What is narrative therapy?

Sharing stories in ways that make us stronger

Narrative approaches to therapy and community work are vitally interested in the stories of people’s lives, and how stories can be told in ways that make people stronger.

It is possible for counsellors to invite people to tell and re-tell stories in ways that can offer hope and healing. With the use of narrative practices, we seek to honour and acknowledge the stories of hardship and loss that people have experienced. And at the same time, we make it possible for people to tell other stories of their lives as well, stories that bring strength and possibilities.

As Kaurna Elder and narrative therapist Aunty Barbara Wingard describes, ‘We assist people to tell our stories in ways that make us stronger’.

Aunty Barbara Wingard

Aunty Barbara describes how stories are so important and people are the experts of their own lives.

What is narrative therapy?

Here is a very quick response to the question: What is narrative therapy? 

The danger of a single story

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. 

Listening for more than one story: Strengthening resistance

As Chimimanda Adichie describes, it’s  important to move beyond the single story. This is what narrative therapists and community workers do in our work. We listen for more than one story.

This extract is from a workshop held in Rwanda with counsellors who are all themselves survivors of the 1994 genocide.

Strengthening Resistance

Aunty Barbara Wingard

Telling stories in ways that make us stronger.


This Post Has 100 Comments

  1. Chantelle M

    The importance of not just hearing and believing a single story is so crucial, in healing and processing. I have worked with foster children, where, they will bounce around home to home. Information shared would be, they are challenging, they get angry etc It wouldn’t be exploring the stories of that child, which have so heavily impacted them. To understand their stories, would change everything for them and ensure they received the proper supports, not just put in a basket of “challenging”. Additionally, as Chimimanda discussed, society portrays certain views of individuals, groups, cultures etc. We get taught they are norms of the culture and they are stereotyped so negatively. I loved how Chimimanda brings to light, how important it is we self-reflect on our views and thoughts and look deeper. Look more at the alternative stories.
    Barbara’s comment about how powerful it is for those she has worked with, to hear their own story, in their own voice, is something that really resonated with me. To give voice back to someone who has been so silenced, to hear their own words shared how they want it to be shared, would be remarkable to be a part of.

  2. Sameen

    This is my first course regarding Narrative therapy and I have started believing that is the powerful way to approach life s challenges and difficulties.

  3. emilydallas

    The Danger of a Single Story really seemed to open my mind, a single story doesn’t allow for complexity but rather it simplifies things. The work that I’ve been doing and what a lot of people probably do has been incredibly complex and what I’ve noticed on reflection within myself at times is that when we become overwhelmed with the complex nature of something, we somehow perhaps subconsciously, try to simplify it, try to find some black and white, try to find solutions. Because it’s uncomfortable to sit in the grey, in the complex. Learning to sit in the complexity, in the grey and in the uncomfortable has been a learning curve for me in my practice and in life. I value how it creates more space for more stories, more feelings, more depth.

  4. lyndall

    Really enjoyed that ted talk
    By Chimimanda Adichie describes, it’s important to move beyond the single story. This is what narrative therapists and community workers do in our work. We listen for more than one story.
    Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding

  5. Ashleigh Daly

    This reaffirms the importance of how narrative therapy can be used to provide people – especially students who have been affected by trauma. For them to have the opportunity to tell their own story in their own words and then to have it told back to them is so powerful. Especially for students who feel they don’t have a voice or feel like they are never heard by people in positions of power. This is a powerful way of helping students to understand their own successes and can help them to become self-advocates and drive their own story.

  6. Jazmyn

    I enjoyed this introduction to narrative therapy. I particularly appreciated listening to Chimamanda’s story. The concept of how a single story can create stereotypes and how it can affect others and how important it is to listen to all parts of someones story and how empowering it can be.

  7. Jacky

    This is so true, so many times working with students I have found that reading their story back to them gives them an insight as to what you see when you look at them. Working with students and listening to them you look for the positive aspects and use that to guide and heal them, for example they way they have supported a sibling through the same trauma. Their confidence and self esteem completely changes, and you feel the shift immediately. This is really important.

  8. Sophie

    This idea of being ‘saved from knowing a single story’ really hit me. A single story is often what leads to disconnect between youth, people and the world. The cultural connections that Aboriginal people make are often through stories and without these, they are left with a single story of their own existence which is portrayed through incorrect eyes.

    We need to promote telling stories in ways that make us stronger and ways that heal us. It not only helps us to grow, but also helps us to reflect and overcome past challenges and perceptions.

  9. Nicole

    Single narratives are harmful to individuality, inclusion and culture. Having students, or people in general, share their own stories will not only help them but help others that feel like them, but then being able to hear their own story from someone else read back to them reinforces how special and relatable their story is.

  10. Cas

    This is a fantastic introduction to Narrative Therapy. It has really reiterated to me the need to deeply listen to all parts of someone’s story, so that we make sure to catch everything, which is deeply important when trying to support clients & family.

  11. Cynthy Reese

    I’m have been sitting with the confronting reality that I have had a single somewhat dismissive story for Narrative Therapy for over a decade. I think I have been double listening but calling it intake or strength based supportive therapy and have never opened up to the framework, microskills and possibilities to empower and repair in the way Chimamanda Adichie emphasizes because it didn’t seem to fit the CBT, EMDR, DBT ‘effective therapies’ story I’ve been enamored by. I think I even devalued this work because I couldn’t or wasn’t connecting more explicitly to the second story; even if clients expressed appreciation for the work we had done I was confused and couldn’t see it as valuable therapeutic work. Now Aunty Barbara Wingards words are repeating over in my head – “it’s not about us being comfortable, its about you” – the client. Their many stories.

  12. Su

    wow! that was so honest, yes we are experts in our own story, stories make us stronger! Chimamanda’s single story was powerful and confronting and yes we do create stereo types that are incomplete, and rob people of their dignity. Thank you for shifting my learnt and repeated single story to a new page!!

  13. Kate Coomber

    Hi Kate from Melbourne here. I do think we often double listen – but without realising it! It feels like that phrase we need to listen to understand not to respond.
    And how good a skill this is in everyday life as well as counselling. Looking for the exception times speaks directly to Barbara Wingard’s’ observations about telling stories in ways to make us (people) stronger’. Always searching /waiting /anticipating for those times when the problem has been absent or its’ influence lessened are so valuable for clients. And also for practitioners.
    For me it is a refocus also, to remember what I am looking for so that however apparently small or forgotten or casually mentioned, I might hear that piece of the story that will strengthen a persons’ resistance.

  14. Rachel Trout

    The concept of “double-listening” really stood out to me in this introduction, and I appreciate learning a name for a concept that was previously very abstract in my mind. Finding the beginnings to a second story in someone’s narrative is something that I will strive to incorporate into my work.

  15. Nate

    I really appreciate this introduction to narrative therapy. What resonates with me in particular is how exploring themes and one’s story can provide an organizing framework within which to more effectively approach, make sense of, and to address life challenges.

  16. Jen

    This is really exciting and I wish I came across it earlier in my career.

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