Relational Co-Research in Narrative Training and Supervision




Therapists are traditionally trained to research and analyze persons and groups with respect to their “normal” and “pathological” characteristics. Narrative co-research on the other hand, focuses on developing an understanding of the culturally oppressive means and influence of a problem on a person and the liberating influence of a person over a problem. This paper will provide a case example of narrative training interviews about a trainee’s previous research with battered women. The individual narratives of the women that the trainee conversed with in her research interviews are privileged over any expert or amalgamated conclusions about the research material. These women’s unique accounts of their experiences with domestic violence then become the focus of a collaborative inquiry by trainer and trainee. Narrative questions are utilized to elicit what Geertz(1973) has discussed as a “thick description” of a cultural event (the problem/person relationship) from the multiple and local points of view available. Rich and unique accounts of the relative influences of both the problem and the person are then gathered together to develop what Epston(in press) has characterized as a “problem ethnography”. This information is then made available for further circulation and co-research in narrative therapies. The first section of the paper delineates the structure of a problem ethnography training interview. The second section describes the relational co-research position and the qualities of fostering collaboration, valuing emotional experiences, engaging in empowering relationships and diminishing the effects of existing hierarchies.


Therapists are traditionally trained to research and analyze persons and groups with respect to their “normal” and “pathological” characteristics. Narrative co-research on the other hand, focuses on developing an understanding of the culturally oppressive means and influence of a problem on a person and the liberating influence that a person can have over a problem. These researches then become the basis for circulating liberating knowledges to other persons oppressed by the same or similar problems. This paper is intended to assist those who are interested in training or being trained in this pursuit.

For this discussion of narrative training methods, we are going to present a case example in which Dean interviewed me about my previous research with battered women. There were two interviews which were part of a family therapy supervision group, which Dean facilitates and of which I am a member. The supervision group takes place at Xanthos, Inc., a non-profit social service agency located in Alameda, California, which serves a generally working-class and culturally diverse population of children, youth and their families. The group is composed of staff, interns and doctoral fellows, and focuses on the Narrative approach to family therapy and the work of the Family Centre of Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

The genesis of these training ideas emerged from a discussion about the notion of non-colonizing contact across cultures (Waldegrave, 1990, 1993). One of the group participants raised the issue of her comfort working with clients across cultures, but acknowledged her unfamiliarity and relative discomfort working with women who lived with chronic physical abuse. I informed the group that I had prior experience working with battered women, and had written my master’s thesis on how abused women gain empowerment at battered women’s shelters. Dean suggested that he interview me about my experiences and the group readily agreed.

The purpose of the interviews was twofold. The first purpose was to empower our group of trainees by demonstrating the emergence of pre-existing knowledges. Narrative training emphasizes the recognition of one’s own expertise, and a deconstruction of the hierarchy between supervisor/trainer and supervisee/trainee. Michael White (1989) has cautioned trainers to recognize that supervision/training “might encourage participants to surrender their own ‘hard won’ knowledges and submit to the authority of teacher/supervisor” (p. 33). He adds that it is important for the supervisor/trainer to incorporate the participant’s lived experience, to facilitate their being able to “enter into the story and to take it over and to make it their own” (p. 34).

The second purpose of the interviews was to demonstrate how indigenous information can be gathered together to compile what David Epston has called a “problem ethnography” (Epston, in press). A problem ethnography is developed through an inquiry in which Narrative questions are utilized to elicit what Geertz (1973) spoke of as a “thick description” (p. 6) of a cultural event (the problem/person relationship) from the multiple and local points of view available. Rich and unique accounts of the relative influence of both the problem and the person are woven together to co-construct a Narrative of liberation from the problem’s influence. This information can then be made available to the therapist for further circulation and co-research in narrative therapies. The intensity and the variety of these personal accounts invite those who share the same or similar oppressive experiences to find a point of entry, participation and involvement in a pre-existing story of liberation.


The “plot line” of such a problem ethnography is generated from a series of questions which create a broader understanding of the ways in which a person is influenced by, and is able to exert influence over, the problem at hand. The compilation of the person’s individual narratives about her or his experiences with the problem begins to coalesce into the ethnography. In developing this ethnography, a Narrative interview typically explores themes that are probably familiar to you, in an externalizing conversation (White, 1989a).

The externalization of the problem from the person:

In examining what the particular problem is, externalizing language and deconstruction is used (White, 1991) to separate the person from the problem. This enables both the interviewer and the interviewee to begin to view the problem not only as a distinct entity, but as an entity over which one can have power.

The relative influence of the problem on the person:

The Narrative interview explores how the problem has affected the person’s life. The interview first chronicles the areas where the problem has invaded the individual’s life, and then proceeds to investigate the means by which the problem oppresses the person.

Unique outcomes:

After discovering where and how the problem has taken control over the individual’s life, exceptions to the problem’s pervasive influence are explored. With attentive listening, the interviewer can hear exceptions to even the most oppressive story of a problem’s influence. There are always territories of a person’s life and relationships where the problem’s control is incomplete. These exceptions become the foundation for examining how the person has been able to achieve influence over the problem.

The relative influence of the person on the problem:

The interview explores the specifics of how the person has been effective at reducing, changing or eliminating the problem. Most importantly though, the methods the person employs to reduce, change or eliminate the problem are carefully articulated.

The format described above is also used for conducting interviews that will gather problem ethnographies. The circulating of such information to others struggling with the problem is the next skill to be developed and our future work will be directed in this area. This interview format does begin to direct trainees to the junctures of future interviews where information from previous interviews can be circulated. Circulation techniques can include the therapist recounting stories, audio or videotaping ethnographic interviews, or sharing therapeutic letters (White & Epston, 1990a, 1990).


The action research question taken up here is: Can the Narrative clinical interview structure described above be used to gather problem ethnographies from the pre-existing knowledge and experiences of a trainee? We felt challenged to discover a way to do this that would not involve “talking about” what the clients had said from an expert observer position. In the second half of the paper we discuss the research position that evolved for us that we feel accomplished this task. In this section of the paper we present the training interview structure that emerged.

In this particular instance, instead of viewing the interview as an opportunity to learn about Domestic Violence as an objective or universal experience, the Narrative interviews instead emphasized Emily’s recollections of individual women’s experiences of domestic violence. Unique accounts of struggles with an oppressive problem are thus privileged over supposedly universal truths.

In addition to looking at the relative influences of the problem and the person on one another, the interviews also pursued an exploration of the responses of others to the person’s influence over the problem. Specifically, this refers to an examination of first, how the battered women with whom Emily spoke were able to influence the pervasive problem of violence through their help-seeking efforts and second, with what responses their help-seeking attempts were met. This led us into two additional areas of inquiry:

  1. The trainee’s knowledge of what help the women sought which was not helpful to them, or, “unhelpful help”.
  2. The trainee’s accounts of what help the women sought which was helpful, or “helpful help”.

We chose excerpts from our two interviews to elaborate and clarify a number of the specific components of the problem ethnography and the training methods employed in the interview process. We will now read an edited version of excerpts of the actual interviews.

The first excerpt focuses on the trainee’s knowledge of the effects of the problem on the person. Take special note of how the focus shifts to the trainee’s knowledge of the method the problem employs to take over the person’s life. We picked this excerpt to show that movement from examining the causes and effects of the problem to examining the methods the problem employs in its oppression of a person. The how becomes of greater interest than the why.

Excerpt One

E: I believe a lot of stuff comes from, deeply ingrained, institutionalized ideas of how women and girls, it starts when you’re a girl, should be, both just in terms of your own way of carrying yourself through the world and how women are taught to be in relation towards men. Which goes beyond sort of, the typical things in terms of: women are supposed to be subservient, women are supposed to be, I mean, these kind of big words, which describe sort of oppressed situations boiled down into very detailed, minute, ways of interacting. In this case, of battering relationships.

D: Right. Now, that’s what I’m interested in. That’s exactly what I’m interested in.

E: Where that comes from? Or how that is?

D: Yes, how are these women recruited to, a vision of themselves and how they’re supposed to relate what reduces, their, if you will, natural inclination to

E: Need help?

D: Yes.

E: How are they recruited?

D: I mean what are these ideas?

E: Recruitment is too obvious a word.

D: OK.

E: It’s not like, people go out there and say , “C’mon let’s go be beaten”- recruitment is too much of an explicit process.

D: What would you choose?

E: It’s almost like indoctrination…

D: OK.

E: Or brainwashing.

D: What are the elements of indoctrination? What are the doctrines that get indoctrinated? And how are they imposed?

E: Well, it’s in many different levels. In a very broad level, it’s childhood socialization.

D: Yes.

E: On a more specific level, it’s individual families and how they operate, whether for girls if their parents were abusive to them, whether their fathers or other men that they knew were abusive to their mothers. I didn’t look at some of the causal factors because I was trying to move actually away from the whole cause argument.

D: Yes, I’m less interested in the cause, I’m more interested in the methods.

E: How it happens?

D: Yes. How do you do it? How do you take your child, a female child, and train her, or indoctrinate her, not to be powerful in her future relationships to a point where she’s badly hurt.

E: There’s no one answer to that. I believe that all women have an element of that, in terms of not always being perceived as powerful, which means being treated equally. But then beyond the general stuff that happens to all females, there is individual pain, which then I think really permeates one’s later relationships, like being sexually abused, being extremely physically abused. Seeing your mother be beaten up by your father and kind of having this sense of familiarity and normalness, like men beat up women. I’ve heard women say, “you know, that’s just what happens.” And her reality base is that in a relationship with a man, you’re going to get beaten. Or you’re going to be treated badly. And there’s an expectation that gets passed on over the generations, so that’s how your relationships are going to look. And so it happens, and its not thought of as “foreign”, it’s thought of as “you know, this is the kind of shit I have to live with in my life.

D: Okay, let me see if I got some of these things. Tell me if I don’t have any of them right. One way that you would indoctrinate would be to not treat young children equally.

E: It goes beyond just not equal; one is clearly different and worse than.

D: Treat girls as different or worse than?

E: Yes. Teach girls that they need to care, not care for in a kind way, but have the responsibility of taking care of men. I mean teaching girls that they need to be subservient, however that plays itself out. .

D: But do you have an idea about that?

E: Well, I think it often plays itself out in a way in which I’ve heard a lot of the women I’ve spoken to say that there was a sense that if they weren’t in a relationship with a man, then there was something wrong with their lives. I mean in a way that carried a lot of force for them. Beyond loneliness or emptiness just a way of defining oneself by that relationship. Or by being in that relationship.

D: I’m running out of space here. OK. Let me give you the ones I have so that you can just see if we can refine these because you’re coming up with them so fast. Okay, treat girls different or worse. Give them the message they can’t act with the power that they do have?

E: Mmm hmm. And could I add to that?

D: Oh, sure.

E: Sort of the sense of not having power. It’s not only saying you have power but you can’t act with it, it’s growing up to believe you don’t have power, which is different.

D: You have. . .

E: No power.

D: No power. Okay. So, treat girls as different or worse. The girl should get the impression she has no power.

E: Mmm hmm.

D: OK, see your mother get beat up by your father?

E: Or by other men.

D: Develop an attitude of being treated badly or violently as normal shit that you have to put up with.

E: Mmm hmm.

D: Give young women or in the developmental process for women, the message that you have to be with a man, or there’s something wrong with you beyond loneliness or emptiness?

E: Mmm hmm.

D: And instruct them that their relationship defines them (with men)? Right?

E: Mmm hmm.

D: Now there was something that you started with, about you’re responsible for. . . you didn’t quite finish, did you want to try and finish that for me?

E: To a certain extent it’s being responsible for men. So that women would tell me, if they left this particular man, then he would somehow disintegrate and kill himself, feeling responsible for that. . .

Excerpt Two

The second excerpt explores accounts of unique outcomes or accounts of the exceptions to the problem’s pervasive influence on the life of the person. Following an exploration of the relative influence of the problem on the person, the discovery of unique outcome stories tends to deconstruct the problem’s pervasive and oppressive definition of the person as a problem. These exceptions to the dominant problem oriented story of a person form the basis for an exploration of the relative influence of a person on a problem. This segment of the interview led to a spontaneous discovery of an alternative story to the traditional explanation about battered women in which they are seen as masochistic or helpless victims.

D: I’m sure there’s lots more of these conditions for indoctrinating a woman. We could spend an entire interview on those. I’d like to, if it’s okay with you, move to the next phase of the interview so that we see an outline of the interview process. I am curious about how, in spite of this indoctrination, a women would refuse to accept the condition of being battered and seek help. What are some of the factors that go into opposing this conditioning and push a woman outside of accepting that this is the “normal shit” that she has to accept in her life? What factors would lead to her voicing a protest about the conditioning and its consequences.

E: Are you saying women who are able to leave a situation at any point in time.

D: No, no, no. Just the first moment of saying ,”maybe I need some. . .”

E: You mean like being hit once and then leave immediately?

D: No. This is a person who may have accepted all this indoctrination, including that she should be treated violently, it’s her fault for being treated that way and at some point she reaches out to a shelter, to a hotline, and she doesn’t want to do it anymore, she doesn’t want to take that anymore, what are the ingredients for doing that? What would cause her to oppose all the indoctrination?

E: What gets her to actually go get help, to reach out?

D: Yes and to oppose all these directives that say that, “there’s no way out “, and you should accept it”, and “it’s your fault”.

E: I think the women are constantly looking for help. But so much of what’s out there about domestic violence is: “why do these women stay?”; “why would you put up with this?” which is really blaming of the women, as is the whole myth of women’s masochism. Not only do I disagree with that, but I think that there’s a persistent attempt by these women to get help. Whether it’s very minute in terms of trying to control the environment so that it doesn’t become more abusive, however futile that might be, or whether it’s constantly going out there in a persistent, more organized way of reaching out to shelters. I think there are specific precipitants to getting help, a number of women have told me that. . .

D: Wait. Before you jump into that, this idea seems so important I think we ought to go a little slower with it. This idea that they’re always seeking help, can you say a little bit more about that? I find that really important.

The idea that “women are constantly looking for help” began an exploration of a story counter to other theories about battered women which have promoted ideas such as learned helplessness and women’s masochism.

E: I think there’s a constant wish for it not to be there. And in a way, I think that’s synonymous with seeking help. However external that process of reaching out becomes, sometimes you can’t see any externalizing of it, in terms of picking up the phone or telling somebody, because at times its just completely hidden and there is no attempt for help, because looking out for help would bring all the shame and the vulnerability, that they put upon themselves. But it might be very complicated attempts to control the situation and I think those are often futile because I don’t think you can control someone else’s violence. So, it’s “well, if I have dinner on the table on time…” It’s going inside the batterer’s head to whatever extent possible and trying to get by. The thing that fuels that is survival. People go into survival mode. In severe cases of being battered, it’s like being in some sort of military operation and going in a complete mode of survival. So you’re just trying to live.

D: Could we say that, there’s a couple of things. One, this idea kind of excites me, that there’s a seeking of help no matter how bad things are, that sometimes things can be so oppressive that seeking for help is hidden, sometimes it can only express itself kind of clandestinely and in an effort that sometimes we as helpers would see as not seeking help, like if they try to cook the dinner right, or they try and psyche out the perpetrator.

E: Or Dissociate. One woman would talk about dissociating.

D: Right, that’s another one. Or dissociate — that the way you’re looking at these things is, although they may not be effective efforts in the more general knowledge of what works, those embody the kernel of the person’s …

E: Attempts to get out of it.

D: Attempts to get out.

E: And to avoid the violence.

The next excerpt explores what help the women sought which was not helpful to them, or, “unhelpful help”. The problem of domestic violence goes beyond the physical violence and extends to the historical “sweeping under the rug” of violence against women. Many accounts of “helpers” ignoring or even assisting the perpetration of further violence regularly circulate within the battered women’s movement. In this segment the interviewer and interviewee circulate an example of help that doesn’t help. From a training perspective, the formation and assistance of self-help efforts is a fundamental aspect of Narrative theory and practice. Thus the reflexive examination of “helping” efforts and their impact implements the social critical aspects of the theory into clinical practice.

Excerpt Three

(One week later)

D: What I wanted to talk about this week and let me tell you why, and ask if you might be as interested as I am, was the idea that there’s help for these women that doesn’t help, and then there’s help for these women that does help. The reason for my interest is because when I saw the Family Centre from New Zealand present on this issue, one of the women who works with the women who have been abused in relationships, and who herself was abused, expressed in her public talk that one of the most difficult experiences she had in the process of freeing herself from abuse, was seeking help and not having the help help She spoke about the various forms that unhelpful help took. She said that was a very powerful part of her hopelessness and actually did contribute to those aspects that led her to stay in the relationship longer than she should have . So, first of all, would that be as interesting to you.

E: Yes.

D: Okay, good. I know that we talked a little bit about the types of help that these women seek, I think you talked a little bit about the police and some of the responses that the women have gotten. Authorities who are often male will tell her that she deserved or provoked the violence, that’s an example. Are there other types of help these women seek where they don’t receive help that you can recall?

E: When I was talking last week about this, I was thinking of it in a slightly broader way, so it’s about seeking help like saying “I need help”, what is out there, what isn’t out there. But it’s also about being able to verbalize the experience. And, in that sense, I think every time a woman does that she’s seeking help. So it could be telling her mother about the experience and not necessarily expecting her mother to be a helping force, as she might a counselor, but the mother’s response is really significant.

D: That was probably the thing that struck me the most about what you said last week, was this idea that these women are always seeking help, and that’s an expression of their survival. And that’s always going on. And then the questions that I might ask of these women were: “What of your help didn’t help?”; “What help that you sought did help?”; “What of what others did for you did help?”; and “What of what others did for you didn’t help?” That raised my curiosity about those kind of questions.

E: One story that really stands out, is the story of this woman who had been in couples counseling. the woman told the story of this man that she was involved with – married to – and he had been abusive a number of times and how they went to couple’s counseling together. It was her idea, she went out and sought the counselor, set it up and they went in and her sense of it was that this man charmed the therapist, the female therapist. She talked about him being very charming, very attractive and had this kind of appeal with women. And sort of went in and was able to kind of sweet talk the therapist and so when they left the session, the therapist went up to the woman and said, patted her hand like this, and said, “Don’t worry dear, he won’t hit you again.” And of course, the violence escalated until she was finally able to leave. So that was a really poignant story in my mind of help that didn’t help.

D: Right, then that goes along very strongly with the account Betsy Ann from the Family Centre gave.

E: I’ve also heard a lot of stories about how people responded to the women; how so often their families, and friends, and people in their communities would say, “Oh, that’s the way men are,” “Oh, don’t worry about it, just kind of grin and bear it,” “live with it,” “so and so beat me, so. . ., that’s nothing new.”

This next excerpt explores accounts of what help the women sought which was helpful, or “helpful help”. The discussion of “helpful help” demonstrates the Narrative notion of non-colonizing help (Tapping, 1993, Lobovits & Freeman, 1993) . The general idea being that the determination of what is helpful should primarily lie with those who are experiencing the help being offered.

Excerpt Four

D: In terms of what of others’ help helps, were there accounts of seeking out help where the person was helpful to them?

E: Of all the women I talked to, everyone found the shelters really helpful. Even the women who had a really hard time there and had conflicts with other residents or conflicts with staff. This is really what I focused on, and wrote about, in terms of all the different aspects of shelter life which were helpful and which were empowering to women. I think the number one aspect being getting out of that isolation and being in a community of other women who have had really similar experiences, and realizing that they weren’t alone. And that’s something that is unique about a shelter, because you’re living amongst, you’re actually in a community, you’re in a forced community of other people who are also seeking survival, and trying to escape. And you can’t get that, you can’t even get that in group therapy, because you’re not living with these people you’re not seeing their daily lives, and seeing their children and seeing how they get up in the morning and everything.

D: So there’s not just connecting with a community of people who are dealing with the same issues, it’s the actual process of living with them that you’re distinguishing. The day to day, moment to moment contact.

E: And the intensity of that. I mean the women would talk about “yeah, the support groups are really helpful”, or “this was really helpful”, but it was sort of getting together in the kitchen at 2 in the morning, when no one could sleep and going over, whether it’s their nightmares or their traumas or their memories or whatever.

D: Can you share accounts of other types of help that did help? You mentioned support groups that were in some ways helpful; could you say a little bit about that?

E: Most of those support groups were provided by the shelter, so it was part of that community. I think that in those support groups, the women learned a lot and in a lot of ways, they were education groups as well. So they would be taught about things like the cycle of violence.

D: Did you experience any accounts of the women who found this type of education helpful?

E: Yes.

D: What kind of accounts might they give about why this might be helpful help?

E: Again, it’s sort of like peeling off this layer, the layer being all the numbness and all the stuff that kept them there. This kind of sticky coating, which keeps them adhered to this relationship. And all that stuff is like, “I should be there”, “I deserve to be there”, “This is familiar to me”, “I can’t get out”, “it’s too dangerous”; all these things that keep them there: “I’m the only one”, “I’m really ashamed”, “I can’t tell anyone”, “what will everyone say?”; all that stuff. And then going and all of a sudden being like in your face with women who have been through similar situations and just looking at life with a very new set of eyes and realizing, “I didn’t deserve that,” “It wasn’t my fault,” “I didn’t provoke it,” “He has this problem, that’s why this is happening,” “He has to take responsibility for his behavior”. A lot of therapeutic stuff and re-examination of their lives, and re-understanding their lives, and definitely attributing new meaning.

D: Would it be fair to say that this sticky coating consists of some of the things we talked about last week, like social indoctrination, roles for women.

E: Uh huh.

D: . . and what do you think makes this education take? Why is it available for hearing at that point.



Through the process of reviewing and reflecting on the training experience described here, we are beginning to articulate some of the qualities of co-research that we find are helpful in developing the skills to gather problem ethnographies.

Relational Co-Research Position

Typically a researcher’s positions for gathering objective knowledge are described as the observer or the participant observer. Although both these positions have value in the domain of gathering scientific information, their value is less substantial in exploring the domain of implementing change in the perspectives and experiences of a person who is oppressed by a problem. This is due in part to the fact that the observer and participant observer researcher positions do not take into account the hierarchical relationships and the range of feelings between the observer and the observed.

In contrast to this “objective”, and consequently somewhat sterile research position, we work from a position of co-research, which we view as both relational and reflexive (Steir, 1991). The subjective ways in which each person is influenced by the other , are typically omitted from “objective” research. A co-research position enriches us by acknowledging and valuing the full range of feedback between the observer and the observed. A reflexive research position is thus by nature interrelational, and includes emotional reactions and ongoing evaluations in its conversations.

We are interested in moving towards this model because it takes the self-as-researcher into account, and as Steir points out in his book Research and Reflexivity, it breaks down the barriers between self as researcher/inquirer and what/whom is being studied. Instead of a researcher/subject dichotomy, connections between the participants are recognized and explored. Steir emphasizes the reciprocal aspects of such a connection and comments that “by holding our own assumed research structures and logics as themselves researchable and not immutable, and by examining how we are a part of our data, our research becomes, not a self-centered product, but a reciprocal process” (p.7).

We feel our research has not become more complicated by this reciprocity, but richer. The idea of second-order cybernetics guides us in constructing observing systems that reflexively make the act of observation part of a systems description. Therapists are not usually objective observers; we prefer to and cannot help but bring ourselves into our work. This is familiar territory to us as we routinely observe the effects of our relationships on ourselves and our clients. The difference here being that we are not analyzing these effects to discover any clinical truths about our clients. Rather than seeking to understand a reality about the ‘other’, we are aiming to portray the diversity of our relational experience through a continuous conversation about our work.

Qualities of the relational co-researcher position

From our reflections about the interviewing process, we have been able to articulate four qualities of the relational co-researcher position:


  1. Fostering a Collaborative Attitude;
  2. Valuing Emotional Experiences and Reflections;
  3. Engaging in Empowering Relationships, and;
  4. Diminishing the Effects of Existing Hierarchies.


We’ll now present excerpts from our interviews that focused on these qualities. The next interview example focuses on the specific quality of Fostering a Collaborative Attitude. At one point, Dean offers a description which I do not accept as accurate. The collaborative effort to correct it yields a much richer description. This effort can be thought of metaphorically as Dean offering an idea for the narrative and my responding that the idea is not just right and offering another idea that feels more satisfying. This is what we later called “sharing the byline”. This process encourages Dean to speak the language of the culture he is contacting “in the vernacular”. Thus the co-authored narrative can retain the idiomatic richness of the local discourse.

Excerpt Five

D: You’re saying that sometimes if it’s bad enough a woman may have to go into a complete survival mode, kind of become methodical like in a military operation. Do you think it would be fair to say that this is evidence that this will to survive is always present?

E: Well, I think that a lot of women at times feel suicidal because it’s so horrible, but then obviously I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s completed suicide so there always had to be some sort of will to survive because they did live. And luck in a lot of the cases that their batterers didn’t kill them.

D: So is it fair to make a connection between the idea that these women are always seeking help and the idea that the indoctrination doesn’t remove their will to survive?

E: I mean I feel so removed from some of the stuff I’m talking about because a lot of it is coming back to me but I’m still really far from it. I feel like some of my answers are just off because of that. I mean I’d like to say this will to survive is always there, and I don’t know if that’s true. I really don’t know.

At this point in the interview I began feeling emotionally distant from what I was talking about, and felt disconnected to the experiences of the women that I was trying to relate. I paid close attention to this feeling of distance, and used this to guide myself back to a sense of connection with the women whose voices I felt were not heard. This led the interview in a new direction. We picked up the trend of the survival theme a week later in the context of enumerating the conditions whereby a person would be ready for change. It is important to deconstruct the idea of readiness because there is often an empowering story of change that is actually occurring that can be made available for conversation. It is more effective to back a pre-existing trend than to hope for a future change.


E: One woman particularly that I spoke with made the same kind of analogy. She talked about it being like Vietnam, and being “prisoners of war”. She said, “We are all (meaning all the battered women) are all prisoners of war in our homes” and it just makes sense that if you’re in the middle of a war zone, you might not normally be shooting people, I mean, we hope, but under certain circumstances, it’s supposedly acceptable, so that in this war zone of your home, you wouldn’t normally have an image of yourself as someone who gets black and blue on a regular basis, but you would have to adjust to that because that’s the circumstances of your life, and the script of your life doesn’t have the scene in it where’s there’s like an exit door, until you’re able to find one.

D: Right, do you think it would be fair to say that within that adjustment to the war zone, there involves a new set of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, and that those new standards can then be transgressed, and that this hitting the children might be an example of that occurring?

E: Again I have to say yes and no. In a certain way I can hear people saying it becomes familiar and it becomes something you’re adapting to, so in a way, you’re allowing it to be acceptable. But it’s never acceptable. It’s never wished for, it’s never wanted and it’s never positive or desirable. So not acceptable in the true sense of the word, it’s like managed, it’s dealt with. So, sort of what you’re saying, but. . . I can’t put the word acceptable on it. Do you know what I mean?

D: Well, let’s see if I can reflect back what you’re saying there. It sounds like it’s important for you that the idea that although a person’s standards may shift and adjust and that we may locate where they may be within the new context, and where their bottom may be within their new context, none of that should serve to, in any way, justify the initial behavior that caused the re-adjustment of all the contexts, it’s kind of complex. Would I be correct in saying that you feel that it would not be a helpful ideology to believe that in some way the women find any of this acceptable?

E: That it wouldn’t be helpful to say the women find this acceptable?

D: At any level, that they may have adjusted to it, but that doesn’t mean they find it acceptable?

E: To say it’s acceptable is to say this is how I want my life to be. You might have a life for 10 years being miserable and being tormented, but that’s not how you want your life to be. And you might even be accepting the reality of, “That’s my life,” or “This is my reality or this is my fate or something.” But that’s not to say, that hope has been burned out. I can’t let go of the sense that on some deeper core level, that there’s a sense that this is not right. No matter how much they’re able to kind of numb over that core level.

The idea that on a deeper core level that violence in a relationship is not acceptable, seemed to be a more “feelingful” description than a “will to survive”. A woman may in fact become fatalistic, lose her will to survive, and attempt suicide; she may dissociate and numb her feelings, but her core value that violence in relationships is not acceptable to her will not change, and is continually expressed in her consistent search for help.

D: So, would a core layering of that be: that given the choice, no matter how much they may have made adjustments to the war zone, if given the choice, they would never choose to want their life to be that way?

E: No one would say “Oh, I’m going to go into this relationship over a nice relationship where people are treated with respect.

D: So that none of the violence can annihilate that choice?

E: Say that again.

D: The violence, even severe violence cannot annihilate that basic preference. To me, as a therapist, that would be a very important thing to know. That I’m not dealing with somebody, no matter how much they’ve adjusted to the violence they’ve lived with, that given the preference of whether to choose to have violence in their life or not, they wouldn’t choose to have violence in their life.

E: No matter how much it looks like that a choice is being made and no matter how much there might be a psychological piece of finding oneself with abusive partners, a number of abusive partners, it may be some sort of attempt to re-work earlier abusive experiences. There are people who, and I always find the wording of talking about any of this really difficult, but there are people who are sort of drawn to repeat abusive or traumatic experiences and, so you could say, they choose those and to a certain extent, there is some choice involved, but it’s a choice of …it’s almost a choice of necessity, it’s not out of, “this is how I want my life to be,” but “this is how I’m trying to get over all the shit that I’ve gone through.”

D: I might have said it was a choice of adaptation, but not she was given a choice of her own choosing.

E: It’s like if you’re given two pictures, and where do you want to be, do you want to be crawling on the ground and bloody, or do you want to be having your apron tied around you bringing out apple pies from a pan. I don’t think anyone would ever choose that reality, but they might feel like they were pushed into that or that they have to go through that in order to get to the apple pies. The apple pie being like the picture we’re given as kids.

D: That brings in harmony also with what the Family Centre found for oppressed people, colonized people, in general, culturally colonized people, as well as, battered women; each one may have made adaptations to conditions that appear to be making a choice to be in an oppressive situation, but if given the choice between the two pictures, they will almost universally will choose the picture of hope.

E: Right and peace.

Another important quality of the co-research position is that of valuing emotional experiences and reflections. Our understanding of the preceding conversation is that in the state of being oppressed by violence, a person is defined by the violence. The concept of choice in that state is a mirage; a woman would not choose violence, but inside of a war zone there is no violence free territory. If the person and the context of violence are separated (deconstructed through externalization) the person’s preferred story of their lives outside the “war zone” context can become visible. This distinction became available in the training conversation due to the process of allowing for correction and respecting the trainees feelings of being emotionally connected or disconnected to the unique accounts of those persons oppressed by the problem.

These interviews also caused us to reflect on the question of whether and how a male trainer and a woman trainee can form an empowering relationship. Doherty (1991) in his Journal of Feminist Family Therapy article on the possibility of men empowering women in therapy commented that “the fundamental issue…is consciousness of the issues of power that women and men face in therapy and in society” (p. 124).

We feel that there is a need for the person in power (the male trainer) to develop such a consciousness and a corresponding need for the person with less power (the female trainee) to be made aware of that consciousness with respect to how the trainer approaches the interviews. In the context of these interviews, it was critical that Dean consciously and conscientiously be aware of this power differential by showing me that he was able to both hear and appreciate my (as well as all women’s) rage at how women are beaten and then blamed for the violence perpetrated against them.

It was this very rage which enabled me to channel the women’s narratives into the interviews. Without the emotional connection, this research would have been a flat, objective analysis of domestic violence, rather than a rich exploration into one woman’s connections with and understandings of a number of individual women’s stories of victimization, survival, and eventual liberation.

The final quality of the co-research position we would like to present is the idea that existing hierarchies should be diminished in the narrative interview process. For example, through privileging my pre-existing knowledges, the traditional hierarchies between a male trainer and a female trainee were diminished. This next excerpt is from a discussion that took place after the interviews when I was asked to reflect on the interview that had just taken place.

Excerpt Six

E: I was so nervous to talk about this. And I went in thinking, “Oh, I don’t really know, other people know so much more about this, people who really work in shelters and people who have gone through this themselves.” And then by the end of it, I really felt like I’ve heard so many stories and I have had some experience in working with women who’ve been in these situations and I felt like it’s important that I share this. And it just felt really good. It felt like, I want other people to know what I know because it can help them when they meet someone and it’s interesting, because at first I kind of was just telling you stuff, this was last week, and then I just found myself getting really into it and remembering so much. Stuff that I hadn’t thought about in the longest time and just getting really enraged in a positive way, just feeling so pissed off that people go through these experiences. And then just so pissed off that people don’t understand them, and wanting to convey a sense of compassion and knowledge about what people go through, the hell that people go through and how they’re able to get out of it. And doing this work was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was just so inspiring to hear people talk about how they went. It was just like if all therapy and if all this kind of work could be like that, it would be wonderful, because you meet people at the end of their work and you hear all about the shit they went through and the whole process of change and then they’re at this moment of embarking on a whole new life and it was like, “Wow,” I mean I was constantly so “wowed” by these women and their strength. That’s why, I really like sharing all these words, because I think these women are just so eloquent and so strong and have so much wisdom to share. So I’m thankful for the opportunity to do this.

A more subtle but no less powerful hierarchy diminishing effect was gained by what Doherty (1991) has described as negotiating meanings versus dictating a theme (p. 134). The following interview segment took place during the team’s reflection period.

D: Are there any questions about the process of the interview or process of an audience?

A team member asked:

Steve: I don’t have a question, really, but one thing I just noticed over and over again in your line of questioning is that the validation of what Emily has said, and reflecting back part of it, and then expanding on the topic in some way, I noticed that over and over, and really giving her the opportunity to say, “No, it’s more like this.” And then following up.

E: And the way you consistently asked, “Is it fair to say. . .?” I really liked that, cause it really gave me the opening to say “no.”

A team member asked:

Priscilla: You say, in that process, I’d be interested to know if you feel like new meanings emerged for you through the process of the interview.

E: I think the way you were questioning, especially last week, and what you were addressing kind of got me to the point — that whole piece around when they’re constantly trying to survive, and explaining it in this new context, not just saying this is what I did, I talked about this before, but more like, “this is what I did,” and this was sort of a different perspective coming into it. I could see you were kind of giving new words to it, the whole thing about, I think it was “indoctrination” and “how are women indoctrinated,” “what do they need to be indoctrinated,” “what do they need to get out of that indoctrination.” I mean first of all I felt like you took as a given what I was saying, that there was truth in it, and I didn’t feel like then I had to argue with you, which would have brought a whole different set of stuff out of it, and I didn’t feel like I needed to be defensive. And it gave me a lot of room to be reflective on what I was saying and to really think about it and try to say it right. And I felt like you were guiding me to the point of being able to say this stuff around the idea that the women are constantly seeking help and constantly trying to escape. I felt like we got there together and I really respected the way you were asking me and sort of helping me look at things differently.

D: Yes, I mean I didn’t have the idea when we started this all. . . but, I felt like we got there together too.


The interview process described in this paper allowed the trainees in our group to carefully and methodically observe and experience the Narrative style of reduced hierarchy and collaborative inquiry. Trainees reported an enriched learning environment that was conducive to their learning about externalization, relative influence, and reflexivity. They perceived that their expertise, feelings, and pre-existing knowledge were clearly respected. They felt that the attitude, context and format of the interview provided them with a sense of inclusion and togetherness. They also described a receptive or holistic experience in that the stories they heard would seem to “unfold” or “wash over them”. They felt they had the time to pull back and receive the knowledge that emerged from their collaborations, rather than be individually required to rush in with clever interventions or “truth formulations”.

These two training interviews then served to set the stage for using similar interviews as a training tool for our family therapy supervision group. The group immediately established a round robin pattern of interviewing following the format described in this paper but where group members conducted the interview instead of the facilitator. This was accomplished by developing partnerships consisting of an interviewer and a co-interviewer, who through their conversations devised Narrative questions for a single interviewee. The remainder of the group served as a reflecting team which discussed the questions of the interviewers as well the responses of the interviewee. These subsequent interviews served to enhance the group’s cohesion and increased each participant’s level of confidence for implementing Narrative concepts in his or her practices.

We have presented an initial experience that is designed to prepare trainees to conduct interviews that will elicit information to co-construct liberative problem ethnographies. The next step for the trainee would be to gather such information from a number of interviews with different clients struggling with the same problem and foster an exchange of this information between these clients and to future clients. We leave the discussion of such subsequent steps in this process for the future:

  1. The timing and quantity of problem ethnographic information to be circulated between clients and to future clients.
  2. Utilizing video and audio tapes, therapeutic letters, certificates and therapist accounts to circulate such information (White and Epston, 1990).
  3. Forming leagues, facilitating groups, and supporting self-help efforts that circulate liberative knowledge about oppressive problems such as the Anti-anorexia/bulimia League (Epston et. al. in press) or the Temper Tamers Club (Freeman and Lobovits, 1993, White & Epston 1990).

We consider this interview format to be an initial effort at supporting the gathering of liberating Narratives. We will be continuing to evaluate this experience and co-create other training techniques that will effectively lead to the circulating of problem ethnographic information among clients.




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