“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 261 Comments

  1. I have found this information really insightful & has actually inspired me to create my own characters for a childrens group I am facilitating. I have created two characters- Amy (for the amydyla) and Paul (for the prefrontal cortex) to role play and explain regulation.

    Thank you to the Dulwich centre for all your hard work in putting this course together !

  2. Externalizing is a powerful concept. Counter-intuitively I’ve seen people want to find something wrong with themselves – a negative label they can give themselves to explain problematic behavior. This acts like a double arrow – first creating an unhelpful identity, and second potentially using the label to as an explanation and excuse instead of doing the deeper inquiry into the behaviors and intentions. I appreciated the frameworks and compassionate examples in this section. Thank you.

  3. Through the learning of externalization, I realized that there is an emphasis on the problem, rather than the person. There does not have a single correct externalization. As social workers, we could change a way of communication to ask a question by using externalized conversation. Also, four hints for social workers provide me a great reminder of communication with clients. Moreover, we could consider the cultural factor in terms of working with children.

  4. The story of sugar was really appreciable. As most of the people are not aware about the diabetes 1 and diabetes 2 the author explained that story in a better way. The author become the sugar in the story and the way she follows to explain the was amazing. This story shows relationships, bonding and relate the things in culturally appropriate way. This story helps in breaking down the isolation and brings togetherness.
    Further, externalization is good concept Externalizing discussions utilise practices of externalization of the issue against social practices of generalisation of individuals.
    In the externalising conversations, map provides a structure that externalises the problem, acknowledges the full effects of the problem on a person’s life. Firstly, naming and characterising the problem for example the client says the problem is depression. Further, make connection with the problem like look at the effects of the problem on the person’s life, other people and relationships. Finally, the position on or experience of the problem and its effects. Further, values of the person that provide a context for their position.

  5. Hi all,
    I really liked the videos and the PowerPoint presentation. These videos were very much helpful in understanding a person not by his/her problems. The video in the ‘black dog’ teaches so many things about how to cope with depression. Overall I have gained some valuable knowledge through these videos.

  6. I liked this whole chapter , Hayward video and its power point presentation has caught my attention. this video has provided me the meaning of the me externalization .He has also discussed some examples in this video and provided the idea ,about how problems can relate with other factors. in his presentation, he has provide different steps which provides the overview of narrative therapy. It helps people to relate their problems with other affecting factors. in fact, so many issues can be solved by externalization in social work profession because proper listening and full information can solve so many problem.

  7. Greetings from rainy Paris, France. Two things struck me particularly. I loved the article which really helped me get into the idea of externalizing. It reminds me a little of techniques from NLP, where you help your client to name something – a pain, a behavior, or whatever – and then to work with it. (I was also intrigued with the way the article was written, in a collaborative and emergent process.)
    The video about depression (the big black dog) was also wonderful because it is so tangible and so clearly illustrative of the power of developing and externalizing a metaphor rather than just working with a clinical label. (I liked the pun, “even the big black dog can be made to heel/heal”.)
    These two pieces reminded me of an experience accompanying children (as a parent) on a bus trip. I was asked to sit with the “vomiters”. By playing with the idea of being a vomiter, getting them to externalize their status as vomiters and turn it into something they could handle and tame, we actually reached our destination without anyone getting sick!
    In my coaching work, externalization could be used with people who walk into coaching with one of many typical labels: poor communicator; overly demanding manager; lacking a leader’s attitude; immature team, or others. I think the series of levels (naming with a relevant metaphor; exploring the connections with other parts of the professional’s life; developing a position regarding the externalized “thing”; and deciding what values to connect with) could be a very powerful process. Indeed, I like the idea of working on values, as I think these are really important to be sure we are reaching high enough to build an enduring solution. Metaphor anchors us to firm ground, values help us build a big tent in which to live.

  8. The Story or ‘Sugar’ really caught my attention. I appreciated the creativity in emphasizing the effects of diabetes on a people by becoming sugar. It allowed questions to be asked while creating a sense of humour, curiosity, culture, and togetherness. I found that it was interesting to see the connections between the materials created (posters about health) and the conversations. I also like the connection from past to present when it came to healthy vs. unhealthy habits.
    There are many issues that can be externalized in my context with students and clients, and in my own life. This has given me a deeper perspective on the impact of a person believing they are the problem.

  9. Hi all,
    The content of whole chapter is very good and interesting.“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. These words of Michael White really got my attention.As the aim of externalising practices is therefore to enable people to realise that they and the problem are not the same thing.It allows people to consider their relationships with problems.I think it makes a huge difference in someone’s life because listening to others issues first, helps to resolve the problem better.

  10. I appreciated that there was a sequential process provided in this lesson. The power point presentation along with Mark Hayward providing guidance through the steps helps create a vision of what narrative therapy looks like in action. I work in the helping field and often find that clients come in for counselling having already been given a diagnosis of some kind. So often when I ask about problems, I get answers along the lines of “well I have depression” or “people saying I’m paranoid”. Having a series of questions that assist in externalizing with descriptions that is experience near is valuable. The descriptions that are evoked in the power point, wolf monster or black depths, remind me of creative therapies. A character can be created, drawn or written that symbolize the problem.

    I also agree with a response outlined below regarding the usefulness of this map in addictions work. The healthy distancing from the behaviour or clinical state of “addiction” could be incredibly useful. I have also seen this in my practice where people who use substances refer to their problem as “addiction” or identity as “addict”. This can be a very strong narrative that is a thin description, very totalizing and medical.

  11. Hello:

    This is Andrea from Toronto.

    I found particularly helpful the discussion in the FAQ around the use of metaphors of conflict and combat. I expect to be working in healthcare settings with critically ill patients and their loved ones (mostly children and parents), and I anticipate hearing them use these kinds of combative metaphors during our conversations. I also anticipate meeting many people who are mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from “fighting” these problems. I appreciated the comments in the FAQ about combative metaphors, and the suggestions around exploring other kinds of metaphors which may be less conflict-laden and draining on their emotional resources. Thanks again for making this material available!

  12. Hi, Rob here from Perth WA.
    I like it that externalisation leaves one more easily able to look and see one’s own behaviour objectively.
    I couldn’t help but think of Roger Hargreave’s Mr Men books and wonder if something like them could be (or are) used as tools to help ‘difficult’ children to look at unhelpful traits, emotions or actions within themselves.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu