The central purpose of the Narrative Conversation is to empower the client. We assist him, mainly by asking questions, in accessing their beliefs, strengths, values, hopes and dreams. In doing so, we help them to find a better way to live their life than the problem saturated story that they came in with. In order to be able to do this, we have to take what is called a de-centered approach. This means that as “therapist” we have to not look at our self as the expert on how the other should change, but rather we put the client in the center as the expert on his life. After all, he is the world expert on himself. No one knows him as intimately as he does. He is privy to all of his inner thoughts, desires, dreams, etc. He’s been with himself every second of every day of his life, so he has a much better vantage point of knowing himself than we, as “therapist”, can possibly have in the hour that he is sitting in front of us.
So this takes some humility as a “therapist”, to resist being the expert who is called upon to make a diagnosis as quickly as possible, and to prescribe an “intervention” in order to cure the patient of what ails him. Rather we have to step aside, be “de-centered” and help the client to access the knowledge and stories of his life that will enable him to get past the problems that he came into our office to deal with. This is what we refer to as the “not-knowing” approach to asking questions. We don’t assume anything about what the client says. For instance, if the client says that he is depressed, we don’t assume that we know what he means by that. Instead we will ask him about it. “When you say that, what do you mean?”
These not knowing questions are asked because we are curious about what they mean. Not curious in the sense of being nosy, or of being strange, but because we are making our own anthropological study, so to speak. We don’t know exactly what he means when he uses the words that he does. We remove from our lexicon “I understand”, because we really don’t know if we understand what he is telling us unless he can confirm this. So we replace the statement: “I understand” with the question: “Do I understand you correctly that when you said this that you meant …?” We can expand on this by periodically doing a “retelling” of the conversation, where we say back, paraphrase, explain what we heard, and ask the client if we got it correct. Not to get him to agree with us in order to please us as the “expert”, but to get his confirmation that our retelling is accurate.
All of this begs the question: If the client is the expert on his life, what is our role as a consultant? In our questions we direct the client to the areas that we think could be helpful. For instance, a person might say “I’m lazy.” This could be a problem saturated story that they have told themselves over and over again until they have taken it on as an identity. What their sentence of “I’m lazy” says is an equation that equates the person with the concept of lazy. “I = lazy”. They are likely understanding the pronoun “I” as their identity. “I”dentity. What is their “I”dentity? It’s lazy. Which in turn means that “Lazy” defines the person. This implies that any aspect of the person will be lazy. Any act that the person does will be a lazy act.
But we know that people are more complex than that. They may act lazy at times, but there will also be exceptions. And the term “lazy” is a not well defined term, and it is a term in relation to an act that is not lazy. So when a person says that he is lazy, we don’t really know what he means by it, and we don’t know how he would define being not lazy. We don’t know in what circumstances he thinks that he is lazy, and we don’t know when he has been able to overcome “lazy”. This is where our questions come in. We ask to find out about all of these things.
More about this in a later post.