“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 631 Comments

  1. Sarah LaFleur

    The concept of using the statement of position map spoke to me, particularly in its emphasis on characterizing the problem in an experience-near way. As a poet and Sanskrit scholar-practitioner, I have always been fascinated with language’s ability to shape consciousness and initiate transformation. This lesson highlighted the transformative piece of therapeutic traditions that emphasis stories, narrative, and language. When we describe something richly in our own terms, we assume authorship, which allows us to not only understand the problem better but create new storylines. This aspect of narrative therapy also speaks to how I feel as a therapist regarding diagnosis as an inherently disempowering aspect of clinical language. Diagnosis can feel sterile and un-localized without a person fitting this into their own world of meaning. This lesson offered me a possibility of how to work with diagnosis. For example, I could encourage clients to share their own terms, definitions, and descriptions of “anxiety” or “depression.” This could initiate curiosity and catharsis as well!

    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?

  2. LKC_333

    In all honesty, I found this whole chapter super interesting. The resource that caught my attention was Mark Hayward’s presentation on externalising conversations and how he provides numerous examples to simplify its use in a therapeutic setting. I found that the “Wolf” example in the first half of the presentation was a very effective way to synthesise my prior readings on externalising conversations and better understand how to apply it as a therapeutic technique when talking with clients. The idea of making the client a consultant and an expert on the “Wolf” appears to be an effective way to begin to create rich alternative storylines. Another significant part was how he assumed the wolf’s character and expanded on its character when talking with the child client.

    Even though I am not seeing clients, I will incorporate several aspects of narrative therapy, especially externalising conversational techniques when I believe it is effective. Coming from a person-centred humanistic approach and seeing the client as an expert in their own lives, I think there is space for a poststructuralist and humanist approach to be used in symbiosis to significant therapeutic effect even though the two are diametrically opposed in terms of how they view a client’s problems and struggles.

  3. liora

    I like how you can externalize the problem because that way the consultant can see himself in a new light, without seeing himself as a problem. Also, it can help families make alliances to solve the problem instead of fighting against each other. Im really excited to take the theory to the practice with the consultants soon.

  4. Sian

    I enjoyed many elements of this chapter, but was most captured by Mark Hayward’s presentation and the article on
    “Sugar” as these allowed me room to conceptualise how I would use these concepts in practice. Personally, I could use externalisation to aid me with stress. When I compare the phrases “I’m stressed” versus “I’m being visited by stress” I feel a real sense of workability from the second phrase. How can I get stress to leave? What invited stress in? Where is stress sitting in my body? What makes stress hold me tighter or looser? It provides room for the problem to be observed.

  5. Ernie

    Northland, Aotearoa New Zealand
    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    The Black Dog expressed interested me, as the metaphor captivated my interest of how the simplistic animation was able to deliver a powerful message. To externalize depression and give it a name for identity purposes. How the Black Dog affected a person as well as the management of depression.
    What sort of problem could be externalised in your context?
    A majority of people I work with require assistance with depression, however the ability to externalise strengths is a skill within itself, which is aim to obtain.
    What difference might this make?
    Alternate responses, different pathways, positive interactions and a new skill.

  6. Jordan

    The transcript was beneficial.

  7. TorCG

    What resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    The last section of the commonly asked questions resource about how externalising conversations can identify the impacts that power and politics have on a person’s wellbeing, and the relief that often comes with this understanding. I like this compared to other counselling modalities which often do not make this distinction and embed social issues within individuals.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context, and what difference might this make?
    I work in a school with students, and many of the students speak about the pressure they feel to succeed but often don’t know where this pressure comes from. Externalising conversations could assist students in identifying the source of this pressure, which may come from their parents or teachers. This could provide relief from this pressure and help students in identifying what their own motivations in terms of schooling are. This could also start a broader discussion surrounding the pressure to succeed that is placed on students, rather than them being able to express what their own desires are.

  8. Lisa Shepherd

    Lisa Shepherd, Tangiteroria, Northland, Aotearoa, New Zealand.
    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    I enjoyed the ‘Sugar’ story. The empowerment of the people is what I enjoyed. The simplicity of externalising diabetes within an indigenous community is wonderful. It is giving the people an understanding of how colonisation has affected them, in an empowering way. Excellent.
    What sorts of problems could be externalised in my context?
    This opens up spaces for me to enable people in many different ways. We have a mental health issue in Aotearoa that comes in the form of suicide. I would like to be able to offer people another way out of the blackness. This is a key step in the direction I would like to take. Being able to offer people and space to look at troubles in a way that people can understand and assist people to take control in their lives is immense, and to be able to do this in a group setting is fantastic.
    What difference might this make?
    It could save peoples lives.

  9. Rebeccah

    The case study that Mark went through was very useful, in particular the dangers of externalising violence. I work with women victim/survivors of FDV and am keen to learn more how I can apply this practice to my setting.

  10. briannajarv

    This chapter has been so useful. I love the practical tips and examples around the power of language, and the small steps we therapists can take to ensure our language promotes externalising and separation of identity from the problem. I would be interested to explore how we can use these strategies with people, for example, who are using violence in their relationships – as an emerging practitioner, I am not confident in being able to manage externalising with holding individuals accountable for their behaviour. Interested to see where this course takes me!

  11. Leena

    I was captured by the idea of the map taking the person on a journey and how that journey isn’t in a straight line, but winds and sometimes comes back on itself, to get to the values that are important. The case study of Joey that Mark Hayward went through, really brought this to life and allowed for the exploration to happen that Joey needed to understand his problem. For me, it also showed how valuable this way of working is with children.

Leave a Reply