“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. These words of Michael White have become well-known within the field of narrative therapy. In this chapter we will explore ways of externalizing problems and the possibilities this brings.

Image from Denborough, David. 2014. Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience. Norton Books: New York 

The following questions and answers about ‘externalising’ were created in response to regular requests from practitioners. We’ve tried to respond to some of the questions that are most commonly asked in training contexts. This article was first published in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 2002 No.2, and can be found in the book Narrative therapy: Responding to your questions, compiled by Shona Russell & Maggie Carey (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 2004).

Externalising – Commonly Asked Questions


This is a story of ‘Sugar’ by Aunty Barbara Wingard. It’s a story about trying to find new ways of working, of trying different things and taking new steps.

Please find the article here: Introducing ‘Sugar’

This short film gives helps us visualise what ‘externalising’ problems can look like and make possible..

In collaboration with the World Health Organisation Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the “black dog of depression”. More information on the book can be found here: http://matthewjohnstone.com.au/


In this presentation, Mark Hayward draws on Michael White’s ideas described in the book Maps of Narrative Practice. Mark takes us through Michael White’s Statement of Position Map 1 and how this map enables externalising conversations. Within this presentation Mark also invites you to chart an externalising conversation. We hope this video will enable you to begin using externalising ideas with people you are meeting with!

Please download the following interactive documents.

Statement Of Position Map Powerpoint presentation
Joe transcript


“Externalizing conversations in which the problem becomes the problem, not the person, can be considered counter-practices to those that objectify people’s identities. Externalizing conversations employ practices of objectification of the problem against cultural practices of objectification of people” (White, 2007, 26).

White, M. 2007. Maps of Narrative Practice. Norton Books: New York




Further resources

If you wish to learn more about externalising problems, you may wish to enrol in our Externalising Conversations online course


For Reflection

Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?

What sort of problems could  be externalised in your context?

What difference might this make?



Now please consider talking with others below about the ideas, questions and wonderings these resources and questions have raised for you! Please include where you are writing from (City and Country). Thanks!


This Post Has 397 Comments

  1. Jing

    Hi, I am from Canada. I really enjoyed Mark Hayward’s video as he clearly explained the process of externalization. I am currently working with men who were involved in domestic violence, and I agree with what Mark Hayward mentioned in his video that when working with people who have used bully or violence against others, it is critical for therapists to use externalization in ways that still allow these individual to be responsible for their behaviours and some of the effects result from their behaviours rather than completely separate them from their “problems”.

  2. Shelly

    Mark’s example was really helpful. I found myself wondering how I would navigate conversations where someone needed to own their behaviour, and the consequences of it. I wasn’t sure how accountability and responsibility fit with externalising. I LOVED the way Mark got to the values without asking about values directly to the young lad. Sometimes it can be hard to get out of the therapeutic think/speak, which can be alienating. Great example. Great questioning, and language that was curious, yet conveyed alliance. Very skillful.

  3. Rebecca

    I really learnt a lot from this lesson. At the beginning I was wondering if Narrative therapy was too subjective or it sounds difficult to use as story telling or stories can go in any direction. But after learning about the framework of questions and in particular the “statement of position map”. I feel like it’s more structured now and I have a better understanding of how to use it. And I really like how the points can go up and down because there is no one right question or answer and it gives more grace and less pressure to both the client and the therapist.

    Although I’m not a social worker now but I find externalising very helpful in parenting especially so when my children exhibit anxiety or anger. And in also mental wellness programmes, externalising helps to create a safe and non-judgemental space where a culture of curiosity and openness can be developed.

  4. maggie65ma@gmail.com

    In my experience of practice, externalizing the problem is a very useful tool to help clients deal with their problems. Clients are less prone to associate their current problems with their identities. Thus, when accusations and shaming are not part of the process, clients are more willing to face and deal with their problems.

  5. Anita

    In this unit I particularly enjoyed the story of “Sugar” and Mark Hayward’s video description about externalizing conversations. In “Sugar” I was struck by the sensitivity with which the cultural context was maintained and how it resulted in a completely different conversation. This would also be very helpful in working with people who are straddling more than one culture. Having conversations through the cultural lens of the people concerned would lead to a very powerful discussion. I also found Mark Hayward’s video very helpful to understand the Statement of Position Map 1. The supporting script, PP presentation were very useful in putting the process together. These externalizing conversations would be effective when working with children who find it easier to express themselves through characters and animals.

  6. sjwalker

    I found Marks walked through example of externalising really helpful to watch. It was logical and demonstrated a very practical approach that was centered on the ‘patients’ views and goals. It was a great example of opening communication for the patient and allowing them to take responsibility as well as move towards solutions. The story of sugar was also wonderful. I often think this would be a great way for me to engage with adolescents about substances such as alcohol and marijuana.

    1. Ipsita


      I wanted to learn more about the Statement of Position Map and how it works. The resource that Mark shared really helped me get a clearer idea of how these conversations would look like. When working with children, I think what becomes important to me is realising that their actions and thoughts often have intentions behind them that they might not be able to articulate because they have never been asked about it. When Joey mentioned that he felt sad about being on the receiving end of bullying as well as bullying someone himself, it brought out a unique outcome or alternate storyline of Joey that was not dominated by him being a bully. I look forward to reorganising my own thoughts and processes to be able to make space for externalising questions and increasing my curiousity to know more about an individual, their problems as well as their skills!

  7. Abby

    I really enjoyed the concept of externalising and how this gives the young person the control. I feel this will be very useful in the engagement of young people I work with,

  8. Janine Holmes

    I find the concept of externalising really useful with clients, and have done this instinctively without the theory of why it is useful. I have come across the Black Dog book, which I have used for work, though reading the theory of externalising is now providing a different context of using this book and others similar to this.

  9. ELIZ84

    I enjoyed this chapter, particularly the ideas of Barbara Wingard’s ‘objectifying’ problems, separating them from an individual. I would definitely like to learn more about externalising and will endeavour to complete the additional online course.

  10. Mercy Shumbamhini

    I am Mercy Shumbamhini from Harare, Zimbabwe. I really enjoyed this chapter on externalizing conversations, especially conversation with Sugar. I enjoyed Mark Hayward’s video; he was very clear in his explanation. I also found the Black Dog video fascinating and l think this might be very helpful resource to use with clients.

  11. pierre@mswi.co.za

    Pierre Matthee, Johannesburg South Africa
    I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter, and considering to do do the online course on externalization, before continuing with the rest of this course. I mainly work in a healthcare environment, specifically patients who have to use life long stoma’s, due to inflammatory bowel conditions, and others who are diagnosed with cancer. Barbara Wingard’s article on Sugar gave me several idea’s on how to assist the client/patient to view their illness external from themselves. I believe this will enable them to get a better understanding of the illness. Externalization, in patient’s with stoma’s, can also assist them in befriending their stoma, rather that “fighting” with it.

  12. Frankie Hanman Siegersma, Melbourne Australia

    I enjoyed the focus on the person being able to engage in the Narrative process in a way that gave them full authorship over their problem, rather than the expert/therapist/social worker prescribing good/bad values to the problem, and dishing out direction/information on how they could change their circumstances.

    I appreciated Mark Hayward’s in depth descriptions in the Statement of Position Map 1, in the process of externalisation. In the example of Joey and his mother Petra, I noticed Mark identifying the difference between characterising the problem as “Joey is a bully” rather than look at the problem as external as the self. Mark urges the conversation toward the descriptions of the problem rather than an experience-distance descriptions. I noticed Mark steers the conversation toward gaining Joey’s position on the problem – which allows Joey to gain more perspective on the story.

    I loved the addition towards the end of Marks video about I enjoyed the focus on the person being able to engage in the Narrative process in a way that gave them full authorship over their problem, rather than the expert/therapist/social worker prescribing good/bad values to the problem, and dishing out direction/information on how they could change their circumstances.

    I liked Mark’s note on responsibility toward the end of the Webinar, that we have to be careful about what we externalise, to the extent at which we acknowledge what effect these problems have had on someone’s life. Careful when we talk about abuse and acts of violence, we are limited with how much we externalise – but even when we’re limiting externalisation – bullying, violence – we might want to externalise the shaming, we make it easier for people to link into. Silencing – typically happens to people who experience violence – we can link them in. We can talk about culture – particularly with men (patriarchy, who it benefits, who it oppresses) without separating men from his responsibility.

    1. pierre@mswi.co.za

      Pierre Matthee, Johannesburg, South Africa
      Dear Frankie, I fully agree with you. Being a social worker myself, especially when I started off a number of years ago, I felt that I need to have all the answers. This created so much pressure for myself. With narrative therapy, and especially externalization, the client is the author, and dictates the direction! The pressure is no longer on the therapist!

  13. annalisa

    I really enjoyed Mark Hayward’s video because he talked through the whole process and how to conduct the questions, which questions, how to move back if we go too far for the person we are hearing, how to make questions available to the person. I also liked how the narrative process had then identified that bullying was not the ‘problem’ but being bullied perhaps was. or at least was a cause for it.
    I am amazed about the potentialities of life stories authoring in so many contexts.

  14. ellen.domm@gmail.com

    I am spending time with the Statement off Position Map 1 – Synopsis. I really want to understand this concept. I had a client yesterday and found myself distracted by thoughts of “am I using the right language of externalisation?”

  15. Tera

    I found the Black Dog video might be a valuable resource to introduce this concept to clients. As well as some examples of potential questions to ask clients in regards to externalizing the problem. I have struggled to have clients externalize the issue in my practice and am hoping that this will be a valuable tool for doing so as this is the first step in giving control back to the individual.

  16. KateyB

    Katey Winnipeg, Canada

    I really enjoyed this chapter. I am currently working in a housing program with individuals with different mental health diagnosis. The concept of externalizing and viewing the problem as the problem versus the person being the problem is so simple but sometimes forgotten. i think this is so important and something I have tried to incorporate into practice. It is not always easy for clients to this. I have found that after reading through the material it has helped me develop a new way to ask questions and work with my clients. It has changed a lot of our conversation and it provides a way for me to better understand what the client is trying to communicate, as well as giving space for the client to communicate in a way that is not self deprecating. As well as bring more clarity for client.

  17. Sharyn - Perth

    I tried hard to stay present with the material during this chapter; I found the concepts so engaging that I was thinking about their application in my own SW practice. Although I work with women who have had violence and abuse enacted upon them, I see such utility for practitioners who work with those who perpetrate coercive control and abuse. As Mark noted in his caveat about externalising and responsibility, while the acts of abuse are not condoned, it can provide the space to address the culture of abuse, the belief systems that underpin it, and their consequences.

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