Documents & Audiences

Narrative practices have a rich history of creating and sharing documents and engaging audiences. Here we look at a number of different ways of doing this!

Image from Shaun Tan’s book – The Red Tree

One of the early defining characteristics of narrative therapy was the creative use of documentation or the written word.

In this video presentation, David Newman describes the ways in which he is using living documents with young people in an inpatient ward.   

Further reading:

Here is an earlier paper by David Newman describing his use of the written work within narrative therapeutic practice: Rescuing the said from the saying of it by David Newman



This paper illustrates how we can use four different categories of document. Examples of each of the following documents are offered and the author also shares some of his experiences, dilemmas and learnings in creating therapeutic documentation.

Letters recording a session

Documents of knowledge and affirmation

News documents &

Documents to contribute to rites of passage

Using Therapeutic Documents Hugh Fox 



Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo is a Zimbabwean psychologist and narrative therapist living and working in South Africa. Here, she introduces the ‘Narratives in the suitcase’ project which seeks to use journey metaphors and creative documentation to assist child refugees.

This work is inspired by the work of Glynis Clacherty and The Suitcase Project (see link below). It also draws upon ideas from Sherri Osborn.




In this paper we read responses to the following 8 questions.

1. What is meant by the term outsider witness?

2. Why is it important for there to be witnesses to preferred stories?

3. What is the history of these ideas and ways of working?

4. What are definitional ceremonies?

5. What sort of responses do outsider witnesses make?

6. What are some of the common hazards of outsider-witness practice and how can these be avoided? Do you have any helpful hints about these?

7. What are the different contexts in which outsider-witness work takes place?

8. What do you enjoy most about outsider-witness practices?

Marilyn O’Neill, Hugh Fox, Gaye Stockell, Anne Schober, Jeff Zimmerman, Emily Sued & Dirk Kotzé all provided material which Maggie Carey, Shona Russell compiled and which David Denborough’s editing and writing brought together in the following article.

Outsider Witness Practices Paper 




For Reflection


What forms of documentation might be most relevant or resonant in your context?


Are there particular ideas or practices you found within these materials you might draw on in your future meetings with people?



Have any of these questions got you hooked? Have you got another question you would like to pose to those joining you in this online learning? Please let us know below! Please include where you are writing from (City and Country). Thanks!

This Post Has 402 Comments

  1. Avatar


    What forms of documentation might be most relevant or resonant in your context? Are there particular ideas or practices you found within these materials you might draw on in your future meetings with people?

    I’m deeply interested in working with those recovering from high-control groups. I think the suitcase exercise is quite beautiful and poignant. Often people have to flee these groups, and leave behind identities, family members, and beleif systems. While I think the suitcase exercise might prove difficult in the initial stages, it might be a beautiful exercise for the client to understand why they left, who they still are at their core essence, and have little tangible items that can help them self-soothe when they are having moments of distress.

    I also resonate with the idea of finding our language in others. I think having writings from former cult members or members of high control groups who left would really be helpful in terms of offering greater understanding of ones own experience and not feeling so alone in the reintegration process.

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    I think it will take a little experimentation time will be necessary – to be able to offer a document that works for myself and the client. As a therapist you need to feel comfortable and become skilled at putting a helpful document together as fast as possible and this will take practice. I like the idea of creating a map, combining pictures and words in a visual pathway.
    I can absolutely recognise the value of a document. To be able to reflect on a session adds so much more depth. I will take notes during a session so that I can use as many of the clients own words as possible that thicken the preferred story.

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    We all love getting notes and letters that are considerate and well thought out. What a golden opportunity we have as practitioners/ witnesses to provide external resources be them documents or people to validate, strengthen, and support the experiences of people who have been shut down and felt unheard. One word of caution that particularly resonated with me was regarding the “giving advice in the form of a question”… in reflecting on my practice I can see how easy it is to utilize this technique, particularly when a client’s story resonates with my own experience.

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    I loved this chapter, it was fascinating to read and hear about effective documentation.
    The first picture from Shaun Tan had me wondering about the story that was being shared.

    I was most intrigued by the Shared Living Documents and how I may put that into my own practice.

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    What forms of documentation might be most relevant or resonant in your context?
    David Newman’s video on the inclusion of narratives from others and how this can be used to assist clients to find their voice. My previous clinical supervisor was amazing at using this in his practice with his clients and was able to quote from memory but would still share the sources with clients so they could immerse themselves into the text.

    Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo presentation on the “Narratives in the suitcase” project and in particular the Indaba (story circle) was remarkable and insightful into drawing out participants thoughts and dreams in a creative manner.

    Are there particular ideas or practices you found within these materials you might draw on in your future meetings with people?
    I am looking forward to exploring creative and artistic ways in which I can work with clients to learn about and listen to their stories.

    I am also keen to commit to using others narratives through verses or paragraphs from books, poems and articles in the hope to resonate with clients.
    Riverland, South Australia

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    Anna Weber

    I am thinking about documentation especially as a supportive intervention for ADHD symptomology. I can recognize many of the skills that clients with whom I work utilize on the daily and yet they often forget these skills themselves as a part of their ADHD symptoms. Documentation’s role in enduring lessons could be a support in this way.
    I am also thinking more about necessary psycho-education and outsider-witness norms potentially needed when involving third parties in therapy. I am especially considering a client who is working through entanglement with multiple members of his family and I can see how connecting his family into a care team could be a support for him. However, his family’s response to his mental difficulties has historically been problem-focused and could therefore slip into this distorted form of care once again. Having this client write letters to his family members could allow family members to see his story in a new light; however, I also believe that the family members may need more psycho-education on what kinds of feedback are helpful. Some safety rules/norms might be: starting with and recognizing the validity of the client’s story and perspective, framing the support as one focused on listening as opposed to arguing/defining client’s own experience, and remaining open to client’s own needs/supports requested. What other norms/psycho-education have been helpful for others?

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    Holly Mak

    This has been such an eye-opening chapter about the power of community and documentation of skills / knowledge / experience. I love what Freeman, Epston and Lobovits (1997) (quoted in the article by Hugh Fox) say about how narrative letters are “literary rather than diagnostic”. As someone who has studied and taught English, this open and possibility-driven, rather than conclusive or expert approach, resonates hugely with me. Living documents seem to be testament to the decentering ethos behind NT; it makes a lot of sense that one’s progress and change in therapy is made more powerful by being made visible to those who are affected by this change, e.g. family members, significant others, etc. — and not just the therapist. Having worked as a counsellor primarily in Hong Kong, a society in which seeking professional help for personal or relational difficulties is still stigmatised, I wonder how this culture of community involvement can be introduced, and what it would take for individuals to feel willing to draw directly on the support of loved ones, as well as the therapist’s.
    – Holly, Vancouver (via Hong Kong)

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    Tori P - Melbourne, Australia

    I was so intrigued to hear and read about how effective documentation and letter writing is for people consulting therapists. I love the idea of letter writing to and with clients, and encouraging them to use letter writing not only as a form of communication but as a validation of their lives and experiences. Not only a validation, but also a confirmation that the skills and strengths they need are those they already hold and use. The sharing of these skills in written form with others seems so powerful, and not something that I have thought of doing in my work. I sometimes share de-identified anecdotes with clients, but to have something material and “real” to share, that they can also contribute to if they want to, is such a great idea.

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    I absolutely loved the video of the suitcase project and plan on using it, especially in group therapy scenarios. I do think that having a tangible representation of these sometimes rather abstract concepts is hugely powerful, especially with young people. I also believe that having these living documents make the work of therapy feel more real and provide our clients with evidence of the work they’ve done and the ways they’ve grown and changed throughout the course of therapy. Maggie, Los Angeles USA

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    I loved the idea of writing letters to my clients. I think this is a lovely to summarize and honor the work being done and story being shared. Also, the story from David Newman about the documents created collaboratively with youth, was very inspirational. I could see myself using this idea in practice with children and youth, where documents about managing problems such as anxiety, fear, or bullying could be co-constructed with stories from youth.

    When I consider the outsider witness, this is most relevant to my work with couples and families. I previously had not considered that the outsider witness role is used often in these sessions. I hope to be intentional in inviting the opportunity for outsider witnesses in this work and using the specific questions around acknowledging transport, describing images, embodying responses, and identifying expressions.

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    I really appreciated many of the examples Hugh Fox gave in his review of therapeutic documents – e.g. the documents of knowledge.

    In my role I have often felt that any documents sent post-meeting have to be detailed. For this reason, it can be hit-and-miss depending on the capacity I have to reflect and write these out. This section of the course has emphasised the importance of therapeutic documents and how to develop them in a way that is not overwhelming (for myself or clients) to send and receive after meetings.

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    I very much enjoyed learning about the different types of documents and audiences in this chapter. I can see great value in writing letters to the young people I work with about what we discussed in our catch-ups. Often a young person will come to a catch up with such warmth and positivity to only have that completely diminished by the time I see them again the following week. A letter may help remind them of the warmth and positivity they carry. Reminders of what this felt like, looked like and meant for them could really help in the hard times or when struggling. I also love the living documents examples and can see great value in implementing this with young people who I work with. Again being a part of creating and contributing to a living document that may benefit another person in difficult times could be of great value both for the contributor and the reader.

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    The most useful document in my context would be Letters recording a session. In working with survivors of trauma, I often find the issue of the “stolen words” and the fleeting nature of the spoken word and the need to “rescue the said from the saying of it”. Often my clients have wonderful lightbulb moments in a session, and I discover that on the next session, the moment is gone and they are struggling with the same issue that they had a breakthrough with before. Sometimes I quote something they said at that time to refresh their memory and remind them of their metaphor, but if I could write a letter at the end of the session to document that lightbulb moment, this knowledge will stay with them during the week or fortnight between sessions and help them cope with their circumstances. It would also mean that we can build on this as therapy progresses and they can move forward, steering their narrative to a more hope-filled alternative story.

    The living documents concept from David Newman is an attractive proposition for my context since I often deal with young women that have had very similar struggles in their lives and their acquired skills and knowledges could be helpful to others, giving them also a sense of hope that their pains and struggles have not been in vain. They have not only experienced growth but can also use those knowledges to help others, which is a redemptive alternative story.

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    I liked the idea of writing letters to my clients; documentation that can shine emphasis on stories or strengths they had forgotten to include or which are not dominant. I also appreciate the idea of how creative practices like the suitcase enables a space for the client to slow down and think about meanings behind the stories, as well as their preferred future narratives. Moreover, being able to share, disclose and display these meaningful narratives to other significant people in their lives.
    – Vancouver, BC, Canada

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    I was an early childhood teacher and used narrative assessment practices in my work. The idea of using a similar practice as a therapist, documenting therapy collaboratively with clients and thereby “rescuing the said from the saying of it” is exciting for me. The application of my previous knowledge in a new way, the creative possibilities involved, and the potential value and power of written records co-authored by therapist and the consulting person, all make my brain light up with pleasure. Theresa – Cambridge, Aotearoa.

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    I was most intrigued by the Shared Living Documents. I can imagine how I could have incorporated this when I taught literature. If I were to use this style of documentation in the context of a classroom, I would have to be incredibly sensitive in selecting the themes/skills as to not trigger traumas.

    Also, I assumed the clients would be doing all the letter writing. I was surprised to learn that therapists write letters to their clients. How touching. I pictured myself making notes and writing letters as an outsider-witness.

    – Kimberley, B.C., Canada

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    Isabel Beuve

    Í have found this chapter full of very valuable resources and information. The Suitcase Project has really touched me, just a shoes box can make a difference.
    The outsider witness paper has made me reflect on the importance of other people opinion and how it can be turned into a useful tool.
    I strongly agree with written language being often much more powerful than words, however, Í have never worked with such concrete and creative documents like the ones in Fox ‘s paper. These are simple yet full of meaning. I will definitely keep this chapter for further use.
    Thank you and greetings from Spain

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    The forms of documentation most relevant to my context is the Outsider-witness practise. I believed that the witnessing of a preferred story and the construct of definitional ceremony can be a very useful tool, encouraging people to develop rich alternative stories that are anchored in a social setting.
    In a private setting, when my husband or my children describe a problem they are facing and I feel move by it, I will ask them the steps they want to take to resolve the problem. I will then share how relevant these steps are to solve other issues in my own life. Finally, I will describe how empowering this exchange was and why.

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    What forms of documentation might be most relevant or resonant in your context?
    Hopefully becoming a school counsellor I believe documents of written words or drawings from the children could be very helpful. As mentioned in the session, words can be harsh and even some young children may struggle finding the words, so drawing or counselling cards may be beneficial.

    Are there particular ideas or practices you found within these materials you might draw on in your future meetings with people?

    I like the idea of outsider witness however, I believe a modern twist could be done to incorporate this in a every day clinical way that is easier to orchestrate. For example in my context of school counselling, a friend of the student or parent or sibling of the student could be the outsider witness. This will help validate and authenticate the clients preferred story.

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    I must admit that working in a Public health Mental Health service, i have very rarely handed copies of notes to people i have had therapeutic sessions with unless it has been a CBT approach with homework and information sheets etc.
    I love the thought that during a session, i could have the confidence to take notes, clarify accuracy and maintain a comfortable rapport. It has always frightened me! But the value as has been seen in this chapter is immense. I am certainly excited about attempting to do this though.
    Paul Far North Queensland , Australia

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