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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Springing Forward, Relationship Ecologies and New Advanced Course Line-up

Conor O'Leary, Irish Photgrapher, from series 'An Island Through a Fence.'

Hello Everyone: Welcome back.

Warm wishes to all of you - from all of us - at the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy.

Those of us living above the equator line are adjusting to spring times arrival.

I’m presently looking out onto a bushel of half budded, bright pink, cherry blossoms.

It’s hard for me to articulate my deep historical affection for Spring.

I suppose it has something to do with, anticipation. That visceral sense of knowing, full into your bones, this upcoming change is going to be outright excellent.

As a child growing up in Toronto I remember a pungent, off-putting smell we welcomed when thawing snow turned the ground into fresh sloppy, stinky mud. Like clock work, the smell signposted a mysterious ritual of turning clocks forward, a first opportunity to play road hockey outside without our jackets on, and the never ending parade of neighbourhood mothers standing at doorways asking how on earth could we possibly get so muddy – day after day.

I remember St Patrick’s Day (Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit - a belated Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of you!), and the iced green double layered chocolate cake my mother always made, and going to primary school being the only child with a live shamrock pinned on his chest alongside some kind of Irish medal knowing, full well, it was now only four days until my birthday. Anticipation.

I remember a teacher, when I was 10 or 11, announcing my birth date not only landed on the first day of the Zodiac calendar, it was also the first day of the Spring Equinox. I hadn’t a clue what any of the information meant but felt pleased, just the same.

On the way to hockey practice the next evening, I told my Dad of this newly found Zodiac/Solstice news. He asked me what it meant, and I said I didn’t quite know (I still don’t), but was able to clearly boast a claim that, I was a Ram!

Without missing a beat (he was never one to miss out on a bit of fun), and with his mischievous electric Irish blue eyes twinkling, let me know, that, he was in fact a great authority on all things Zodiac. Emphatically stating that from the ‘books he’d studied’, I could never be a Ram until I was fully sixteen! What am I then? He rubbed his chin, blew out his breath and stated: I am afraid you are just a wee little lamb (like Mary had a little lamb). After I punch him in the shoulder we did manage a good laugh. The car ride may have put me off astrology, forever.

Wishing all of you the happiest springtime, ever.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the narrative therapy community we share together. All that we do and, try each day to do. I’ve been wondering how may of us are doing practice sessions across the world each day, at the same time. And what it would be like if we all stopped at the same moment, to acknowledge one another. I tinkered with a notion of what we all might be simultaneously expressing and experiencing, doing what we do.

We know learning narrative practice is to fail.

There is a fine art to this failure, so they say.

So go ahead. Feel let down. Feel it in your bones.

Taste just how the disappointment feels.

Reach out to yourself when your session collapses.

Don’t you dare just walk away.

Practice resuscitation. Cardiac massage.

Accept the rejections of your therapeutic questions.

Risk yourself. Try not to be afraid.

Take pause. Reflect. Study your work.

Gulp it down. Desire more. Make it super hard to live without.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Until your heart feels raw.

Stay in the double wonder(fullness). The beauty.

Stomach your fare portion of the world, until it hurts what you take for granted.

Push yourself further. Further than anyone else can push, you.

Learn the work. Labour it. Have stamina.

Do not tread water. Do not stay in the shallow end of the pool, either.

Do not allow your heart to harden. Do not.

Carry the bloody load.

Share your rage through elegant questioning.

Remain modest with just how glorious the work is, and can be.

Remain studious, curious, even when you teach.

Hatch a plan. The cavalry is not coming.

Make every attempt not to wilt.

Restore what has been devalued.

Practice beyond the anguish you engage.

Value your values. Make an argument. Stick to it.

Question the unimagined.

Unique up your language.

Make the ordinary sublime.

Exoticize the domestic.

Be earnest. Be dedicated. Be kind.

Be a fucking fierce motherfucker.

Be leaning on that front forward foot, always.

Be subversive of the artless and easy way.

Don’t panic.

Embrace the mystery.

Laugh. Laugh at yourself.

Fill your lungs with all that narrative practice offers.

And if you must, and if it helps, flame out your nostrils.


Conor O'Leary from series 'An Island Through a Fence.'

The echoes of our narrative therapy history are always inadvertently and deliberately inviting us into both past and new ways of being in the present and future, within our daily practice.

We, all of us, converse in therapeutic worlds that recede into the past and extend into the future. Allowing practicing narrative therapists to re-member, re-collect, re-create, and re-call what may matter most about the values we hold onto, while doing the practice we do.

The address of narrative therapy tradition is not just something arching from before but rather, how we relationally internalize and practice it’s political values and historical beliefs, and where these may end us up, in the future.

While adhering to Michael White's electrifying conceptual practice framework (that has fully and completely shaped our collective work), VSNT has designed an the Advanced Narrative Practice training course where participants can jump in, be challenged, be puzzled, be stretched, and interact and learn just how VSNT faculty's narrative therapy practice and theoretical understandings has, in many ways, changed.

It could be argued, the most efficient way for the different generations of narrative therapists to begin to piece together how our VSNT faculty practice work has changed is by weaving the faculties individual expressions and demonstrations of this narrative therapy informed relational practice together over the course of five days and 10 presentations. Once this is achieved, the project is to then weave the separate practice parts, into a larger relational whole.

Inspired through the work of one critical race scholar, two trans identified community organizers, a brilliant continental philosopher, and six world class narrative therapists, the VSNT faculty teach, create, demonstrate, and discuss your questions on exactly how and why they are reshaping the ideas and practice of narrative therapy.

The Advanced Narrative Practice course is designed for all of you who are committed to practicing narrative therapy and growing, even further. And Please Note: The VSNT faculty welcomes all participants at all levels of understanding and practice experience to join us in this training.

It is my pleasure to now personally introduce you to VSNT’s The Advanced Narrative Practice Teaching Team. Below is the teaching order we will present the ideas and practices, through.

Narrative Therapy Informed Relational Interviewing in Couple Relationships: Stephen Madigan, PhD

Ha! I’m not going to introduce myself too much other than to say: This obviously fevered person has been sorting out different ways of working with conflicted couple relationships relationally, through a method of narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing practice, fulltime, since about mid-2013.

It took almost six years to begin to trust specific practice understandings and expressions and catch up to what I somehow already knew but, couldn’t quite articulate and fully replicate inside the therapy room.

All along the way, I felt the Relational Interviewing practice becoming more solid on the outside, but privately, I knew it was leading me towards somewhere or something, else. Patience is definitely not one of my strong points but . . . I plugged along.

During 2019, the practice took what seemed like a creative turn towards a big jump forward, splashing me head long into the deep end of the pool. Not quite a cannonball, but certainly a well heeled belly flop.

At the moment, I personally feel the RI couple therapy work is perhaps the best narrative practice work I’ve ever come close to doing and, their remains, a long way to go. My humble intention in the workshop is to guide participant learning through a step-by-step study of the history and most recent developments in Relational Interviewing through videos I did alongside conflicted couple relationships, and some with consultant response teams, filmed in Canada, Norway and the USA.

Producing Normativity: Interlocking Queer, Trans and Racialized Experience, Knowhow and Practice: Harjeet Badwell PhD, Alex Filippelli MA & David Nylund PhD

Harjeet is the newest person to join our VSNT faculty. I’d heard about her work and ideas well before we met, and what has never been the case in VSNT’s history, it took all of two Zoom conversations to invite her onto the faculty teaching team. The question is why?

Well . . . if you read Harjeet’s writings, hear her wax elegantly on everything from Michel Foucault, race theory (critical race scholarship, post-colonial studies), post-structural feminism, queer and trans theory, all the while discussing ideas and practice applications on everything from discourse, power relations, subject-formation, governmentality, intersectionality, performativity – and then come to understand her history of studying with Michael White – and then enjoy her sense of humour, and experience her values lining up with other VSNT faculty, and how fierce she just might be . . . it was, all in all, a fairly easy decision to arrive at. :)

One might think Alex would be the newest faculty, and technically this might be so. But, because he is well known socially and politically within our queer, trans and cis-gender narrative community, and drinks out are always fun and conversationally entertaining, and since they’ve already given highly respected workshops and a co-keynote on queer informed narrative therapy and community organizing at past TC conferences, and is joined at the hip with Rock down at their award winning Gender Health Centre in Sacramento – well Alex seems to have already been a part of our team for a number of years.

As you may imagine, together, Alex, Harjeet and Rock, make for a formidable teaching team both in theoretical understandings, lived experience and narrative practice know-how.

And if you are at all wondering why this workshop is such an important piece to our/your Advanced Narrative Training course, then this workshop has come at the perfect time for you. :)

Alex, Harjeet and Rock invite participants into experiential practice learning and theoretical discussions focused on governmentality and enforced normativity, within mental health practice organizations and education. Throughout the workshop questions about the present practice of narrative therapy are raised, and video-taped practice interviews are demonstrated.

Why use Neuro in your Narrative: Possibilities and Practices in the 21 Century: Jeff Zimmerman PhD

I have literally ‘grown up’ alongside Jeff in narrative therapy. With a history of always knowing where he stands politically, musically and therapeutically, it was no surprise his book Neuro-Narrative Therapy was going to be viewed as both courageous and controversial.

Jeff knew well before the book was published it would ruffle a few feathers. But, as Michael White’s long standing close friend in North America, narrative supervisor to both David Marsten and David Nylund, and one of narrative therapy’s most well-respected clinicians, he was determined to bring narrative therapist attention towards the non-discursive aspects of our work.

My personal opinion was that his book took an unnecessarily bad, public beat down, by a few senior people in the community. And why they chose this topic to contest and centre out Jeff and his work to critique, still remains as a bit of a puzzle.

However, I do feel our narrative community could do with a lot more difference and debate, but unfortunately (and I don’t believe this was necessarily the intention of the naysayers), the way Jeff’s work was critiqued seemed to create fear in the hearts of many therapists (especially younger narrative therapists who contacted me), with a message to toe the party line.

To be fair, it took me two full reads of the book (yellow markers in hand and writing notes in the margins), and many long conversations with Jeff in bars (lots of them), over dinners, and over the phone and Zoom, to finally grasp the books important meanings. With its crucial attention to the non-discursive aspects of our work it shows us the importance of broadening the field of this discussion and practice of narrative therapy, further.

Jeff sets out in the Advanced training to singlehandedly point our narrative therapy community towards the non-discursive aspects of our work and the body. Buckle up kids. He is going to push you further.

His workshop plans to discuss the following questions:

  • What will it take for long time Narrative Therapists to take responsibility for evolving Michael’s original 1980s approach despite opposition from the dominant hegemony?

  • In what ways could attention to Neurobiology enrich/expand Narrative therapy practice work?

  • What makes attending to affect in the stories clients tell us so critical in today’s technologically dominated life?

  • In what ways do our bodies “understandings” of threat, influence our narratives and responses?

Transgressing the Tabooed Relationship to the Deceased: Making the relationship to the dead child guide the parents’ response to grief: Helene Grau MA

As is the case in our attraction to certain musicians, I believe all practicing narrative therapists could name their favourite narrative therapist – based on the therapist’s distinctive style, pacing, knowledge, creativity, questioning, writing, and the performance of post-structural theory in the practice.

At the moment my favourite is far and away Helene’s practice (and please don’t worry - all the other VSNT faculty know how much I love and respect their work as well). Getting to study, discuss and experience Helene’s work up close (particularly over the course of 6 months during lock down and the 15 individual sessions in the long play discussion series on Developing Questions on that included herself, David M, Rock and me).

When I experience her narrative therapy informed relational interviewing practice, I feel a sublime grace, compassion, a rigorous attention to listening and detail, that is all relationally encased within a world class study and practice of narrative therapy.

Helene’s part of the Advanced training looks at how, in our society, the experience many parents have when losing their child, the dead child becomes a taboo topic of discussion within the community of family, colleagues and friends. As a consequence of not having social and cultural support, these parents are left isolated and on their own to respond to the grief and trauma being experienced. Her question is: how do we manage to help parents in this situation of tremendous grief, loss, and death?

Participants learn ways to address how the dead child can become the most significant helper, in helping parents respond to grief. Helene shows how the understanding of intentional identity and the art of re-authoring lives and relationships is vital to saving the relationship to the child from the physical death. She also demonstrates through narrative session transcripts, how the relationship to a dead loved one can transgress the prison of the static past, by moving it into the present and help shape the future.

The 2-Minute Session: Narrative Practices in Communities: Aaron Munro MA

Since the onset of COVID I usually speak with Aaron once or twice week. And each time I do, he’ll inevitably say something odd, outside and unique. Something I’ve never considered, before.

If you’re a member of and have been following our long play discussion series based on his yet to be published book Bad Manners, I need not explain his stand alone intoxicating take on life any further. Because you will have witnessed Aaron’s head-shaking ability to double think and double listening response to incredibly complex issues concerning violence, poverty, opioid death on the streets and homelessness.

Bad Manners is his nicely crafted first person narrative that highlights shelter-less people and their stories and, everything he has personally learned from these relationships. If the spirit is willing his long play series starts up again, soon.

Aaron transitioned in Canada’s poorest postal code 17 years ago. He has never forgotten the heroic trans persons and struggles who came before him. Inside the same neighbourhood he transitioned in, he has gone on to become a remarkably talented community organizer who, opened the first trans and queer youth homeless (the first in Canada), and is just about to open an all trans, staffed by trans persons, 26 room house for homeless older trans persons (another first in Canada).

Aaron’s specific participation in VSNT’s Advanced Practice course leads participants through an exploration of what taking up a post-structural, queer theory informed narrative therapy practice looks like outside of the 60-minute, sitting in one place, practice session.

His workshop invites you into conversations with shelter-less people receiving community based services where a typical counselling interaction takes place in doctor's waiting rooms, a shelter line up, an SRO, or on the street where sessions of 2-10 minutes take place while walking, running into people by chance, or during an emergency call.

Aaron demonstrates a wide range of narrative practices he has created in the fast paced and under resourced community social service sector, and how he developed support from the sector for narrative informed approaches.

Self-Deception: A Narrative Cultural Perspective on Freud's Idea of Regression: Todd May, PhD

There is no getting around it. Todd May, resident VSNT philosopher and co-host of the long play series on Michel Foucault’s non-essentialist influence on narrative therapy - is one of the very best teachers many of us have ever known. He is charming, hilarious, a great storyteller, community organizer, and deadly serious about narrative values, human rights and non-essentialist ways of thinking and living.

A sceptic might point out the only reason for this kind of reverence is that he teaches high ground philosophical ideas directly related to a post-structural non-individualist narrative practice that we therapists have either had only a thin accounting of, or have never really discussed at the level of understanding he affords. But this is exactly the point of why his Advanced teaching holds such great importance at VSNT.

As a scholar and author of 16 books on philosophy, including elegantly written texts on the ideas of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Todd has a remarkable ability to deliver severely complex ideas, in such a way, that narrative therapists can not only understand, but connect directly to their practice of therapy.

His new workshop on Self Deception represents a vital piece of knowledge to the Advanced Practice course. In the workshop he takes on a foundational idea central to all psychoanalytic and psychological understanding: Sigmund Freud’s idea of Repression (through an in depth discussion on Self Deception).

Traditionally, the topic of Self-Deception has been conceived of and practiced through Freud’s psychoanalytic model as it relates to the body of knowledge regarding the idea of ‘repression’. The idea that what we hide from ourselves is viewed to exist in the ‘unconscious’ and is expressed as surface behaviour through a variety of symptoms, dreams, etc.

Todd rigorously explores two primary problems with this method of thinking:

One - Psychological understandings assume we have this thing called an unconscious.

Two - this essentialist method of practice understanding individualizes self-deception, withdrawing it from its social and political context.

Todd’s workshop offers participants a way to think of self-deception as something we do within a politically charged context, allowing us to see ourselves, even in self-deception, as inseparable from the world we inhabit.

Narrative Practice with Individuals and Families: Novelty, Intrigue and Dramatization - A Case for Compelling Characterization: David Marsten, MSW

David is a narrative therapist through and through.

Always has been and always will be.

His practice experience is part of the reason he is such a highly regarded VSNT faculty member and sought after narrative therapy supervisor and trainer. Through his Los Angels based independent therapy shop opened 25 years ago, Miracle Mile Community Practice, David has far surpassed Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours Rule’, where it is stated the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.

OK. Hands up anyone who enjoyed reading Narrative Therapy in Wonderland: Connecting with children’s imaginative knowhow - written by David Marsten, Laurie Markham ad David Epston. OK then.

Now, what if I told you David has taken the foundational ideas of wonderfulness interviewing and sssssssstretched them relationally, then materialized them differently and more meaningfully, inside the interviewing room with children, families and adults.

David has been studying how common diagnostic vernaculars (e.g., mood disorder, anxiety disorder, attentional problem, addictive tendency) act to close down the borders, and shut out unique representations of persons and relationships - offering up only a partial story. Where the people featured in these representations are often left utterly unrecognizable.

David’s work highlights how, much like the characters we encounter in favourite books and films, the people who seek us out for help in therapy deserve to be seen and experienced by narrative therapists as compelling figures in unfolding relational dramas. And this is exactly what he is going to teach participants how to do.

With the use of video session interviews, he guides participants through this new interview structure, the discipline it takes to remain with developing the emerging story, the narrative questions asked, how stories are received, and the relational ideology behind this work. Participants come away with narrative practice skills that reinvigorate the relational and conversational space to make room for novelty and intrigue.

Attending to the Ecology of the Receiving Context: Relational Supervision & Narrative Therapy: Stephen Madigan PhD and David Nylund PhD + Guests

Over the last 18 months or so the two David’s (Marsten and Nylund) along with Helene and myself, have become somewhat infatuated with an idea we call: The relational ecology of the receiving context client stories are received into. Why? Well first, lets take a step back a bit . . .

For the sake of argument lets assume the following: a) all therapist questions have an ideological family of origin; b) therapist questions have purpose, direction & intention, c) therapist questions (asked and not asked) situate a therapists values, politics, preferences and theory/practice of choice.

Using these assumptions, we can confidently say that investigating a therapists questions in supervision not only lets the supervisor know where the therapist stands but their questions also offer us a window into what exactly the therapist stands for.

A Relational Ecology of the receiving context client stories are received into constitutes an interwoven, complex symphony of all the ideas, beliefs, values, cultural location, history, expressions, memories, ideologies etc. that we as therapists receive client stories into.

What is created from the ecology of the relational receiving context eventually becomes a therapist’s response back to the client story through - one single therapeutic question. We might refer to this question asked as a situated co-production of relational ideas, where the relational production behind and producing the one therapeutic question asked is viewed as a delegate representing how the client story was received and responded to by the therapist.

Unlike current forms of narrative supervision, the focus on crafting the singular sexy question is placed in the background. For VSNT the relational ecology of the receiving context that received the client story and created the question has come to the foreground, providing us with a more robust supervisory/supervisee and therapist/client relationship.

The challenge for all narrative therapists in supervision is: a) there must first be a clear understanding of the relational ecology of the receiving context we receive client stories into and then, b) the therapist must be able to produce a clear and coherent representation of this relational receiving context through the question asked.

Workshop participants first learn the theory and practice of this new relational supervisory method. David will then demonstrate one use and style of the supervision practice, showing the writing of therapeutic letters as a supervisor to the supervisee and client relationship. Stephen demonstrates a form of this method used in RI couple therapy supervision with a Norwegian High Conflict Couple Therapy Team and then participants are invited into a Live interview with these therapists about the experience of the supervision.

Narrative Conversations about Trauma & Violence: Re-establishing Relationships with the Body: Rosa Arteaga MA

I met Rosa over a decade ago. I had of course heard of her work at the large non-profit counselling clinic in Vancouver where she supervised a team of women working with women and girls experiencing gender-violence. After she attended a first training in narrative therapy with me, we gradually began a friendship. I say gradually because Rosa seemed to have a lot of checking out to do about who I was and the politics I stood for – before stepping any further.

The first few conversations I remember were held over bottles of wine at my house with other friends and inevitably, on every single occasion, there was a point (well into the evening) where Rosa would turn her chair towards me and ask about how I experienced my privilege. And never once did I experience her questions about privilege with any sniff of antagonism or lesson teaching or having any other agenda but - curiosity.

Fast forward to life before the lockdown began . . . I can count on Rosa being the ‘spiritual’ leader and life of the party and is always (always) the last person to leave my house.

Rosa Arteaga is the real deal. Her life, politic and dedication to the work she and her colleagues do is, completely, and uncontestably, aligned. All that ever seems to matter to her and her team of women is – getting the best possible counselling, justice and legal services for women and girls who have been abuse, violated, and traumatized. She is far too humble to ever say this (so I will) - no one among us works harder or is more committed. No one.

The workshop introduces the learner to Rosa’s new narrative approach addressing the body and how to respond, address, and transform the long lasting impacts of complex trauma, sexualized and gender violence. More specifically, she takes participants inside the complexities of her unique narrative therapy approach on how she therapeutically collaborates with girls and women survivors through a relational, political and contextual reconnection and interview of the body.

Rosa demonstrates her approach through unaltered transcripts to highlight narrative questions asked directly to the body to rework reputations of the body experience and, the meaning making knowledge this holds.


Ok. That’s all folks.

Although I should probably let the cat out of the bag and let you know that VSNT is designing an 8 to 10 month long Supervision Course for all of you who keep asking us where to get good narrative supervision. :)

We should have an announcement about the Supervision course content and design in the next 4 to 6 weeks.

What I am certain of is that it will be very affordable; be centred on developing the ecology of the therapists receiving context and close up reviewing and re-authoring of supervisee transcripts; all supervisee’s will get a free membership to; multiple world class narrative supervisors will be involved; and participants are involved in both a small intimate intensive group supervision and, will join up once a month with a larger supervisory discussion group . . .

If you’d like to contact me directly please email:

Thanks, stay safe, and we hope to catch up with you soon.


To Save your Place in May's Advanced Practice Course << Click HERE >>

Conor O'Leary from series 'An Island Through a Fence.'

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