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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling Work and Narrative Therapy

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“Don’t take it personally”

 Anyone involved in the world of counselling and therapy will be only too aware of the plethora of approaches which now exist.  This multiplicity of techniques can be over exaggerated as some so called new approaches may actually prove to be little more than a variation on an existing theme.  This kaleidoscope of strategies can also become even more confusing when therapists appear to interpret the same counselling approach in different ways.

Narrative Therapy is a relatively new kid on the therapeutic block.  As such it is still settling into the text books as a definitive approach and interpretations of this strategy will vary between therapists. A simplistic overview of this technique is that it draws attention to and reflects the importance of individual’s stories in the creation of self-identity. 

Narrative therapy focuses not so much on what has happened to us but on the way in which we have interpreted what has occurred. An important key to understanding what is going on is to listen carefully to the story or the narrative behind the individual’s wider account of what is happening to them.

As with much counselling work, this strategy can be adapted and put to very different uses. For example presenting issues in the counselling room cover many different situations but challenges around relationships are often present.  The narrative approach can be used to contribute towards a way of dealing with potential difficulties between individuals.  In particular, narrative work can help to create some space between problems and people, between issues and personalities.   

That sense of space can sometimes prove to be really helpful.  For example, a classic phrase that we will all have heard at some time is ‘’ don’t take it so personally’.  That is easy enough to say when the issue is with someone else but far more challenging when we are the one who feels upset or has perhaps been let down in some way.

The advantage of adopting the narrative approach is that we are encouraged to focus on the problem and the story of the problem rather than on the individual. We can have very warm feelings towards someone but still be annoyed or irritated at their behaviour. If we can remain focussed on the issue or behaviour relative to a specific event rather than the individual per se, we greatly lessen the chances of a serious rift developing within the relationship. Narrative therapy can help to maintain that distinction between behaviour and personal essence.

Let us consider an example. One classic issue which appears within families can be around parenting of young children and the alternative views of grandparents and parents.  If a grandparent appears to be questioning the way in which a child is being brought up there is a chance that this could adversely impact on relationships within the family. 

The narrative approach would be to see the problem as just the differing views on parenting and the specific way in which these are expressed rather than exposing any latent conflict or ill feeling between the individuals involved.

Those conflicting views on parenting may perhaps stem from different backgrounds, popular practice or just historical fads in child rearing. The problem lies in the difference between those views and not with the individuals behind those views. Narrative theory can encourage an understanding of the story rather than prompting criticism of an individual.

Both the grandparent and the parent can be a really warm and caring individual who just has a different story to tell when it comes to parenting practices. The problem is not the individual. The issue is not a flaw in the essential being of the parent or the grandparent but just with that particular interaction. To resolve the issue both need to focus on the narrative and not the personality. 

If that sounds a relatively simple concept to work with, then that is probably because it is!  Quite often some of the more contemporary counselling approaches can have a veneer of sophistication which on closer examination just describes a common sense way of thinking. That may be particularly true of this specific approach.

One advantage however of spending time in the therapy room is that it gives an excellent opportunity to think about why that obvious common sense way of thinking is not prevailing and just why those difficult hostilities are breaking out!  

Don’t take it personally’ is a reasonable enough comment to make – but the unfortunate reality is that we usually do!


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st October 2015

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