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 354 Comments

  1. Ula

    Ula from Shrewsbury, UK.

    Letters recording a session would be very relevant to my practice at the moment, particularly where memory or concentration might be an issue. I feel it would benefit some clients to have a reminder of the things we discuss, drawing out their strengths and steps they achieved. I already talk a lot to my clients about the power of seeing things written down and this creating distance and a different perspective, however writing letters would be taking it a step further to allow clients to reflect more on the session and reinforce what they are gaining from it. It might also provide a different sense of validation when the reflections and observations are made jointly by the therapist and client.

    I really like the idea of documents affirming knowledge and I think this would be a useful tool to remember to use in the future. I am also quite keen to try having an outside witness as part of therapy. This is not something I thought of doing before, and I am sure it would take some practice, but I really like the idea of creating shared meaning and enriching the story by having another person comment on its personal meaning to them.

  2. Crystal Williams

    With the youth group I facilitate, the “Documents of Knowledge” would be an excellent way to remind them of how their impairments are not their fault and highlight their positive qualities. I’m very excited about the idea of laminating these to keep with them in difficult times. (Vernon, BC, Canada)

  3. Crystal Williams

    I loved the presentation by Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo about ‘The Suitcase Project.’ I see the as a very empowering project for the majority of youth I work with. Even though the youth may be unable to physically write what they are thinking, I like how the project can be adapted to suit the person’s abilities. I am very inspired by the way Hugh Fox writes letters to his clients about what they may be going through and then pulls out the alternative stories and richly describing the good qualities in the person. I see how this would be a wonderful way for clients to see their worth.

  4. David Clayton

    Burnie, Tasmania, Australia
    I had found the whole chapter quite insightful. Particularly the importance of the written word that we discussed by David Newman right at the start, which flowed on perfectly to the work by Hugh Fox around the use of personalised document cards. I also found the information from Glynis Clacherty of relevance around the idea of a suitcase metaphor and the physical use of a suitcase, as well as how powerful the teachings behind it could be for not only children, but adults as well. Then flowing into the work around outsider witnessing from the Maggie Carey and Shona Russell reading, especially the support aspect of having others in the therapeutic space.

    I would as a social worker use the personalised document cards, the suitcase metaphor, as well as the use of a physical suitcase and perhaps the use of outsider witnessing. I would probably be more sceptical of the use of outsider witnessing, but at the same time if I had a participant/client that had wanted to bring a family member or friend into the therapeutic space I would not appose the idea. I found the idea of a two way mirror set up similar to police interrogation, but would facilitate the space to allow for everyone to exist within the same environment at the same time. If there was something private that they wanted to discuss, then the other person/people in the environment would be asked to wait outside the room. The personalised document cards would be crucial in building self-esteem and motivation for participants/clients and the suitcase work would be helpful in externalising the problems experienced in way that focusses on the journey to hope and future. I could adapt depending on what context I would be working in. I particularly view working in the specific area of mental health with these ideas/approaches.

  5. Albert Morrison

    The use of metaphor is something that I like and enables the stories to be told, will definitely want to use this in my contact with clients which are adults. “getting our language back through the language of others” I really found that worth reflecting on. I also was intrigued by seeing yourself separate from the dominant story, this is even more important given the current situation we all find ourselves in.


    18/07/21 – Sally, Sydney Australia. Primary School Counsellor

    I enjoyed this chapter so much I used my whole weekend to study it (and in honesty we are currently in lockdown so every day feels the same!). It made me think about the use of documentation I had already been doing with the students I have seen – writing a letter to the class teacher, to parents, and to the student themselves to share information, skills, concerns and progress.

    I would like to continue to practice using letters to record case notes – doing this in the presence of the student. Our school counselling program does not allow much time or input from families, however using documentation, emails particularly might be a good way to help them to ‘step into’ their child’s world. Asking ‘what message would be helpful for them to know’?

    I have always found ending the sessions a challenge for me – the Rite of passage ideas will definitely help that process. Also thinking about who might be involved in the ending of the sessions/entering into the social world with different ideas, knowledge and skills (recruiting audiences).

    Thank you for sharing such interesting ideas with us.


    A considerable part of my work history has been working with clients who have intellectual and physical disabilities. Based on this history I can immediately think of dozens of examples where the clients lived with communication difficulties (including deafness) all of which has honed my proficiency and familiarity with this. Regarding the use of the written word in therapy (Hugh Fox), I have found his approach to writing down what I have discussed with clients to be a useful tool for my client to keep, to review, to reinforcing what we discussed. This technique proved particularly powerful when it offered positive affirmations based on what we had identified during the discussion. I have had clients draw and write me letters to better explain their complete story when they were not always able to make sense of events, or communicate what had happened in the usual way. Another thing David talks about is the use of puppets, I have worked with a client who used puppets to speak to me, even video taping and sending the tapes to my phone for me to see and hear what they were feeling. I have been an outsider witness when our workplace Counsellor was counselling my employees on many, many occasions, also when called in to do AusLan interpreting when no formal interpreter was available. I think it is imperative to provide counselling using a language, and understanding of the culture the client is communicating from. The information within this topic assures me my approaches when working to date have been sound.

  8. Sangita

    Using skill and knowledge documents to help find people language through the language of others seems very interesting and informative approach. I resonate with David’s information about the spoken word being difficult for some people and the written word helping people to heal through trauma. I also liked the concept of suitcase, where stories of peoples lives are restored.

  9. Will

    I really like the idea of documenting strengths and skills to use as a guide for others – even if others never see it I wonder if it will still be a way of realising and solidifying these ideas for the client.
    The discussion on the difficulty of language and the simpler approach of using documents is a real eye-opener. This sort of approach could make therapy easier for some clients when we are working in sensitive areas.
    The suitcase idea is magical and I feel this would work with some of my clients to bolster their memories of positive experiences and help counter-balance the negative stories that keep reappearing.

  10. Jeremy Chan

    Jeremy from Singapore here! I play a dual role as an SEL educator as well as a marriage coach. In both these roles, a living document of the skills and knowledges of my students and clients would be quite fitting. For SEL, I imagine a living document of the skills that has helped students navigate trying times, as well as the biggest lessons learnt during their time with me. For marital coaching, a living document regarding the skills related to communication, finance or intimacy modules would also be very helpful so that these stories continue to be retold with subsequent batches and clients.

    Particular ideas – I like the idea of performance and experience. I would like the conversations and documentation around me to be more experiential! How can I thicken the story and the experience by transforming it into a ritual. Not making it more dramatic per se, but adding a touch of drama and encounter in the events. It is not just a graduation, but a rite of passage into the next phase. it is not just a retelling of what has happened but a celebration of the work that has been done. In doing so, I remember that we are sensual and interpretative people. In such ceremonies, I can appeal to their senses – sights, sounds, smells and also think about the language that we are using.

  11. Robyn Fawcett

    This content about documentation was extremely informative and interesting. I found David’s information about the spoken word being difficult for some people with the written word helping people to move through trauma. I particularly liked the quote: ‘we get our language back through the language of others’. The suitcases (stories of people lives) was a great concept and certainly resonates with me and the people that we work with. The need to separate their lives from the dominant story and help to thicken alternate stories. Thanks so much for the interesting training.

  12. Kylie Webster

    I found this chapter very enlightening. The diversity of uses for documentation through the therapeutic process was very informative and gives a new dimension to therapy sessions. What I liked about this was the embodiment of the client as the expert in their own life and the documenting of the session to provide validity to the client’s story is a great approach. This really does cement the collaborative approach to therapy sessions and elevates the client to a position of equal power in the relationship allowing them as owners of their own story to be empowered to achieve self-healing. I was also very interested in the story of the street kids and their suitcases and their personal messages that they carry on their suitcases to depict aspects of their life.
    Outsider-witness can have either a very positive impact on the client as long as they are very supportive but I can see that it may have unhelpful consequences if they are in any way negative towards this approach. It certainly could be a very positive support for clients.


    Leah G – London, Ontario Canada
    I loved this chapter. The multifold roles that documentation can play within individual therapy sessions (letters providing both therapist and client with a record of the conversation) is brilliant. Also the story about the woman who kept the small card in her purse that gave her the truths about herself as a good mother – very powerful. I’m loving as I move through this the clear thread of really having the client become the expert in their own lives – it really turns things upside down and is counter to what I feel the general feeling/expectation is of therapy. I was also really moved by the last video, having worked with street kids in Central America many years ago. Using these arts based, metaphor rich activities with children is particularly powerful and having them rewrite the narrative away from the negative stigma/problem based stories they all to often here is truly transformational.

    As far as having witnesses – I absolutely see the benefit, in all the iterations of this practice though imagine it would have to be worked up to, and that it might now work in all situations. I foresee many folks feeling self conscious as it is just coming to a therapist, never mind having someone ELSE listen in. Much to be explored.

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