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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

(June 2020) Dancing on the High-wire, Empathy, and Michelangelo

The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it. – Oscar Wilde

As many of you know, I am the father of twin daughters. 

A week ago, the youngest (by 8 minutes) graduated from law school - the youngest graduate in her class. Over time, I watched her worries dissipate while her confidence and verve for learning grew wider. The heart melts. School terms flew by. And there she is on the Dean's list. Of greater importance to her, is receiving the school's outstanding public service award (pro bono work in prisoner rights and child welfare).  

My daughter's spoken experience of achievement, anticipation, freedom and relief is music to my ears. In 'normal times' this would be the moment she would be moving out of the library and into long days of riotous celebration and dress-up post cap and gown parties. 

I feel sad she and her classmates missed out on this rite of passage. Party passage. The image I hold is of her inside the flat she shares with her sister, on Zoom, wearing pajamas, glass of wine in hand - receiving her diploma. I told her, at the very least, I hoped her glass held a full-bodied Bordeaux with aromas of black currant, plums, and earthy notes of wet gravel or pencil lead. She laughed and reminded me of her student loans.

Her big sister (by 8 minutes) is one year out of nursing school and, without giving it a second thought, volunteered for the COVID-19 testing unit at the hospital she works in. Her reasoning and values were sound – she wanted to do the right thing. I bit my lip. Recently she stepped up and into the responsibility of running the team as Charge Nurse. So young or so I thought. Beyond how much I admire the choices she is making - I'm sick with worry.

I'm well aware this worry and sadness pale in comparison to so many other parents and families living inside the pandemic. My local experience has, however, rocket-boosted an awareness to inhabit an otherness beyond the circles I live in. 

There is a simple word for this: empathy

Please don't be short-changed nor fooled by the taken for granted meaning of this word empathy. Empathy is furious. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. This empathy is not syrupy or sentimental. 

Empathy allows me to remember how the world is so much more than one story. That we find in others the ongoing of ourselves. The story experienced is bigger than us. Releasing me from being stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said something like: we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. Ha! I feel COVID-19 is providing us with a context to do precisely that. 

Recently I've been thinking  . . . 

To dance on the high wire of therapeutic conversation is what you want. Why should the flying Wallenda brothers have all the fun? Go out and practice and rearrange this practice, then practice more and rearrange this practice again. Eventually, you will see a structure emerge. Practice and rearrange adventurously, unfailingly, lustfully. It sounds so simple. Yet it is not. It can't be. And don't brave this alone.

The harder you work on a practice of developing questions, the clearer the structure of your therapy will become. Honest. The session will take on a shape you begin to recognize, a shape that never could have come simply.  Never imagined. It can be difficult. The difficulty in developing questions has its purpose.

A great joy in the difficulty of learning narrative therapy is, in fact, its difficulty. Challenge yourself. Move away from comfort. Take flight. If you want to be a bear, be a grizzly.  Anything is possible.


The point of our therapy practice is to make new stories durable and long-lasting. To weather oppositional storms, they must be built on a solid foundation. 

  • The art involves creating and appreciating alternative time and memory.

  • Making vivid that which was restrained or perceived to not exist before. 

  • Nudging forth the possibility of new meaning and shaping the past, present and future - differently. 

  • This is quite a responsibility. 

  • Respect it.


Finding the moment or turning point in the story can be one of the great revelations in the relational two-step of narrative therapy. It is the point where everything begins to change, not only for our clients but for us therapists as well. If we miss these moments trying to get somewhere else, the structure of our therapy will need to be revisited. 


Here is a suggestion: Have a conversation with your questions. In fact, develop the most loving and passionate relationship possible with your questions. Read your questions back to your questions and see what emerges. See what they think and how they respond. Walk around your office and your home with them. Take them to the beach or the post office. Shout them up towards the sky. Don't just whisper them. Speak them aloud. Risk being embarrassed. You need to hear the rhythm and hum of these questions. Know them.


I use to tape my questions into a recorder, speaking all the questions I so much wanted to learn how to ask better. I played them back in my car as I drove around with the windows down. Some nights they sounded better than Dylan. Try it out. Then listen to them again and again and again. 


Your questions, when treated respectfully, as you would your most trusted friends, will find you new places to roam and experiences beyond your wildest imagination. Adventure as far as you can with them. Fill your lungs. Be worried. Be thankful. Everything is okay.

The Receiving Structure 

"A book is not an isolated being; it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. - Jorge Luis Borges

Over the last 2 months, I've joined my VSNT colleagues and friends Helene Grau (Copenhagen), David Marsten (Los Angeles) and David Nylund (Sacramento) in a weekly series designed to explore, develop and reflect upon the craft of developing narrative therapy questions.

We begin our live discussions each week by watching an 8-10 minute video clip of Michael White explaining how and why he arrived at specific categories of questions, or we view one of our own live interviews showing the use of these same questions. Video clips (from our collection of the worlds largest narrative therapy archive) act as the reflective surface designed to push and challenge us outward and beyond.

One uncommon conversation emerging these days involves the 'structure' into which we receive client stories.

In thinking about receiving structures, I was reminded today of Michelangelo's 5.7 meter 'David' at the Academia Gallery in Florence. Can you ever imagine Michelangelo receiving this massive block of marble from the quarry?  Overwhelming to most humans but the structure of understanding into which he receives the slab of marble allows him to begin his work. It took 2 years. He was under contract to create a David but exactly how and what he created emerged from the structure of the receiving context.

VSNT faculty take turns revealing how the receiving architecture of therapeutic sessions is organized, realizing how perhaps the best interviews are more profoundly organized within this structure than we ever let on. And how the receiving structure achieves most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. 

In this sense, the structure of narrative therapy interviewing involves weaving together meaning, learning, politic, practice, aptitude and talent to receive the stories we hear in the therapy room. More precisely, this demands a pirate's map pointing to the exact location where each moment and utterance are consigned (think of a place holder), as well as a bird's eye view of how the 'new house' is slowly being built from the foundation upward.

I invite you to place yourselves in the shoes of clients who visit us in therapy. Now, with a critical eye, look around the structure of the home you receive clients stories into. Ask yourself, is this conversation ambitious enough? Does it have enough windows? Is there anything blocking my site lines? Is the place of our conversation built on something they have never experienced before? Am I providing something more than a therapy souvenir shop? Hmmm.

This is not always easy. Nor should it be. 


One side note on social distancing . . . 

Treating the pandemic with all the seriousness and respect it deserves, I haven't been socializing. Not one bit. And unbeknownst to me (and putting all the politic and tragedy aside) social isolation and distancing bring with it a certain relief to me. . . and dare I say happiness. I dig it. I sound like a dick, right?  Let me explain... 

I don't feel my experience of relief and happiness has to be explained away as pretentious or snot-nosed. Being asked to speak about therapy (outside of therapy and teaching) or worse, being invited to weigh in on someone's personal affairs at a public gathering is one of the only places in life where I feel an awkward, tongue-tied shyness. Over the years, the experience has moved past agonizing.

On the ever more popular question of 'what you do/what is narrative therapy' - it begs the question of how one explains Dostoyevsky in a twitter feed. I receive the inquiry as coming from a good place and good manners. It's what people do. 

But I end up feeling disloyal. To narrative. To what I do. And more specifically to the interlocutor. Feels phony. Coming up short. A betrayal. Dishonouring of the sacred. Awkward and suburban. Beige. Forever wanting to apologize. What's the Gucci word? Ah yes – not being authentic. 

This is entirely personal. It may not be your experience, but for me, it sucks.

I'd have to say, by a factor of 10, the most uncomfortable feeling occurs in a social context, where after more than a few bottles into a dinner party, the phenomenon of guests talking about themselves, their relationships, or their children, bosses, friends, neighbours takes flight. Feels like a runaway train. The dam bursts open. God damn. Oh no. And (wait for it) – politely, and as an act of inclusion, the table begins soliciting what my opinion might be on these matters (and if you have a family member or partner who is a medical doctor they will empathize). 

A bit of my angst arrives from a certain politic regarding how the world of civilians improperly overspecializes therapist knowledge. More specifically, how the skinny story told at the table is somehow enough to warrant a wizened 'aha' moment response by the sitting therapist. Don't fool yourselves. It's simple tomfoolery. They are giving away way too much credit where credit does not belong. We know this. And they don't.

The other bit of discomfort is the level of intimacy the invitation demands. There we were strolling along nicely, bantering on about politics, sports, cooking and stories of stupidity and suddenly a sharp turn is made where the table up ends upside down inside incredibly disturbing events. It's not my party. And I didn't sign up for this. 

I suppose the crux of the discomfort is that I find it virtually impossible to hear nice peoples' personal stories in any sort of casual way. I'm equipped with only one mode of hearing the suffering of others. And in this situation, I find it unbearable. It means either being entered back into and shaped by the therapy room I just left, or faking sincerity. I'm discombobulated. I'm half drunk. I'm selfish. I squirm. And I want to go home and turn the music up loud. 

I suppose conversational turns such as these can be viewed as a modern social ritual connecting and bringing people closer through revealing a vulnerability and a trust afforded. I look desperately for an exit. Betraying this circle of intimacy. 

I feel like a jerk. For a while, I considered not going out to bars and dinner parties (except with the closest of friends and family). And after saying all this, the possibility of being invited out again has been drastically reduced.


Upcoming Events

On June 21st, we begin our Licensure Agreements with select University Programs and family therapy clinics. Full access, wide-sweeping and low cost. Your program gets the whole shebang.

** If you' are interested in applying for one of these limited number of Licensure Agreements write to the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy at **

It is looking more and more like our annual Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy 5-day Foundations narrative therapy certificate training program will be taught online in late September 2020. Be rest assured we'll get this right. Find out all about our faculty, course content and schedule here.

Sample of discussion videos recently posted:

A) Live Interview: Discussions On Feminism, Gender And Power With Rachel Hare-Mustin.

Rachel Hare-Mustin wrote the first significant feminist article published in the field of Family Therapy. Rachel has been widely recognized for her contributions to the debate on gender, power and the meaning of difference. Victoria Dickerson & Stephen Madigan interviewed Rachel in 2006, at Therapeutic Conversations 7 in Vancouver, Canada. 1) Describes the history of feminist ideas in therapy. 2) Explains different forms of feminist approaches. 3) Demonstrates the use of feminism in therapy.

B) Live Interview: History Is Contingent: Michel Foucault’s Ideas And The Narrative Therapy Practice Of Michael White.

Philosopher Todd May and I host our 3rd Theoretical Discussion Series hour beginning with a 7-minute workshop tape of Michael White and a recent 4-minute VSNT training lecture of Todd speaking on Michel Foucault, essentialism, structuralism and the idea that history is contingent. The purpose is to highlight how the influence Michel Foucault’s ideas had on the narrative therapy practice of Michael White.

C) Live Interview: Developing Questions Series #5: Double Listening, Scaffolding Questions & Proximal Distance.

Join hosts Helene Grau, Stephen Madigan, David Marsten & David Nylund as they continue their investigations into the various structures, types and meanings of narrative questions through a 16 minute 2004 workshop video of Michael White.

In this next section of our Developing Questions Series, we address the meaning and purpose of scaffolding conversations, double listening, and questions that afford a proximal distance assisting in the shaping of conversational practice structure.

Thanks so much for reading all the way to the bottom - again.

Take care until next time.


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