Narrative Therapy

I have been swapping occasional emails with Doug since a chance meeting on a train a couple of years ago.  His career was in social work and included studies in systemic therapy.  We somehow discovered our overlapping interests and were quickly immersed in animated conversation.  

He introduced me to the concept of ‘narrative therapy’ which draws on the power of storytelling and has found some application in small organisational settings.

Rewriting habitual stories

The power comes from making a story explicit, allowing it to be examined and possibly rewritten.  When the hidden patterns are exposed, change can emerge more naturally and organically, so it is more resilient and enduring.

He mentions David Barry who writes about ‘”de-victimizing” methods from psychological therapy (Barry, 1997) which, he feels, might help organisations, including: “influence mapping, problem externalization, identifying unique outcomes and story audiencing”.  The terms are explained more fully in the Appendix below.  These techniques are used to create a believable model of the situation for the people involved, enabling them to disentangle themselves and discover fresh perspectives. 

For example, in an organisational drama, two main characters were identified, ‘Overwork’ and ‘Administrative Angst’.  Barry asked the managers to consider:  “What have the careers of these characters been?”  “How did they both get such high-paying jobs?”  “How will you guarantee their survival?”  “What must you do to make sure they continue to prosper?”

Dialogue was imagined.  Emerging metaphors were depicted literally, in sketches.  Another character, ‘Natural Skills and Talents’ was introduced and the story unfolded further.  Where the images were accurate enough to resonate with the managers, effective ideas for improvement were evoked naturally, inside the team and without ‘expert’ input. 

This sounds like a charming approach to facilitating change.  Coming from a systemic paradigm, I like it! J  The therapeutic origin adds to its attractiveness – more humane, organic, less mechanistic.  But it still doesn’t address the challenge of sustaining the change through a transfer of leadership.  It did make me think, however, about the nature of leadership transition in families. 

Perhaps we should reframe our inquiry.  Rather than focusing on the sustainability of change, we should ask how organisations manage the disruption created by new leaders.  

Doug’s parting thoughts

Taken from our correspondence

Doug: Regarding your fears about change being lost, I can’t help thinking about Donald Trump, and all the liberals being worried about hard won changes about climate change and health care being lost.

It’s scary.

But on the other hand, Trump is standing up to China, who has been bullying her neighbours for decades, and binning the absurd notion that the USA has to rule the world.  He is giving Putin some respect whereas Obama never got over being threatened by him.  He also doesn’t give a damn about tradition.

You can’t stop change, sometimes you just have to pray!

Personal experience of change

I have one other comment, which if anything is in some way a response to your remark about how you can achieve transformation in an organisation and then some college educated geek comes along as manager and totally fails to notice the new paradigm and all is lost.

Doug drumming at his son’s wedding

Many years ago, for six years, I managed a residential home for a group of adults with severe learning disabilities and challenging behaviour.  I had about 30 staff.

I had all sorts of positive input from psychology and we set up some great programmes and did some great work.

However, after a while, one of my staff who was not afraid of speaking his mind told me that I was not hearing the things he was saying.  I was listening but not really getting it.

I thought OK, (didn’t want to do it) but instead of basing myself in the office five days a week, I worked one shift a week on the shop floor.  That solved the problem. Previously I had been putting staff comments into a framework based on how things looked from the office.  The fact that it was a small building and I had loads of contact with staff and residents made no difference.  I didn’t get the staff’s experience until I walked the walk, even though I had spent years walking the walk before I got enough promotion to run my own home.

So what I think I am getting at is that the transformational therapeutic process somehow has to be continuous, built in for maximal results.

Why the boy in the red hat? 

When I was fourteen my parents gave me a framed reproduction of a different Picasso painting of a harlequin.  It has been on my wall almost ever since.  About ten years ago I realised Picasso painted a whole series of such pictures during his so-called ‘blue period’ and for some reason I like them.  I am especially fond of those painters of that period, like Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas who painted the showbiz world.  Perhaps clowns who dress up, wear their hearts on their sleeve.  I love it!

Detail from copy of Acrobat and Harlequin by Picasso (1905)

Appendix – De-victimization

Extracts from David Barry’s paper

David Barry

University of Auckland, Management and Employment Relations Department, Auckland, New Zealand

Over the last few decades, narrative has become an increasingly popular and accepted lens in organizational studies.

The narrative therapy tradition is intensely concerned with facilitating change. This work reflects both an aversion to expert-imposed solutions and a fascination with clients’ ways of knowing.

Instead of “making the problem the problem”, persons experiencing problems are problematized. Once in this position, a sense of helplessness and loss of personal agency can arise, making self-initiated change quite difficult. Categories and interpretations are tied to social “webs of significance”, webs which keep some in power and others disempowered, some as confident spiders and others as silk-wrapped flies.

From these assumptions, a number of unique and frequently effective “devictimizing” methods have been developed.

Influence mapping

Problems in families usually occur within the context of a trend in which the problem has become more “influential” over time. These trends are usually imperceptible – the outcome of the phenomenon of accommodation…. The therapist locates the problem within the context of a trend and renders this trend “newsworthy” by encouraging family members to draw distinctions between the “state of affairs” at one point in time and the “state of affairs” at another point in time. Two forms of influence mapping are suggested: mapping the influence of the problem on persons and mapping the influence of persons on the problem. 

Problem externalization

As long as those who tell their own story characterize themselves as the problem, they have little room to manoeuvre – wherever they go, the problem goes too, preventing other views from arising. Narrative therapists assume that reflecting back a client’s story, [in words, pictures or feelings], involves active interpretation. The act is construed as one of recomposition, one which resembles the original but also decentres it from the teller.

Identifying unique outcomes

Finding unique, positive outcomes in the client’s experience is a unique practice – comparatively, many contemporary change models rely on the creation of an imagined, not-yet-experienced future, one which is “visioned” in some way. The problem with such models is that fantasized futures can be easily discounted – as fantasy, they lack a certain credibility. In comparison, the unique outcome approach provides storytellers with historical, unassailably concrete evidence that things can be different.


Consonant with the dramaturgical idea that social reality is constructed through a community of players and witnesses to the play, narrative therapists stress the concepts of performance and audiencing. An essential part of constructive audiencing is acknowledging and encouraging a storyteller’s efforts. Thus, the narrative therapist acts as an enthusiastic audience, applauding client efforts to author and enact a preferred story.


Barry, D., 1997. Telling changes: From narrative family therapy to organizational change and development. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 10(1), pp.30-46.

Gomez, Christian Duran.  Detail from copy of Acrobat and Harlequin by Picasso (1905) (accessed 08/03/2017)

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