This is a narrative therapy post! 

It’s about how we respond to recurring stories that focus tightly on a problem or complaint, whether the storyteller is ourselves or someone else. What I hope to do with this post is to describe how we might use narrative therapy practices in our responses to ourselves and each other, in order to help the storyteller feel stronger in their story. This might mean strengthening the storyteller’s connection to their own values, or inviting the storyteller to tell the story of how they responded to the problem in addition to telling the story of the problem’s influence on them.

Many of us have experienced recurring stories that focus on a problem. These recurring stories tell the story of an experience, a person or a relationship, where the problem has significant power and is central to the story. Problem-saturated stories are notable because they tend not to leave room in the story for recognizing agency, choice, and response. The problem happens to the storyteller, and throw the storyteller off course in a way that is disruptive and distressing. They are often stories of injustice, or of a social context that suddenly goes off the rails.

These stories can be distressing to hear, even if we’re just hearing them from ourselves! It can be hard to know how to respond, and sometimes we respond by shutting the story (and the storyteller) down, changing the subject without engaging in the story, asking (or demanding) that the storyteller focus on the positives, or downplaying or dismissing the impact of the problem because we don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the problem story again. Sometimes these responses are based in self-preservation, but they are not often helpful for the storyteller. The goal of this post is to offer us some other possible responses.

A problem-saturated story tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. Our goal with these responses is to flip that around, and make the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem more visible. People are not passive recipients of hardship – we are always responding. This post is about how we help the storyteller make those responses visible.

I want to add some really important caveats right at the beginning of this post:

First, this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy. I think this is at the heart of all therapy, really, though different therapeutic methods approach it differently. This practice is about listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. It is hard and important work, and it is not only trained therapists who do this work. Many of us, therapists or not, have deep skills and insider knowledge when it comes to listening and responding to the stories of problems, and all of us have skills and knowledge when it comes to responding to problems – one of the core beliefs of narrative therapy is that nobody is passive recipient of trauma or hardship.

In sharing this post, I’m not suggesting that we should all become therapists for each other all the time. Even though this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy, and it can be a therapeutic process, it’s also just part of how we can be in relationship with each other. We listen to each other tell the stories of our lives, and the stories of our problems, all the time. The goal of this practice, especially when we’re bringing it into our non-therapeutic relationships, is not to “fix” the problem and it is definitely not to “fix” the person. 

The goal is to invite the storyteller to tell the story in ways that feel strong. It is about highlighting and making visible the skills and values and responses that already exist within the story. That’s a really important orientation to the story (and the storyteller) because it involves curiousity rather than education. This practice invites us, as listeners, to locate the storyteller as the expert in their own experience, and and it invites us to carry a pre-existing belief that there are skills, values, and responses already present in the story. 

Second, I want to acknowledge the importance of complaint in our lives. Complaint is not a bad thing, and telling stories of complaint is also not a bad thing. Complaints, including retelling stories of problems in our lives, are often critical steps in standing against injustice. So when we respond to each other’s complaints, or to our own complaints, it is important to keep in mind the value of complaint, and to honour the insight that allows someone to say, “this happened and it was not okay.”

Sometimes it takes time to get to the point of saying it so clearly, and what can come across as “whining” or “fixating on the negative” can be part of an important process of sifting through an experience to understand what happened and why it feels bad.

As Sara Ahmed points out, “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.”

So, before I invite you to use these practices to respond to complaint in a way that shifts from the problem to the response, I first want to invite you to listen with care to the complaint. Is the story being told over and over to you because the storyteller (perhaps yourself!) has been “blocked by the collective will not to hear”? How can we “acquire a feminist ear” in our listening to each other (and ourselves)?

If it is the case that the storyteller has not had the opportunity to tell the story without being “blocked”, then the storyteller first needs to be witnessed in the grip of the problem and the complaint. For example, if the problem story is about experiencing racism, transantagonism, queerphobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny, or any other problem related to structural oppression, chances are very good that the storyteller has been “blocked” by the collective ear, and naming the injustice is a critical part of that person’s survival and self-affirmation. In those cases, it is so important to listen compassionately and with the “feminist ear” that Sara Ahmed invites us to develop in ourselves.

That act of listening carefully to the problem story is one of the most important practices of narrative therapy (in my opinion).  Michael White referred to it as “lingering with the problem” and it can be deeply uncomfortable, but also incredibly valuable. Often, only once we have been witnessed in our struggle, and the harms and injustices that we are facing have been named, can we consider moving past this to other stories.

So, if you’re the listener, and you recognize that the storyteller might need to be witnessed in the struggle before they can move to other stories, and you just do not have the bandwidth to hear the story (sometimes for the fiftieth time – some stories are very sticky, and we try many times to find the right audience or the right way of being witnessed!) it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now. Can we switch the topic?” 

You can say this to someone else, and you can also say this to yourself. Being a supportive friend (to others and to ourselves!) does not mean that we have to always extend ourselves past our limits. Being able to say, “I don’t have it in me right now” can invite consent and accountability into our relationships, allowing us to say yes to the hard conversations more openly and intentionally. This is particularly important if we are also feeling weighed down by our own contexts or problems.

So, with all those caveats and assuming that you have the bandwidth to spend some time in the problem-saturated story and you’d like to try and engage in a narratively-informed conversation with the storyteller and try to shift the story a bit, here are some ideas.

As I mentioned, the goal of responding to these problem-saturated stories is to make those values, skills, choices, and responses visible, or at least to invite the storyteller to reflect on them. This means that we’re not trying to change the topic (though that’s valid – it’s just a different thing!), we’re trying to change the lens on the topic.

Note: the storyteller might be yourself.

Additional note: This might be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable.

Third note: If the storyteller, especially if it is not you, appears uncomfortable with your questions and with this approach, take a step back. If you feel like you have to push to get anywhere with this, it’s best to stop. Narrative questions can be so valuable and so rewarding, but they can also be so full of pressure and friction. If it feels hard and bad for either of you, take a breath and pause. The storyteller may not be ready to shift the story, and that’s okay! That’s not a failure on their part, and it’s not a failure on your part. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the same story again – you have the option to decline the conversation, to change the topic, to take care of the relationship in other ways.

So, the actual practice.

Listen to the story and think about the following questions, and consider asking them if an opportunity arises:

What skills made it possible for the storyteller to get through that experience? 

For example, if they are telling the story of a relationship that has ended, and they are lingering in the stories of pain that they experienced, what skills allowed them to keep going in their life despite that pain? How did they get through the relationship up to the point of it ending? Where did they learn these skills? Who taught them, or showed them it was possible? When did they first realize that they had these skills?

As you listen to the story, you might notice moments when the storyteller did something in response to the problem. Is this connected to a skill that can be named, and whose history can be traced?

In an example like this, be mindful of not cooperating with victim-blaming discourses by suggesting that they should have had different skills, or that the hurtful situation was a “blessing in disguise” because of the skills they developed in response.

What values did the storyteller hold onto as they moved through that experience?

For example, if they are telling the story of how workplace bullying has invited problems into their life, what have they held onto that allows them to get through that experience? What do they value or cherish about themselves in a work context – do they have a value of integrity or collaboration or justice that has allowed them to keep showing up for work despite the problems? Can you see these values evident in the story, such as in the way they choose to treat coworkers with care, or in the way they do their work? What do their choices say about what is important to them?

Sometimes problem-saturated stories are so sticky because they are stories of times when our values have been violated – if we have a value of integrity or honesty and we have been lied to, this can feel like a very sticky problem! Sometimes the complaint itself highlights the value, and it can help to witness this actively. This might sound like, “it sounds like you really value treating people with compassion, and that value was not extended to you in this situation.” If this is the case, then you can ask about the history of that value – where does it come from? Is this a value that they share with anyone in their life? Have there been times when they’ve really seen this value being expressed in actions?

In an example like this, be aware of the fact that talking about our values can invite feelings of guilt or shame if we have acted out of alignment with our own values or if we feel that we’re not able to express our values through our actions. Focusing on what is important to someone, and framing it in terms of how they have held on to that being important despite contexts that don’t support it, can be one way to sidestep the shame. 

How has the storyteller responded to the problem?

For example, if they are telling the story of how sickness or disability has impacted their life, how have they responded to the ableism that they’ve faced, and to the changes in their body and social context? 

In an example like this, be especially conscious of not downplaying the impact of sickness or disability on a person’s life within our ableist culture. Naming ableism, capitalism, lack of social supports, and other structural and systemic problems is so important, because sick and disabled people are so often invited to view ourselves and our bodies as the problem. To quote Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, our bodies are not the problem, ableism is the problem. 

And also, when our ability changes, this can bring grief and loss, and those feelings are valid! But the person, and the person’s body, are still not the problem. 

If you are looking for stories of response, you might ask things like – what do they do when the problem shows up? How did they respond when the sickness or disability arrived, or as it has changed over time? What has allowed them to respond to the problems that have come? 

Who has witnessed the storyteller experiencing this problem? Who has supported them?

This is such an important question, because the problems in our lives can isolate us, leaving us feeling alone. But we are not alone. Even if the only person we see on our team is a fictional character, a pet, or an ancestor… still, we are not alone. We are always in relationship, and there are always ways to find connection.

So, for example, if they are telling the story of being hurt by someone else, were there any kind witnesses to this hurt? Even if nobody witnessed the hurt, are there any people in the storyteller’s life who, if they had witnessed the hurt, would have recognized why it was so hurtful? Have they seen anyone else hurt in this way? If so, what did they think of that? How would they respond to seeing someone else hurt in this way? Who has supported them, or responded in the way that they would want to respond?

All of these questions focus on finding the moments of agency, choice, and response. 

It’s about finding the strong story that already exists as a shimmering thread in even the most sticky, muddy, problem-saturated story.

We are always responding to the hurts and injustices and traumas that we face. These responses come from somewhere. They might come from witnessing someone else respond in a way that we want to emulate, or in a way that we don’t. From our own past experiences. From the values that we learned in our favourite books or games, or from our family members or culture. From so many places!

Telling the story of our response can help us find a sense of agency and choice – we did respond to that injustice, even if that response was to roll our eyes or go complain to a friend. We did something in response!

We all have values – things that we consider precious and worth holding onto even in the face of obstacles. These values have histories. Those histories can help us feel connected to others who share our values, and can help us feel less alone.

We all have skills – ways of acting that allow us to respond to the problems in our lives. These skills also have histories! And they may be connected to our values, and together these values and skills shape our responses.

We all have connections and community, even when we are distant from these. We all come from somewhere, and we all have people who have been a positive influence in our lives (even if those people are pets, or celebrities, or fictional characters). We are not alone.

These questions aren’t about downplaying the problem or the impact it has had on the storyteller’s life. They are about making visible what the storyteller has done in response, and what has allowed them to do this.

If you end up using some of these strategies and questions in your life, I’d love to hear about them!

If you’d like to learn more about narrative therapy, the Dulwich Centre has two free online courses – an intro to narrative therapy, and a free online course focused on Aboriginal narrative therapy (taught by Aunty Barbara Wingard, who coined the phrase “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger”). You can find those courses here.

Our current economic, environmental, and political devastation offer plenty of problem stories for many of us. I offer An Unexpected Light, a six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course focused on telling stories of futures full of care, collaboration, justice, liberation, and possibility. The next session starts April 2, 2020. Find more information and register here.