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 484 Comments

  1. Pam

    Hello! I found this module extremelly helpful! I usually draft therapeutic letters at the end of my interventions, and I feel this module has given me some inspiration to improve them and try different things. I’ve created a few documents of knowledge for children and young people and they have found it helpful to have some of their reflections handy, especially when feeling distressed. I was alsomoved by the suitcase project and the amazing work that Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo described. This type of intervention seems to be a brilliant, creative and playful way to help children think about their context and make sense of what’s happening to them, as well as to connect with and share their stories with others. I think this technique could be adapted to different contexts across the lifespan, so I will definitely keep this in mind.

  2. Paulina

    Hi I’m Paulina, from Mexico, and the las community work I did it was with lesbians, fortunately the community I worked had access to education, so what we. (My co-worker and I) did was to put all of the words talking about certain theme together and then read it to them, they loved hearing their own voices and then they act as external witnesses from that text.

    So with that exprience i think that the forms of documentation most relevant or resonant in my context might be the mailing one and the witness one, I think it is a really good way to Describe more the alternative story.

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

    Probably the suitcase, and use a lot more the witness one, I think it was one of my favorites

  3. Ana

    I really enjoyed the skills and knowledge document idea. I can imagine how interesting it would be to come back to that document later in my client’s healing journey and reflect back. I would like to try that with my clients and hopefully help them understand the power of writing. I feel like I always find some barriers when I try to encourage people to try journaling. I wonder if developing those activities and resources with them will help them see the value of it.

  4. nicholas.farr

    Nic from Melbourne Australia
    I was part of a team supporting young people with mental health issues and we (the team) had conversations about how we could start a shared, living document that could be shared with other young people accessing our service. We noticed that many young people were finding it difficult to communicate what was going on for them; often it was the first time someone had asked. We hoped that sharing and building upon words, experiences, vocabulary, and descriptions that other young people used to describe their experiences would help spark their own descriptions. Unfortunately, funding for our program was cut before we could start but I hope I can carry the idea (in some form) to my current practice.

  5. James

    I found the idea of the outsider witness to be quite an interesting concept that brings its own method of healing. The idea of being seen and heard allows for the person who is suffering to see how far they have come and how they have managed to deal with challenges when it is reflected back to them in outsider witnesses who acknowledge what the individual has done and how that has impacted the outsider witness in a positive way. It’s a chance to be acknowledged and having made it as far as they have.

  6. Emily

    I see great benefit in using clinical documentation as a treatment tool, as it can take away the idea that the clinician is “writing about” the participant and more so that they are writing for their participant/family.

    The idea of including the outsider-witness to sessions helps to identify “safe adults” within my particular context and may help parent-guardians identify therapeutic interventions that may work better than others within the family’s home.

  7. mccartyc

    Crystal – Kitchener, Ontario Canada

    I would be curious how folks put these documentation suggestions into practice in regions where the practice of psychotherapy is governed and we have specific things to identify in our clinical notes. Are these additional documents folks are producing and do they also include it as part of the client file?

  8. ricmathews.lmhc

    I quite love the idea of writing letters as a form of documentation in the therapeutic process. The point about the spoken word and the written word resonates strongly with me and I often encourage my patients to spend 5-15 minutes after each session writing down what they remember, what stood out, what questions they had, etc. I have some patients who religiously take notes while in session, too. Quite often I use letter writing as a form of communication and processing deeper work, as well, be it letters they write to themselves or others. I recently had one patient who was having a very difficult time with his mother and talking about it was proving to be impossible for getting any resolution. I suggested he write her a letter, and we spent some time going over what he wanted to say. A few weeks later he gave her the letter. His mother was able to respond to him and expressed her thanks for the letter. A few months after this, she suddenly and unexpectedly died in her sleep. My patient was so grateful that he’d written her that letter and was able to find peace in the difficulty of her passing.

    I’m intrigued on giving more thought to how I might introduce other ways of using letters in this narrative way into my work, e.g. from me to them.

  9. Cary

    Cary, Washington State, USA

    The ideas I was most intrigued with were the letters, documentation sharing and suitcase video. I envision they could be quite useful with my clients. I enjoyed the reflection on importance of written word versus oral and how they differ and are perceived. I will be using these ideas in session with clients, excited to see how they help them with ownership of their stories and experiences.

  10. Eugenia Pyne

    Hi, from Wollongong, NSW Australia
    The entire idea of separating the problem from the person (Externalising) is something I find amazing, and I can’t wait to start putting this into practice. The Narratives in the suitcase’ project really touched my heart and gives me the desire and hope to be able to help other children in similar condition in this way. Coming from West African background, I have seeing children/people labelled and called by whatever condition they find themselves in. For eg. a child who steals is called “a thief” and so on. This is an everyday experience for many people I know. It’s great to be able to learn more about externalizing

  11. daron.askin

    I liked David Newman’s piece on helping others to find ways to find words that are not always easy to find. I work in a rural area of Northern Ireland where people can find it difficult talk at all never mind in therapy about things in life that have been difficult. Shame too, I think, can limit our ability to find words that describe what we have experienced. David’s descriptions offered a fresh way for me to think about this and the value of empathy, compassion and patience in helping others to find words when finding words is hard.

  12. Jennifer

    Hi from Wellington New Zealand,
    As a visual learner within an agency motivated to move paperless and become fully digital i was invigorated and affirmed through this lesson of the value that alternative documentation styles. The assurance that alternative documentation can offer a format for insight when words are too laden with societal meaning and pressure encourages me to persist in sharing my ideas in which ever format best captures the concept for me and in turn giving my clients license to share their own narratives within a format that is of best ease for themselves.A Child’s voice can not only be caught in a sea shell.

  13. ishik.cevik

    In narrative practice, therapeutic documents provide people with an opportunity to share their ideas and experiences, as well as their life lessons, while providing them with a living document that can continue to speak even when they are unable to speak. One of the strengths of this article is that it emphasizes the importance of maintaining a document of knowledge that can be easily carried by individuals so they can embark on their own self-discovery process, as well as reminding them of their own narrative, personal characteristics, capabilities, and knowledge as much as the importance of having a practice of engaging outside witnesses to reflect on the client’s worldviews, which provides acknowledgment and validation to the client, who can transport their experiences to be shared with others similarly affected. I found it quite pertinent to my line of work that a part of the article involves two young women who discuss their knowledge of what to do when they experience self-hatred, suicidal thoughts or self-harm. A significant message or knowledge is conveyed in this article. People are better able to learn about themselves and their networks through documents that are more durable than spoken words. It was also particularly interesting to read the following statement made by Michael White: When we take words out of a conversation, hold them up, examine, rescue, and use them in a document of some sort, they become more solid when pulled out of a conversation, examined, rescued.

  14. Claire Nulsen

    Hi, I’m currently living in Youghal, Ireland but I am originally from Perth were I was practicing as a Clinical Psychologist working with children and families; I have used documentation in my therapeutic work for many years but less formally as I often write notes for clients to take home summarising the session, sometimes these notes are written by my clients and may be on my whiteboard (in which case I take a photo of them, with permission, and email the photo to the client), sometimes they include drawing as well; I feel that this is so helpful as it’s less school-like than the traditional homework/fact-sheets but also gives a lasting reminder of the work we have done and important points to consider. I really appreciated the paper on Outsider Witnesses and the power that this process has to affect change in clients.

  15. kai.niezgoda

    My name is Kai and I am writing from Kaurna Country (Adelaide, South Australia).

    This chapter has challenged me to think about the ways that documents and audiences could be used in work with the LGBTQIA+ community (and more broadly). While most all stories involve an element of temporality (first, and next, and finally), LGBTQIA+ people in particular are often said to be living on “queer time” or “queer temporalities.”

    For many LGBTQIA+ people, resisting norms around gender, sexuality, and bodies, and resisting norms around life stages and milestones are irrevocably intertwined. This may pose challenges but it also presents opportunities. For example, a queer temporality opens up possibilities to follow ‘a path less travelled’, to reject the pressure to conform to set life and relationship stages, and to reject the idea that our identities and selves are fixed and time-bound.

    More on queer temporalities for anyone interested:;jsessionid=649B26CB047EBCE48F9B233BC8AC67F3

  16. andrewkilgour

    Hi, Andrew from Newcastle Australia. In working in an alternate high school I see a real opportunity to shift the way we use documentation by moving it away from the rigid templates and administrative requirements that so many schools have, and instead move them towards documentation processes that capture the voice and heart of each young person in a more holistic and deeper way. We often use the process of goal setting as the one opportunity for young people to share their dreams however after completing this chapter I feel like we can do so much more and shed a completely different light on what treasures, knowledge, strengths and abilities each young person brings to us. I think the creativity of these documentation ideas has real relevance in the way we work with young people and opens up new possibilities in the future.

  17. Lorna Downes

    Hi I’m Lorna, living in Jambinu (Geraldton, Western Australia) the lands of the Yamatji people.

    This chapter causes me to reflect on the various forms of documentation that I’ve used in work contexts without much thought about the process of development or the ritual associated – for instance, the development of fact sheets and the certificates at the end of courses. I am also reflecting on a definitional ceremony that a colleague facilitated as a form of supervision for facilitators.

    This chapter opened my eyes to the wide range documentation can be valuable and therapeutic. I am inspired by ways that documents can make the fleeting and ephemeral more real and concrete.

    I’ll be taking away from this chapter the idea of using questions in follow up emails or texts and prompts to think of creative ideas for documenting individuals journeys, histories, values, strengths and knowledges as inspired by Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo’s work with children.

  18. Oltman Weeber

    Hi My name is Oltman from Melbourne Australia (mental health worker & recovery coach)

    The question about where outsider witnesses came from is interesting; reflecting team work and the term ‘definitional ceremony’, where communities of people construct their identities. This made me think of the recovery movement, and how it was started by communities of services users that felt the mental health system were not helping them to get better, so the the recovery movement was started, focusing on collaboration, strength and hope.

    The article by Hugh Fox is interesting. I was very much inspired by the idea of writing letters that acknowledge the preferred stories and identity claims with an atmosphere of ‘curiosity and mystery’.

  19. mikem

    I was most inspired by Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo and her valuable work with children in helping them to connect with and share their stories, offering them the opportunity to break-free from the robust judgement often directed towards them. I’m going to approach my team and ask them to watch Ncazelo speaking, so we can “workshop” possible ways that we can use a similar creative/ innovative approach in supporting the adults we work with – who live with mental illness. I have a gut feeling that we will find that most of the adults we work with will love to re-connect with their inner-child and tap into those stories, memories, dreams, strengths and hopes that they have harbored since childhood and not had the opportunity to share in a safe and loving manner!

  20. Sonya Watson

    Hi all,

    There was much to take in for this module! My attention was particularly grabbed by one therapists way of writing documentation regarding a client to other healthcare professionals by writing a letter to the client. I liked how this kept the person receiving support as central to the process of conversation between practitioners. I can imagine that this would be a nice way for the central person to read about themselves and that they would feel significantly respected. This process definitely makes sense in narrative practice’s stance that the person is their own expert (not us practitioners). I know that I will be thinking about opportunities for me to also do this when communicating to external healthcare providers.

    The power and beauty of bearing witness and to a central person’s story was quite striking! I can recall times in the past where I have either heard of other therapists doing this (inviting someone else into the conversation) or when I have thought of this myself. It makes me mindful of the blurb that I often give about privacy for a client in a session. I think moving forward I will focus on making my point clear that just because the client has the right for privacy with whatever stories they share with their therapist, doesn’t mean that they have to remain private. Bringing others into the room is certainly an option 🙂

    Many thanks for providing such in depth information.

    Sonya, New Zealand

  21. jiahuanhe.psy

    These therapy techniques and concepts, particularly the outsider-witness practice, are incredibly innovative. I had a strong focus on ensuring privacy during therapy sessions to create a sense of safety for clients to open up. However, after reading the article, my viewpoint has shifted. It is still crucial to honor clients’ privacy and handle confidentiality with care. Nonetheless, it is through sharing, being witnessed, and being acknowledged by more people that alternative stories are given importance and become memorable. As written in the article, the stories we tell about ourselves are a social achievement.

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