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 293 Comments

  1. Julie

    Hi, I’m Julie from the south coast of NSW in Australia. The use of documents of knowledge that reminded people of their skills, values and knowledges would be particularly helpful for people who have an emerging story but find that they can slip back into their problem story. The use of laminated cards that can be carried around and used as a reminder was a very practical way of integrating this document into everyday life and was used effectively by people that Hugh Fox worked with.

    The use of outsider witnesses in therapy is something that I will draw on in my future meetings with people. Recruiting outsider witnesses with similar issues as the person in therapy and who have also experienced narrative therapy is helpful not only to the person in therapy, but also to the witnesses. It can create a sense of community, reduce feelings of isolation and shame, and allows the sharing of skills and knowledges. The person in therapy benefits as they hear their story being told by others and this can help to thicken their alternative story, and for the outsider witnesses, it can help to encourage further reflection on their lives. I live in a community where the need for mental health practitioners is greater than the available services and this practice could help more people with the limited resources available.

  2. Michele McCrea

    As a counsellor, I have always found ‘case notes’ and especially the ways in which they may be used to wield power, to be problematic. So I’ve enjoyed reading about how this practice can be turned around and used in ways that are empowering for people. In my current role as a group facilitator, I started developing documents from the conversations I had with groups as a way to record and reflect our work. Then I realised the enormous potential of doing this, and reading more about collaborative and collective documents as used in Narrative Practices around the world. So I’ve started thinking about ways that I can develop my own practice of documentation so it is more collaborative, more collective, and more empowering for the women in my groups, their families, and their communities.

    I’m from Adelaide, Australia – Kaurna Country!

  3. Amanda Shribman

    I really enjoyed this lesson and I think I could utlilize quite a few of the techniques described related to documentation when working with my tertiary students (who are generally not very confident academically). i especially appreciated David Newman’s description of working with a teen in the mental health unit and how he found hope through relevant documentation. My students could document stories of how they have achieved success or hints for success, and we could have other students adding to these stories. This would be inspiring and assist with motivation. I was also really interested in the Narratives in the Suitcase project and the different strategies used to build confidence

  4. Hannah R

    Hi all. I’m Hannah, a junior doctor from Bristol (UK). I was really struck by the potential for using narrative principles in writing letters, especially in the context of letter writing after assessments in the emergency department (part of my oncall work). The potential for these letters to be more than a handover of information between professionals is part of what interested me in narrative practice; I hope to be able to use the lessons learnt in this chapter to help make my letters more helpful to the people I am working with. I am also interested in the idea of living documents, and how I might be able to incorporate this into my clinical work. I was moved by the video on “The Suitcase Project”, which has made me think more about how I could use documents of skills and knowledges in my everyday practice. I was struck by the power of the written word to give speech to our experiences when we cannot find the words ourselves, and the potential empowering nature of documents of skills and knowledges to remind us of what we need to remember when we need to remember it. All in all, a really thought provoking and inspiring chapter!

  5. Rebecca

    I have really enjoyed learning about documentation processes in this module. As a high school Guidance Officer in Brisbane, Australia, I have used (without realising it) Documents of Authority as discussed in Hugh Fox’s article. Students I work with have reported a huge boost in their self-confidence and ability to overcome problems when referring back to this document during difficult moments. I am challenged to also employ Documents of Circulation in my future practice. I was also very interested in the Suitcase Project, as I am about to commence work at a school with a high population of refugees. This project showed ways of developing thick knowledge and alternative stories. Thank you for sharing this content!


    I think letter writing would be very relevant in my context. I love how it breaks down the power dynamic and helps clients to have a record of their own sessions. I’ve found myself writing letters in my own life, in fact, when I had interpersonal issues that I could work out better through letters, even when they weren’t actually sent. I think outsider witness practices also seem like a great technique to incorporate in the future. It makes so much sense to me that influential people in someone’s life could be helpful in listening to their story and growing alongside them in this way.

  7. Elly

    Elly from Australia,
    I used to incorporate letter writing regularly into sessions, participants would use this as a way of saying things they may have previously been afraid to say out loud. Some participants would write down their feelings or issues they had with a person – not necessarily for that person to read but as a way of letting go or forgiveness as a process.

  8. Caleb

    Caleb from Winnipeg, Canada. Learning more about narrative approach to documentation has been very enlightening. I had always interpreted the practice of documentation to be more of a tool for the clinician to remember what progress we have made in appointments and protect us in case something goes under investigation. I now have a better appreciation for how a document can be meaningful to a client and can be used as a therapeutic tool. I would like to incorporate letter writing into my practice as well as knowledge documents.

  9. Jason

    I really found these ideas on documentation very interesting and relevant to my work. I have clients who really have trouble remembering what we do from week to week and the idea of documenting our discussion and/or what I have observed in them seems like a great idea. I wonder, realistically, if I would have the time to consistently write a letter for each client, but a shorter summary by email might be doable. I also really like the notion of capturing client knowledge around resources and resiliency. It seems so hopeful for others who may not trust the therapist but who might get some encouragement from reading the words of previous clients.


    My therapist (trained to Nar Prac) often sends me, after a session, the key words or even a little text, like a poeme. I experienced it as very powerful the re-read my words, to see them written by her (I’m then ensured she heard me right) and it is very useful when thinking back at “how did I do last time I was feeling like I’m feeling now? or when did I last experience the same situation? or I had the same physical sensation in the past: what did it mean?”
    As a reflexologist, as most of the work is physical, I’m planning to propose a haiku reflecting on the session and making the link between the body and the feelings.
    I put an exemple on my website :
    It is about a woman waking up at the same hour every night. The reflexology tells us it could be the mourning of her brother, died in a water accident, and whose disparition seems inconceivable to her. The haiku says (in french, it is poetic, here is just the translation)
    “ In the water you disappear
    At your time/conveniency, you wake me up
    A brother, a life”

    After reading this part, I’m now wondering if a sort of drawing support like a feet’s map could be a tool for documentation, on which key words could be put on the corresponding organ if relevant.

  11. Kim Leebody

    I found this chapter very thought provoking, I particularly resonated with the dominant stories that are held about people. This has helped me reflect on the other stories that each person has about their life, dreams and wishes for themselves. I’m also struck by the need to have some of these stories captured in documents, especially in letters post session. I do write to the families I work with but this has not been consistent. Covering this chapter has reminded me how important it could be to my practice if I took time to highlight other stories that I hear, using letters, drawings, awards etc. I have experience of using reflective teams and have seen how beneficial the process is to people, the process of them becoming the observer of alternative stories, curiosity and embodied ideas can offer people an alternative story or wondering about their situation. I will be sure to think about how I can create a way to offer the outsider wittiness story to the families I see alongside the core messages that were discussed during our time together. I really liked how the suitcase was used to enable the street children develop a bigger a richer sense of self, giving them agency,hope and connection to their histories and futures.

  12. Ida

    It was good to be reminded that in turmoil and distress language is hard to find (words are hard to find), but people can finding their language through the language of others. The practical examples were particularly interesting. Since doing this chapter I have been thinking about ways I can use ‘living documents’ in counselling, both as a way people can read about others’ experiences of the same issue and so perhaps feel less lonely, or as a way they can contribute how they have been dealing with the shared issue and so perhaps help others.


    I am just beginning to learn about narrative therapy so this chapter on documents was a new concept for me. I really like the letters recording a session and documents of circulation as outlined in Hugh Fox’s article. Hugh Fox talked about how the therapist is at an advantage because they have access to case notes before the next session with a client whereas the client only has to rely on their memory about what was discussed last session. This is something I had not thought about before but it makes complete sense to me that with everything that may be going on for a client, its a high expectation for them to remember exactly what was said during a therapy session. Having a letter recording a session would be super helpful to remind clients what they spoke about and give them a reminder as to what they got out of the session and these letters can be referred back to a number of times, I also really liked the documents of circulation. I think it is highly important to involve the clients support system in some way because at the end of the day the client is with the therapist for such a short time in theirs lives. Its the people surrounding them and supporting them who will be with them for help and support in the long term so I think the documents of circulation are a great way to involve a clients support system in a way that does not divulge everything that was discussed in therapy but provides information on how the person can best help the client during a time of need.


    I haven’t heard a lot about this aspect of narrative before, but it does seem to be a powerful tool. I hope I can pull it off in my prectice someday.

  15. Jillian

    Sometimes simple shifts in practice are so powerful and as a result bring about hugely different outcomes. When a therapist stated that they used to write notes following a session to send to the clients doctor but changed to writing the notes with the client, I felt a sense of sadness that this wasn’t common place and I acknowledged an ethical shift to transparency and collaboration that is just and liberating. So many different emotions and memories can be elicited in a counselling session, that it resonates as sound practice to document important break throughs or alternative stories. Currently, I am caring for my 101 year old mum. She has been a responsible, kind, generous, hard working parent and community member. Sadly, she is consumed with a sense of guilt and remorse for decisions she made during her life. I plan to use these practises of documentation and witnesses to strengthen a far more appropriate positive narrative.

    1. Kim Leebody

      I just read your post, it’s so lovely that you are going to help your mum re- member her life from your unique witness position I hope that this gives her peace. Your story of her , i hope will let her see that you are the blessing that her decisions created and without these decisions who knows where you all might be. Love and hugs to you both

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