This collaborating and consulting process with clients gives the clients more authority and control of their lives and hopefully will move them towards a preferred way of looking at their situations.
When persons are established as consultants to themselves, to others and to the therapist, they experience themselves as more of an authority on their own lives, their problems, and the solution to these problems. This authority takes the form of a kind of knowledge and expertise… The gift of therapy is balanced by the gift of consultancy. We consider this reciprocity to be of vital importance in reducing the risk of indebtedness and replacing it by a sense of fair exchange (Epston and White, 1990, page 17).
The gift of consulting is such that it switches the classic feeling of inequality between the therapist and client to a more leveled therapy with fair exchange between the client and the therapist during the interactions. By the therapist encouraging clients to express their knowledge about themselves and skills they use in their lives to overcome problems, it gives the clients more authority in shaping their preferred future and is more lasting and efficient than the therapist’s imparting his/her own knowledge to clients.
In the collaborative process, the narrative therapist views clients as experts in their life stories and the therapist as the expert in questioning. The therapist is therefore asking interested questions using the narrative approach and is expected to guide the conversation along, while clients remain the experts regarding their experiences, knowledge and skills.
[The therapy process] assists me to be clear about what it is that I don’t know- what it is that I am seeking to find out in collaboration with the person who has come to therapy. It also evokes a sense of joint exploration (O’Neill, Russell, & Akinyela, et al. 2004).
With this collaborative stance of the therapist seeking out what it is he/she does not know, there is the hope that the therapist will see him/herself in a neutral stance in relation to clients, with the therapist and clients each having different roles in this joint exploration. Collaboration with the clients, with the therapist enabling clients to choose where the conversation will go, therefore gives clients more authority in shaping the therapy conversation and in turn more authority in their lives.
The Therapist as Non-assuming and not Knowing
Since the therapist views clients as the experts in their individual lives and the holders of knowledge in their life experiences, the therapist tries not to assume anything about clients when they begin therapy sessions for a particular problem or issue. In making efforts not to assume anything about the client, the therapist’s approach is called the position of “not knowing”. This means the therapist does not know anything about the clients when they come in for a problem or issue to be discussed. The therapist only knows about the clients and what they mean based solely on what the clients themselves are saying. There is a risk if the therapist works from a stance of being the knowing one:
As therapy becomes less accountable to the everyday developments in persons’ lives, and as it increasingly becomes a context for the reproduction of what is ‘known’ by therapists, it fails to provide opportunities for therapists to think outside of what they might otherwise have thought (White, 2000, page 201).
This position of “knowing” puts the therapist in a position of relying on his/her previous associations and fails to create a context of thinking outside of these known thoughts and associations. If the therapist has a non-assuming and not knowing approach, the therapist is trying to take a stance of not thinking of any associations relating to the reasons the clients are coming for therapy. The therapy thus revolves around the clients’ knowledge. This in turn creates more opportunities for the therapist to think outside of what he/she might know or assume.
This concept of not assuming and “not knowing” can be thought of with the metaphor of a filter in one’s head. Everyone has filters in their heads and this affects the way one may listen to another person. Just as a filter sifts out what goes through it, so too the human mind filters out thoughts. A great deal of what human beings take in and interpret is based on previous associations or assumptions that one has. The narrative therapist tries to alter his/her listening to this position of not knowing what is true or right about clients, turning off the ‘assuming’ filter in one’s head. The therapist tries to listen to what clients are saying and how the issue affects their individual lives and not assume anything based on the associations or judgments the therapist may have previously thought. Although there is no way the therapist can turn off or alter the filter completely, the key is to be aware of the filter and how this may affect listening in a conversation, and to try to alter it as much as possible in order to try not assuming anything about what clients are saying. By the therapist being aware of how the filter can affect a conversation, the therapist will hopefully be able to go along with clients’ associations and definitions of what they are saying and not what the therapist may be thinking (Frumin, C.R., & Friedman, G., 2009).
In addition to the therapist being aware of his/her filter and way of thinking, there are many other steps that the therapist can do in order to maintain the position of non-assuming and not knowing. These steps include making an effort to clarify details of what clients are talking about in order to understand the clients’ definitions of what is being said, constantly check in by asking the clients if they feel they are being understood correctly and if this is the direction the clients want to continue to pursue during the conversation, and finally, to re-tell what was heard in order to clarify what was said and not to assume the therapist understood everything. Everyone has different meanings and associations with words and ideas, so it is necessary for the therapist to clarify what something means to clients and where the ideas are coming from in order to get a fuller understanding of what is being said.
During the course of the conversation, the therapist will check with the clients and ask if they feel they are being understood. The therapist will also consult with the clients concerning whether the conversation is going in the direction in which the clients would like the conversation to go. By checking in about what is being said, and consulting about the direction of the conversation, this hopefully will avoid many assumptions and confusion during the work that will follow.
Many of these consultations are solicited in the course of the work itself. This is achieved by inviting these persons to reflect on the conversation and on the conduct of the therapist: ‘would you catch me up on how this conversation is going for you?’, ‘is it your sense we are talking about what is important for us to be talking about?’, or ‘is this conversation addressing your agenda for the meeting?’…. It is also a common narrative practice for therapists to consult persons about their experience of these conversations after the event (White, 2000, page 138-139).
There are questions asked in the middle of the conversation and also at the end of the conversation to check in and ask how the clients are doing and if this is what the clients want addressed. The therapist wants to obtain feedback from the clients in order to ascertain what the clients are thinking because the therapist cannot assume that he/she knows what each client’s state of mind is.
Another way to further avoid assumption is by the therapist’s retelling what he/she heard the clients say in order to make sure it was heard correctly. Since the therapist has his/her own previous associations and discourses from his/her own experiences, it is important for the therapist to retell what he/she heard to make sure the questioning and responses are not based on the previous associations or judgments the therapist may have had. There are therefore many important steps which the therapist can take during a conversation in order to try to avoid assumptions about what the clients are saying and maintain the not knowing position.
Another aspect of assuming in the therapy conversation is that, if assuming is occurring, it places the therapist in the position of one who holds higher knowledge and being more of the expert, and clients as the object of this higher knowledge. Assuming takes away from encouraging clients to share their expert knowledge of their own lives and places the therapist in a more powerful position, thus removing the aspect of collaboration between client and therapist (White 2000). Therefore, in order for clients to be in the position of expert and to share their knowledge about themselves and their experiences so that they in turn begin to feel empowered, it is important for the therapist to maintain the position of not assuming and not knowing; in other words, waiting for clients to say what is essential and important to them.
The Decentred Approach of the Therapist
The above ideas of seeing clients as the experts in their own lives and the therapist being in a non-assuming and not knowing position can be summarized by calling this the decentred approach of the therapist. Being ‘decentred’ as a therapist means one is putting clients at the center of therapy and hopefully avoiding being therapist centered, with the therapist’s expert knowledge being displayed at the center. By putting clients at the center, the therapist is viewing the clients as guiding the conversation to issues that the clients would like to focus on and with the therapist not having any preconceived notions about the clients (White, 2000). Morgan describes the approach created by Michael White of the therapist as ‘decentred and influential’.
The ‘decentred and influential position’ [is] one in which possibilities for collaborative conversations are supported. The therapist actively works to provide a context in which the knowledges and skills of the person who is at the centre of the conversations are more richly described, and their preferred storylines are thickened (Morgan, 2006).
The therapist tries to create a context in which the clients’ experiences are at the center of the therapy in order for the aspect of collaboration to be supported. However, the therapist also is influential since the therapist is the one asking the questions while at the same time consulting with the clients about which direction to take based on what the clients are saying. The questions are therefore solely in order for the clients to change their relationship to the problem.
These questions also have a particular purpose. I am not asking them for my own sake. Nor am I asking them to acquire knowledge for others (although the knowledge we discover might be shared). These questions are asked, to assist the person concerned to change their relationship with the problem or difficulties for which they are seeking therapy (O’Neill, Russell, & Akinyela, et al., 2004, page 30).
The outlook of the therapist is therefore decentred but influential. The therapist only asks questions to acquire knowledge in order to help the clients change their relationship to the problems or difficulties in their lives. Since the therapist is so influential in the therapy, it is important to remain decentred, with the outlook that these questions are for the clients’ sake to help move clients into a preferred way of living. By the therapist having a decentred approach, it helps to create an environment of newness and exploration to help clients begin to cope with working through a problem, hopefully using their life knowledge and skills in the process.