Narrative Therapy

“A narrative or story is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events; account; tale, the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious” (Denning, 2006).

Your life is a narrative, counted and recounted from many different perspectives, and by diverse people. There are settings, themes, characters and plots – just like in any movie, book, historical account or legendary fable. In this article we review the approach of Narrative Therapy and how it can be effectively used by counsellors to assist individuals improve their lives.

Fundamentals of Narrative Therapy

The Narrative Therapy is an approach to counselling that centres people as the experts in their own lives. This therapy intends to view problems as separate entities to people, assuming that the individual’s set of skills, experience and mindset will assist him/her reduce the influence of problems throughout life. This therapeutic approach intends to place the individual in both the protagonist and author roles: switching the view from a narrow perspective to a systemic and more flexible stance.

Systemic and flexible stance? Yes. The aim is to help clients realise what forces are influencing their lives and to focus on the positive aspects of the ‘play’. In many events of our lives, we tend to focus on particular things and ignore others. Analysing our lives as a play, or a system, helps us understand the different forces and roles that are influencing our behaviour. This in turn gives us flexibility to invoke the necessary changes for improvement.

“The products of our narrative schemes are ubiquitous in our lives: they fill our cultural and social environment. We create narrative descriptions for ourselves and for others about our own past actions, and we develop storied accounts that give sense to the behavior of others. We also use the narrative scheme to inform our decisions by constructing imaginative “what if” scenarios. On the receiving end, we are constantly confronted with stories during our conversations and encounters with the written and visual media. We are told fairy tales as children, and read and discuss stories at school.” (Polkinghorne, 1988)

Merging a familiar set of events (one’s life) to a familiar structure (a narrative story) is a useful strategy. The emotional, cognitive and spiritual perspectives of a person are usually combined in order to derive meaning to an event. In many instances, one or two perspectives will prevail over the other(s), and this will depend upon the particular scenario and the individual’s personality traits. As an example, we can compare the perspective of two people who have different levels of emotional intelligence.

According to Coleman (1998) “intellectual and emotional intelligence express the activity of different parts of the brain. The intellect is based solely on the workings of the neocortex, the more recently evolved layers at the top of the brain. The emotional centers are lower in the brain, in the more ancient subcortex.” Thus, individuals that are more ‘emotionally intelligent’ will draw different conclusions, and behave differently in certain situations.

This is only an example of possible disparities in perception and decision-making. It is the protagonist responding to the setting, the characters, the theme and plot.

Techniques and Objectives

“The techniques that narrative therapists use have to do with the telling of the story. They may examine the story and look for other ways to tell it differently or to understand it in other ways. In doing so, they find it helpful to put the problem outside of the individual, thus externalizing it. They look for unique outcomes: positive events that are in contrast to a problem-saturated story.” (Sharf, 2004)

Externalising the Problem

In Narrative Therapy the problem becomes the antagonist of the story. Certain behaviours are based on particular ‘unhealthy’ or ‘undesired’ characteristics – such as lack of patience, aggressiveness, etc. Thus, they are approached as not a part of the client but as an opposing force which needs to be ‘defeated’. An example would be a child that has a very bad temperament and tends to be aggressive to other kids at school and his parents.

The child might feel guilty for his temperament and blame it on himself (“I don’t know… it is the way I am…”). The counsellor will work with him towards isolating that undesired trait (aggressiveness) and placing it as an external trait – not a characteristic of the individual.

This strategy helps clients re-construct their own stories in a way which will reduce the incidence of the problem in order to eliminate negative outcomes and reinforce personal development and achievement. The protagonist becomes the author and re-writes the story constructively.

Unique Outcomes

If a story is full of problems and negative events, the counsellor will attempt to identify the exceptional positive outcomes. When exploring unique positive outcomes in the story, the counsellor will assist the client in redeveloping the narrative with a focus on those unique outcomes. This assists the client in empowering him/herself by creating a notion that those unique outcomes can prevail over the problems. Think about this analogy: you are a novel writer. You were given a novel to review and publish the way you prefer. You have read it and found it generally poor, but there were some interesting ideas which you liked. You selected these ideas, and re-write the novel around them. You can make a flawed story become a bestseller.

Alternative Narratives

The focus of Narrative Therapy is to explore the strengths and positive aspects of an individual through his or her narrative. Therefore, the main objective of this therapeutic approach is to improve the person’s perspective internally (reflective) and externally (towards the world and others). Alternative narratives are a simple way to relate to this concept. This technique works in combination with unique outcomes.

How? The individual will reconstruct a personal story using unique outcomes, therefore, focusing on the positive aspects of a previous story in order to achieve a desired outcome. This process is based on the premise that any person can continually and actively re-author their own life.

By creating alternative perspectives on a narrative (or event within the narrative) the counsellor is able to assist the client in bringing about a new narrative which will help combat the ‘problems’. This is similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as it aims to create a positive perspective of an event.

Boundaries of Narrative Therapy

Despite being a widely used approach, particularly when combined with other therapeutic approaches, Narrative Therapy has certain boundaries or limitations. In many occasions, diverse clients may expect the therapist to act as the expert, instead of having to ‘conduct’ the conversation themselves. For this reason, Narrative Therapy can be challenging when the individual is not articulate. Lack of confidence, intellectual capacity and other issues could also undermine the expression of the individual through a narrative.

Another common boundary of Narrative Therapy is the lack of recipe, agenda or formula. This approach is grounded in a philosophical framework, and sometimes can become a particularly subjective or widely interpretative process.

The Leading Role

The most important aspect of Narrative Therapy is to empower the client. Placing the client as an expert, and understanding his/her story instead of attempting to predict it, indicates the therapist’s mindset. The idea is to emphasise the therapeutic relationship, in particular the therapist’s attitudes. This standpoint encompasses many of the important aspects of good interpersonal communication, such as: demonstration of care, interest, respectful curiosity, openness, empathy, and fascination.

Once this collaborative relationship has been established, the counsellor and the client can move forward and work on how to improve the outcomes of the narrative:

“Once upon a time… there was an optimistic, content and productive person…”


  • Coleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. (1st Ed.). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Denning, S. (2004). Steve Denning: The website for business and organizational storytelling. (
  • Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press.
  • Sharf, R. (2004). Theories of Psychotherapy & Counselling. (3rd Ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Learning.