“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 560 Comments

  1. Kristen

    Kristen, Ontario Canada

    I have enjoyed learning about the externalizing conversations and have found it to be a useful tool. Working in the field of death, dying, and bereavement, I love how we can use externalizing conversations to assist in separating the person from the problem whether that problem be their illness, their grief, etc. So often medicalized and pathologizing language such as “the cancer patient” are used which can become totalizing of the person’s identity. I see externalizing conversations being useful in extricating the two.

  2. Angela

    The video, “I had a Black Dog,” really stood out for me. The dog, usually our protector and friend symbolised depression. As the person became more depressed, so the dog grew. The dog was a way of externalising the problem through visualisation.

  3. simon desmarais-zalob, Berkeley, CA, USA

    (Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?) I liked the idea that the externalized idea, e.g. “Sugar” for diabetes, could have both positive and negative qualities. It also seems like this is a great way to engage with youth who are wary of talking to a counselor, as it takes away the stigma of being a “problem child.”

    (What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?) Those of “laziness,” “worry,” “sadness”

    (What difference might this make?) It could lead to a client-generated solution.

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