The Heart's Narrative

The Heart's Narrative
ISBN: 9780473065584

The Heart's Narrative is an original contribution by an original thinker. The book has been eagerly awaited in New Zealand, where Johnella Bird has a substantial reputation as an innovative therapist and teacher. Johnella has succeeded in doing what many other practitioners have attempted to do. She has provided a way of thinking about therapy and people orientated work which allows for its complexity, fluidity and dignity. She offers insights and tools which do not impose upon people (clients) a predetermined one-size-fits-all model. Instead, she continually opens up the discussion and shows us new ways to explore people's (clients') lived experience. Purchase from

About the Book

This book will help us:

  • Think more clearly and deeply about a style of talking that facilitates both therapeutic and social change within an environment of connection;
  • Engage with contradictions and complexities in ways that support us rather than overwhelm us;
  • Ask questions that orientate us as explorers of people’s lives;
  • Reflect and expand our practice through creative teaching exercises.

The Heart’s Narrative is multi-leveled: It provides us with new ways to work with people. It also offers a critique of existing power arrangements, including how radical ideas may be captured by conservative institutions. Johnella Bird shows us how seemingly elegant and inclusive models can actually act to oppress people (clients). She exposes how language can be used in quite subtle ways to undermine, render invisible, pathologise and oppress. She shows us how we can inadvertently use our power to impose our understandings upon our clients but she also offers questions and strategies to help us reflect upon how we use power and language. So while most of us will find her critique challenging, the book also supports our efforts toward power-sharing and equity.

The following list of chapter headings shows the range of topics discussed in The Heart’s Narrative:


Chapter One: Just Talk

Chapter Two: Therapeutic Narratives in Action

Chapter Three: The Therapeutic Relationship

Chapter Four: Building The Therapeutic Relationship

Chapter Five: Working with Contradictions

Chapter Six: Working with Time

Chapter Seven:Where There Is A Relationship There Is Gender

Chapter Eight: Trust and Fear

Chapter Nine: Disconnection and Desperation

Chapter Ten: Endings

In its tone and feel, The Heart’s Narrative challenges the remote ‘objective’ analytical style by reflecting Bird’s passion for real human experience. To read it is to enjoy a rare combination of intellectual rigour and accessible, personal talk. Her many examples, in the form of people’s own stories, are powerful, moving and occasionally wrenching.

The Heart’s Narrative will be of interest to:

  • Counsellors, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and social workers who are interested in facilitating individual and social change;
  • Anybody who primarily uses talk as a medium for negotiating and promoting understanding; Anybody who works with talk as a means to benefit others;
  • Anybody concerned with negotiating and understanding existing power arrangements;
  • Anybody interested in language and how it can be used to either embed oppression or promote liberation;
  • Anybody wishing they had a better ‘tool box’ of questioning skills in order to open up discussion and deal with complexity;
  • Narrative therapy practitioners who are committed to both innovation and the critique of existing models.

“I hope that reading this book will encourage you to appreciate how you will uniquely relate to the ideas and practises presented here. I believe that while it is important that we acknowledge the sources of our ideas and practises, we are also obliged to reinvent these ideas and practises in our work.”


The title of this book, represents an exploration that I have been engaged with for twenty years. Over this time, I have been drawn to the mysteries and vagaries of language, the creation and maintenance of change within the unique context provided by the therapeutic relationship and the enactment of justice and compassion within the therapeutic relationship.

Each one of these passions has its roots firmly planted in the whisperings of generations past and the louder memories and stories of childhood. The community I lived in as a child was geographically isolated by horizon defining folds of mountain ranges that plateaued briefly before the sea. It was here that fortunes were often hard won and loosely lost. People moved easily within the knowledge of fortunes lost and found, thus inhibiting the building of status walls. This was however no utopian place; Irish bitterness continued to play itself out among immigrants, and those who belonged to the land, the indigenous Maori people, disappeared from Pakeha consciousness.¹

Differences were often subsumed and invisiblized, however, under the title “coaster” which covered all locals and was produced proudly for any outsider. I mention my childhood because the resources and values that have enabled my pursuit of therapeutic ideas and practices developed within my extended family living in this unique environment; a place of laughter, appreciation of language, conversations on justice and compassion, demonstrations of the importance of love and connection, and a steady relationship with the possibility of injury or death.

I have often been asked, “Why do you feel so strongly about things?” to which I reply, “Why do you feel so lukewarm for this?” To feel strongly, passionately, in a field that has saturated itself with detached explanations and representations of people’s lives is tantamount to declaring oneself pathologically inclined.
My first experience of such pathological sense making was the correspondence between an assessor and myself, following my proposal that a presentation I gave the year before at the annual Child Psychotherapist Association should suffice as assessable for membership. The assessor’s response was to declare that I obviously had a problem with authority and that I should investigate my relationship with my father in my personal supervision. The certainty of this declaration interested me as it turned a procedural point into a psychological deficit. I didn’t accept this analysis, mostly because the tone of the letter betrayed irritation with my enquiry. The texts I was absorbing at this time were psychodynamically orientated. Within these texts I also experienced intellectual rationalisations that were not representative of either my clinical experiences or life experiences.²

Note 1: Pakeha denotes the predominately anglo-saxon immigrants of the 19th Century. Maori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand
Note 2: I had these realisations within a professional environment that encouraged experimentation; in this regard, I am particularly grateful to June Scott, my first clinical supervisor. Although June used a psychodynamic explanation, her practice of therapy was a departure from the rigid dictates usually associated with that style of therapy. June”s engagement with the work encouraged my clinical experimentation, which in turn directed me towards the burgeoning Family Therapy field.


NZAC Newsletter, June 2000 – David Epston

‘The Heart’s Narrative: Therapy and Navigating Life’s Contradictions” is a book so vast in its scope, so challenging and instigating of the reader’s own reflections and finally creating within the very text itself what Johnella refers to as “a climate of discovery”. What kind or genre of text is it, you might ask? Because it takes as one of its central concerns the very politics and ethics of representation, Johnella had to find for herself a unique form of textual expression to both challenge and at times, defy the very things texts ‘do’ – represent ‘knowing’ as the ‘known’. I take Johnella’s concern for what she refers to as “emergent knowledge” as shaping of this very text. In so many ways, The Heart’s Narrative is so unsettling but it adamantly refuses to settle matters; if anything, it seems to aspire to take her and those in conversation with her and us as readers to ‘places’, where none of us may have ever travelled before. Such terra incognita is neither for the faint hearted, nor for those who take up the traders of counsellor, therapist, psychologist, etc., seeking to invest themselves with professional authority that legitimate them as ‘experts’ on the lives of others. For Johnella is advocating a “talk that sings” rather than those ‘talks’ that mandate interpretation based on a conviction that anyone can really ‘know’ beyond doubt the ‘talk of those who seek our assistance. Singing in one way she proposes – “When I sing, I am at times surprised by an upsurge of emotion. Occasionally I can identify a lyric or melody or response to the day’s events. At other times it appears that the activity of singing allows me to touch emotions that have been previously censored or dismissed. Singing can move us past the time honoured and invisible mind constraints that can shape the way we engage with our selves and our environment” (pg.30).

She goes on to propose what she refers to as “a relational externalising process”: “In a similar way, conversation that uses a relational externalising process can become talk that sings. This style of talking provides people (clients) with the experience of engaging actively with identified concerns and abilities, relationships, ideas, practices and time. Engaging with is experientially different from being acted upon by another (the knowledgeable professional) or being submerged in problems that take on the form of an additional limb or organ just as though that problem existed within the person” (pg.31). Johnella’s chapter, “Just Talk”, so modestly titled, is the most profound – at times unnerving and at other times thrilling – meditation on the work we do that I have ever read. By the same token, her chapter – “The Therapeutic Relationship” – goes so much further than Johnella lets on. From my perspective, it is the most actively critical consideration of the ‘transference/counter-transference’ version of therapeutic relationships, once again, that I know of. I know I have read my fair share of passive critiques of such a historical version, which can be so taken for granted as to seem incontestable. But consider the times and circumstances of Freud and his hopes for a professorship. Is it any surprise that he should have constructed a version of the therapeutic relationship which arrogated to one part the standing of a late 19th century, central European patriarch and to the other that of a child who, although they were incited to speak, were told what they said meant. I have always abhorred such presumption as I suspect Johnella has too. But here, her critique seeks some redress in the form of a counter-practice. I suspect it is one that so many narrative and systemic family therapy colleagues who turned their backs on the very idea of ‘therapeutic relationship’ will comfortably embrace. Johnella’s ten year long history (1988-1998) of working with people’s experience of abuse – emotional, sexual and physical obviously provided the grounds for such considerations as the very demands of such work forbade her from ignoring that she and the other were in an extraordinarily significant relationship. Yet, her version is so at odds with the conventional. Here, negotiations around such a relationship allow for both parties to speak to its very terms and renegotiate them to meet any exigencies. No longer can discussions occur behind the backs of people (clients) and then be dictated to them.

Johnella has a reputation in New Zealand for the proven mastery of her craft and providing the most intellectually challenging supervision, consultation and training. On those occasions of conference addresses and plenaries, she has embodied all of the above. So often, such address were followed by thunderous ovations and long, meditative silences. I have known few who could move me more by her spoken words that Johnella. In a culture of print (and now electronic) text, so few of us have the memories oral discourse requires. Too often, those who were “taken by what she said” (private correspondence) were unable to consider fully what she was saying. Why? Johnella has always implicated her own lines of enquiry into what she had to say and consequently, they often remain open, unfinalized and impossible to summarize. She has always drawn upon her own “re-searched” work. Johnella uses that term to distinguish her practice from those conventions surrounding ‘scientific research’. That has always been the very crucible of her genius. It is such a resource to now have a text to study and review.

In so many ways, she (and The Heart’s Narrative) is a rara avis, an independent scholar with no institutional associations, no particular fidelity to theories that cannot past her ruthless test of application and accountability to those we purportedly serve and the very courage of her convictions. How many are there who would dare to bracket professional knowledges so she could go it alone? Anyone who knows Johnella would not be surprised by what many would consider audacity. From the first conversation I had with Johnella, she spoke to the politics of this work, much the same I realize now as she always has in those family discussions she acknowledges.

“I mention my childhood because the resources and values that have enabled my pursuit of therapeutic ideas and practices developed within my extended family living in a unique environment (=Greymouth): a place of laugher,m appreciation of language, conversations on justice and compassion, demonstrations of the importance of love and connection, and a steady relationship with the possibility of injury and death” (= in the coal mines of the ‘coast’) (viii). Throughout her career, Johnella has never remained silent but acts on her convictions. In the 1980s working in the public psychiatric services and then for Presbyterian Support Services, finally as Director of The Leslie Centre, she suffered greatly for this, although due legal process and nemesis always vindicated her. It did not surprise me that she went about preparing and publishing this book in ways that ensured she could not be compromised. She took her own counsel and in doing so became author, designer, publisher and now marketing manager of Edge Press. The only advice I ever gave her was to ensure she spared no expense on the cover. Why?

Knowing Johnella as I have over the years as colleague, partner in The Family Therapy Centre (1998 to the present) and as a good friend, I surmised that her book would be very demanding of its readership. These are the self same demands she puts on her self. At long last when I got my copy a week or two before the official launch, I found myself doing something I rarely do – continually setting The Heart’s Narrative down while I went over in my mind what I had just read. For this is a book that cannot be read easily or even grasped in one reading. I knew that Johnella would never produce a manual or ‘ten steps to . . .’ book. I felt sure that would offend against her commitment to and passion for her life’s work and what she refers to as here ‘engagement with ethics’. It was no surprise when I learned recently that discussion groups were forming in Auckland to go through the book in company. Even though this book is what honorary doctorates are awarded for, Johnella’s passion and commitment are infused into everything about this book. In some ways, I doubt if there ever has been a more personal book that this.

A review such as this seems inadequate to the magnitude of The Heart’s Narrative and cannot but do it an injustice. How would you like to write a review of Tolstoy’s War and Peace? The Heart’s Narrative will be read over and over again for years to come and I predict it will achieve ‘classic’ status in time. I can only hope that Johnella can take some relief after the two years she took off to prepare and publish this book. I know this cost her dearly. I and all her friends who might otherwise have thought she had fallen off the planet welcome her back and wish her book every success it deserves.

Review by Heather McDowell

“The title of this book represents an exploration that I have been engaged in for 20 years”. This, the first sentence in the introduction captures the essence of this book. Johnella Bird is well-known in the family therapy field and in this book she pulls together her experience as a therapist, supervisor, presenter and teacher. This is a book about the art of therapy and reading it, like therapy, is not always easy or comfortable. Through questions, discourse and examples, Johnella addresses and questions the process of therapy, the therapist’s beliefs, assumptions and language and provides a way of working that is firmly based in ethics and a “compassionate connection” with people/clients in the therapeutic relationship.

While Johnella acknowledges the influence and colleagueship of several family therapy models, she does not ally herself with any particular one. The core of her practice is described as, “relational externalising enquiry”. This is presented as, “a challenge to conventional language use (and) a vehicle to consider the self in relationship”. Johnella consistently challenges the language that categorizes and diagnoses clients/people and their experiences as right/wrong, normal/not normal and the practice of “psychological detachment”. Relational externalising conversation is a process of enquiry that explores the intricacies and complexities of the client’s experience in a way that engages the therapist as a joint explorer rather than a detached observer/expert and, “expose(s) the power relations inherent in the support of one meaning paradigm over another”.

As may already be apparent from this review, it is not a book that can be condensed into a two sentence description. This is not a light read. A book about a therapy that questions the use and common meaning of language by necessity develops new terms and redefines existing ones. A familiarity with the family therapy literature and practice, post-structuralism and feminist theory helps to some extent but it still does not make this detached, skim reading material. The book is written to engage the reader, to challenge, to inform, to encourage engagement with the material through thought, discussion and re-search (Johnella’s term to distinguish it from, “the ‘scientific’ meaning attached to ‘research'”). Nor is it a light read in terms of the issues that Johnella addresses. Safety, abuse and neglect, ethics, feeling stuck, trust and fear, ethics, working with contradictions, time, gender, building the therapeutic relationship and ending therapy, hope and hopelessness – all are addressed in the context of the client/therapist relationship and the therapist is challenged on all of these. This is not a comfortable book to read, neither its content nor its style leave you feeling at the end of reading it, that you have finished. And that, for me in reading it, was one of the strongest impacts. It is very comforting to read a book or attend a workshop and finish thinking, “I know/knew that”, feeling reassured about our practice. However, the reality of our work as therapists is that our learning, self-monitoring of our work, supervision/consultation, questioning of our own beliefs, values, positions, etc., is ongoing. The ideas and information in this book provide a valuable process for reflecting on our work.

As a psychologist, I had some difficulty in the earlier part of the book where, in describing her practice, Johnella contrasted it with “grand psychological theories” and practices such as “psychologically detachment”. I was in full-hearted agreement with her on moving away from dichotomies and creating options, spaces, alternative ways and yet this contrast with things psychological seemed to present dichotomy, describing relational externalising as other than such practice/s. Perhaps in part it held echoes of some of my earlier training in family therapy where psychology (and psychologists) were presented as the antithesis of family therapy (though in all my years of knowing Johnella, I have never felt this from her). Most of the psychologists I know are familiar with family therapy ideas and practices and draw on a range of skills, models and experiences. It helped me in reading the rest of the book to not read ‘psychologist’ (or ‘myself’) into every phrase or term that referred to psychology/psychological. Thinking of myself as a therapist, and engaging in the book as such, was a far more useful approach.

In congruence with her way of working, Johnella includes a number of exercises and questions and each chapter concludes with a ‘Working with the Text section for clients and for therapists. This provides a break in the material and serves as a focus that could be very useful in training/supervision situations as well as peer consultation/discussion groups.

For me, this book was alike a good therapy session, it stayed with me long after I had put the book down and continued to develop and engage my feelings as well as my thoughts. If you are involved in therapy, this is a book worth engaging in.

The Heart's Narrative
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