Finding Common Ground Between Human Service Seekers, Providers,and Planners: A Re-authoring Conversations Approach



Dear readers,

My PhD thesis applied a reauthoring conversations approach within a participatory action research design to explore “common ground experiences” between parents of children with special needs, family therapists, early childhood care and education providers and state & federal human service planners.The research project began with a parent’s provocative statement: How can people check their power at the door and just bring their knowledge.” From different perspectives, participants described common ground experiences as relationships that express friendship skills and contradict established practices of professional distancing. The study took place in Vermont, USA. In my literature review, I cross pollinated three social emancipatory movements: narrative ideas and practices, reinventing human services, and participative inquiry as a research methodology. On this site, you will find the abstract, the table of contents, and the first two chapters. Please contact me directly at if you are earnestly interested in hearing more.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my work.

Peggy Sax



This participatory action research project applied the ideas and practices of narrative therapy to investigate common ground experiences between human service seekers, providers, and planners. From the perspective of different roles, co-researchers told stories and consulted with each other about effective help-giving relationships and meaningful parent participation in the planning and delivery of human services. The context was Children’s Upstream Services, a Vermont statewide initiative to strengthen community-based systems of care for families and children aged 0-6 who are at high risk or already experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges. Seventy-five participants within 20 interviews included parents of children with special needs, early childhood care and education providers, family therapists, and state and federal planners.

Michael White’s “reauthoring conversations” (White, 1995) guided the narrative research methodology, interviewing practices, and critical analysis of power relations. The narrative metaphor, social constructionism, and poststructuralism oriented the interpretive lens. Research participants identified the skills and knowledges that inform common ground experiences, externalized the constraints that can interfere, and deconstructed implicit cultural and professional discourses. This includes an exploration of professional privilege, meetings as professional constructs, confidentiality, and the rules of engagement. Partnership accountability was a central organizing construct, in which people are mutually accountable to each other, while those with more power take responsibility to amplify the voices less likely to be heard and hold themselves accountable to the people most affected by their actions (Tamasese & Waldergrave, 1993).

The research findings point to the need for safe conversational contexts in which service seekers can speak and be heard about what they have learned through their life experiences. Common ground experiences&emdash;ally-to-ally support, effective help-giving, and meaningful parent involvement– all are based on relationships that express friendship skills and which contradict the established practice of professional distancing. This poses implications for systems change and training to integrate theory and practice, professional and family training, and partnerships between parents and professionals. As reflective practitioners (Schon, 1983), service providers and planners need safe contexts in which to explore their personal accountability, so that they can take professional risks to question their assumptions and established practices.



Chapter Page


1. Introduction—— 1

Research Question 2

Relevance of Research 6

A Narrative Lens 11

Research Context 12

Research Design 16

Language 23

Dissertation Outline 28


2. The Play Metaphor 32

Vermont Context 32

Ethnicity and Socio-Economic Class 35

Research Cast of Characters 36

“Who’s Who” 39

Sensitivity of Research Topic 50


3. Reinventing Human Services 54

Current situation 55

Parent-Professional Relationships 58

Review of the Literature 60

Community Development 61

Family Centered Practices 62

Family Support Movement 65

Children’s Mental Health 67

Reinventing Vermont Human Services 70

Family-Centered, Community-Based Services 71

Early childhood mental health 73


4. Narrative Ideas and Practices 76

Philosophical Foundations 76

Social Constructionism 76

The Narrative Metaphor 78

Poststructuralist Inquiry 82

The Ideas and Practices of Narrative Therapy 83

Reflecting Teamwork 88

The Ethics of Collaboration 90

Power Relations 90

Partnership Accountability 95

Applications of Narrative Ideas and Practices 96

Organization and Community Change 96

Narrative Research Methodology 101

5. Participative Inquiry 103

Action-Oriented Research 105

Organizational Learning 108

Theories of Action 109

The Reflective Contract 111

Literature Review Summary 114


6. Research Design and Methodology 116

Action-Oriented Research Design 116

Narrative Research Methodology 121

Narrative Interviewing Practices 121

Facilitating Change 123

Narrative Analysis 124

Data Collection 126

Data Analysis 129

Research Reflexivity 133


7. Designated Roles 139

Role Distinctions 140

The Role of the Service Seeker 142

Anger 147

Self-Confidence 149

Friendship 149

The Role of the Provider 150

Professional Agenda 150

Professional Impatience 152

Professionals are Human 153

Professionals as Extended Family 155

The Role of the Planner 156

Power Relations 158

Straddling Multiple Roles 161

8. Narrative Practices 167

The Narrative Interview 167

Practices of Acknowledgement 169

Communal Acknowledgement 172

A Spirit of Inquiry 174

Documentation of Alternative Knowledges 177

Letter Writing 178

Outsider Witness Practices 180

Reauthoring Conversations 181

Building Community 182

Experiencing Oneself as Knowledgeable 183

Real Effects on Lives and Relationships 185


9. Power Relations 190

The Rules of Engagement 191

Deconstructing Cultural and Professional Discourses 196

Confidentiality as a Professional Discourse 199

Narrative Rules of Engagement 201

Two-Way Accounts 202

Decentering Practices 206

Skills of Resistance 210

Challenge the Power Imbalance 210

Acknowledge Constraints 213


10. Relationship Building 215

Common Ground Relationships 216

Meaningful Parent Involvement 217

Ally-to-ally Services 221

Effective Help-giving Relationships 224

Friendship Skills 226

Women’s Friendships 231

Relevance for the Help-giving Relationship 233


11. Partnership Accountability 236

Remember to Ask the Cook! 237

Invitation to Professional Responsibility 240

Professional Privilege 243

Meetings as Professional Constructs 245

Taking Professional Risks 247

Walking the Talk 252

Personal Accountability 256

Transforming Frustration 262

12. Steps Toward Action for Systems Change 267

Systems Change 268

Ally-to-ally Support 268

Partner with Parents 269

Integrate Professional and Family Training 273

Integrate Practice and Theory 273

Support Change from Within 276

Paperwork and the Professional Agenda 279

Learning Opportunities for Effective Help-giving Practices 282

Technical Knowledge 283

Help-giver Traits and Attitudes 284

Participatory Practices 291


13. Discussion 298

Participatory Action Research 299

Narrative Ideas and Practices 301

Parent-Professional Relationships 303

Systems Change 306

Collaborative Learning Opportunities 307

The Power of Conversation 310

Implications of Findings 311

Personal Reflections 312

Theoretical Significance 313

Directions for Future Research 317

Limitations of Study 319

Epilogue 321




References 323


Appendix A: Michael White Video Edit (data set #1) 339

Appendix B: Letters to Communities 343

Appendix C: Letters from Participants 383



List of Tables Page

Table 1: Data Sets 127-129

Table 2: Coded Transcript Case #1 Video Edit (Appendix A) 132

Table 3: PAR Action-Reflection Quadrants 300