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


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Paper presented in the International Narrative Therapy Program 2002-2003
Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, South-Australia, 24.11.2003

Co-creating Preferred Stories in School – An Exploration in Ethics

Tapio Malinen


The desire to “understand” and “change” are as much symptomatic as they are revolutionary. Spivak

The human mind is not a container to be filled, but a fire to be lightened. Plutarkhos

Introduction no.1

This article has not been born yet. It will be born into the reality that exist between the written word and the reader. It will be born into the space where the meanings unfold through the experience of reading. Words in this article are like caterpillars out of which you, my reader, make butterflies: simultaneously finding and creating. Life is too serious a game in order for us to claim that it should be defined only in one way.

Introduction no. 2

During my 15 years long career as a Finnish school psychologist I have been struggling with many dilemmas, but there is one above all. That is: how to be with without being in control? Or how to conduct therapeutic conversations without reproducing the modern processes of normalizing and power? And still be influential. How to discover without directing? (Hoyt, 2001, p. 265) How to influence without manipulating? Is it possible to do therapy without becoming an instrument of social control, without participating and contributing, often unknowingly, to the construction or maintenance of dominant discourses of normalizing and oppression?

I have had to face this dilemma in a special way because I´m doing my job in a very special context, that is, in the context of school. A psychologist working in a school setting in Finland is usually working in an institutional culture that is informed by the values and injustices of the dominant society (see also Berndt & al.,1997). When tracing the history of this culture we can see how modern processes of the judgement of people´s actions are intimately associated with, and in the service of, reproducing our society´s constructed norms.

A school psychologist has to deal with all the special characteristics of the school context in situations where he or she is often overloaded with cases and different – and often contradictory - expectations coming from teachers, parents, pupils, administrators etc. Traditionally schools are also functioning or ”factory breathing” in a special rhythm of time: 45 minutes work and 15 minutes break, 45 minutes work and 15 minutes brake… In this context a psychologist is confronting a huge amount of problems considering learning, behaviour or mental health. My question during the last 15 years has been: how to deal with these problems in a way that would both appreciate the persons involved and open up rich counterplots for the problem stories in a minimum of time.

In the following I am describing a practice that, applied within the narrative metaphor, positions the practitioner so that he or she can try to avoid the trap of using oppression, and can instead ask questions that privilege the people who are consulting as a primary author of the stories of their lives and their accounts of the identity. But before doing this it is, however, necessary to touch and illuminate three concepts that have been crucial while seeking my way to scaffold, at the same time, appreciative and transformative conversations. These concepts are: discourse, knowledge and dialogue.

Discourses of School

“Discourse” is a shorthand term to describe how characteristic ways of speaking develop in particular social context. Burr (1995, p. 48) defines this term in more detail: “A discourse refers to a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular version of events.” Foucalt´s (1980) description refers to both what can be said and thought, and also who can speak and with what authority. Discourse viewed in this manner suggests that meaning results not from the language itself, but from institutionalized discursive practises which constrain its use and pre-empt alternative uses and meanings. Hence, discourse can be viewed to reflect a prevailing structure of social and power relationships which are actively constitutive in relationships. (Madigan, 1998, p. 6)

Because schools are distinctive social contexts, we can talk of school discourse. Also in schools “people constitute discourse and are constituted through discourse.” (White, 1991, p.122) The words we use come to shape our thinking and acting. And in turn, the ways we think and feel influence what we speak about. There are lots of taken-for-granted assumptions that shape our experience of what happens in school. Because they are taken for granted, it is hard to notice how these assumptions structure relations between people and even shape the functioning of school institute. For example, behind the description of someone as “gifted”, there is a discourse about intelligence that assumes many things about what it means to be called “gifted”. (Winslade & Monk, 1999, p. 53)

Once an individual becomes part of society´s discourse certain cultural “truths” are then integrated and privileged, thereby restraining the construction of alternatives. Words like “disabled”, “class clown”, “school refuser”, “unmotivated”, “maladjusted”, “gifted”, “dysfunctional family”, “diligent”, “conduct disorder” are all words behind which lies an implicit standard of normality or “gaze”. Foucault writes (1980): ”There are no needs for arms, physical violence, material constrains. Just gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself.” So it is often a person´s strongly held belief in the culturally accepted description that keeps the person involved with the particular problem. Problems are the products of discursive conditions, or ways of speaking, which have placed the person in problematic positions in the story he is telling about life. (Drewery & Winslade, 1997)

We are “always-already social”. One cannot stand outside of discourse, but one can be selective about which discourses fit better with our values and have less harmful effects on the wider community. John Shotter calls the taken-for-granted words, and underlying ideas behind social practices that often masquerade as truth, as fossilized or dead words. They bewitch our understanding and in order for us to come out from their effects we must, he says, “bring these dead, but nonetheless extremely authoritative words back to life, we must re-dialogize them, bring them into living (dialogigal) contact with other words.” (Shotter, 2003, p. 11) Narrative metaphor and deconstructing practises is one way of conceptualising the process by which wider societal discourse and the normative rules this construct can be seen to operate and inform our sense of who we are in the world. Considering a persons identity as textual and bringing forth peoples local knowledges can be seen as a counter discursive practice that, in the best- case scenario, can bring to light the gaps or inconsistencies in the problem discourse and show the way to a preferred story.

The Politics of Knowing

During the last ten years it has been important and meaningful for me to explore the basic philosophical assumptions in my work. This exploration has led me to seek answers for example to the questions like “what is knowledge?”, “where is knowledge?”, “how to get knowledge?” This ongoing process has added some more consciousness to my actions: everything I do as a therapist seems to be - after this research - a part of a bigger wholeness. And this process has also guided to realize that therapy is for me – as Gergen has defined it – “a con-joint ethical construction of the real and good” ( Gergen, 1998, p. xii).

Doing therapy is not an innocent activity. How knowledge is produced and used in our meetings with people consulting us has always consequences on people´s lives and sense of meaning. We should never take for granted the effects in another person´s life of what we say. Language is not a neutral “tool” used to get the real work done in therapy: language is where the real work happens. The thinking, knowing human being, the mapmaker, is a living process of knowing and the product of that process at the same time. There is not a separate map on the other hand and a separate territory on the other. Instead, the map itself is always action in the territory it tries to describe (Malinen, 2001, p. 214) Everything the mapmaker is doing, believing, appreciating, dreaming is also all the time effecting, constructing and re-constructing the territory. From this, it follows that as mapmakers, therapists, human beings we are always deeply responsible for the actions, words, dreams we are constantly creating together with the persons consulting us.

Knowledge is constructed during the mutual process of inquiry and is not already there waiting to be discovered. We generate knowledge with each other through language. Knowledge is relational and is embodied and generated in language and our everyday practices (Anderson, 1997, p. 201).
Language can be seen both as a carrier and a creator of culture´s epistemological codes, and people constitute discourses and are constituted through the conventions of institutional discourses. During the last years this notion has carried me away from the “gaze” of the modern science to the “voices” of – as Foucault defines them – local knowledges. The reality we work with is not “out there” but something we produce – and something that can change as well. Different knowledges have different claims to their relationship to different purposes and histories. Naming, understanding and meaning-making are human undertakings that are realized differently across different social contexts.

Language is also essentially a differentiating medium, with every word separating that which is named or indicated from that which is not (absent, contrary). Thus, whenever we declare what is the case or what is good, we use words that privilege certain existents while thrusting the absent and the contrary to the margins (Gergen et al. 2001, p. 1). According to Stephen Madigan “we position ourselves in therapy, both as clients and therapists, along rhetorical lines of right and wrong. Choosing our semantic posture is shaped through an ethic of what we consider responsible. Therapy is discourse, and discourse is the stories of rhetoric, and rhetoric is political. Narrative practice can be viewed as disputing the rhetoric of problems and political scaffolding which supports them.” (Madigan, 1998, p. 105) While one can never be outside of context nor not shaping interactions, we can always examine how these practices are conducted. Critical does not mean finding the correct standpoint, but it means understanding how we come to stand where we are. One needs to be accountable in his or hers activities and critically examine how fact production is performed and achieved, because too many issues of power and manipulation are invisible in one´s theoretical positions.

Michael White writes: “Since we are all caught up in a net or web of power/knowledge, it is not possible to act apart from this domain, and we are simultaneously undergoing the effects of power and exercising this power in relation to others. (White, 1990, p. 22) If power is assumed to permeate all aspects of our efforts to know, and language is theorized as constitutive rather than representational, a matrix of enabling and constraining boundaries rather than mirror, then one way
to be non-powerful is to be powerful for the other. We can be directed towards this by creating spaces for transformative dialogues.

A Dialogical Perspective

What is “genuine dialogue?” How can we create a place where we experience our connection with each other through our very differences? Where the tension of our difference – and our meeting across that difference – generates a fresh experience of you, of me, and of us with one another?
Dialogue has to do something with connectedness and inspiration. It stands in opposition to everything that is destructive for curiosity. The main enemies seem to be objectification processes related to various forms of “knowing already”. Knowing already dissolves the need to look beyond averages or categories. It is the prime source of nonparticipation. (Riikonen, 1999, p. 141) What is called genuine dialogue is closely linked to the concept of relational responsibility. Dialogue is in fact an enactment of relational responsibility.

Transformative dialogue can be viewed as any form of interchange that succeeds in transforming a relationship between those committed to otherwise separate and antagonistic realities (and their related practices) to one in which common and solidifying realities are under construction. (Gergen et al, 2001, p. 2) Through dialogue, or as Shotter talks about, through the relational process of the “dialogically structured activity occurring between us”, we engage in a mutual process in which we co-explore the familiar and co-develop the new. In such a process we create knowledge and expertice that become specific in our local situation and circumstances. (Anderson, 2000, p. 206) Dialogue is about increasing understanding rather than changing minds. It shifts relationships in directions that usually reveal new possibilities for reducing polarizations and for engaging in collaborative action.

Transformative or enabling dialogues have also obvious links with nonrational aspects of sociability and well-being. The authors like Michael Bakhtin (1981) and John Shotter (1993) believe that what makes interaction-dialogue inspiring, meaningful, or resonating, and thus capable of diminishing isolation and increasing connectedness, cannot be understood in any purely cognitive or rational way. This means a degree of allowed unpredictability, which is needed for freshness and interest, and a safe enough context for interaction.

Praxis or Theory Lived Through

A year ago when I met Jaakko (9 years) he was in grade three in a primary school. He lived together with his mother Jaana, stepfather Pertti and little brother Heikki (6 years). Both parents were unemployed, consumed alcohol problematically and were living on a social help. Child protecting authorities were working with the family, and there was a threat to take the children away from their family. Jaakko´s school attendance was not so good: he was constantly fighting with his peers, was stealing and lying, acted defiantly towards teachers and performed clearly under his own level in school work. The contacts from the Social Office and from the school were usually met with a hostile attitude by mother. When the teacher was arranging the school meeting, mother told on the phone that she will be there, but only in order to defend her son against authorities. And she didn´t want her son or the stepfather to participate in the gathering.

The team that met mother consisted of a teacher, a social worker, a school principal and a school psychologist. Mother was told that the school was experimenting with a new way of working, a way that would give voice both to the hope and worry in people´s life. She was asked whether she would be willing to participate in a little bit “different” meeting guided by the school psychologist. During this meeting talking and listening would be separated from each other: mother would be asked some questions and the team would listen without any comments. After this the team would be asked some questions and now it would be mother´s turn to listen. All this would be done during one hour, because the children were waiting to have the teacher back for the next class. Mother gave her permission for all this.

“I wonder what it is that you appreciate the most in your son? What it is about him that you feel is really worth defending? Looking first a little bit astonished, mother started, in a little while, to tell how annoyed she has felt because of the contacts from the Social Office and how humiliating and scary it is to think that somebody would take the children from her. “You don´t know Jaakko! Basically he is a good boy. I just don´t know what has got into him lately.” Mother shared also her desperation and helplessness in the situation. “But still, and I don´t know why, I kind of trust him.” She told also how she had taken the boy into an junior team to play ice hockey in order to “discharge his energy out there”.

After this the following questions were asked: “I wonder what it is that has maintained your connection to the confidence in Jaakko in spite of all the turbulence in your life? How did you prepare yourself to make the decision to take your son into the ice hockey team? What else has happened in your life that is connected to this ability of yours to make decisions? What does this tell to you about what you want from life? What do you suppose this tells me about what you think is important and what you value in life? What hopes and dreams do you hold for your son´s and your own life in relation to these values? What ways of being in the world are these dreams a reflection of? What does this tell you about yourself? Who among your loved ones would be least surprised to hear that you were able to make this decision? What might he/she witnessed you doing, in times past, that made it possible for he/she to predict that one day you would be able to make decisions also in a turbulent life situation?

While answering these questions the team could also hear Jaana´s gloomy thoughts about how she often thinks that “there is something wrong with him” and that some day Jaakko will be driven into big trouble with authorities and that he will never find a decent place in society. “This Worry is constantly in my life.” After this the following question were asked: “Does the Worry effect your relationships with family members? Does It effect your moods and feelings? How is the Worry effecting how you see yourself as a mother? Is the Worry all the time as strong or are there times when It is less influential? Would you say the Worry is useful, or not useful, or something else in your life? Why? After answering these questions Jaana told also that the Worry decreases always when there are periods without telephone calls from school and when she has the opportunity to talk with her mother about the kids.
Now it was mother´s turn to listen and team´s turn to talk. “What did it mean to you to hear these stories? What touched or moved you the most? If the Worry, considering Jaakko, is in your life, how does it look like? Any experiences what It likes or dislikes? Several team members expressed how touched they were about mother´s ability to make decisions concerning her son´s life and they also shared some of their own experiences about decision making in their own lives and the effects of doing so. Several stories about the Worry were also told. (“The Worry gets bigger in my mind when I think that no one will do anything in the present situation”. “The Worry didn´t like the situation when I was talking an other day about the grandmother with Jaakko.” “The Worry got jumpy when I heard there is still room in a smaller class.”)

When mother reflected on the stories heard, she looked very thoughtful and she told also that there are many things now for her to think about. ”And I need some time to do it.” At the end of the meeting school psychologist asked the mother for a permission to send her a letter, where he would kind of give his afterthoughts about the meeting. After receiving this permission the following letter was posted to the mother.

Dear Jaana, I´m writing this letter to you because I often get many thoughts after meeting people and a letter gives me a good opportunity to express them afterwards. Talking with you and the team yesterday touched me in many ways and awakened also some new thoughts which I want to share with you.

Jaana, I have been thinking whether you remember how your life was before the Worry entered into it. What parts of your previous life has the Worry succeeded to invalidate the most? What has been the most effective way the Worry has manipulated you?

I have also been wondering whether Pertti knows about your deep trust in your son. And if he knows this, what effects is this probably having on him. Is this trust showing itself somehow also in your relationship towards him? While I was remembering our meeting, I was also thinking what steps you have taken or what you have done in order to preserve this connection to your trust? And could you probably name a quality or a skill with which you have maintained this connection during all these years?

Jaana, what are your own thoughts at the moment about the life that is suitable for your son and a person like you? Would I be the life under the power of the Worry or would it be something else? And if you would continue your discussions with your mother about the kids, what would her thoughts be about al this?

I completely trust – because you seem to be a person who wants to think peacefully things over – that you know, when and how you want to react to this letter.

Warm regards,
Tapio Malinen

Two days after mother received the letter she phoned the school psychologist asking for her son a possible placement in the smaller group. At the moment Jaakko is attending his school in a special class, going in therapy and doing moderately well. Mother and father are still unemployed, but looking for the opportunities to find a job.

Above I have tried to describe a way of working where you – within the narrative metaphor – scaffold preferred and richly described counter stories for the problem story. These descriptions include the knowledges and skills of living that are relevant to addressing peoples problems. In school (and also elsewhere) the problem story often covers the whole richness of life and the many possibilities included for personal agency.


One of the loveliest metaphors by Heinz von Foerster, a physicist and a philosopher, who had a great influence on the field of family therapy, was the dance: “In the reflection, in the eyes of the other, your own humanity begins to develop. Which you cannot do in a monologue. You have to dance with somebody else to recognize who you are”. (Thomas, 2003, p. 14) In this paper words do not possess their power in themselves: they are empty of inherent meaning. It is my hope that they will get their meaning and power in the meeting of your world, my reader. And they can become alive in the inner and outer dialogues and interpretations that, in their own different ways, will bring this narrative further into the future.


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