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


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Narrative vignettes Part 7:
From Separation to Connection – a Narrative Reflection

Tapio Malinen

This is the final part in the series of writings on the basics of the narrative approch. The writer wishes that the thoughts and practices presented in this series will gain their final life in the many new stories which have been born in the minds of the readers through these vignettes, and the stories that may be born in the future.

Tom Andersen, the developer of the reflective team, asks us to be aware of three kinds of pauses. The pause between inhalation and exhalation. The pause that is born after speech, when the person thinks about what he or she has said and feels the effect of his or her speech – on him- or herself. And the pause that follows the so-called reflective processes, when what has been heard has gained a new expression through speech or something else, and has also often been thought differently. Andersen argues that these pauses reveal one of the basic cycles of our lives: the continuing process of expressions and effects. In this endlessly changing event, meanings are built in negotiations between people and one's experience of oneself is shaped through the stories told.

People structure and interpret reality in at least two ways: logic-rationally and narratively. Formal descriptions and explanations, conceptualization, logical truths, generalizations, objectivity and proving things to be right are typical of the logic-rational way of thinking. In this world, one can say: ”Socrates is a human being. All human beings die. Therefore Socrates will also die.”

In the world of narrative thinking, logic can also be metaphorical. Through similarity, the world gains a structure that lives and beats, a structure that is no longer mechanic. In this world, one can say: ”Grass dies. Human beings die. A human being is green grass.” Through stories, one can structure chaos, people's actions and intentions; one can comment on one's own and other people's actions in a language that can also be poetic. Narrative logic is related to the situation and the action. A private experience does not become shared until it is joined by feelings, values, and an individual way of experiencing it.

The Three Anchors

Lynn Hoffman, a famous family therapy historian, is currently anchoring her own therapeutic practice into three ”pillars of wisdom”. The first type is the attitude of not knowing. This is related to the therapist's attention on his or her knowing and the intention with which he or she offers it to others. The second type is the so-called reflective processing. This is also what Tom Andersen likes to call ”withness practice” these days. This method has had a remarkable effect on power relations in the history of family therapy. The third type is ”witnessing” developed by Michael White. Because of his interest in anthropological language, he also calls it the ”definitional ceremony”. When a new positive experience of self is constructed, the meanings of any therapeutic conversation can be made richer with the help of an outside community or witnesses. White's experiments have led to the use of the so-called ”outsiders witness registers”. These registers contain people who have worked on their problems before and are now willing to help others in the same situation. They form a narratively reflecting team (outsider witness group) during the sessions.

In the narrative approach, the different ”withness practices” also create ”withness thinking” by creating the space for a dynamic, reflecting interaction between living people. This state is a completely different experience from the state where ”aboutness thinking” (diagnosing thinking, for instance) often objectifies a person into a thing without a consciousness.

OK. Let's try this.

Tapio, what is it about narrative reflection that touches you most at the moment?

When I use this practice either as a therapist or as a member of an outsider witness group, I often notice that a living curiosity is still born inside me. I can also often recognize, even in my body, why these practices are sometimes called ”the collectice proclamation of being” or ”arenas of appearing”. These concepts have a very special meaning to me right now.

Human communication is a tool. A genuine dialogue can transport a person into territories of identity and life where it is possible to find new ways of joining with other people – and oneself. A good example of this are the so-called re-membering conversations (see Ratkes 3/2006), where we can renew our experience of identity in a multi-layered way in interaction with the important people in our lives. In the definitional ceremony of the narrative approach, a dialogue is a kind of open space in the mind, where the arbitrary difference between a human being and the world disappears and what I am becomes heard and accepted in a very special way. This type of being together creates new possibilities to experience oneself and act in a loving way in the human community. I feel that it opens a new dignity, presence and deep connection between people into one's life.

What kinds of mental images does narrative reflection evoke in you, when you think of therapy or life as a whole?

Power is always inevitably present in every therapy situation. It is important for me to explore how power games could be played in therapy in a way where power was used consciously with ethical choices. With the help of the outsider witness group, I've begun to realize how, for instance, the so-called applauding practices can strengthen normalizing judgement and how identity is often defined very thinly through them. Goal-oriented problem solving does not always leave enough space for exploring how people build life and meanings through their stories. Knowing cannot always be seamlessly combined with ”finding resources” or therapeutic ”growth industry”

In the definitional ceremonies, meanings are born not solely through dominating discourses, but rather in a genuine mutual dialogue, withness thinking and experiencing. Even if power can never be fully removed from the therapy relationship, one can try and use it in a respectful and humane way in the meaning negotiations that are born in narrative reflections.

What things in your own work or life currently connect you with stories or experiences of narrative reflections?

As a former student of psycho drama, they bring to my mind a vivid memory of a stage in the drama that is called sharing. In this stage, the members of the group are asked to tell others their feelings and thoughts on what they have seen and experienced in the session of the so-called protagonist. Moreno often describes this stage with the term ”love-back”. During it, the protagonists often feel they are, after all, not alone with their feelings and experiences, and they become accepted with their ”weaknesses” and ”problems”. When the themes of my life are connected with the similar stories of other people in narrative reflections, what I am can help me to become something that I have not yet been.

Being together in a living, respectful way

In my work as a school psychologist, I often tested ousider witness practices in communal situations. The parent-teacher gatherings at school have traditionally been very expert-dominated, and the voice of the parents has only rarely been heard. To make the parents' experiences heard in a richer way and to help the school in offering a space for community-building dialogue, we also developed new ways of being together with the parents of our pupils. In these meetings, our goal was not to change anything or anyone, but rather to build an open dialogue between home and school, to add understanding and to create new possibilities for action.


Two circles are formed: the inner circle and the outer circle. In the inner circle, people are in the centre of the ceremony (for instance the principle, the school counselor, the class teacher, the guidance counselor, and some mothers and fathers). The mothers and fathers in the outer circle are given a small piece of paper and a pencil to help them tune in. They are asked to write the word that first comes to mind when they hear the word ”puberty”. The pieces of paper are collected into a container, for instance a plastic bucket, and each member of the inncer circle picks one at random. Now the task is to build a statue out of the words by using sound and movement. This is how ”puberty” becomes externalized, not through lectures, but rather by using the world of the true experts as a vantage point. At the same time, one warming up into a dialogue, thinking together.

After this, the people in the inner circle begin a dialogue about ”puberty”. The people in the outer circle are not allowed to comment, so that an inner dialogue with as many voices as possible could start in the listeners' minds. The facilitator takes care that the stories told are born from the speakers' own work or life experience, and the questionable assumptions possibly related to them are opened and deconstructed.

After ten minutes, the outer circle forms outsider witness groups consisting of 4-5 people. In these groups, the shared reflections (stories about stories) are told to the people in the centre, who will in their turn reflect on new stories. After 3-4 rounds the ceremony is ended, usually with a conversation in pairs on the thoughts and experiences brought on by the events.

Where has working with narrative reflection transported you in your thinking or your experience of living? How is this new place different from where you were before?

After participating in narrative definitional ceremonies, I notice that a new dimension has appeared in my work. At the moment, based on my experiences, I am focusing more and more on the invisible present moment rather than the deeper meanings or future goals in my own or other people's lives. The mindsets of being in the present moment often include a feeling that nothing has to be changed, that we ar always already there, and that everything is profoundly perfect.

I also realize that my current work and studies are a kind of ceremony. In this constant everyday flow of changes it is possible to redefine oneself all the time through re-re-re-tellings of the stories and the experiences contained within them. However, I also know that they are only stories. After a deconstruction of language, it also becomes possible to reach a deconstruction of experience. That is when doing is born naturally from the mindset of being, and separation turns into connection and compassion towards everything that is.


Andersen, T. (2007): Human Participating: Human ”Being” Is the Step for Human ”Becoming” in
the Next Step. Kirjassa Anderson, H. & Gehart, D. (Eds.) Collaborative Therapy.
Relationships and Conversations that make a Difference. Routledge.

Hoffman, L. (2007): The Art of ”Withness” : A New Bright Edge. Kirjassa Anderson, H. &
Gehart, D. (Eds.) Collaborative Therapy. Relationships and Conversations that make a
Difference. Routledge.

Russel, S. & Carey, M. (2006): Narratiivisen reflektioryhmän käyttö: vastauksia usein esitettyihin
kysymyksiin. Kirjassa Russel, S. & Carey. M. (toim.) Narratiivisen terapian
peruskysymyksiä. Kuva ja Mieli.

White , M. (2000): Reflecting Teamwork as Definitional Ceremony revisited. Kirjassa White, M.:
Reflections on Narrative Practice: Essayes and interviews. Dulwich Centre Publications.


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