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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

The Uses of Sorrow

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift. — Mary Oliver

Island View Arbutus, oil on canvas, Linda Yurgensen

Hello Out There . . . It’s good to be back, again.

Hoping all is healthy and you’re all feeling a bit more freed up on both sides of the Winter/Summer equatorial line. Inside the August 2022 Narrative Newsletter: A few significant narrative therapy anniversaries coming up; the death of two precious narrative colleagues; a 4 stage narrative team supervision paper (and a few other bits on writing); mixed taped narrative sessions; and a Supervision Cross Training immersion course (what?) Ok here we go . . . enjoy the read. Up here on the west coast and north side of the equator line I’ve been enjoying summertime magic. Sumptuous time to read, hike, create song lists, laugh a lot with friends, and . . . dream. Mid-September is shaping up nicely. I fly out to Toronto with daughters Hannah and Tessa to engage a few noteworthy parties alongside the Madigan clan and the very best of our friends. Have to hand it Hannah for making the TO trip given she just started a Master of Science degree in Nursing with a nurse practitioner specialization in family medicine so ~ will have to bring along her books. :) 50 Karl Tomm and I had a lovely Zoom conversation. Karl is the coolest. Among other topics . . . next August 2023 his Calgary Family Therapy Centre will celebrate its 50th anniversary and they plan to host a conference. I mentioned to Karl that if even 10% of the people show up who either worked, trained, interned, or simply went to a workshop hosted by the Calgary Family Therapy Centre – they will need an aircraft hangar to hold the event. My-oh-my! So much fun! Can’t wait! Stay tune. 40 Before Cheryl White went off in August to co-sponsor their long-postponed narrative conference in Rwanda we spoke on the phone about silly and serious matters. I squeezed in a mention it was going to be Karl’s 50th anniversary party and asked if she planned to go (as they first met in Adelaide back in 1985! - and it was through Karl that Michael and narrative therapy began receiving its first international recognition). Cheryl let me know that 2023 also marked the 40th anniversary of the Dulwich Centre + the 15-year anniversary of Michael’s death. Could this really be so? 30 I have been speaking and plotting with VSNT Operations Director and all-round excellent person Robin Evan Willis about securing a 2023 date for our next BIG Narrative Therapy Conference here in Vancouver. The 2023 conference celebrates the 30-year anniversary of VSNT hosting the first ever International Narrative Therapy conference. Should be a doozey. Ha! --- Loss During the very same first weekend in July, our narrative therapy community lost two of our boldest characters. Denmark’s John Gurnæs from Arhus, and Norway’s Gunnar Martinsen from Bergen. This went down very hard. John loomed large in Scandinavian narrative therapy teaching circles alongside his long-time friend and colleague Anne Saxtorph of NARRATIVE PERSPEKTIVER. I had great laughs with John and always invited him to present at our VSNT conferences. And he often co-hosted members of our faculty crew at workshops in Copenhagen and Aarhus. We remember John waxing on excitedly about philosophical and political ideas and his solid ability to unite systemic family therapy with narrative. In a few months, you can read his last written work (in Danish), in FOKUS på Familien, a Scandinavian Journal of Family Therapy. Gunnar died on the same July weekend as John. Many of the VSNT faculty had just spent a week with him in Bergen during May. Our community was gutted. Rocked by news of his sudden death. Thinking about his son and partner and newly pregnant daughter. Gunnar was just telling me about his excitement of becoming a grandfather for the first time. I told him he would have to work on looking older if he was to look the part. He leaned over my beer and kissed me. We first heard the news of Gunnar’s death from our great friend Erling Fidjestøl, Director of the ROBUST Clinic - Norway’s wonderful and only all narrative therapy practice in the city of Oslo. Erling wrote us the following message,“Gunnar Martinsen - that one and only very very special man with the biggest heart, died last night at 02:30. Ironically it was his wonderful, loving heart - that we all loved him for - that finally made his last beat tonight. Gunnar loved people, he loved therapy, and he totally loved Narrative Therapy. . . .” Our community re-members and carries Gunnar and John forward.

Sunset at Rathtrevor Beach, oil on canvas, Mike Lathrop Mixed-taped Sessions Midway through June 2022, Helene Grau-Kristensen from Copenhagen (a VSNT faculty member who, at the moment, is arguably, in my opinion, narrative therapies most talented), asked if I would ‘formally supervise’ her practice. So . . . of course I agreed, but not in the formal supervisory sense. Let’s just call what Helene and I are up to these days – the ‘mixed-taped sessions.’ And these sessions find us way up on the high ground. Way up there. Helene first sent over an unaltered transcript to review, scrutinize, and revise. Questions about her questions is either about the ecology of the receiving context Helene receives client stories of loss, death, and grief, into, or - questions about the grammar, style, purpose, structure, direction, and historical legacy/family of origin - of the question. Since then, we have spent hours pondering, questioning, rummaging around, and noticing the intimate particularities of how we view, value, and experience our work. For example, we spent a full 2 hours on her first 30-minute transcript and . . . we are only just over halfway done. Ha! We also decided to take a super close-up study of a long-lost therapy session tape Michael White gave to me back in the mid-1990’s. During our 1st hour discussing Michael’s tape, we managed to get through a grand total of 6-minutes and just three of his narrative questions. Hmm. Next week Helene will scrutinize a session tape of mine from long ago. The purpose is for the pair of us to take a close look at the practice similarities, structures of questions, and note taking in Michael’s work and my own. All in all the mixed tape meeting are swished up and well-furnished summer learning experience – leading us into the Fall. Writing I was just sent the final draft of a paper about to be published entitled ‘Reconnecting with relational values in highly-conflicted separating couples: A narrative therapy-informed relational interviewing teamwork-based supervision.' The heavy lifting vis-à-vis the primary writing, researching, and first author honours of the article is by our colleague at the University of Barcelona - Sex and Couple Therapy Professor Adrian Montesano - along with nods to sidekick authors Norwegian greats Ottar Ness and Stein-Roger Bronseth and, the happy Canadian of the bunch, me. I’ve known Adrian as a colleague and friend from teaching in his University of Barcelona program – consistently over the last eight years. He provides the simultaneous translation of my workshops and subsequently we share a special kind of intimate knowledge and conversation about this work. His 35-page article describes the original four stage Live Team Work Supervision model I designed with the High Conflict Couple Therapy Team from Trondheim Norway (loosely based on a therapeutic idea from my narrative therapy doctoral dissertation while under the influence of a 4 day stay at the home of Norway’s superstar Reflecting Team creator/mentor – psychiatrist Tom Anderson.) Personally, what I love about the article is the way Adrian outlines (and makes comprehensible) the complexities of Narrative Therapy informed Relational Interviewing (NIRI) theory and practice. He articulates this clarity through heavy use and explanation of the sessions unaltered transcripts and is able to clearly explain the flow of relational questions/responses alongside his beautifully crafted conversational ‘diagrams’. He then analyses 14 minutes of session transcript (translated from Norwegian into English by Ottar) of the nine High Conflict Response Team member responses about the session in front of the couple and the therapists (Stein-Roger and I). Adrian then ‘blocks out’ and analyses the Couples 10-minute response back to the Response Teams ‘personal transport ‘responses (briefly the listening Response Team responds back to the couple by addressing where the therapy session conversation personally transported them towards in their own personal lives). He concludes the fourth stage of NIRI team supervision with an explanation of a surprisingly unprecedented supervision practice. This is where the Couple joins the Response Team members and begin an in-depth ‘supervision of the therapist’s questions.’ During the fourth section of this team supervision framework, we witness both the Couple and the Response Team asking questions about the session’s NIRI questions, Stein-Roger and I had asked the couple, during the session. Having supervision take place in front of the couple with the couple becoming supervisors is a fairly cool practice feature, and one you might want to try out. The therapy session ends after 90-minutes, the couple leaves (and I suppose we could add a fifth stage) - the Team, Stein-Roger and I write a relational letter directly to the Couple’s relationship (immediately following the session.) Looking forward to seeing this great work of the Trondheim Team, in print. -------- Someday soon, I plan to send my good pal philosopher/writer Todd May a draft of the paper we are writing up together on the latest philosophical ideas and therapeutic practices related to our narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing (NIRI) with conflicted couple relationships. So as to not give you the wrong impression, it is not a case of me being worried that Todd is waiting around for this paper with nothing else to do. Since he is in fact putting the final touches on his SEVENTEENTH book of philosophy (on the Philosophy of Care) and looking at a contract to write an eighteenth book on ethics. Whew! We have already found a terrific publisher for the paper who, at our request, is allowing us to publish across many languages and journals. Third Edition Staying on the writing front . . . . . . I was recently contacted by my American Psychological Association editor (a super smart guy by the named of Matt Carlson who is a professor out of the University of California.) He explained that because the First and Second Editions of the book sold exceptionally well (relative to academic publishing – Ha!) the APA will want me to begin writing the 3rd Edition of Narrative Therapy in 2023. Sounds good. The 3rd Edition book will lean heavily on relational practice interviewing, formidable new theoretical ideas challenging a few of narrative therapy’s historical understandings, and situated alongside brilliant new and creative work the VSNT faculty members are always creating in the areas of community, theory, and practice. Bootleg A humorous tale about my Narrative Therapy book . . . six weeks ago I was approach by an online mental health teaching outfit out of Beijing. Very polite and nice people who were excited to mention how my book Narrative Therapy was very popular among their tens of thousands of Chinese speaking students. However, the copy of my book they showed me that thousands of students were presently reading is in fact a knock off bootleg that I am told by my Hong Kong colleagues - has a reprehensibly awful translation. Ha! -- Let’s be honest From what we keep hearing on the street . . . the practices of supervision are overpriced, underwhelming, and for Graduate students needing supervision for licensure – it often comes with expectations of free labour. It seems supervision is limited at best. At its worst - a complete waste of time. How have we let this happened?

MacMillan River Magic, oil on canvas, Emma Barr

This Week Pretty exciting news. After a few years laying around the design shed, and finally getting our water fowl linear, VSNT is pushing the registration door wide open to launch the new 6-month Cross Training Supervision Immersion course.

VSNT Cross Training Supervision Immersion Experience

Cross Training Supervision is designed to fundamentally change your therapeutic skill, creativity, ability, confidence, dexterity, understanding, politic, and execution - inside the therapy room.

Cross Trainings 9 Integrated Steps

1) Ecology of the relational receiving context you receive client stories into:

By the end of your 6 + month supervision immersion our expectation is you will be able to clearly articulate and demonstrate your therapeutic values, questions, scaffolding, purpose, direction, and positionings on problems.

VSNT faculty supervisors will always be standing by your side but – expect to be pushed and pressed. You will be sitting at the grownups table.

There are no half measures.

The challenge is committing, following through, and keeping up.

Imagine hearing yourself asking a question like: Were there certain rules of anorexia you had to break in order to get to the session today?

Now imagine yourself having the knowledge to clearly situate the theoretical origins, values, and beliefs that support the question at hand.

You can do this. You can learn this.

2) Exploring the anatomy of narrative therapy questions:

Every narrative therapy question is organised around specific sets of meaning – and the best of the best of narrative therapy questions are more profoundly organised and structured than they let on.

The harder you work with us in supervision cross training, the clearer the structure of your questions become. Your narrative therapy questions will eventually take on a specific shape and style and smell you can recognize.

3) Live transcript supervision of faculty supervisors

Please be advised!

Before you ever show your session work to a supervisor – insist this supervisor shows you their video tapes and unaltered transcripts – first.

Supervisory relationships must feel the vulnerability and fear equally and transparently between everyone involved.

Crucial to VSNT cross-training supervision is that supervisors show their work first and speak openly with you about their personal experiences of excitement, failure, awkwardness, and humility - inside the therapy room.

- Before any participant session video/unaltered transcript is individually supervised – the VSNT supervisors session work is publicly supervised and scrutinized.

- The public discussion and supervision of the supervisor normalizes and humanizes the process of supervision and allows the participant a knowledge of what to expect.

And in case you are wondering . . . yes, we have thought a lot about this.

4) Live Individual Participant Transcript Supervision

Growing in confidence, knowledge, and agility – supervisees eventually submit the first of their unaltered session transcripts. Individual and group Supervision of supervisees session transcripts are scheduled separately through your personal VSNT Faculty supervisor. All participant supervisees are assigned to a small group and Supervisor. Small group members are offered ACCESS to watch the other members monthly individual transcript supervision session (affording supervisees optional time to experience extra transcript sessions each month.)

5) Developing the all-important practice of narrative question memorization

And yes, I admit the story is true.

I used to read out loud all the scribbled down narrative therapy questions of Michael White directly into a tape recorder. I’d then ride around in my car with the windows down, listening to them. Over and over.

If you took a survey, you would find most significantly skilled-up narrative therapists in the world today have done something similar.

So . . . read outwards. Have a conversation with your questions. Flirt and feel passionate for each and every one of them - in that “I can’t live without out you kind of way”.

And, be prepared to risk the embarrassment of admitting to just how much you love them.

I insist . . . narrative therapists need to hear the rhythm of their words.

The repetitions. The assonance, echoing, and rhyme. The alliteration. The music of it all.

The beauty of it all. Be Miles Davis, or Billie Eilish, or Margaret Atwood or whoever it is that brings music and language to your soul.

- So . . . each month you will be assigned 5 important narrative therapy questions to memorize.

- We will explain the meaning, use, and utility of all the best questions ever asked and - the ones faculty use over and over in daily sessions.

We draw from a breath-taking collection of questions from our colleagues like Johnella Byrd, Alan Jenkins, Michael White and - a wide host of other brilliant narrative therapists, past and present.

6) Skills of Practice: Live small group interview practice learning

Practice, analyse practice, practice more.

Repeat. Practice, analyse practice, practice more.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

- Participant supervisees are supervised and taken through small group live interviewing skill exercises.

- The skill exercises help you experience the key practices and clear understandings of relational externalizing, relative influence questioning, double listening, the scaffolding and development of unique outcomes and reauthoring conversations.

7) Skills of Practice: Live Counter-story Interviewing

VSNT faculty feels it is your job as a narrative therapist to know how to develop therapeutic conversations with clients they have never ever engaged in before. Never.

Michael White use to joke that: Therapy is not the same as going out to lunch. If it was, a person could surely just talk with friends instead of coming down to our office.

It is vitally important that each therapist who studies with us drives this idea into their bones. The art is to conversationally engage with clients in ways they do not already know (without shelling out advice or interpreting experience through silly individualist psychological meanings.)

This is SO easily said, and SO difficult to do.

Ten years ago, David Nylund and I created a Live group counter-story interviewing method of practice learning. We designed the training exercise to richly explore and develop advanced learning in narrative therapy questions and therapeutic letters.

8) Theory development, understanding, and application

A core part of your cross-training supervision is spending time with philosopher Todd May. He will be popping in and out during the 6-month course so - buckle up. :)

And once Todd helps you grasp on to the idea that (more than anything) Narrative Therapy is a political act . . . your practice creativity and skill will be set free.

Expect the cross-training supervision course to help you find a freedom to question and articulate a therapeutic form of non-violent engagement and civil disobedience.

Todd offers you a wide (and I mean really wide) selection of theoretical, moral, and philosophical ideas. Without these thought-filled experiential engagements a narrative therapy practice will be severely limited.

9) Guided course lectures, readings, and discussion group:

Each participant supervisee is given a free membership to Cool.

In between Cross Training Supervision course study weekends faculty supervisors suggest their favourite follow up readings, selected interviews, and live video practice sessions on

Guest faculty will always be showing up.

Online informal team slack gatherings are set up for you.

And regularly scheduled popcorn and movie nights.

Looking forward to having you with us.

Oh and before I go please take a look at a few other VSNT trainings starting this month. Thank you so much for reading down to the bottom.

And thanks to all who regularly respond back to the newsletter.

You can reach me directly at:

For all of us who lost something or someone during COVID - I will leave you with another Mary Oliver poem.

Take care

~ stephen

“Heavy” by Mary Oliver from the book Thirst That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying I went closer, and I did not die. Surely God had his hand in this, as well as friends. Still, I was bent, and my laughter, as the poet said, was nowhere to be found. Then said my friend Daniel, (brave even among lions), “It’s not the weight you carry but how you carry it – books, bricks, grief – it’s all in the way you embrace it, balance it, carry it when you cannot, and would not, put it down.” So I went practicing. Have you noticed? Have you heard the laughter that comes, now and again, out of my startled mouth? How I linger to admire, admire, admire the things of this world that are kind, and maybe also troubled – roses in the wind, the sea geese on the steep waves, a love to which there is no reply?

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