Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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About What Is and What Might Be - Discussion with Michael White

Tapio Malinen


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 inspire you?

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 energized.

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 invisible.

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 to Jaakko?

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 you?

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 work?

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 of therapy?

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 is over?

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 my job.

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 (laughter)?

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 significant.

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.



Hoyt, M.F. (2001) Interviews with Brief Therapy Experts. Brunner-Routledge.
Lewis, D. & Cheshire, D. (1998) The work of the Anti-Harassment Team of Selwyn Collage.
In Taking the hassle out of school and stories from younger people. Dulwich Centre Journal,
Nos. 2 & 3.
Walter, J. & Peller, J. (2000) Recreating Brief Therapy. Preferences and Possibilities. Norton.
White, M. (2000) Reflections on Narrative Practice. Essays & Interviews. Dulwich Centre
White, M. (1997) Narratives of Therapists´Lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. & Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Means. Norton.
Allen, L. (1995) The Politics of Therapy. In White, M.: Re-Authoring Lives: Interviews & Essays.
Dulwich Centre Publications.



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