Putting It All Together: Listening to the Client’s Integrated Narrative

When clients talk about their concerns, they mix all forms of discourse—thoughts, stories, experiences, emotions, actions, evolving decisions, points of view, proposed actions, strengths , resources—together. This is the client’s narrative. Some lessons from the narrative therapy movement (Angus & Greenberg, 2012; Angus & McCloud, 2004; Brown & Augusta-Scott, 2006; Madigan, 2011; Payne, 2006; White, 2007) can help you help clients integrate this mix into a coherent story. The Narrative Therapy Center of Toronto provides the following description of narrative therapy:

Narrative therapy is a respectful and collaborative approach to counseling and community work. It focuses on the stories of people’s lives and is based on the idea that problems are manufactured in social, cultural and political contexts. Each person produces the meaning of their life from the stories that are available in these contexts.... Stories in a “narrative” context are made up of events, linked by a theme, occurring over time and according to a plot. A story emerges as certain events are privileged and selected out over other events as more important or true. As the story takes shape, it invites the teller to further select only certain information while ignoring other events so that the same story is continually told. (Sourced April 2, 2012 at http://www. narrativetherapycentre.com)

Narrative therapy focuses on clients’ understanding of their stories and how their experiences, thoughts, emotions, and actions fit into the context of the story. This approach can help clients do three things: put "untold" aspects of the client’s past into the life narrative, emotionally enter and reauthor their own stories, and/or construct new meanings in old stories or find new meanings in stories that emerge during therapy. While narrative therapy is often associated with philosophical theories such as constructivism and postmodernism, these issues are not relevant here.

At the beginning of therapy Denise realizes that Jennie’s story contains many self-limiting and even self-defeating themes. Later, Jennie, with Denise’s help, begins to “reauthor” her story, and new life-enhancing themes begin to emerge. For example, what follows came out through dialogue in one of Jennie’s sessions with Denise. However, for the sake of illustration, it is presented here in summary form in Jennie’s words. She is talking much more animatedly and maintains much more eye contact with Denise than she usually does.

A couple of weeks ago I met a woman at work who has a story similar to mine. We talked for a while and got along so well that we decided to meet outside of work. I had dinner with her last night. She went into her story in more depth. I was amazed. At times I thought I was listening to myself! Because she had been hurt, she was narrowing her world down into a little patch so that she could control everything and not get hurt anymore. I saw right away that I’m trying to do my own version of the same thing. I know you’ve been telling me that, but I haven’t been listening very well. Here’s a woman with lots going for her and she’s hiding out. As I came back from dinner I said to myself you’ve got to change. So I want to revisit two areas we’ve talked about—my work life and my social life. I don’t want to live in the hole I’ve dug for myself. I could see clearly some of the things she should do. So here’s what I want to do. I want to engage in some little experiments in broadening my social life. Starting with my family. And I want to discuss the kind of work I want without putting all the limitations on it. I want to start coming out of the hole I’m in. And I want to help my new friend do the same.

Everything is here—a story about her new friend, including experiences, actions, and feelings; points of view about her new friend; decisions about where she wants her life to go; proposals about experiments in her social life and in her relationship with her friend. The new narrative focusing on a different set of experiences, thoughts, emotions, and actions begins to emerge. The point is this: Developing frameworks for listening can help you zero in on the key messages your clients are communicating and help you identify and understand the feelings, emotions, and moods that permeate them. The narrative construct helps you help clients integrate all these elements into a coherent picture.

While listening is important, there is no need to go overboard on listening. Remember that you are a human being listening to a human being, not a vacuum cleaner indiscriminately sweeping up every scrap of information. Effective dialogic listening helps both you and your client discover the kind of meaning needed to move forward in managing problem situations and spotting and developing lifeenhancing opportunities.

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