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


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Ratkes, 4/2005

Narrative vignettes
Part 4: Externalising Conversations

Tapio Malinen

Ten years ago, when I still knew very little about the narrative therapy, I got to know Tanja. She was seven years old and had just started school. Her teacher directed her to me, because she would cry in class every time she had the slightest doubt that she would not be able to cope with something according to her expectations. Tanja would burst into tears several times a day and the teacher was worried about the situation.

At the time, I knew nothing about the interview maps of the narrative therapy. However, Tanja and her best friend Etty guided me with gentle determination into the world of externalising conversations. When I asked Tanja what she thought of her own crying spells, she replied, as if reporting the most natural and self-explanatory fact in the world, “It’s all because of Blackhat!”

Tanja began to tell me a story about a leprachaun called Blackhat. He comes into the class and says, “Cry, cry!” and hits her with his magic wand. When asked for more information about this daily visitor, Tanja told me that Blackhat likes bad girls, dark and horrifying places, but cannot stand good girls, flowers, beautiful objects, or a fairy called Twinkle, who also owns a magic wand. Twinkle tells Tanja, ”You don’t need to cry anymore.”

The girls then told me how they knew when Blackhat had appeared in the classroom and what kinds of effects he had on Tanja. They also drew pictures of both the leprachaun and the fairy. After all this, the girls were both very excited about making a plan with me to vanquish Blackhat. At the end of our first session, I told them that in my experience, leprechauns with black hats can be very cunning, and I asked the girls if they were prepared to be even more cunning than him. Both Tanja and Etty replied, “Yes, yes!”, their eyes gleaming with great cunning. I asked them to make more observations on Blackhat’s movements and especially about what Tanja does when she is able to kick this “horrifying creature” out of the classroom.

In the beginning of our second session, both of the girls excitedly told me that Blackhat had lost some of his power and that Tanja had been subjected to only a few of his appalling tricks during the past week. She described the method she had invented for getting rid of Blakchat. “I just think of Twinkle and then I invite her to sit on my shoulder, and Blackhat cannot stand that.” The girls agreed to go on with this successful vanquishing technique and Etty even promised to blow into Tanja’s neck if she should forget to call Twinkle to sit on her shoulder.

During the third meeting, the girls told me that Blackhat had completely disappeared from the classroom. Tanja thought she could be grateful to him, because without him there would be no Twinkle, who was useful for more than just “vanquishing spells”. “She also gives me good ideas when I need to tell or write a story.”

A Royal Road to Deconstruction

Even though I still worked very strategically and mechanically with Tanja and did not know how to make her alternative story richer, she taught me – before Michael White – that externalising conversation is not a mechanical technique, but rather a specific way of seeing the world and being in a certain relation with it. At its best, it is a natural consequence of the post-structuralist attitude that language can be used so that the problem, not the person, is the problem. Or in other words: the problem is my relationship with the problem. And we should also remember that problems sometimes also have good effects. Those will go unnoticed, if we only “fight” against the problems or “eliminate” or “destroy” them. It is not “conquering the problem” that is essential, but rather creating a new relationship with the effects the problems have on our lives.

A therapist working in a narrative way assumes that life is not all about problems and difficulties, but also not all about resources. It is also about wishes, hopes, dreams, passions, principles, values, intentions, beliefs, and commitments. Personal agency is not consisted of battles against problems so much as of those conclusions that we make of ourselves while bringing more life to the alternative stories of our lives and the possibilities contained in them. So there is no battle against anything, but accepting oneself in a new way and a related feeling of sufficience and richness.

Externalizing conversations are a royal road to deconstruction. By making externalizing questions about the effects of the stories, we can also identify the discourses or macro stories that support the problematic micro stories. When the problem is connected to a wider discourse, people find it easier to resist it or create a different, more beneficial relationship with it. What “feeds” the problem? Who benefits from the problem? What are the values and principles of the problem?Do you think the problem is common or rare in our society? Why? If children/teenagers wanted to make a public protest against the destructive effects of the problem, what do you suggest for them to do? These kinds of questions help people to realize how the context of life affects the problem and vice versa.

Internalised and Externalised Conversations

The following table demonstrates some of the differences between internalizing and externalizing conversations. It has been created by Alice Morgan, who works as a family therapist at Dulwich Center in Eastern Australia.

Internalised conversation Externalised conversation
Sees the person as the problem. Sees the problem as the problem.
Locate problems inside the person. The problem is spoken as something outside the person. This makes it possible to discuss the relationship between the person and the problem.
Looks for what is ”wrong” or ”deficient” with individuals. Locates problems in a context that is external or outside of the person and their identity.
Actions seen as surface manifestations of a central core or self. Actions seen as events that have occurred in a sequence, across a time period according to a particular plot.
Offers a description that chains the person and his/her identity and leaves only little space for alternative descriptions. Allows for many kinds of descriptions of identity.
Makes the social practices supporting and contributing to the problem invisible. Makes the social practices supporting and contributing to the problem visible.
Leads to thin conclusions about life, the self and relationships. Leads to rich descriptions of life and relationships.
Examines the effects of inner factors on people. Examines the effects of cultural and socio-political stories on people.
Leads to classifying people. Stigmatizes their experiences. Discriminates. Sees variety as a richness that belongs to life, questions ”norms”. Tries to make discrimination visible.
Sees the problems as a part of the person and his/her identity. Encourages people to change or renegotiate their relationship with the problems.
The experts are those who are not influenced by the effects of the problem. People are the experts of their own lives and relationships.
Change happens through ”strategies” planned by outsiders. Change happens in cooperation. Externalizing conversations bring up existing skills and knowledge.
Uses a lot of ”I am” language. Uses a lot of ”it is” language.
The problem and its details are discussed at length. Alternative descriptions and stories are explored.

Morgan, A. (2000) What is Narrative Therapy. An easy -to -read introduction. pp.29-31.

People often think that externalizing is the ”essential thing” about narrative therapy. However, for instance Michael White, one of the founders of the approach, only rarely uses the externalising conversation while working with people. Just like some solution-focused therapists rarely use the so-called ‘miracle question’ in their work. The essential issue is that by working in a narrative way, one can deconstruct the one-dimensionally thin conclusions that people have made of themselves and their identities. The problem is no longer inside us as some kind of solid creature, but our present relationship with it is just one of the many stories of our lives. I think that the old-fashioned externalizing with its battles against the Problem is some therapists’ – often pretty mechanical - adaptation of this.

Concepts and practices

The so-called condensed truths about another person, the human nature, or the self are constructs of the human mind. Concepts such as “self esteem”, “drive”, “depression”, “the self” have been born in a certain historical and societal situation. They have developed differently in different cultures. For example, in many cultures, “resources” are not the inner property of the individual or human nature. Among indigenous peoples, “strengthening” is often done with the support of the connection or unity that is formed by a network of alive and dead people born within generations, the nature, and the cosmos.

What the human being has constructed can of course always be deconstructed. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, from whom Michael White has borrowed deconstruction practices to his therapy, speaks of how language captures us into thinking in a conventional way. We do not see that what is “bad” is not always bad, and what is “good” is not always good. Or that in some situation we succeed in our relationships and in another we do not, so we work more or less self-consciously in different situations. And this is because of our way of speaking and using language. Derrida thinks language lures us into thinking (and feeling) that we, for example, understand something or we do not. In most situations, however, we understand something only in part and there are also misunderstandings. When we deconstruct this way of thinking, we perceive that misunderstanding can also be a good thing, because it often leads to a new and better theory.

In narrative therapy, the unpacking of the constructs of the mind is not done to show that some concept is false and it must be replaced with the right one. It is done so that we could be aware of the effects of this concept on our identity, and also to give the person an opportunity to choose what kind of story they want to tell as the basis for making conclusions about themselves and their lives.

Particularly when one is dealing with violent actions, it is useful to make a clear distinction between concepts and actions. Violent actions usually have real effects on people’s lives. Hitting, humiliating, raping, bullying, and oppressing have a destructive effect on a living human being. It is ethically questionable to externalise or deconstruct these actions, because they are not concepts. While working with a person who has committed a violent act, I would rather like to know how he sees himself in relation to these acts - which of his values, principles, wishes, or dreams justify or resist these kinds of acts. It is common that a person involved in violence will say, “I cannot stop myself, because I have a violent temper.” “A violent temper” is a construct, and now we can try and deconstruct it. The process can be begun by asking questions such as, “Could you tell me more about the Violent Temper and how It makes you Its servant?” or, “Do you really want to serve the Violent Temper, or would you rather have a different relationship with It?” or, “Is your relationship a master-servant relationship, or how would you like to describe it?” However, it is important to remember that this practice will not do away with questions regarding the responsibility for hitting or oppressing someone.


In solution-focused therapy, there is a practice of building goals. The corresponding practice in the narrative therapy is called ‘re-authoring conversations’. The goal there is not to learn anything new in a linear way; the conversation itself is more important than change. When people talk about what is most valuable in their lives, in a way nothing is changed, something existing is only utilized – something that thus far has been shaded by the dominant problem story – and made richer. The therapist solves nothing. He or she builds a safe conversational space through a lingual companionship, a space where people can create new kinds of relationships with everyday situations. These alternative stories connect the person and his or her feelings with a life that is worth living.

In an ancient book called De Dao Jing, the same thing is expressed like this: “Without goals I can see a miracle. With goals I can only see different shapes.”



Carey, M. & Russell, S. (2002) Externalising – Commonly asked questions. International Journal
of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. No.2.

Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference. Chigaco: University of Chigaco Press.

Morgan, A. (2000) What is Narrative Therapy. An easy-to-read introduction. Dulwich Centre

White, M.
(1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. Chapter 2. WW Norton.


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