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 304 Comments

  1. Kate C

    Hi Kate from Melbourne here.
    I really loved the idea of writing letters / documents of knowledge from counsellor to client. I think Hugh Fox is correct in saying that the professional can often hold all the knowledge via case notes etc that prop memory and this is an imbalance for the client. Especially when so much is said in a session. I enjoyed the examples of letters he wrote and felt if I were to receive something like this I would feel very valued. I would love to do this for clients if I had my own practice.
    I also connected with the ‘outsider witness’ practice. How supportive for clients to hear others value what they have to say, comment on the positives and let them be seen and heard. I can see how many applications it could have but most importantly what an important therapy tool – and it was nice to have the ‘hazards’ highlighted also, can see how I could fall into some of these.

  2. nguyenju

    Hi, Juanna here, writing from Canada. Forms of documentation that might be most relevant or resonant in my context may include creating documents of knowledge and circulation with my individual clients. This is an opportunity for them to focus on their own knowledge and skills, as well as have the chance to share their preferred stories with their loved ones. I might draw on narratives in the suitcase project if I ever have the opportunity to work with children again. It is a creative and fun way to engage individuals in attending to their own alternative stories.

  3. Georgina - Victorian in Toronto

    For me there were many new learnings in this section of the course. The idea of letters as a way to retain the insights and highlights of therapy really spoke to me. I like the idea of clients carrying their preferred stories and strengths with them so that they can re-read them and be reminded of them. The creative approach embraced by the suitcase project got me thinking about using art alongside words as a way to reinforce meanings or to capture meanings when young people may be unsure what the right words are. I also like the way this project focused on aspirations and values and not just he trauma suffered by the children involved in the project.

  4. Natalie

    Sydney, Australia.

    I had a small break from this online learning but have returned to this section and am once again feeling joy at how much of narrative therapy resonates. I particularly loved the explanation of the spoken word as being quite confronting and complex and complicated in David Newman’s video. I like the shared knowledge of the written word, the de-centering of ourselves in the process, and the connection gained by finding one’s language through the language of others.

    I also enjoyed the Suitcase Project and the quote about children’s lives being more than the problems and the struggles that they face. It really resonated with my work with young people when Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo spoke of how they dare to push the boundaries and unsettle the status quo. I see this pathologised as disobedience, so it is joyful for me to hear this alternative story and to think about using these tools – the living documents and the suitcase metaphor – to thicken these alternative stories with the young people I work with.


    What forms of documentation might be most relevant or resonant in your context?
    I liked the suitcase metaphor this resonates with me because I have moved a lot in the last 10 years through my husband passing away. I reflected on the suitcase in my context and remembered all the wonderful joyous memories we had together and as a family with our daughter. My story today is different again and there is a lot more I could fit into a suitcase that would have a positive narrative.

    Are there particular ideas or practices you found within these materials you might draw on in your future meetings with people?
    Yes as a future social worker I can see how being creative with people can distract them from having to be confronted. The suitcase was great for children and I can see how the written word, documentation and art could be used creatively to make more metaphors that can help others.


    Emily Williams, Newcastle Australia. I really enjoyed listening to the importance of letters as a way of continuing the therapeutic practice. I think it resonated with me, that a lot of the “talk” can be forgotten after a session with a client and the “letter” provides a reminder of the alternate story. I also liked the discussion points of speaking to the client about where they will keep the letter, what use will the letter have, so the letter is understood and not just “thrown away”.

  7. Shannon

    Shannon from Sydney, Australia

    I wonder how the idea of documents work with cultures that are more oral rather than literary? I work with a lot of individuals who tend to come from oral cultures, and expressions of oneself through other media, such as art, music, dance or spoken word, can be more intuitive than writing out documents. I loved the idea of the suitcase project, where students actually made their own suitcases – this kind of creative expression, as opposed to using words, may be more relevant for people I work alongside. This can especially be the case where English is the host country’s language, as opposed to the native or heritage language of the individual I work with, which can reinforce a communication gap between the lived experience of the individual and that which they may be trying to express.

    Very thought provoking! Synergies may well be on the way!

  8. jackie.turner

    The letters and notes to clients really resonated with me and I feel is something that will be useful in my work with Children and young people around bereavement and loss.
    I also feel that I have over the years fallen into the confidentiality trap. The idea of negotiating sharing letters and conversations with outsider witnesses is an idea that really excites me as I can see the benefits and how it is used to thicken new stories for individuals and how it can be a tool to support them to open new chapters.


    Really appreciate reading about the dangers of applause when acting as an outsider witness and I can also see how this reflection about the drawbacks can apply to the therapist as well.

  10. Peta

    A question: With regard to the ‘outsider witness’ process, could the person who is working with a therapist invite someone to tell more of the story of their life (and life problem) so that the therapist can ‘thicken the story’. If the person in therapy is reluctant to tell their story, or has a very thin sense of it, there could be a benefit in the therapeutic experience for there to be a wider frame to explore the narrative. Rather than being told the story which can be affirmed, a close family member, or friend, may be able to tell a story which can thicken the narrative so that the issues can be viewed in a wider frame. For instance, a person with low self worth and a thin story about their gifts and achievements would gain a great deal from a witness who can add missing pieces to that thin story.
    I am unclear if this ‘reverse process’ from the examples in the paper could be accommodated within the intentions within the outsider witness model of care.
    Peta Christchurch

  11. EdaUtku

    Hello, Eda from Sydney. In my community, (Lane Cove in Sydney’s north) I feel that films pulled together from photographs of significant events of someone’s life might be a good reminder of their strengths. The story structure shown in films, the hero’s journey, might help in thinking of life’s challenges, externalised behaviours as mountains/fires/floods/hurricanes that can be overcome with support from mentors and allies.

  12. Shonelle

    I found the concepts around words stolen by trauma and caution surroundings the spoken word interesting. Particularly at the moment as we are using many forms of media to provide services , such as email or txt conversations via the internet.
    Shonelle central Victoria

  13. Libby

    Libby – The opportunity for creativity in documenting and witnessing a person’s story is quite exciting to me. In my role working within the medical model of the health system, I can see that the opportunities may be limited by the expectations of the professional knowledges that surround us but I also relish the idea of finding ways to allow people to hear and re-hear, to see and re-see, to celebrate, wonder about and claim their preferred stories, their skills and their knowledges. Reckon it can happen??

  14. Ladan

    I found the talk on Narratives in the suitcase project described by Ncazelo Nucbe-Mlilo very important especially with working with children who have gone through a process of migration. Often times, children and people who have been displaced or have fled a country are dehumanized and degraded by citizens of the hosting country. The suite case project allows for the children to share their stories as well as documenting their journey of aspirations.

  15. Chrissy Gillmore

    I love the ideas of having living documents too. I work with youth in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I have found many common issues across students. A ‘kete’ (basket) full of skills and knowledge that students have used already would be an amazing resource to have.

    I also LOVE the idea of the suitcase narrative. However, for in Aotearoa I would make this more like the Kete Korero (although I’m not sure that is an exact translation, so will need to ask someone who knows more Reo than me!). The process of going through the five methodologies is GOLD. I could definitely see me working this into the veins of my kura (school)!

    Kia ora and thank you again for these courses

  16. Kelvin

    I am thinking that the ideas from the Suitcase Project” may be a creative way to engage at least some of the individuals work who live with the effects of a serious physical injury. The question I will be pondering is how to adapt the principles that guide this intervention for use with adults.

  17. Kelvin

    David Newman’s describe reflections on “living documents” reminded me that this is a theme that is present within some of the pastoral care literature (e.g., Gerkin “The Living Human Document”).

  18. Kelvin

    I am thinking that the ideas from the Suitcase Project” may be a creative way to engage at least some of the individuals work who live with the effects of a serious physical injury. The question I will be pondering is how to adapt the principles that guide this intervention for use with adults.

    A practiced meta-theme is emerging from these materials is the importance of taking time and using respectful curiosity to develop a thick understanding of the client’s life narrative. This is a helpful reminder as my experience suggests that practitioners who are new to Narrative Therapy sometimes rush the process. When I have done this I have ended up with a thin “new story” that the client cannot identify with.


    In my work, I feel that the letters to clients would be the best form of documentation to share. After reading Hugh’s paper, it helped me realize that in my own work, clients enjoy having something physical to hold on to. It is like a reminder of the session, and how far they have come since we began.

    I also really enjoyed learning about outsider witnesses. I love collaboration, so this makes a lot of sense to how I like to work. It creates a feeling of community for the client, while helping validate their story at the same time.

  20. kidsmoked

    Being validated after narcissistic abuse is one of the most powerful things that an ex-target can experience. It can help them take back their agency and start to see their life through their own eyes again. They can remember THEIR story.

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