1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

In this article, I contrast assumptions of a modernist worldview and a postmodern worldview as they relate to clinical practice. Two exercises are described that help therapists develop insight into and practice with the kind of thinking that is consistent with a postmodern narrative clinical practice. Particular attention is paid to the ways that even the small and the ordinary — single words, single gestures, minor asides, trivial actions — can provide opportunities for generating new meanings. Five concepts that I routinely use in my professional and personal life and that are consistent with a postmodern narrative practice — discourse, externalizing the internalized discourse, exceptions, power as the means to produce a consensus, and characteristics of narrative — are illustrated.

Ordinary. What an astonishing array of images hide behind this word. The ordinary is of course never ordinary.

Griffin, 1992, p. 120

In the past decade, many family therapists have abandoned a systemic metaphor in favor of a narrative metaphor to organize and describe the work that they do (Hoffman, 1993; White & Epston, 1990; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1994), and have adopted a postmodern rather than a modernist worldview to better reflect their sense that knowledge is “multiple, fragmentary, context-dependent, and local” (Hare-Mustin, 1994).

Journals, books and conferences abound with descriptions of the theoretical and clinical implications of these two shifts, often at an abstract, theoretical level. Less well-documented are the ways in which narrative therapists, working from postmodern premises apply “big” ideas to their work-a-day clinical practice or, for that matter, to their lives. In this article, I show the ways in which a postmodern narrative map provides a context for attending to the small and the ordinary, for listening at the level of the word to the possibilities for a story to pivot at any point.

Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

In my life, I attribute significant changes in my clinical practice to the transition I have made from modernist assumptions to postmodern ones. While some therapists may have made changes similar to the ones I will describe when they adopted a systemic metaphor, for me, these changes occurred more definitively when I adopted a narrative metaphor.

Within family therapy, a modernist approach entails the observation of persons in order to compare their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors against preexisting, normative criteria. The modernist therapist then uses explanations, advice, or planned interventions as a means to bring persons' responses in line with these criteria. Working this way consistently produced two dilemmas for me.

First, the modernist therapist defines herself apart from the individual, couple, or family with whom she is working. This sustains her belief that she is an expert with special knowledges that allow her to observe, assess, diagnose, and treat without herself being subject to the same processes as the persons with whom she is interacting. For a modernist, the observer —, the therapist — is distinct from the person or persons being observed — the clients (Keeney, 1983). Further, the locus of rich understanding of a person's life is assumed to lodge within the therapist, not the client. From a postmodern narrative perspective, however, it is the client whose knowledges must be brought forward, illuminated, and amplified.

The second dilemma created by a modernist approach concerns the dimension of power. The modernist approach assumes that each party to an interaction — therapist/client, husband/wife — has an equal opportunity to contribute to the interaction. This is rarely so. Preexisting power relations bias participation. When the modernist therapist ignores this feature of social life, she inadvertently sustains the existing relations of power (Goldner, 1985; Hare-Mustin, 1978; Paré, 1996).

These dilemmas shrink, although I do not believe that they disappear even when working from a postmodern narrative perspective. The postmodern narrative therapist is no longer the expert knowing how couples and families can — should — solve their problems. Instead, the therapist is a fellow traveler, dedicated to listening as carefully as possible to the stories people tell about their lives. Commitment to a side-by-side, not a hierarchical therapeutic relationship, means that the therapist has to find ways to honor clients' abilities to locate fresh directions and solutions out of their own experience (Roth & Weingarten, 1995), and to make her own experiences with clients and others available to the people with whom she works. The postmodern narrative therapist has faith that, in the course of telling and re-telling one's story, in the course of listening and being listened to, in the course of responding and being responded to with thoughtfulness, care, and passion, alternatives to the troubling story — the problem-saturated story (White & Epston, 1990) — will emerge.

For a postmodern narrative therapist, there are no “true” stories, no fixed “truths,” no master narratives (Freedman & Combs, 1996; Lax, 1992; Parry & Doan, 1994). A postmodern narrative therapist is generally uninterested in conversation that tries to ferret out the causes of problems. Instead, she is extremely interested in conversations that generate many possible ways to move forward once a problem has arisen. The postmodern narrative therapist and her clients co-construct preferred narratives that fit the individuals' or couple's or family's lived experience, regardless of whether they “fit” anyone else's idea about “persons like that” or “couples like that” or “families like that.”1

Finally, a postmodern narrative therapist is present in the interview in a very different way than is the modernist therapist. And how satisfying this has been for me. I consistently share my thinking about what I am thinking (Weingarten, 1992), and I situate my responses to the “events” of the session, or the events that are reported, as coming from my own experience. This makes us all privy to much the same working “material.”

The transition from a modernist to a postmodern therapist has been liberating for me. Before, I never fully inhabited my work, which I know is so because I dropped what I did at work when I left. Now, and for the past decade or so, there is congruence between the worldview that informs my professional and personal lives. I have certain knowledges and expertise and I share what I know when these seem relevant. I am not the expert. I don't know the “truths” of peoples' lives and I don't know what they should do. It is a great relief no longer to believe that I must know.

One of my tasks is to help people engage in making sense of their lives, which is a far different project from explaining their behavior. As my clients and I try, together, to make sense of their experience, experience can shift. New tales are told, and these become constitutive of their living, the stuff of living itself.

Believing as I do that I am subject to the same world-making and unmaking processes as everyone else, I can never locate myself as an objective outsider, but must always know myself as a participant. This creates an opportunity and an imperative for right action and for ethical response. Finally, happily, it means that the central concerns of my life — silence/voice/; domination/liberation — are always relevant in every clinical encounter (White, 1995).

Creating a Learning Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

A critically important change for me between operating within a modernist and a postmodern narrative paradigm has been the shifting of my attention from what I think about what my clients are telling me to trying to understand what my clients think about what they are telling me. This shift, now in place, feels perfectly natural, and working any other way feels strange and discordant. Initially, though, while making the transition, I felt in free fall. It was hard for me to imagine what I had to offer if I didn't go into a session armed with systemic hypotheses and ideas about possible solutions (Griffith & Griffith, 1992).

As I began to work this way, I realized that what I had to offer was what I have called “radical listening.” My definition of radical listening is “helping a voice to be heard” (Weingarten, 1997, p. 210). That phrase, unfortunately, doesn't capture one significant way I think about my work. Since within each person there are many voices and many stories (Penn & Frankfurt, 1994), my task is to create the conditions for all these voices and all these stories to be “heard.” When I work with more than one person, the task is to make sure that each person is heard as fully as every other person, and that, of course, includes my own voice.

The practices that produce “radical listening” are consistent with a postmodern narrative perspective. These practices can be taught. Sallyann Roth and I co-teach the Program in Narrative Therapies at the Family Institute of Cambridge, where we have developed a set of exercises that promote the shift from modernist to postmodern narrative thinking and help develop radical listening. I will briefly present two of the exercises we have developed, which I think are particularly helpful in accomplishing these aims.

Students tell us that exercise 2 sensitized them to how much meaning and how many meanings can be packed into, and unpacked from a single word or phrase by talking about it. We believe that both exercises are building blocks in developing a foundation for clinical practice based on collaborative understanding and re-authoring of meanings.

Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

Attending to the Other

Exercise # 1. Attending to our listening: The first exercise is done in pairs and has two parts. We suggest that people take about 12–15 minutes for each part:

Part One: One person (Person A) describes a clinical or a personal situation. The other person (Person B) listens and notices…

  • a. 
    What is A saying?
  • b. 
    How am I thinking about what A is saying? What hypotheses do I have about this person in her situation? How am I organizing the information I am taking in? Do I see patterns at work here? What are they?

Hold this thinking silently. Ask only clarifying questions.

Part Two: One person (Person A) describes a different clinical or personal situation. The other person (person B) listens and notices…

  • a. 
    What is A saying?
  • b. 
    What do I think A thinks about what she is saying?

In this part, our hypotheses have to do with what the other might be thinking, feeling, or meaning. They should come from data related or shown by person A. Ask only clarifying questions.

Repeat both parts of the exercise with Person B assuming the roles that person A has just done, and vice versa.

We have found that people have vastly different experiences doing Parts One and Two. For most people who do the exercise, it is easy to grasp that Part One of the exercise encourages the therapist to listen to her own thinking and is more consistent with work informed by modernist premises. Likewise, most people “get it” that Part Two encourages attunement to the other and is more consistent with postmodern narrative premises.

Attending to the Word

Postmodern narrative work relies on language and is an interpretive practice. By contrast, many modernist family therapy models rely on the observation of and evaluation of patterns of interaction. Riikonen and Smith (1997) have written extensively about the significance of words in postmodern narrative practice: “Each word is like a railway station, from which many places can be reached — or an orchestra, which can be made to play many tunes. Many things can be reacted to, many paths can be chosen, many tones can be cherished” (p. 19).

The second exercise we have designed draws students' attention to language at the level of a single word or phrase.

Exercise # 2. Expanding/shifting meaning: listening at the level of the word.


  • a. 
    Divide into pairs.
  • b. 
    Person A (interviewer) asks, “How are you?”
  • c. 
    Person B (interviewee) answers honestly.
  • d. 
    Person A listens carefully to the language of person B, and in asking questions, in conversing, inquires about and/or uses any word or phrase that appears to hold special meaning for person B.

How does the interviewer listen for words that seem to have special meaning to the speaker? We have found it useful to listen for the following:

  • a. 
    idiosyncratic use of language
  • b. 
    repeated words
  • c. 
    language that sticks out, doesn't quite fit
  • d. 
    words used in notable conjunction with a shift in nonverbal behavior.
  • e. 
    words used with strong or unusual affect
  • f. 

In such a brief exchange, one potential dilemma is that the initial selection of the “word” or “phrase” that is focused on is made by the interviewer unilaterally.

  • a. 
    Can you negotiate with the interviewee so that you are sure not to impose your idea of what is key onto that person?
  • b. 
    How can you, the interviewer, check out the saliency of your selection?
  • c. 
    Can you interview in such a way that if a story develops from the selected word, the language is the interviewee's?

Another potential dilemma is the interviewer's presuppositions about the meanings that the interviewee attaches to words. Try to hold yourself in a listening mode without presuppositions.

Repeat the exercise with the interviewer now being the interviewee.

Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

In this article, I have written that there are no “true” stories, no fixed “truths,” and no master narratives for a postmodern narrative therapist. This does not mean, however, that postmodern narrative therapists don't have ideas that undergird their work. What distinguishes a postmodern from a modernist approach to constructs or ideas is how they inform the clinical work and how they are introduced into the therapy. In my clinical practice, this means that I have strived to bring my own voice into the dialogical mix in a way that does not keep my thinking private, preferred, and privileged. In the next section, I describe five ideas that have significantly influenced me in order to illustrate how I apply postmodern narrative ideas in my clinical practice — and, in the final example, in my life. In every instance, I believe, attention at the level of the word has been key.

The ideas that I am going to present are ones that I consider abstract, yet solid and weighty. I have spent years studying several of them, trying to hone, deepen, and enlarge my understanding of their meanings. Yet I have used these “big” ideas in moments that are so brief, in conversational openings that are so narrow, that had my mind wandered, or had I turned my head to glance out a window, I might have missed the chance to introduce them into a session or to work with them at that time.

My point is that big ideas can be knit, small stitch by small stitch, into the fabric of the work. Trumpets needn't blare. The stuff of daily life, the small and the ordinary, can be fertile ground for the most sophisticated concept.

1. Discourse

We live in a lattice of myths. Stories which manifest the meaning of our lives and at the same time define the circumference of the imaginal world. What is it we are free to imagine?

Griffin, 1992, p. 189

It has been important to me to try to understand how certain kinds of negotiated meanings operate to subjugate, marginalize, or trivialize people's experience, or allow it to be fully represented. Conceptually, I have found the idea of discourse most helpful in understanding the mechanisms by which some people's experiences becomes dominant and other people's experiences — often those of women, people of color, homosexuals, and persons who are differently abled — are pushed to the edge. I use the concept of discourse the way social historian Joan W. Scott (1990) defines it: discourse is a “historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories, and beliefs” (pp. 135–136) that are embedded in institutions, social relationships, and texts. Some discourses are dominant and others are marginalized through the operation of these mechanisms. This meaning of discourse allows us to make sense of what Jerome Bruner (1990) calls the ways “culture forms mind” (p. 24).

We are never subject to just one discourse. We are always subject to a multitude of discourses every day, though we may not recognize them as such. Nor are discourses necessarily discrete. The discourse of fathers is inextricably connected to other discourses, for instance, the discourse of patriarchy, mothers, biology, sexuality, power, and many more. A discourse may be so familiar to us that we cannot distinguish the messages that we are getting. Whether we are aware of a discourse or not, it can powerfully shape the stories we can tell and the stories we can hear. Discourses influence what we can know and not know, see and not see, say and not say, in complex and subtle ways.

The clinical vignette that follows involves the overlapping discourses of biology and fatherhood, technology and love, and it does focus on something small and ordinary: a single sperm. However, as tiny as a sperm may be, the cultural meanings that have developed around it have probably had as much impact on the lives of men and women as any other animate substance.

Beth and Bob became clients of mine within weeks of their first child being diagnosed with a fatal genetic disorder. I worked with them from the time of the initial shock of the diagnosis through the painful and protracted period of their child's succumbing to her disease. The couple, who had not known each other long at the time their child was born, were extraordinary partners to each other and devoted caretakers of their ill infant.

After Laurence died, the couple decided to create a family again and, after much deliberation, they selected alternative insemination as the safest way to accomplish their goal: Bob inseminated Beth with donated sperm at the obstetrician's office.

Beth gave birth to a healthy son and I no longer saw them in therapy although they kept in touch with me. When their son, David, was 4 years old, they returned to consult with me about what to tell him about “how babies are made.” We had several conversations about this, each of which required the utmost attention to the discourses that were affecting Bob in relation to his wish to educate David regarding sex in a way that would preserve David's belief that Bob was his only father. Beth thought that Bob was “obsessed” and that his standards for what could and could not be said were extreme. For example, for Bob, the basic formulation that the sperm comes from the father was taboo. Likewise, the typical plot that features a Daddy putting a special seed into a Mommy was considered too risky to tell David. Bob wondered how David would interpret the word “put”?

Several concerns were at stake for Bob, each of which was nourished in the context of dominant discourses that marginalized their current life circumstances. He was troubled by their unequal contribution to the genetic makeup of their son. He feared that David would some day tell Bob that he was not his father. He worried that David would feel “unnatural.”

Ironically, until their first child's diagnosis, the discourses that are associated with these concerns — the hegemony of genetics in determining the attribution of paternity, the valuation of nature over nurture — were invisible to Bob because he easily fit the specifications of the dominant discourses. He and Beth had conceived Laurence quickly. The operations of the cultural discourse that “ranks” parents who are both genetically related to their offspring as “superior” to other kinds of parents — adoptive couples, couples who use alternative insemination or egg donorship — and that highly values signs of fertility made them feel good about themselves. When friends had shown admiration when told about how few months it had taken to conceive Laurence, Bob had felt potent. When nurses at the hospital had made a fuss about how much Laurence — but not David — looked like Bob, he had felt “on top of the world.” In their current context, however, these same discourses, producing the same kinds of messages, made Bob feel different, wrong, and defective.

We did the work Bob wanted to do. We figured out a story to tell David that would be accurate and yet create no other “father” besides Bob. We did the work word by word. Beth or Bob would try out a sentence of what might become part of the story to tell David. Usually Bob would express a reservation or a concern, and this would be our cue to analyze the embedded messages. Our task was to understand why a particular wording made Bob believe that his status as David's only father would be threatened. The explanations always led us to an awareness of cultural messages about how families are “supposed” to be created. Through the painstaking work of placing Bob's distress in the context of cultural discourses, Beth developed empathy for his “obsession” and became a willing participant in developing a story that would be acceptable to Bob. Both were aware of how the dominant discourses were operating on them, but only Beth felt ready to challenge them.

2. Externalizing Internalized Discourse

The stories we tell ourselves, particularly the silent or barely audible ones, are very powerful. They become invisible enclosures.

Griffin, 1992, p. 284

Externalizing is a practice that has been developed by Michael White and David Epston and is probably familiar to many readers of this article (see Freedman & Combs, 1996; Roth & Epston, 1996; White, 1995). Externalizing conversations separate persons from problems and block the conflation of the person with the problem. Seeing oneself in relation to a problem instead of having a problem or being a problem creates the possibility of imagining oneself in a different relationship to the problem: one can talk about the effects on the person of the current relationship to the problem and also imagine the effects of a preferred relationship. These kinds of conversations avoid pathologizing statements that inadvertently encourage people who are struggling with problems to blame themselves or to feel guilty, wrong, or bad. These kinds of conversations promote people's capacity to act in relation to the effects of the problem and also in relation to the interpersonal contexts that support the problem.

The internalized discourse that is externalized is not precisely the same as “the problem” (Tomm, 1989). Rather, the internalized discourse consists of the kinds of self-statements that can be produced by incorporating dominant cultural messages — such as the ones that “captured” Bob. These self-statements tend to be evaluative and comparative, usually laced with “oughts” that are formed by cultural discourses. Usually the person believes she or he has not lived up to an “ought.”

We all live with internalized discourses and they act upon us in similar ways. They objectify us and totalize us, severing us from the contexts within which our lives are actually lived. Further they split us from the politics of the local relationships that form the immediate relational backdrop to our experience. Finally, they obscure the very mechanisms by which these totalizing characterizations take us over (Madigan, 1996; White, 1995, pp. 42–43).

A few days before a recent vacation of mine, a 33-year-old woman with whom I have been working for some time came into my office looking as if she had shrunk-wrapped herself. Normally a vibrant, funny person who claimed her space and used her voice to talk, cry, rage, laugh, demand, and menace, she now appeared shadowy and wispy.

Quickly catching me up on the week's events, she informed me that she felt “trapped by the abuse now,” certain that she would never overcome it. She told me she was sure that she was crazy, and if not crazy, then so weird that she would never live a normal life. She described canceling plans to spend time with friends, staying at home, no longer using public transportation, and no longer confronting her irrational boss. She was shrinking herself and shrinking her world in a misguided effort to protect herself. She was trying to become small. “What has talked you into these behaviors?” I asked her. “The abuse.” she replied firmly. “I just can't face it anymore. I'm too exhausted.”

Taking each item of self-restriction that she had mentioned, we tried to understand how the abuse was related to these arrangements. The internalized discourse — her self-talk that abuse had ruined her for life, that she was hopeless and bad — commanded her to separate herself from others for fear they would discover her damaged condition. Soon, however, through an externalizing conversation, we were no longer talking about abuse. Like a train changing tracks, isolationist practices, not abuse, became the thing outside of herself that she could perform or resist. Isolationism was narrowing her range, geographically, socially, and emotionally; anti-isolationism might counteract this confinement.

The rest of the hour mapped the influence of isolationism on her life and exceptions to that. Telling me that she had kept an appointment with a new homeopath, she was quickly able to name that as anti-isolationist. As she affirmed that seeing him and talking to him was evidence of anti-isolationism, I unconsciously raised my fist in a power to the people salute. This amused her. “Yeah,” she said, raising her own fist high, “that's what I'm about!”

Externalizing the internalized discourses to which her abuse history had made her vulnerable, we could see how secluding herself made sense. But then, looking at these isolationist practices and describing her relationship to them, stimulated less tolerance of them. It also prompted recollections of exceptions and the feelings she had when she “put myself out there.” Anti-isolationism became, along with the gesture, a kind of rallying cry. The notion of isolationist and anti-isolationist practices became a way of sorting behaviors, thoughts, and, feelings into ones that would diminish or ones that would amplify the effects of the internalized discourses of blame and shame that were related to the abuse.

She left the office smiling. “I'll see how much anti-isolationist work I can rack up while you're away,” she bantered. I smiled too as I closed the door.

3. Exceptions

Looking back over a life, certain seemingly small events later take on the aura of prescience, as if pointing to what will come.

Griffin, 1992, p. 207

The word “story” figures prominently in the conversation and writings of therapists who use a postmodern, narrative approach to therapy — and to life. Michael White (1989) writes:

It is the stories that persons have about their lives that determine both the ascription of meaning to experience and the selection of those aspects of experience that are to be given expression. It follows therefore that these stories are constitutive or shaping of person's lives. The lives and relationships of persons evolve as they live through or perform these stories.

[p. 7]

Along with White and other narrative therapists, I believe that stories shape our lives rather than reflect them back to us. In therapy, while simultaneously entering into the unfolding story as if it were inevitable, lending our passionate witnessing to the events as they are told and the feelings as they eke or tumble out, we must also always have another consciousness present with us. This other consciousness holds adamantly to the belief that every story entails others, that life is more prism than road.

In Ethnography as Narrative,Edward M. Bruner (1986) makes this point eloquently: “Narrative structures organize and give meaning to experience, but there are always feelings and lived experience not fully encompassed by the dominant story” (p. 143). As therapists, we rely heavily on this feature of human story telling.

White and Epston have used the term “exception” to note that there are always alternative stories to the ones currently dominant in a person's life. They have developed a panoply of questions to vivify these exceptions, which they often call “unique outcomes” (White, 1988/1989). While I often use their questions to inspire the development of an alternative story, I also find that simply believing that the current version we tell about our lives is just that, a version, can promote the search for alternatives to a story that diminishes us in its performance.

I have worked with Susan, a 55-year-old mother of two adult children, for several years.2 For the last 5 years, she has been fighting to recover from early sexual abuse and lifelong neglect. This work has involved many parts, but one significant aspect has been the painstaking work Susan did to allow herself to know what she knew, and to tell me and others about it. Telling a story of trauma to another, being witnessed in that telling, has many beneficial aspects. At the same time, in my experience, it can make figural a troubling story about the self, and the performance of this story can take over other versions of one's life.

Susan was painfully aware of this. Try as she might, she found herself unable to understand why she had not fought off her father's years of incestuous abuse nor why she hadn't told anyone about the incest. The feature of her story, in which she as the central character seemingly “went along” with the injunction “to lie still and keep this secret,” was intolerable to her.

Knowing this, we both decided we would go back over the story, year by year, minutely, as if we were both holding magnifying glasses. We were searching for the smallest shred of evidence that protest had been present. We were searching for an exception to the dominant plot that featured her as compliant and silent.

We found an exception early in our mission, when she was age 4. Telling again about her “peculiar ritual” of placing a line of tailor's straight pins on her windowsill every night, we both became aware that these tiny pins were symbolic swords. Susan was fortifying her battlements, night after night, for years, to keep the dangerous invader out. The item was small and ordinary; the meaning to young Susan quite different. In her new story, the adult Susan saw her younger self as brave and indefatigable. Despite taunts and threats, for years she arranged a symbolic resistance to her father's nightly assaults and she was always ready to parry-thrust right back. Registering the presence, and then the meaning, of these little pins was crucial to Susan's developing a new account of herself (Weingarten & Cobb, 1995).

4. Power to Produce a Consensus

…to retell the tales and place them in a larger context by which all life continues.

Griffin, 1992, p. 181

Steven Lukes (1974), a British political scientist, offers a radical critique of descriptions of power as “coercion.” His point is not that coercion does not occur, since it patently does, but rather that a focus on coercion obscures other insidious and problematic processes that produce domination. Lukes describes three views of power, the last of which will become my focus. The first view assumes that power shows up as overt acts of coercion and domination. Power is an attribute of an individual who chooses to act coercively. In this view of power, the focus is on behavior in the presence of observable conflict.

A second view of power assumes that power lies in relationships. In this second view, the presumption is that power not only manifests itself in coercion but in the suppression of conflicts and differences.

A third view of power locates it not in individuals or relationships but in the prevailing discourse. In this view, power is having the means to produce a consensus. Power becomes a function of the legitimacy of positions established by the discourse.

While not the only view or understanding that I have of power, this perspective on power has been illuminating to me. Since becoming aware of this third view of power, I have changed my teaching style. I no longer regard the appearance of consensus among class members as a moment to move on, but rather as a moment to pause and ask people to reflect on whether or not the seeming agreement takes into account all of what they wish to discuss. The times when people notice that they are holding back some of their thoughts and feelings have been enormously instructive to all of us with regard to understanding how, even with the best of intentions, group processes can marginalize some experiences of some people some of the time.

Luke's third view of power also informs my clinical work. Theoretically, any member of the therapeutic system has access to this third form of power, but in practice the means to produce a consensus is usually unevenly distributed among family members and between family members and the therapist.

Judy and her two young adult children, Mara and Ken, all of whom lived separately, had consulted with me twice, hoping that meeting with me would reduce conflicts among them. Their response to the first meeting had been very positive, and Judy and Ken, whose relationship was more distant than Judy's and Mara's, reported significantly more comfort with each other.

Midway through the third interview there was a quick exchange between Judy and Ken that appeared to be a dig at Mara but was covered with a jocular tone. Mara looked simultaneously hurt and amused; I felt confused; and the three of them moved on to another point. I decided to slow the process down to ask what had just happened. “Mara,” I asked, “did you agree with what Ken and your Mom just said? I couldn't quite tell from your expression whether or not you did?”“Well,” she answered slowly, “what they said is factually correct, but I don't feel they understand me at all.”

In the conversation that followed, we learned that whenever Judy and Ken complained about this behavior of Mara's — borrowing personal items from her mother without asking her permission — she always accepted responsibility for it on the basis of the objective truth of their observation. However, she was never able to explain why she did what she did, and she was never able to make herself stop doing it even though she agreed it was wrong.

During this session, Mara tearfully revealed her reasons for the behavior in a way that thoroughly recontextualized its meaning for all three family members. The current behavior had its roots in the family's early experiences of financial insecurity and material deprivation; it was a symbolic acting out about the conditions that Mara — and Judy and Ken — had found so demeaning and painful. Mara and her mother agreed on several behaviors that they could each change in an effort to participate together to help Mara achieve the control she too wished she had.

If power is the means to produce a consensus, then empowerment, from a narrative point of view, is related to one person's experiencing another person as accepting and elaborating what she has to say without challenging its basic integrity (Cobb, 1992; Weingarten & Cobb, 1995). Judy and Ken had started out mocking Mara, but they concluded the session tearfully joining with her in talking about their shared experiences as a young family. The exchange I had noticed had been so short, the look on Mara's face so transient, that had I not been mindful of this view of power, we might have missed the opportunity to shift the family's view of Mara from irresponsible to sensitive.

5. Characteristics of Narrative

There are those who think a story is told only to reveal what is known in this world. But a good story also reveals the unknown.

Griffin, 1992, p. 24

If I am trying to help people tell stories whose effects on their lives will be preferable to the stories they are currently telling, I often find that attending to characteristics of the story itself is useful. Many schemas have been developed to analyze narratives. I use one that delineates three narrative features: narrative coherence, closure, and interdependence (Chatman, 1978; Cobb, 1992, 1994; Weingarten & Cobb, 1995; Weingarten & Worthen, 1997).

Narrative coherence is established by the interrelationships between plot, character, roles, and themes or values. Narratives can be more or less coherent. When a narrative lacks coherence it may be for many reasons, for example, because the plot is vague or nonsensical or because the central character, perhaps an abuse survivor, blames herself for feelings she would never willingly have endured.

Narrative closure occurs when the story that is told seems to have only one way of understanding it. Occasionally a person tells a story that sounds so complete that the listener humbly bears silent witness. More often, in therapy and in life, stories have gaps — openings — where the listener can participate in creating a more nuanced tale.

Finally, narrative interdependence refers to the relationship of one person's narrative to another's, whether the other person is currently present, or has ever been present, in the person's life. The stories we tell about ourselves almost always create “positions” for those we speak about, some of which are more desirable than others.

A few years ago, I made use of these characteristics of narrative while talking with my daughter the evening before she left for a summer school trip to Prague. She had been very excited about the trip, but that evening she looked downcast. “We have a two-hour layover in Frankfurt,” she said somberly. “I'll have to set foot in Germany.” As a Jew, with relatives killed during the Holocaust, Miranda was repeating a story fragment I know I had told her. The two words “set foot,” so unlike the speech of a 16-year-old, like Proust's madeleine, evoked other times with other people.

My mother, who died several years before Miranda was born, but who retains great honor in our family for the loving and principled way she led her life, had refused to “set foot” in Germany or purchase any item made in Germany. I had told Miranda this. Remembering this on the eve of her departure, she could not imagine herself living up to her grandmother's “goodness” if she, by force of circumstance, would have to pass hours in Germany. In the narrative she had about my mother, incomplete as it was, my mother had always stood by her principle and she, Miranda, because she wanted to go on this trip, would cave in on hers. She would not be as moral as her deeply admired grandmother. The two narratives, linked by such meager convergences, nonetheless appeared to create an interdependence in the two narratives, one a story about a school trip to Prague, the other about a woman whose response to the Holocaust was to cut off all connection to Germany.

I did many things. First, I told her more of my mother's story. I told her how, during the Vietnam War, she had named herself as “like a good German,” for, after all, what besides protesting was she doing to stop this abominable war? Second, I told her that in the early 70s my father had purchased a German car and that she had driven it. Finally, I told her that when I was 12, my mother had taken me to Berchtesgarden, the village in the Bavarian Alps where Hitler and his mistress had a wartime villa. She said she wanted me to be a witness to this place.

This led to a conversation about the importance of bearing witness. We developed a ritual in which Miranda would light a match — symbolizing a Yartzeit candle, the Jewish memorial candle for the dead — and light it over a toilet in a restroom in the Frankfurt airport. I would write a note that she would read while the match burned so that I would be there symbolically with her during her ritual of witnessing and commemoration.

The conversation dissolved the division she had felt between her grandmother and herself. They were both moral people adapting to complex and changing circumstances. Her story had gaps which I was able to fill in, and in so doing, along with the designing of a ritual expressive of her feelings, she regained her view of herself as a “good” person.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary

I have closed with a personal vignette to emphasize the correspondence between my personal and professional lives. Many of the principles that I have enumerated in the first part of this article — collaborative, nonhierarchical relationships, sharing expertise, situating knowledges, valuing multiple points of view, co-constructing preferred stories, and focusing on options — undergird my parenting as well (Weingarten, 1997; Weingarten & Worthen, 1997). Further, all of the “big ideas” that influence me clinically, not just this last one, influence me personally.

Actually, this last vignette had another component. Initially, the design of the ritual called for Miranda to burn the note I would send with her and to flush it down the toilet. I became paralyzed by my thought that she would be participating in “exterminating” something, even as small an item as a note. I delayed writing my note to her.

Sitting beside her at the airport on those uncomfortable plastic seats, I confided my concern. Like a postmodern narrative therapist herself, she helped me change the story. The pieces of the note would flow into the German sewer system, she said, thereby joining our hopes with the hopes of the German people for a new way for Jew and Gentile to be together.

The value of this way of working for me is incalculable. In particular, I love that a postmodern narrative approach allows me to join the small and the ordinary with my dearest values and my most stimulating intellectual ideas. For the joining, it has been a gift.

  • 1

    The collaborative approach to therapy, practiced, among other places, at the Houston Galveston Institute, and exemplified by the late Harry Goolishian and Harlene Anderson (see Anderson, 1997), is based on postmodern premises but is not specifically narrative. I believe that therapists using the collaborative approach would endorse many of the distinctions I have mentioned in these paragraphs.

  • 2

    A more complete discussion of the work with Susan can be found in Weingarten and Cobb (1995).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Modernist vs. Postmodern Worldview
  4. Creating a Learning Context
  5. Two Exercises: Attending to the Other, Attending to the word Copyright © 1991, Sallyann roth and Kathy Weingarten
  6. Noticing the Small and the Ordinary
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