Engaging Young Persons in Externalizing Conversations: Developing Abilities and Knowledge

David Epston & Sallyann Roth


  1. Invite the young person into conversation with the Externalized Problem. In this conversation the Problem becomes regarded as a “thing” or “person” with which the child — and others in the child’s life– have a complex and mutable relationship.
  2. Invite the Young Person into conversation with his or her own knowledge and abilities so that the child recognizes her or himself as an authority on his or her own experience, including what the child (and/or others) consider a problem e.g. “Would you consider what you just told me you did to be one of your abilities?”
  3. Invite the young person to relate to the Externalized Problem through his or her practical knowledge and abilities. (Not “Are you brave?” but “Have you ever used your courage against Fear?”)
  4. Ask if the degree of influence the young person has through his or her knowledge and abilities is something she or he likes or dislikes. (Is this something you can appreciate about yourself? Or not?” ” Is this something you knew about before? Or is this a new idea?” ” Do you like this ability of yours? Would you consider it special to you, or do you think every kid’s got it?”)
  5. Implicate personal agency by connecting the effect/influence of the young person’s knowledge and abilities on the Externalized problem and the effect/influence of the Externalized Problem over the people’s lives and relationships.
    • Inquire about what intentions the young person has intended, what plans the young person has planned, what thoughts the young person has thought, and actions he or she has taken to reduce the influence of the Externalized Problem on his or her life and the lives of others. (“What was the plan behind what you did? I can see clearly that you did this, but what was your thinking there when you did X in the face of the problem pushing you to not do it?)
    • If the young person is unable to provide any plans or intentions and indicates that “it just happened”, inquire about alternate sources of knowing, e.g., magic, dreams, visions, imagination, etc. (“Do you think you might have done this without having consciously thought about it.? Do you think you got the idea in a dream, or from your imagination?”
  6. Take a history of the young persons knowledge/abilities along with the knowledge’s genealogy or sources. ( When did you first imagine you could do X, know you could do X, actually do X? Where do you think you got this from? Did anyone pass this ability on to you? Does your [teacher, grandmother, uncle, best friend] know you have this ability? How did you come you let your Gran know that you have this ability?
  7. Map the geography of the young person’s knowledge/abilities to find out where these are operating in the young person’s life. (e.g. Is your ________ ability operating at school? Does it figure much when you are playing outside? Inside? Do you use it even when you are dreaming at night? Inquire about areas outside of the “territory” of the Problem. “Does your “I’ll Just Do It Right Now Ability “show up when you are biking ?” When you are with cousin Alice and Cousin Joe?
  8. Find our if it’s okay. to disclose the young person’s knowledge and abilities. (e.g., Is it okay. for your mother, your father, etc., to know about this knowledge or ability of yours? Or would you rather keep it a secret for now? This is not “strategic” or coy. The revelation of abilities has the potential to re-describe a young person as a knowledgeable person and should be regarded as a new identity claim that, exposed too soon, could be challenged by disbelief, ridicule, or allegations of arrogance. e.g., “If you carry on as you are with asthma expertise, might you have to cut back on what you call “pampering”? How will you convince those people who have been convinced by Asthma into “pampering” you that you can care for yourself?”
  9. Ask questions that locate the young person’s knowledgability in a coherent story across time.
    • How have you [applied your knowledge and abilities] to influence or effect “___________(The Problem)” in the past?
    • How have you applied your knowledge and abilities in the present?
    • How might you apply this ______ knowledge and these____abilities in the future?
    • How have you found this ______ knowledge or _____ability useful in overcoming other life challenges? (e.g. bike riding, climbing trees, making a friend)
  10. Search out what new self-descriptions become possible once they acknowledge themselves and are acknowledged by others as able or knowing. These descriptions may replace those based on their earlier relationship to the “Problem.” ( Now that you are a fear-buster, will Fear will have to change it’s opinion of you?)
  11. Speculate about what kept this acknowledgment of his or her knowledge and abilities from the young person. (e.g., Was it modesty , busyness, distraction, fear of being made fun of, or some other thing that blinded you to your talents? Do you get the impression that grown-up people &endash;like parents and teachers and therapists&endash;sometimes forget how knowledgeable or capable they were as kids? If they fully appreciated you, might they better appreciate their own childhood knowledge?”
  12. Speculate about the Problem’s outdated and/or disrespectful relationship to the young person’s knowledge and abilities. (“Do you hold the Problem responsible for keeping your know-how from your mom and dad?” “Do you think that Fear was using your wondrous imagination for it’s purpose of terrorizing you?” “Now that you have taken back your imagination would you ever allow Fear to take it away again without a hell of a fight?”
  13. If a young person has been living his or her life according to an outdated pathologizing description it might be useful to assist the young person in pathologizing the Problem. (“What kind of problem has the Problem got that it would so misuse a young person by getting them to think that they were a hopeless case for 5 years? What name would you give to a person who would try that on you or any other nice kid?”)
  14. Invite the young person to contribute his or her knowledge and abilities to an archive ( e.g. league) in which their knowledge can become further legitimated by its documentation and by its potential for making a contribution to others who are involved with similar problems recognizing their own knowledge and abilities. By contributing to an archive, the young person’s relationship with the problem is now reversed: He or she is not a person who has — or is — the Problem, but a person who has know-how about the Problem or who is veteran.