Part 4: Externalising Conversations
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
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.
|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”
||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
||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
|Leads to classifying people. Stigmatizes their experiences.
||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
||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
||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.