Narrative Therapy in Practice

The Narrative Therapy Initiative is hosting two separate trainings next weekend in Beverly. On Thursday, 4/25, Suzanne Gazzolo, PhD, and Matt Mooney, LICSW will give you a taste of the process and power of narrative therapy in their 6 hour workshop "What is Narrative Therapy?". On Friday and Saturday, 4/26 and 4/27, Suzanne and Matt will offer an intensive, skill-based training, "Narrative Therapy in Practice". For more information on these conferences, including cost and location, please check out the Narrative Therapy Initiative website.

NEAFAST had the honor of interviewing Suzanne and Matt about their experiences with narrative therapy.

NEAFAST: How did you become introduced to narrative therapy?

Suzanne: My first home as a new therapist over 20 yrs ago was in relational and feminist therapies; these connected to my personal experiences in the world and my own cares about mothering three daughters. We moved quite a bit, and each time I would have a period of waiting to get a new state license to practice. When we moved to Illinois in 2005, I used the waiting time to take different therapy courses. One of these was what they called a “teleclass” from the Psychotherapy Networker - Michael White was the presenter.

It was just a taste of narrative ideas, but so compelling in the respect and relational care for others I heard reflected by Michael White. I immediately began to look up more narrative trainings and to my delight and amazement, Jill Freedman and Gene Combs were 10 minutes away offering lots of different workshops and trainings. That was the beginning of my relationship with narrative ideas and connecting with a vibrant and committed community of people, including my friend and collaborator Matt, who shared this interest.

Matt: For the first couple years out of graduate school, I understood there to be one way of being a professional therapist that I was consistently failing to achieve. Then, a supervisor of mine in an in-home therapy job in Cambridge, MA began relating to me as if I had skills and values that informed my respectful and helpful actions with young people and their families. Her support through questions and insistence that I mattered supported me in starting to understand myself in ways other than as a failure. I learned that she was a narrative therapist, so that prompted me to attend an introductory to narrative therapy training to see if I could get clearer on what she was doing to make me feel better.

Not only did what I hear at the training make sense to me, the ideas and practices felt legitimizing of the types of respectful relationships that I was working to build with young people and their families. Just like Suzanne, I went home and researched more extensive narrative training and found Jill Freedman and Gene Combs’ yearlong narrative training program at their training center in Evanston, IL. That’s where I met Suzanne! We’ve been meeting multiple times a year as part of the same committed cohort of narrative therapists from around the country for almost 10 years!  

NEAFAST: There are two presentations you're doing. On Thursday, you're doing an introductory presentation "What is Narrative Therapy?". What paradigm shift do you find therapists wrestling with the most as they encounter the Narrative Worldview?

Matt and Suzanne: There are a few that come to mind - but we think maybe a major shift for many is how we understand and situate problems.

Many traditional therapies locate problems in people; narrative therapists think about problems residing in people’s relationship with dominant or normative discourses. There are so many invitations and demands to pathologize the people or families who come to us, it can be difficult to stay connected to the view that “People are not Problems, Problems are Problems." 

The other, associated shift is in how we think about identity – we think about people being multi-storied and that identities are constructed in relationship and fluid. We do not believe that there is an innate or essential self.

NEAFAST: On Friday and Saturday, you're doing a more intensive training called "Narrative Therapy in Practice." What experiential and self-reflection exercises can participants expect as they learn to improve their skills in deconstructing dominant discourses and separating lives from problems?

Matt and Suzanne: Michael White used the metaphor of maps to describe the questions and practices that support deconstruction and re-authoring.  In fact, he authored a book, “Maps of Narrative Practice.” One of the most practical and useful exercises to us is the Statement of Position Map, a sort of guide for deconstruction - we will share this with participants and give them an opportunity to practice. We plan to have multiple experiential learning exercises both days.

NEAFAST: Suzanne--on your website, you describe your interest in encouraging "relational ethics that take into account operations of power and privilege". What are a few qualities of these relational ethics, and how do you use narrative therapy to identify and practice these relational dynamics?

Suzanne: So much of what I’ve learned about this work has been from people who consult with me. The first place I see relational ethics show up is in not assuming or expecting people to share their stories– therapy is a relational project, and we co-create the conversations we choose to have.  If I’m thinking about power, I’m thinking about professional discourses that create the expectation that people should share the most intimate details of their lives so that an expert can interpret and evaluate them.  

Narrative Therapy has taught me how to ask questions that make discourses and modern power more visible and to understand that we, including me, are never standing outside of discourses. I have an ongoing commitment to examine the assumptions that can show up in my work with people and to ask how the intersections of my own positions of privilege might be affecting them.  

Relational ethics require accountability practices - practices that support those in more privileged positions to be accountable to those in more marginalized positions. Some of the practices I engage in are asking about the effects of my questions, words, and actions - frequently checking and asking if we are talking about what people want to be talking about and privileging the language and knowledges of the people who consult me as experts of their own lives.

And I remind myself, this whole narrative enterprise is also a construction, and I believe conceived to continue evolving.  If we aren’t careful and fall in to rigidifying this framework, it could reproduce some of the very tactics of normative power we are trying to challenge.  A colleague of ours, Amy DiGennaro, uses the phrase “soft structures” which I find useful and allows for thinking about the framework as flexible.    
NEAFAST: Matt--what are ways that you incorporate narrative therapy into your professional work?

Matt: The majority of my work is with young people and their families, so I have become very interested in the ways that I can support young people’s knowledge about their own lives to support them navigate their lives while up against problems. Narrative ideas and the accompanying worldview make this possible.

I mostly work with young people who are not interested in conversations about the problems in their lives. Having these young people as guides allows me many opportunities to be accountable to who I want to be- a respectful and influential but decentered therapist. I rely on skills of curiosity, awareness of positioning, and practices that make visible and thicken young people’s preferred understandings about their identity and their life.

NEAFAST: What feedback or encouragement would you give to newer therapists in the field?

Suzanne: I’ll answer a slightly different question if that is okay, because we all come to this work for different reasons, and with different skills and abilities.

If I were to give advice to my younger new therapist self, I would remind myself that I prefer therapy that is collaborative, which means I’m not in this alone and that the people who are consulting me are inimitable partners in the process.  

Matt: As someone who has always worked in agencies for ten years, it was important to always take advantage of any money available for outside trainings. Going to trainings early on, especially ones that were paid for through my agency job, made it possible for me to get clearer about what type of work fit best for me and that I could feel passionate about.

Advice to fresh out of grad-school Matt would be to notice the moments that feel like you’re failing as testimony to what you’re caring about that is not being acknowledged.

Guided and inspired by the ideas and values of Narrative Therapy, Suzanne Gazzolo works with individuals, couples, and families in her independent counseling practice in the Midwest and consults and mentors therapists through the Narrative Therapy Initiative and the Evanston Family Therapy Center.

Matt Mooney is a Narrative Therapy practitioner in the Boston area.


We hope that this interview helped pique your interest about the power of the narrative perspective, not just in building better relationships with your clients, but also within your own community and selves. For more information about these conferences, please visit the Narrative Therapy Initiative website

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