About What Is and What Might Be - Discussion with Michael
Deep humanity, originality, expansiveness and precise use
of language have always combined in an very appreciative way
in Michael White´s work. He is a family therapist and
a co-director of Dulwich Centre in Adelaide Australia from where
he has taught and written extensively on Narrative Therapy.
He likes swimming, flying a small plane and riding his bicycle.
“Joy and Unpredictable in Therapeutic Conversations
– Possibilities of Narrative Therapy” was the title
of his facinating workshop he gave in June 11th-12th 2001 in
Jyväskylä, Finland. The following discussion took
place immediately after the workshop. Participating in the discussion
were also Jaakko Seikkula, the President of The Finnish Family
Therapy Association and Timo Rytkönen and Aapo Pääkkö
from the Journal of Ratkes.
Tapio Malinen: In order to prepare myself to
this interview I read some articles of yours and a conversation
you had with Michael Hoyt and Jeff Zimmerman published in your
book Reflections on Narrative Practice (White, 2000) and in Hoyt´s
latest book Interviews with Brief Therapy Experts (Hoyt, 2001).
In the introduction of his book Michael Hoyt writes about the
act of the inter-view. For him it is the process, where we are
viewing, making views together. I would like that we could also
here make some views together, rather than to do a cross-examination
with you. So, what would be a sign for you, that this gathering
together woud be a kind of discussion, a dialogue that could also
Michael White: If we will be all part of the
dialogue, I guess. That would be the primary thing.
TM: You told us to day in your seminar about
the art of being decentred, during which the therapist is also
potentially invigorated. There´s is one thing that really
amazes me: during these two days you have done quite a hard job
and when I look at you now, you seems to be still pretty much
MW: Still going strong?
TM: Yes. And that is quite amazing. I would like
to ask you, what is your mission and above all what´s the
dream that gives you the energy to travel all over the world to
do your workshops?
MW: I don´t think I have a mission. I´m
doing this because I´m invited to do this by people who
are very supporting and couraging and I think that in some ways
I have the special opportunity to revisit my work with families.
When I show these videotapes in my workshops, I really experience
all of the feelings and sense of connection that I had with the
people at the time and this is a very beautiful experience. So
I feel in some ways the special opportunity and there´s
a lot of more to a workshop than simply sharing videotapes and
conversations with families. This certainly invigorates me. It
contributes to the energy that I have to unpack the ideas and
practices and explore them with workshop audiences.
TM: So, at the same time you are both giving
and recieving something.
MW: Yeah. And it´s quite invigorating.
Of course it can be tiring as well, but it´s sort of like
the especial opportunity. Also the support and the couragement
and enthusiasm of the workshop
partsipants I find that also contributes to me feeling invigorated
as well. I often get to hear stories about the work that people
are doing in far places and it´s very good to hear how consctructive
practises are happening all over the place. It´s nice to
know, what´s happening at there in the world.
People are doing lots of really creative things and I meet lots
of habits of thought and action that are very helpful and I find
new ways to do things.
TM: Probably it´s the tribe that is growing
all the time. In the interview with Michael Hoyt and Gene Combs
(White, 2000; Hoyt, 2001) you say that you are pretty much interested
in critical constructionism. Steve de Shazer is talking about
interactional constructionism. I wonder what´s the difference?
MW: I have been interested in critical philosophy
and a lot of my ideas are very much linked with explorations of
French critical philosophy. Particularly with the work of Michel
Foucault. I found those ideas to be very engagenal for me. I have
not been so engaged with social constructionism although I know
there are many links and parallels.
TM: I´m giving a lecture in October by
the name Burn in, not out – the Construction of Joy in Your
Work . And I´m wondering if your way to work decentred and
influentially have some connections with invigorating, burning
youself in ratker than out in your work. Could you say something
more about this? Does this have any meaning for you?
MW: Sure. Definitely. I think that the more
decentred we are the more invigorating our work is and the more
centred we are the more burdensome it is and if we are engaged
in very centred practice I think we are quite vulnerable to exhaustion
and burn out. The more decentred we are the more refree we are
in terms of the, I guess, the discriptions of other peoples lives.
I think about the example I shared in the workshop about working
with the family with the boy who´ve been bullied at school.
I found the contribution of the other three boys quite inspiring
and response to that the boy came to this idea, that is exraordinary,
that he would seek other children who had been bullied and help
them understand what that is about them, introduce them to some
very powerfully positive identity inclusions, where he would have
thought that in the situation with so little power, someone who´s
been subjected to peer-abuse could find that gab, that space in
stigmatic act politically in the way they did. I think that´s
extraordinary. I know if I had been centered in my work with that
family, this option would have never occurred. It would have remain
TM: Can one say that when you are decentered
your mind is kind of open and you can somehow perceive all the
resourses around you and you can find consults quite near and
you don´t have to do the whole job?
MW: Yeah. It means that there are so many people
that certainly become visible to you and potentially could be
available to provide the contribution.
TM: I personally think that in order to be able
to work in this way you kind of have to be quite humble.
Timo Rytkönen: What kind of moral principles
do you have in your work?
MW: Could I first pick up the first thing you
said about being humble. I think that´s just one way to
decribe it. I think there are other ways as well and I think we
can be committed to in the appreciation of the social and historical
aspects of how we think and how we respond, so when people respond
powerfully to one of my therapeutic expressions, I think what
is the history of their response to my expression. That becomes
very facinating if I don´t think: well, this has to do with
my creativity or what ever. If I don´t center myself, then
it takes us into this enquiry that can help us further develop
our therapeutic practices. So how was it that the person could
response so instantaneously to this scaffoulding question? What
is the history and the culture of that response? This takes me
to the explorations of folkpsychology and the link between what
we do and the traditional folkpsychology.
TM: What do you mean by the traditional folkpsychology?
MW: That´s the psychology that priviledges
notions of personal agency and intentional states of purposes,
believes, values, dreams and visions of hopes, peoples commitments
to ways of living. That sort of traditional understanding is often
preferred to folkpsychological understandings. So I think very
often that there´s quite a link between my therapeutic practice
and folkpsychology. I think that often people are responding in
the way they do, because it´s a traditional understanding,
that is familiar and does have a history and I think that centring
ourselves means that we shut the doors on explorations of hole
range of things including contribution of the people, who can
consult us of the conversation that we have.
TM: In your workshop you also mentioned the
dimensions of spontanity and regard and I started to think about
structure and chaos and the balance between these two elements.
Is this something that goes together with burn in?
MW: I´m not sure. Mayby it does. I´m
just thinking about how any good therapeutic practice is an expression
of skills and these skills are often not just arrived in some
sort of spontanious way. I said that improvisation is based on
achievement of a certain level of skills. It´s only then
that people can improvise in the way that is not discourtenous.
So there´s a distinction between the idea of skills and
the the idea of not knowing. Because I think that this idea of
not knowing, which comes from Harry Goolishian and Harleen Andersson,
can be misread. People can believe that the important thing is
to achieve the clean slate.
TM: No structures?
MW: Yeah. The not knowing is a very interesting
idea, that has to do with not imposing constructures on other
peoples lives. But I think skills are an other matter. You know,
when people consult us they are not consulting the nextdoor neighbour.
Thinking about my work with people who have referred to me for
perpetuating abuse. In that work I don´t put my values on
the shelf; I´m there with my values, but I have to find
ways of taking responsibility for how I give expression to my
values. I know I can give expression to these values in ways that
closes down space with people, shuts the door of possibilities
or I can express the very same values in a ways that open up that
space, bring possibilities. So I think this is a very special
responsibility and it´s our job to develop skills how to
express those values so that we can open up possibilities rathes
that closing them down.
TM: So when you are working you can be in contact
with your values, express them and at the same time open these
new possibilities for other people. That´s really skillful!
MW: I think that´s really one of the skills
that we often struggle with.
TM: But if you have the skills, then in some
way you are also the expert.
MW: I don´t know if that´s true
actually. I think that mayby that just confuses everything to
say that you are expert. I see people at times who say to themselves
that they are experts on other peoples lives. They interpret other
peoples actions and they invaluate people and they lives, they
insert peoples lives into rating scales or continues of the development.
They then introduse technigues of remediation and intervention
strategies. You know that´s like an expert position. The
position we are referring to here is also an expert position.
That word doesn´t mean anything, if the radically decentered
position is expert position in which we acknowledge the obligation
we have to scaffold conversations in a way that open up possibilities
in the way that challanges this position. This word is used in
both of these. The word means nothing.
TM: So what´s the therapists role in narrative
therapy outside this expert knowledge?
MW: How do we go on providing structures so that these thin traces
of knowledge, practices of living, other practices of life are
present in peoples expressions and their history? How do we contribute
to conversations that thicken up those knowledges and skills that
are in peoples histories and in their cultures and communities?
This is wise the question.
TM: In an interview with Lesley Allen (Allen,
1995) you say that ”the sort of considerations that we are
discussing here might assist us to resist the great incitement
of popular psychology to tyrannise ourselves into a state of ”authenticity”
– that these sort of considerations might open up certain
possibilities for us to refuse ”wholeness”, to protest
”personal growth”, to usurp the various states of
”realness”. Do you think that therapy can tyrannise
peoples lives? And if, in what way?
MW: I don´t think we can split off therapeutic
practises from the mechanisms of social control and modern power.
I think in fact in many ways the culture of psychotherapy is the
hardland of modern systems of power. This doesn´t mean that
it´s bad, it just that we have this new system of social
control and my guess is we cannot undo that control, but I do
believe that it can be present in its essences. So I´m really
preferring that the modern technology of power isn´t about
policying peoples lives by certain authorities or by agency of
the state. It´s increasingly relying on people policying
their own lives, judging their own lives according to certain
norms, that are constructed in cultures and institutions and in
the community. I think we can question, we can deconstruct many
of the practices of psychotherapy. We can locate them as part
of apparatus of modern systems of social control. This is not
to say they are bad, it´s simply to refuse to make the assumption
that social control isn´t in any relation to therapy. It´s
very important that we can unpack these practices and we don´t
unwittingly decrease and reproduse some of the essences of this
modern system of power.
TM: There is bodybuilding and in somehow I experience
that nowadays there are more and more something you could call
soulbuilding, too (laughter). Something that is thingifying peoples
souls in the same way that bodybuilding sometimes thingifyes our
bodies. Anyway, I just learned today some narrative therapy technigues.
One is re-telling and there have been some people listening to
our conversation. I would like to ask them: does this, what you
have heard, have any meaning for you in your personal or professional
life and if it touches you somehow, we would be delighted to listend
to that. Was that okey?
MW: It´s fantastic!
Jaakko Seikkula: Did you mean the things Michael
was saying here or in yesterday and today in the workshop?
TM: Well, you can choose either or or both and.
JS: I´m a very eager listener of Michael.
First I want to start with those things I was very much touched
yesterday when we were sitting with Michael and seeing a client
and when all were crying.
That was the kind of language where no words were needed, no definitions.
That was a kind of situation, where the therapist, the client
and the audience shared something of the same. I think that was
a very valuable situation to learn and to accept as a therapist.
I was very much touched by that and it also gave me answers, because
I have been envolved in the same type of situation, where I felt
myself quite uncertain, because I know it´s against the
rules we have learner, that you have to be neutral, you have to
have distance. Dealing with such difficult or extreme problems
in ones life, that Michael showed us, means to me that you cannot
be neutral, but you are all the way envolved. At the same time
Michael was very present and actually it´s quite extraordinary
to have this position, that not to go in to the content of the
story, not to be apted to become expert of ones life and give
other people ideas of what they have experienced.
It´s amazing that you can focus really on the stories and
the language people are using. I think we all have very much to
learn about what is the power of language and about making and
sharing stories. We know so little about it and Michael has so
much new ideas to go to that direction. This is something I have
been thinking in the workshop and listening Michael here.
TM: Your thoughts remind me of the difference
between doing the therapy and being the therapist.
When Michael was crying, in my mind he was doing the therapy by
being the therapist. This is something I would like to learn more;
doing the work of being the therapist. And Michaels way was a
good example for me how to do this in that session.
JS: I would like to point out that in my opinion
that was not the only point where Michael kind of reached the
humanity. Also the way the conversation was conducted was very
much of being a human with those who are present. To be emotionally
so much envolved is perhaps so new thing to us and it stretches
our boundaries as we have learned us to be therapists.
There´s an other thing I have learned from Michael. It´s
perhaps because the practice which I have been envolved is a little
bit different, because we meet mostly some part of the social
network of the client and I have worked mostly with psychotic
patients and we always envolve in crisis situations. There so
many things taking place so rapitly, that you can´t stop
and think and stop and think. It was quite amazing with these
steps with which Michael analysed what kind of differences there
are between these different type of questions. I mean the questions
of so called landscapes of actions and the lanscapes of identity.
It was like looking through a microscope and it was so exciting.
And I said to myself, that´s the thing we are doing. Michael
showed us, how you can reach at distance to your own situation
and just look.
TM: So you realized that you have been working
in the same way as Michael?
JS: Yeah. And we have been working all the time
as a team. Michael is working by himself, but the same thing seems
to happend althought in the team there´s many therapists.
TM: So, how is it for you Michael to listend
MW: Like hearing about how even as we work in different countries
and come from different traditions our explorations show us that
we have come to similar conlutions.
TM: I´m wondering if there are many roads
leading to Rome or many roads coming from Rome (laughter)?
JS: Many roads are coming from Milan at least.
TM: In what way?
JS: Well, I was thinking that I´m no longer
using those ideas which we learned from Milan systemic therapy.
It was a very enthusiastic phase in the family therapy and I think
that in a way all the family therapies in the whole world come
together around this amazing idea they presented. But nowadays
I think that it gave us the possibility to choose our own ways.
MW: I agree. In some ways the Milanian group
provided the turning point in family therapy. They had quite a
part in radicalizing some of the explorations that chared to me
in therapy. I certainly found in them inspiration, when I think
about the paper by the Milan group in 1980 about the hypothesizing,
circularity and neutrality. Conserning the therapeutic questioning
I found it quite inspiring. Even thought I couldn´t relate
to the functionalist metaphor, the notion of their therapeutic
questions had an effect on many, many people including me.
JS: I think that it opened the gateway to coming
to the new ways in family therapy.
TM: Could one say it was a kind of mini-big-bang
in family therapy? And everybody was influenced in some ways.
JS: Yes. And if I think what we have heard from
Michael, what becomes the most important thing is how we meet
the stories of people. Of course nowadays we think quite critically
about the Milan group, because they often showed us the specific
way how to look at the problem. But now we have come back how
to see and discuss the problems more openly.
TM: I like to direct this conversation to an
other theme, if that´s okey for you.
MW: We haven´t heard yet the reflections
from Timo and Aapo.
TR: There´s one thing I´m thinking
about. I like your method or your structure or system or tool,
because in my mind it is is quite open and not closed. And there
seems to be lots of space for many things. In many methods they
use to think that the problem is like a prison and people are
in prison and there´s lots of arcument about who´s
the gatekeeper. But you are not interested to know, who is the
gatekeeper. You just ask the people what they want to do and what
is the way out of the problem. I also like you ethical attitute
and how you really respect people. That is very important thing
for me; to know that the deep recpect is the basic element, when
we work with people.
Aapo Pääkkö: This respect is
important for me, too And also the idea of sharing the experiences
with other people so it can change someones idea of himself. I
have been working in self-help groups and the idea of working
without the therapist without the expert intrests me.
MW: I think it can be very helpful. But I also
think that it´s not likely to have the outcame that we not
can have, unless the people who are involved of doing it have
not explored that class of technology that is expressed in these
retellings. It can brasely become the practice of the applause
by pointing at positives or it can become a serial monologues
between people. So I think in order to have the outcomes it can
have, there´s a need to some exploration of that tradition
of technology, that is expressed in these outside of witness retellings.
It´s a part of this modern tradition of given information
or pointing at positives or congratulating people. And when people
do respond to peoples strories, they engage in judgement even
if it´s positive judgement, it´s still judgement.
It´s not a retelling, that tributes to rich description
of other peoples lives. So there´s really a need to explore
these traditional technologies.
Sometimes we can see this old tradition reflecting in peoples
letters to each other. I discovered, that my maternal gradmother
is involved with correspondence with an other woman. She would
write a letter of serious reflections of live at the moment. And
she would post it and six months later she would revieve a letter
back from the friend and that struck acord to her or was resonating
with her and further reflected what she had written. It was very
rich of themes and retellings. This is an very old practice and
I think in some ways we are looking at resorecting some practices
of acknowledgement, that are somehow more evident in some aspects
of history and culture than others. I think it´s very nice
to look for applauses, but it doesn´t tribute to rich discriptions
and conclusions, that these serious tellings and retellings tribute
to. So any group that is interested in these explorations would
have to have conversations about these traditions of technologies
we are talking about.
AP: So, there shouls be some kind of rules how
people talk and response to stories of other people.
MW: Well, more kind of explorations, what kind
of practice this is. Is this a tradition about congratulating
people or is it about finding ways how putting in to words how
other peoples expressions touch our lives and take us to place
we wouldn´t otherwise be. I think these distictions are
important. It´s more about distinctions than rules. Some
of our contemporary practices are really the practices of evaluation.
The practices of applause run the risk of contributing to thin
conclusions rather than to rich descriptions. And the practice
of pointing out positives can be experienced as patronising and
condescending by those persons who are subject to it. These are
not the practices we are referring to when we speak of the outside
of witness responses.
TM: John Walter and Jane Peller have written
a new book titled Recreating Brief Therapy. They aren´t
talking about therapy anymore, but about personal consultation.
I didn´t hear you use the word ”client” during
these two days. Ben Furman is also talking about how in the future
people are building these small groups in community and the discussions
are filmed and showed to other people. A kind of definitional
ceremony in Finnish way without the setting of therapy. So, what
is going to happend to therapy?
MW: I think that there are very fine skills
that have been developed in the name of different therapies and
my guess is that there´s going to be further development
of finding ways to express these skills and understandings, but
in more decentred ways. I think of the videotape of the schoolchildren
in the Anti-Harassment Team. This is not a spontaneous development.
The two school counselors, Dorethea Lewis and Aileen Cheshire,
are very skilled and I provide the scaffold for this development.
Skilled therapists are going to be required to play that role.
In their work Aileen and Doreothea are decentred and it would
not just happend spontaneously.
I think there´s a risk that we could believe that there
is something inherent in the communities, that is somehow healing.
You know this idea of just bringing together the community to
discuss is a positive thing. That´s all part of the so called
essentionalist or structuralist thinking. This idea that there
are elements or essenses within the community, that are somehow
healing. And yet we know quite often that when we bring communities
together, things get worse. I think there´s always going
to be a demand on skill practitioner to play a part in scaffolding
circumstances that make possible for people to find ways to go
forward, ways that wouldn´t other ways be available to them.
This doesn´t mean that therapists know, what is healing
for people, but it does require skills to establish contexts in
which people more richly tell and retell their stories.
TM: While listening to you, I find your way
to work to be as much a therapy modell as an open ethical position,
where effectiviness comes as a biproduct. But there´s one
thing that interests me. If there´s something we could call
the politics of therapy, could there also be something we could
call the poetry of therapy. What do you personally experience
beautiful in therapy? Does this question have any meaning for
MW: I love this metaphor of poetics. I think
this is very, very important in the therapeutic practice.
TM: So, how does it resonate in your personal
MW: In lots of ways. When we talk of therapeutic
skills and poetics, I sometimes think about the work of Gaston
Bachelard. I think that there´s something about our contribution
to therapeutic conversations that almost sets off stage of revory
in peoples lives. It evokes powerful images in their lives and
I think it´s something about the poetics of therapeutic
conversations that contribute to this and these images. To use
that sound metaphor ”set off vibrations”, that touch
on and triger resonance and things light out. Things coming to
alive in way that they wouldn´t otherwise come in to alive.
I think it is like many ways the experince one may have in terms
of that stage of revory that one gets into when one read a beautiful
poem. So I like very much to that metaphore.
TR: I would like to put this same question in
an other way. Is there any way to know, when you are working well?
Can you feel it? Does this have anything to do with the aestetics
MW: Well, this is a big question and there´s
probably lots of answers to that question. I just like to pick
up the answer that you shadowed. I think that any work that you
do, that is transforming you as a therapist in some way, is likely
to be effective work. So, if on account of your therapeutic conversations,
you have the sense of becoming other than who you were, good work
is taking place, because this work is taking you to an other place,
where you can have a new perspective on your work or where ideas
comes to you about your work and life that wouldn´t otherwise
come to you. So, I think that this is probably one measure of
work taking place. It is a reflection of extend towards people
who were consulting you, who also have been transformed. They
have also moved. This is one answer to this question, but there
must be many of them. What are your thoughts about this?
TR: I don´t know. But I think catharsis
and poetry are somehow connected. I wonder could we know the good
session from the feeling the therapist is having when the session
MW: The criterion really is, what people are
saying wether it was helpful for them or not. That´s really
the important criterion. But in terms of my feelings, I don´t
know. I think that having that feeling of being included in other
peoples lives in significant ways, having that sense of being
in priviledged position, because people open their lives to us
in a way they don´t routinely do in coctail parties, has
a certain importance.
TM: I also think that personally for me the
main criterion for the ourcome comes from the person I have discussed
with. Is he or she reached his or her goals. Also I think I´m
a priviledged man as a therapist, because as a biproduct I have
been moved, too. But that´s not the primal criterion for
MW: It´s not the primal criterion for
me, either. But when you get the sense that things have moved,
what is it that gives you that sense?
TM: I really think that the profession of therapist
is a priviledge profession, because we have the opportunity to
really be in deep contact with other human beings and that also
touches us all the time and moves us to some other places all
the time. (pause) But to direct this conversation to other landscapes
I would like to ask you, what are the most exiting things in your
professional situation at the moment?
MW: Well, many, many things. I have always been
intreat with families in my work. But as years go by, I have been
more in treat with working with communities and exploring the
applications of these practices in wider community context. That´s
something I feel very exited about right now. It has also been
very deeply rewarding and sometimes stressful, too. Very confronting
at times, too.
But working with families still interests me.
TM: In your book Reflections on Narrative Practice
there´s a paper called Children, children´s culture
and therapy (White, 2000) in which you write that all the basic
element in narrative therapy comes from the work with children.
I also think that in order to do good work with communities and
organizations you have to have touch with individual or familytherapy
all the time otherwise you loose something. I have the fantacy
that this is something that is really happening in brieftherapy
practices this coming out from therapy rooms to communities, schools
and business. So, you kind of use the skills you have learned
in therapy in broader settings.
MW: I agree. I have seen many developments like
this and they are still growing.
TM: So, what is coming after the narrative therapy
MW: It´s a interesting thing that for
many, many years David Epston and I avoided the naming of this
as narrative therapy, because it is something that is not static.
I still think that in some sense there is no narrative therapy,
because what I do isn´t anything static. It keeps going
and shifting all the time.
TM: That remains me of what you wrote in the
introduction of your book Narratives of Therapists´ Lives.
(White, 1997) Following Richard Rorty you are writing that a fact
is a dead metaphor and that it would be helpful for readers to
regard many of the term of description as metaphores that stand
apart from the ”facts” of life, and that are thus
”a source of the new”.
MW: Its interesting that the book Narrative
means to Therapeutic Ends (White & Epston, 1988) was originally
published as Litterature Means to Therapeutic Ends back in 1988.
And in somehow I regreted changing the title, because we were
talking in the workshop to day about what goes in to production
of the texts that is of litterary merit, that provides the sourse
of dramatic engagement for the reader in these storylines. I think
about how poetics is a good metaphor for the therapeutic practice.
So, in some ways the title Litterature Means to Therapeutic Ends
covered that there´s someting about the structure of good
litterature and therapy. So this is just a side really. But as
I said narrative therapy is not a thing, it´s more of a
process. Or it´s just a map and we can have different roads
and yet we can all get to destinations that are important and
TM: Ken Wilber is a philosopher from the States
and he used to say that the map doesn´t just describe the
territory, it´s also always movement in the territory that
it tries to describe, too.
(pause) So, when you are outside your professional live, what
do you like to do? What do you love most in your live?
MW: Many, many things. Spending time with my
family and friends. Driving my bicycle throught the areas in Adelaine.
Flying small aeroplanes and swimming. Reading novels. I specially
enjoy flying small aeroplanes. It´s a very special joy of
mine to be up in the air.
TM: Thank you for sharing your thoughs with
us. I wonder how this discussion has been for you?
MW: It has been good; I have enjoyed to be here.
It has been like a good debriefing after my workshop; gentle reflections
on shared interests, on therapeutic practices and if we would
have more time I´d like to hear from you about the points
of connections in your work and your life.
TM: I want to thank you and I very deeply appreciate
you giving us this opportunity to feel this connection.
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