The Explorative Narrative Therapy of Michael White

Embracing Storytelling in the Consulting Room

Mary Sykes Wylie

Over the past decade, Australian therapist Michael White has developed a worldwide following of therapists who insist he has something vitally important to say that the field needs to hear. Watching his “narrative therapy" unfold in session is a far cry from seeing one of the recognized lions of clinical performance sweep grandly into the middle of a dysfunctional family circle and in one session transform it into a little kingdom of love and harmony. Far from it. Instead, White's pace is measured, even monotonous.

During sessions, White hunches down in his chair over his notes and seems almost to recede from view. He almost never asserts anything, rarely utters a declarative sentence, just patiently asks questions, hundreds of questions, often repeating back the answers and writing them down. Like an archaeologist, White sifts through the undifferentiated debris of experience for minuscule traces of meaning---the tiny, precious shards of struggle, defeat, and victory that reveal a life---all the while doggedly taking notes, even occasionally requesting the speaker to slow down so he can take it all in.

At the same time, there's a startling tenacity about the process, a kind of polite but unshakable insistence on participation, a refusal to let people off the hook, even after long silences, embarrassed shrugs, parrot-like reiterations of "I don't know." White will not allow the people who consult him to slip away into the sad night of their misery. He simply will not give up.

In one session, for example, the parents of a deeply shy and isolated pre-adolescent girl are trying to coax her away from her perch in front of the television and go walking with her father. But the girl's reluctance is such that even when she does consent, she dawdles so that her father says he must then take a second walk in order to get any exercise for himself. He's disheartened and wonders if the effort is worth it. In this segment, White tries to get a statement of feeling from the girl herself. It's uphill work. White asks, "Do you have different paces of walking? A snail's pace? A tortoise's pace?... Are you faster or slower when you go walking with your dad?" After a long pause, she murmurs, "Probably slower."

He asks her how she could help her dad work out what to do: abandon their walks together or persist. She yawns hugely. Building on a microscopically tiny advance in the girl's life emerging earlier in the session (when he'd elicited from her a barely spoken acknowledgement that she might like to be "taking more initiative in life, rather than being a passenger") White asks, "What would you like to do with your dad that would fit with this new direction of yours?" a "new direction" that would have been invisible to anyone but White. She mumbles, "Go walking."

It's an achievement, says White, because she's determined that the decision to keep on walking "fits more with self-care than self-neglect." By the end of a later session, she's clearly much more engaged. She looks at him out of the corner of her eye and smiles shyly, and even produces some whole, unequivocal answers (short ones) to his questions, obviously delighting her parents. Their daughter, who'd rarely been able to identify any of her own likes, dislikes, desires, interests, and purposes has begun, however hesitantly and timidly, to say out loud what she wants for her life.

In every known culture, people give meaning to their individual stories by organizing them according to a timeline with a beginning, middle, and (perhaps hypothesized) end. In this way, we create our personal history. White's therapeutic method may depend more on exploring people's history than any other current approach, barring psychoanalysis but with a profound difference. Whereas practitioners of the latter delve into personal history like surgeons looking for hidden tumors, a lump of pathology in the far distant past, White seeks out the healthy tissue, the protective antibodies, which he always finds. For White, people's present lives cannot be reduced to their diagnoses, which are much too tight, too confining to contain the capacious possibilities revealed in their histories.

As powerful coauthors and coconstructors of the realities that people forge in the process of therapy, White says, clinicians have a rigorous responsibility for what they choose to select from the multitudinous possibilities given them in session, and for whether the stories they help create are newer, more helpful, more healing or just regurgitated chapters from an old chronicle of despair.

Like planting and tending a garden, White’s therapy is a matter of methodical attention, small steps and hard labor digging, spading, pruning, watering, mulching. Good gardeners are both practical and visionary. They don't expect to turn the desert into a Garden of Eden, at least not overnight, but they are optimistic enough to believe that with time and effort, and the blessings of rain and sun and decent soil, they can collaborate with nature to transform even quite desolate spots into little oases.

This blog is excerpted from “Panning for Gold”. Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Professional Development | Children/Adolescents

Tags: behavioral therapy | child therapy | ED | family | girls | HEAL | narrative therapy | neglect | parents | psychotherapy | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | Michael White | narrative | Psychotherapy Networker

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