Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Witnessing and Positioning: Structuring Narrative Therapy with Families and Couples

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Witnessing and Positioning: Structuring Narrative Therapy with Families and Couples

Article excerpt


The narrative metaphor suggests that people make sense of their lives through stories (Brown & Augusta-Scott, 2007; Duvall & Beres, 2011; Freedman & Combs, 1996; Madigan, 2011; White & Epston, 1990; White, 2007; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1994). Although each of us has a huge number of experiences, only a few of these become the stories that shape us and through which we shape our lives. Some of these stories are about individual people and others are about family and relationships. When couples or families come to therapy each person may have different stories that are prominent for them and that they think are most relevant; there may be some shared stories that different family members tell; and there may be similar stories that different family members tell but that they have made different meaning of, perhaps emphasizing different aspects of the same event or maybe understanding the same event in different ways.

Narrative therapists focus on rich stor y development-the telling and retelling of preferred stories. Rather than a single-storied life we are interested in helping people develop multiple stories. Our focus is not on solving or eliminating problem stories. We are interested in multiple stories contributing to people's experience. Often when a problem stor y becomes a single strand of a multi- storied life, the problem looks quite different or becomes less significant and people have different options about how they relate to it.

Additionally, we think of our identities as both storied and relational (Combs & Freedman, 1999; Freedman & Combs, 2004; Hedtke & Winslade, 2004; White, 1989; White, 2007). We make ourselves up as we go along in relation to each other. So not only are the stories we tell ourselves impor tant, but the stories we tell others about ourselves and our lives, and the stories others hear us tell, and the stories that they tell about us, are impor tant because they shape our identities.

We think of family therapy as a context where we can deconstruct problematic stories, tell and retell preferred stories, and witness family stories and stories of other family members.

This process is not quite as simple as it sounds. One complication is that people often orient to therapy not as a place to tell and retell stories, but as a place in which a "neutral" third par ty will weigh in on different versions of a problem or advise people in terms of solutions or evaluate the situation to determine the "real problem" or ask questions to connect the problem with family histor y or teach communication skills.

We are up to something quite different.

A wiTnessing sTRUCTURe

In order to accomplish the telling, retelling, and witnessing of stories, it is very useful to set up a structure. We can call this a witnessing structure (Freedman & Combs, 2004, 2008). As one family member tells a story we ask the others to be in a reflecting or witnessing position to hear and understand the stor y as it is told by the first family member. We then ask those who have been acting as witnesses to contribute to the telling and meaning making of the story. We think of their contribution as a retelling that thickens and adds richness to the stor y. The original speaker becomes a witness to the retelling of the story that he or she has told. We may then ask questions to invite the family member who spoke originally to engage in a retelling of the retelling. Through this process family members gain understanding of each other's stories and engage in developing and thickening preferred stories.

iniTiATing And/OR negOTiATing A wiTnessing sTRUCTURe

We can initiate this structure informally by beginning to engage in it or we can explicitly describe it and ask family members to join in. We usually begin informally with the therapist simply talking directly to one person and respectfully referring to the others in the third person. It is impor tant to watch other family members to make sure that they are engaging in the process. …

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