Marilyn O’Neill, Australia


Michael White’s writing and teaching continues to constantly engage me and my practice. Here I have selected just four of many concepts that are significant to me:

  • People’s presentations of distress can be appreciated as proclamations and responses, rather than indicators of ‘not coping’ with life. This has been transformative of my practice. Whether in community conversations, supervision, or conversations with families and individuals, this concept has altered my work significantly. Standing alongside a person expressing emotional pain and being able to assist them to make the connections between that distress and their own values, dreams, and commitments, totally redefines what therapy, supervision, and community work can be about.
  • Michael’s emphasis on the opportunities that exist when unpacking ideas of ‘failure’ and questioning such unhelpful meaning-making dramatically enriches therapeutic opportunities.
  • In the last few years, Michael turned our attention to useful ideas for working with trauma and its consequences. He re-presented many of his previous ideas with fresh applications, but he also included new ideas such as how we use memory to survive trauma. In re-applying narrative maps to trauma work, the teachings took on another shape and inspired practices for standing with those who have been traumatised. These ideas have informed both community and individual practice and allowed movement when working with the most intolerable of trauma experiences – an amazing step forward for practice.
  • The ideas of Vygotsky, included in Michael’s considerations in recent years, have also enriched my practice and that of colleagues. These ideas have almost filled a ‘missing link’ in times when a practitioner knows the work has gone well, knows that new meaning and re-storying has occurred, but a ‘stuckness’ seems to still get in the way of actions that people prefer for their lives. The ideas that we as practitioners can assist in traversing the known and familiar to what might possibly become known, across what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, allows practitioners a whole new field of questions to help develop concepts for action.

On a day-to-day basis, the conversations I have with colleagues and those who come to speak of their distress have been totally enriched by narrative ideas. When I find myself ‘abled’ to have a conversation with a person who is dis-abled and distracted by psychotic thought and medication, and then at some point, I hear them reflect on that conversation as useful, I see at a very local level Michael’s ideas influencing practice in highly significant ways.

It is interesting that one of the most frequently-asked questions in narrative teaching is, ‘Where can we not use narrative practices?’ My answer is always that I have not yet found that place, but that how we engage in and negotiate the conversations is very relevant to what conversations we can have.

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