The Craft and Art of Narrative Inquiry in Organizations

The Craft and Art of Narrative Inquiry in


Frances Hancock and David Epston

[14:32 21/1/2008 5082-Barry-Ch307] Job No: 5082 BARRY: The Sage Handbook of New Approaches to Organization Studies Page: 485 485–502]



In this chapter, we explore the application and relevance of narrative forms of inquiry to organizational development practice.We map the journey of an apprenticeship in narrative ideas and practices, showing how one learns and is taught the craft and art of narrative inquiry. In particular, we seek to illuminate some of the measures of a ‘good question’ and to demonstrate how such inquiry can be harnessed to generate the knowledges of practitioners operating at all levels of organizations to inform organizational change and development, as opposed to exerting outside expert analyses and solutions.


How do we work with organizations or organizational practitioners in a way that will enable them to find their own solutions rather than impose answers to the challenges and problems they face? A common criticism of ‘expert-driven’ approaches to organizational development (whether facilitated by internal practitioners or external consultants) is that they fail to generate staff buy-in to or ownership of organizational development initiatives, which can have the effect of hindering implementation and stagnating organizational culture. If staff are included in ‘expertled’ reviews, this often happens under the ‘pretense of consultation’ and with a focus on information-gathering to support expert accounts of organizational problems and recommendations for change. Narrative inquiry proposes an alternative approach to the patronizing assumptions at work in an expert-orientated manner. Instead,it favors a more respectful and inclusive form of organizational inquiry that ‘looks up to’ and seeks to engage the ‘insider knowledges’ of practitioners operating at all levels ofan organization. Elsewhere, David Epston explains that:

Insider knowledges are local, particular and at times unique as they often arise from imagination and inspiration, not the usual technologies of scientific knowledge-making. … Because they are, in the first instance, the intellectual property or otherwise of the person(s) concerned, outsiders cannot rightly claim either invention or ownership of such knowledges. ‘Insider knowledges’ are modest and make no claims beyond the person(s) concerned. They do not seek any monopolies of ‘knowing’ but sponsor many kinds and ways of knowing. ‘Insider knowledges’ do not provide grand schemes as they are far too humble for that … and are carried best by and through stories. (Email to Frances Hancock, 5 May 2005)

The narrative inquiry approach proposed in this chapter seeks to apply ideas and practices originated in the field of narrative therapy to the challenge of organizational inquiry. Narrative inquiry seeks to generate insider knowledges through a collaborative (Epston,1999; Madsen, 1999) and a transparent, reflexive practice (White, 1997, 2000, 2004) in which organizational practitioners are seen as the authorities on their experience and separate from problems (Epston and White, 1992; White and Epston, 1990). In so doing, narrative inquiry highlights and seeks to understand multiple perspectives – ‘the many voices of experience’ (Sax, 2000) – especially as they take the form of a knowledge.


In 2003, we (Frances and David) were commissioned to undertake an organizational review for the Australasian Province of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God (SJOG) Brothers, a Catholic religious order sponsoring health, community and disability services in New Zealand and Australia. The project took place over an 18 month period and focused on the SJOG mission of Hospitality. It generated over 1000 pages of research materials that were reproduced as a booklength document. Hospitality is considered to be the core value, distinguishing characteristic and a kind of spirit permeating SJOG Services. Hospitality not only defines and identifies a SJOG Service but also informs and shapes organizational life and culture. Essentially, it concerns ‘who we are’, ‘what is our purpose’ and ‘how we do things around here’.

SJOG Services operate in a rapidly changing and competitive environment. They must forge their mission of Hospitality, which dates back to the sixteenth century, in a marketplace driven by competing values and multiple interests. They must meet significant legislative demands and government contractual requirements while managing a diverse workforce. Various forces – professional, cultural and economic – have contributed to changes in the contexts, delivery and practices of SJOG Services, including a shift from institutional care to community-based settings. The Order and its Services face the ongoing challenge of creating strategies that enable ‘finding’ and ‘nourishing’ competent professionals of ‘like mind and heart’ to exercise leadership at all levels of the organization to carry on its mission of Hospitality. Individual members of the Order have also faced public allegations of sexual abuse that have cast a looming shadow over its Services as those matters have been or are being adjudicated in courts of law. In this maelstrom of organizational enterprise, the Order commissioned a review of its Model of Mission, agreeing to a wide scope of inquiry.

An apprenticeship in narrative inquiry

I (David) welcomed the opportunity to work (as the apprenticer) with Frances (as the apprentice) to explore the application and relevance of narrative therapy enquiries to organizational development work and furthermore to consider how to translate such enquiries into the medium of email conversation, which was central to the project’s research design. Could the intimacies of a practice developed in the context of mental health, psychiatry and psychology be made over and articulated within existing developments in narrative forms of inquiry in organizational development (Boje et al., 1997; Boje et al., 2001; Czarniawska, 2004)? Some essays had already headed in such a direction (Barry, 1997; Barry and Elmes 1997; Sax, 2000).

I (Frances) was eager to learn what constitutes a ‘good question’ and how to go about making such enquiries in an organizational setting, without sounding like a therapist delving deeply into personal problems. I also brought other concerns: How do I go about generating conversations through which my enquiries summon storytelling rather than information-giving? How do I generate ‘storied conversation’ for the purposes of an organizational review? Which practices of story-writing do I carry over into email conversations and which conversational practices do I apply? How do I draft questions on the page differently than I might in a face-to-face interview?

A foray into email conversation

For various reasons, we set out to engage primarily with people who had earned the reputation of being ‘exemplars’ or ‘messengers’ of SJOG Hospitality – an idea taken from Lawrence-Lightfoot (2000) – and to do so primarily via the medium of email conversation. Initial face-to-face interviews resulted in a ‘story-in-text’, in which I (Frances) ‘wrote up’ the conversation of the interview into a ‘story’ with my conversationalist(s) as protagonists and plotted events along what could be considered as an undercurrent or more formally a ‘counterstory’(Nelson, 2001) to that of a prevalent narrative of despair regarding the endurance of the mission of Hospitality in SJOG Services. The stories-intext were used to seed the email conversations that were to follow. I (Frances) drafted an early email to an esteemed SJOG exemplar who had agreed reluctantly to participate in the email conversations. Any early attempts at engaging an email conversation were likely to either inviteor discourage his continuing participation. I set out to draft a short email with a colloquial tone, conveying genuine interest in our exemplar’s ideas but limiting the number of questions so as not to overwhelm him but instead to excite his interest. I also outlined the technicalities of email conversation so that he could learn how to make them work. I asked David to help me to ‘freshen up’ the questions. I didn’t realize it at the time but my language provided a key: a ‘good’ question is fresh; it takes a new turn by asking people to thinkin unfamiliar ways. Below is the draft email with David’s revisions in bold.

Dear Exemplar

Thank you for your email. Indeed, I am grateful for the opportunity to put your mind at rest. I didn’t find your letter rambling at all! In fact you raise a number of ideas that are of very real interest to me and I hope in time to be able to pursue them with you through these email conversations, but for now I will focus on a couple of ideas only.

Please see below my reply. I hope you will excuse the fact that I have ‘cut and pasted’ quotes from your letter, so as to carry the conversation forward, inserting your name at the front so that when I look back on these emails at a later date I will be clear about who said what. Let me know if this email etiquette puts you at your ease, ‘talking’ as though we were together or on the other hand, if it in any way is discomforting for you? Many thanks for your assistance with this ’strange’ thing we are doing here!

EXEMPLAR: Thank you for your letter and your reflection on our time together. It has challenged me to reflect on the source of my ramblings. For me the first source, as a Christian, is the God we worship is primarily a GOD OF HOSPITALITY, a God who not only creates, but invites us to live life and respects the giftedness and limitations of his creatures and invites us into the search.

FRANCES: Jack (not his real name), can you even hint at what the ‘GOD OF HOSPITALITY’ is inviting us to look for? Your turn of phrase intrigues me as it is so rich in suggestion but I fear I may jump too quickly to my own conclusions. I would appreciate your help here.

EXEMPLAR: John of God in the sixteenth century, saw himself as a limited person, recognized some personal failures in his life, but showed to the outcasts of Granada a committed love and respect they had never experienced. Those he invited to assist him found their lives being enriched at the same time delivering care and respect to the marginalized.

FRANCES: Jack, in my journey with St John God thus far I have come to learn that you are regarded by many as the most venerable Hospitaller, and I am supposing that your years of following in St John of God’s footsteps may have you know him longer (and perhaps better) than some others. For that reason among others, I am fascinated by your idea that St John of God ‘invited others to assist him’. I also confess that I am so far poorly informed regarding the Hospitality of St John of God. My colleague, David, and I made a deliberate choice not to ’find’ St John of God in books but to find him out through our exemplars. So I apologize if my enquiries seem naive – I admit they very well may be. 

How did St John of God identify particular individuals to help him to carry out his mission of Hospitality? Were there some particular signs that signaled to him that such a person might be issued his invitation? Or did people come to him seeking his invitation? How, do you imagine, he worked out who to ’take on’, so to speak?And once he ‘took them on’, was there some ‘teaching’ (using that word in its widest sense) that he employed to nourish his sense of Hospitality in them? If so what kind of ‘teaching’ was that?

Jack, I am grateful you are willing to put your computer skills to work for our research. From now on I will copy our email exchanges to David, who will reply in CAPS so as to distinguish his voice.

Hope all is well with you.


Frances Hancock

The art and craft of schmoosing

I (David) realized in reviewing Frances’ draft that I had been tutoring myself over the last few years while working extensively over email in my clinical practice and with the supervision of and consultation to my colleagues. While email conversation is not the usual medium of narrative therapy, I had taken up the practice to accommodate long distance requests. In speaking to Frances about the intricacies of email conversation, and in particular the craft and art of ‘good’ questioning, I was bringing it into my own conscious awareness for the first time. I suggested to Frances that the use of email would not merely be a matter of expedition, but rather it would allow for something of its own making: reflective and deliberately thoughtful replies but in the spirit of lively and animated conversation.

I knew from previous experience that email technology engages forms of intimacy and timing that differ from a face-to-face encounter. Such intimacy is combined with thoughts that are externalised into the text which allows arbitrarily taking the time to do what Schon referred to as ‘reflectionmon action’ (Schon, 1983). Time, Schon points out, is a prerequisite for such reflection. Frances had yet to learn the ‘manners’ required in using email technology in order to commingle the rigour and acuteness of research with the congeniality and vivacity of conversation. I advised Frances to add ‘schmoosing’ in and around the questions so that they weren’t so antiseptic and wouldn’t come across as either ‘taxing’ or ‘testing’. I explained that schmoosing is not insincere like sweet talk but rather is a Yiddish term that translates into something like warm, bussy, amiable conversation. In the email above, I indicate an interested tone of voice by textualizing my own intrigue at the exemplar’s turn of phrase, seeking his help in assisting me to better appreciate his ideas so as not to jump to my own conclusions. Perhaps ‘down the road’ when the conversation is running hot, I counseled Frances, you can then ask very ‘lean’enquiries as the conversationalist knows where such enquiries are coming from – your own genuine curiosity and vivid interest.

I was also determined to conduct our email conversations in a manner that witnessed the very Hospitality that we had been employed to research. Isn’t there such a thing as ‘hospitable emailing’? The proof would be the continued engagement of our exemplars in the conversations. The revisions I made to Frances’ email assumed that an hospitable approach seeks to put people at their ease and ensure their comfort, even or especially when embarking on the new and ‘strange’ endeavour of email conversation. How do you put people at ease? By schmoosing!


Another matter preyed on my (David’s) mind. I was acutely aware of the goodwill of our conversationalists in dedicating their precious time to our study, which, I knew, extended their commitments beyond work hours. I did not want us to take their time for granted. If our emailing was to be hospitable and our practice in tune with the enquiries of narrative therapy, then our questions must generate answers that matter deeply to people and make them wish to ‘go on with’ the conversation.

Another measure of a ‘good’ question is its irresistibility. It catches you up in it but you won’t let it go without sending it off by way of your response. Early on, Frances asked a nurse manager: Do Hospitallers see the world through the eyes of hospitality? If so, what world do you see? And what, do you think, would be the effect of putting on dark glasses? The exemplar’s reply signalled the irresistibility of these questions:

You’ve done it again; made me put my thinking cap on…Your questions take me to places I’ve not visited too frequently before … I’ve never seriously had this kind of conversation with too many people before. It is challenging, exciting and uplifting, and in the way that you both are respectful of what I am saying.

Many of our exemplars exchanged with us up to 50 emails over a period of several months, with each exchange deepening each other’s understandings. Others also remarked without prompting that these conversations were some of the best of their lives.

Good questions are approachable and go to the crux of the matter

I (David) implored Frances to begin with modest and approachable questions that ‘hint’ at something larger and more significant. The risk in asking large questions too soon, I counselled, is that your conversationalist may fall through the gap created between the question and their likely response to it. The question must be small enough, so that the person isn’t belittled by it, which could have the effect of them walking away from the project on account of a sense of either being overtaxed or humiliated. A small, relatively simple question can comfortably be answered; the depth and magnitude of the question’s significance increases proportional to the person’s comfort in and desire to continue the conversation.

Small or large, a good question will go to the crux of the matter. Something about the question must seize the imagination of your conversationalist in order for them to treat with indulgence the uncertainty of travelling in the ‘unknown lands’ that the inquiry leads them towards. The following questions invite an exemplar to not only acknowledge and name her ‘private practice review’ but also to appreciate its inventiveness; and show the increasing magnitude of significance through a series of inquiries:

If you were to name it, what would you call what you have been doing for so long now?

How did you know to do this ‘private practice review’?

Did someone teach this to you? Or did you come to your own discoveries about this?

Although you may not have considered this before, would you now refer to yourself as an ‘inventor of practice’?

Situate your enquiries

I (David) also directed Frances to situate her enquiries, that is, to give the reasons for them, so that our conversationalists weren’t left wondering about the direction in which she was heading and what were her purposes, ensuring a research conversation based both on transparency and the politics of coleagueship (Epston, 1999; Madsen, 1999; Maisel et al., 2004). In replying to the questions immediately above, the exemplar expressed disbelief that ‘I’ve invented something all on my own that someone else hasn’t thought of’. I responded by making transparent what was implicated in my questions, showing what it means to situate your enquiries (and also to add a little schmoosing at the end to check how the conversation was going):

I (David) am not implying that no one else has ever invented anything similar and you qualify for a patent. What I am implying is that you did this all by yourself. You did not receive instructions, read a book, or go to another common source of ‘everyday knowledges’? Or did you? Could you refer to this as ‘a petit invention’, one that most people don’t get any credit for?… I guess that what this research is about is the ‘petit inventions’ that receive little or no credit because they arise in ‘uncommon’ places and certainly not the usual ones, for example, scientific laboratories, formal academic research studies and so on. How are we going with this now, after my attempt at an explanation? Let’s keep talking, if you have the interest.

Turning the mind inside out to think anew

I (Frances) was beginning to understand that a purpose of narrative inquiry was not to ensnare our conversationalists, by using the wiles of questioning to have them report existing views or our views. A narrative enquirer is not concerned with the objectivist pursuit of testing hypotheses but rather seeks to illuminate rich yet often overlooked or taken for granted storied knowledges, especially of those ranked lower on the hierarchy with textualized organizational knowledges most often at the top. I was required to turn my mind inside out to think anew. I came to realise that my very questions positioned me and, for that reason, I chose modesty as my mien.Previously I would have asked questions designed to gather information for an outsider expert account that ‘arrived’ at a tidy list of recommendations. Working closely with David, I was beginning to perceive that such an approach subordinates organizational practitioners as key informants or contributors and assumes that organizational vision is located on a horizon that only the expert can see.

Instead, I was being challenged to assume that a vision was already available but undistinguished among exemplars of the mission. The challenge was to welcome them to distinguish the mission by speaking of and on its behalf. By doing so they were envisioning the future of Hospitality by having the joys and vicissitudes of their everyday practice acknowledged by others.

I had to submit myself to the discipline of ‘not knowing all the answers’ at the same time as ‘knowing how to find things out’, in contrast to assuming the professional posture that would arrogate to oneself the presumption of ‘knowing all’. I was encouraged to be curious by searching for what our exemplars had to say about what mattered to them about the mission, while at the same disciplining myself to allow people to speak for themselves rather than speak for or about them. I had to learn how to adopt a reflexive position in order to expose the ideas and assumptions operating within the organization (and myself) and then turn such ideas and assumptions into questions that could be examined thoughtfully and their intended effects deliberated upon, while making myself accountable for any unintended effects. What ideas and assumptions constitute organizational life? Whose ideas are they? How, why and by whom were such ideas produced? Who benefits from their circulation and whose voices are marginalized?

Perhaps most significantly, I had to think about harnessing narrative forms of inquiry as a work in progress developed through ongoing practice. Narrative inquiry is a learned craft and art. I realised I couldn’t ‘just do it’; I had ‘to learn how’to do it, like learning scales on the piano in order to make music of your own. The challenge was to learn how to ask questions that intrigue, that work the mind, that touch the heart and that render meanings that can orient people and organizations to new possibilities for organizational change and development by making better use of insider knowledges. I could see in my own enquiries that as I began to develop an ease in the craft of narrative inquiry, I would also develop a flair in its art:

How has it happened that what you consider as integral to the mission of Hospitality ‘has no meaning’ to some of your co-workers?

What is the bedrock on which the SJOG Order and Services should stand and function?

Who is speaking for a compelling organizational vision and how do they speak about it?


I (David) suggested to Frances that if she were to apply the ideas and practices of narrative therapy to organizational development, then she must assume that practitioners operating at all levels of organization, including our SJOG exemplars, are ‘knowledged’. I referred her to the work of Michael White, who proposes that a narrative practitioner might act according to this assumption:

[W]e can work with [people] to identify the extent that their own lives are ‘knowledged’. We can engage people in conversations that are honoring of their knowledges of life, and that trace the history of their knowledgeableness. We can join people in conversations that provide the opportunity for them to build on these knowledges, and that assist people to develop plans for applying this knowledgeableness to those experiences that they find troubling. We can make it our business to work collaboratively with people in identifying those ways of speaking about their lives that contribute to a sense of personal agency, and that contribute to the experience of being an authority on one’s life. (1995: 121–122)

I also recommended the idea of Couze Venne (2000, 2002) ‘apprenticeship to another’. Frances, imagine that you are apprenticing yourself to another, in this case to SJOG exemplars, in order to uncover and resurrect their tacit knowledges about the mission of Hospitality so as to inform its future development. Where can your enquiries have your conversationalists go and look for their answers? And how can the sincerity of your abiding interest to learn be infused into the text of the question but be read by its reader as its very gist? For example:

Service Manager: Making a difference in people’s lives is a purpose of SJOG Hospitality.

David: What do you intend your Hospitality to do to the lives of those whom you ‘touch’ with it?

Such enquiries have their provenance in the exemplar’s words which are nested in the meanings those words perform. In a manner of speaking, ‘the stuff’ of the questions will come from them:

Social Worker: Hospitality doesn’t read case files!

David: Do you refuse to ‘read case files’ in the name of Hospitality? If you were to read case files, would that lead to the diminution of the expression of your Hospitality?

Each question follows on from the echoes of the preceding reply of your conversationalist. In narrative inquiry, questions emerge more from within the conversation and less from outside it. This is perhaps what makes such enquiries inherently fascinating. In the draft email presented earlier in this chapter, I (David) invite the venerable Hospitaller to search his mind for the provenance of his thinking about ‘age old’ or ‘traditional’ strategies of recruitment and mentoring. Such questions succeed his previous comments about the life of SJOG and create a text that has a sense of progression. ‘Good’ questions will provide some sense of direction, pointing to places where your conversationalist might go to look as well as carrying them along to that way. On the one hand you are led by the conversationalist and on the other you lead the conversationalist with your enquiries. This interplay of being led by and leading fosters a sense of parity in the relationship that disavows any temptation to lean on or retreat to the privilege of professional status.

Narrative enquiries implicate persons as actors in matters of dramatic concern

I (David) suggested to Frances that the purpose of narrative inquiry is not to seek ready answers, but rather to guide people to ‘live’ the questions – to take time over them in order to ferment an answer. Questions often need more enquiries before a person can come to an answer. Answers aren’t found as much as found out, or made up through the conversation. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to the Young Poet, advises:

 … try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (1954: 35)

Rilke reminds us that we must enquire in a manner that will implicate persons and organizations as actors in a matter of dramatic concern. ‘Good’ questions have a dramatic effect. They wake you up. They breathe life into you by revitalizing and enspiriting all your senses. Compare this to the effect of some questions which force the breath out of you with what seems like an unendurable weight, leaving you exhausted even before you broach the question.

Our intention is to foster a conversation that can summon an account or a story of the ways in which SJOG Hospitality is practiced, fostered and passed on within the Services as well as how it is compromised, and to do so for the ‘love’of the questions themselves. This demands mustering the ‘storied’ knowledges that ‘live’ inside organizational histories, calling them into being by the evocation of the teller’s curiosity about him/herself and the ‘life’ of the organization in which they ‘live’ part of their lives, and some (in this case, the Brothers of St John of God) almost all of their lives.

As the conversation unfolds, our inquiries serve to fill in the gaps of stories-in-the- making, those indeterminacies, with the aim of having a story re-told so that it becomes more richly and thickly described (White and Epston, 1990: 13). Each party to the conversation remains restive until then. Many of these stories had been constrained from the ‘telling’ by various circumstances; others had been inadmissible (Cruikshank, 1998: 95). You then face the prospect of representing those accounts as ‘a story they [and the Order and its Services] could think with, if they chose to do so’ (Cruikshank, 1998: 30).

Leads to externalizing conversations

Aware of the difficulties in generating good questions, I (David) set Frances’ mind to work on new streams of inquiry by offering conversational leads to help her to ‘see’ the possibilities in the remnants of various conversations. Frances provided me with the following comments made to her by different hospitality practitioners to see how I might pursue an externalizing conversation:

Receptionist:Yes, I believe Hospitality can be inherited.

David: Some vocabulary that ‘comes to my mind’ – who ‘passed’ the practice of Hospitality down to you? In a manner of speaking, can you ‘infect’ others when they are ‘touched’ by it? Have you ever  witnessed this, so that you have been left with an indelible memory?


Nurse of a long-term care facility: We use silliness to lighten the mood and are known to model mistakes.

David: Could that be called something like ‘humility on purpose’?

Case Manager: We seek a match between personal values and organizational values and tell job applicants that we have intentionally sought to make it everyday and uncomplicated.

David: By comparison would you say many descriptions of professional practice are arcane and obscure?

Caregiver: Without the SJOG mission of Hospitality the service would be like any other.

David: If you were to join another service, what would be the first thing you would miss about SJOG? After the first two weeks on the job, what would you most keenly regret having left behind at SJOG?

In the questions or ‘leads’ above, I (David) show Frances how to invite an externalizing conversation (White and Epston, 1990: 38) by conceiving of Hospitality as a social practice with history, legacy, manners, embodiment, organizational culture and managerial practice, rather than something ‘essential’ to the person. The conversation coheres around this practice in any number of contexts. As much as anything else, externalizing conversations permit one to abstract themselves from their own practices or the discourses in which they are immersed. Such a detachment or de-identification allows for ‘reflection on their practice’ (Schon, 1983), often to see it anew.


I (Frances) began to listen more intently to the vocabulary of our conversationalists, taking every opportunity to exploit it for the purpose of our study, even if in doing so I used language that one would not ordinarily expect to hear from an external consultant. I sought to generate metaphors from their vocabulary to tempt them into ongoing and meaningful conversation.

Social Worker: We take apparatus with us when we visit children in their homes; bags, craft colour in sheets, games, reward boxes, stickers, ‘Stop, Think, Do’ books.

Frances: Could you also describe these resources as the ‘apparatuses’ or ‘tools’ of Hospitality?

Social Worker: Yes, that fits well!

I (Frances) often recalled the idea of Lionel Trilling that ‘it is in copying that we originate’ (Geertz, 1986: 380) and, acting as an apprentice, I took up the practice of copying David’s questions. I would type his enquiries into my emails to see what effect they might have on our exemplars. Their responses were often surprising and helped me to ‘train my senses’, to know what to look for and what to include when drafting a ‘good’ or ‘useful’ inquiry.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the effect this copying would have on me. The very act of typing David’s wide-ranging vocabulary had the effect over time of gradually extending my own. For example,when a Service Manager commented that, ‘SJOG polishes the Hospitality you bring’, David asked: ‘How would you say SJOG has burnished to a high shine the Hospitality you had already been living?’I realized, in copying this question, that David not only extended ‘the lead’ offered by our conversationalist but also favored the unusual verb ‘to burnish’ as opposed to using more commonplace alternatives such as ‘to enhance’ or ‘to improve’. The more unusual verb provokes attention whereas a reader’s interest will wash over more commonplace vocabulary.

I also became aware of and began to employ, often without immediately noticing, the grammars of an externalizing conversation. When I met a 101 year old resident of a SJOG retirement home who had a beautiful complexion, I asked her: ‘Is Hospitality good for your skin?’ to which she replied: ‘It must be; just look at me!’ I realized afterwards that I had employed externalizing language, raising the question of whether a social practice, hospitality, could affect one’s body. In reply, David tendered this intriguing inquiry: ‘Frances, as you cast your eyes across the faces of those whom we have selected/have selected themselves as exemplars of Hospitality, can you comment about any commonalities? Does Hospitality inscribe itself in the flesh?’If it does, I replied, then it is likely to have the appearance of vitality – a keen look, a lightness of step and a kind of vivacity that leaves one with the impression that SJOG Hospitallers are engaging their passion.

Developing the craft and art of narrative inquiry

As time went on, I (David) began to notice that I was ‘reading’ the text of Frances’ email conversations rather than interpolating alternative enquiries into the text or making any amendments. In the early days of an extended conversation with an exemplar, I interpolated this alternative inquiry for Frances to consider.

Exemplar: [He] was my mentor in the beginning days. [He] is a real people person; someone who engages completely with the person he’s with. He gives his total presence to that person no matter how busy he is. He puts the busyness aside and directs his presence totally to the other person.

Frances: What were the characteristics or practices of [his] mentoring that you valued so much?

David: How would you say [your mentor] ‘goes about’ ‘direct[ing] his presence’ towards another?

What is different between the two enquiries? Frances’ question invites a list by way of response. I was hoping my question would locate the exemplar as a very observer of his mentor going about his practice so that he might see this in his mind’s eye; that perhaps it might suggest a memory of such an incident which he might then bring to mind and into text.

The following passage from the same conversation continues the discussion about the exemplar’s relationship with his mentor, who was a highly respected Hospitality practitioner. Frances’ purpose in this discussion was to illuminate the possibilities of reinstating a time-honored tradition of mentoring employees into the mission of Hospitality.

  Exemplar: What I valued about his mentoring was his availability and his time. When he was with me it was as if there were no other pressures. It was as if everything else had stopped as he invited himself to be with me to discover a sense of purpose in relation to what we had to do together. His was a rare presence. He had the time to be with you.

Frances:Was it that [your mentor] ‘had the time’ or ‘took the time’ in an otherwise busy schedule?

Exemplar: It was that he took the time.

Frances: What did his ‘taking the time’ to be with you tell you about how he regarded his relationship with you?

Exemplar: It told me that he valued the relationship very much. It also spoke of his respect for the person.

Frances: What was the provenance of his respect? What, do you think, encouraged [your mentor] to take the time to be with you in the way that he was?

Exemplar: He had a deep appreciation of the John of God Story and the reason why it exists. I could never do it like him.

And later in the conversation…

Frances: I am aware that some people talk about you in the ways that you have been talking about your SJOG mentor. They mention your taking the time to listen; your availability. What comes forward when you hear yourself being talked about in the ways that you talk about your mentor?

Exemplar: It tells me that I’m in good company. I see this guy epitomize the story of St John of God; he holds it and he’s an unassuming guy. He is ‘being’ the story, not simply telling the story. He is it. That’s real witness. You don’t become aware you are doing it, as it is so much a part of you. It is affirming. A lot of things I can’t do; but that’s something I can do and do well.

By now Frances’ enquiries had a prologue, the consequence of which stimulated our exemplar to comment on himself according to the comments made about him by other colleagues to Frances. You get the sense from her inquiry here that her curiosity regarding the exemplar’s practice is now bound up with his about his own practice. After reading the text of the entire conversation I wrote to Frances:

‘I wanted to review this again as I realized, on reflection, that I had become so engrossed in the reading of this “text” that I forgot myself. I am sure this is a very good sign to both of us of what a wonderfully seamless and complete interview it was’.


Applying a narrative inquiry approach to the enterprise of organizational development turns on the imperative of asking ‘good questions’. Early on I (David) suggested to Frances that ‘good questions’ implicate the fascination of the questioner, as much as that of the conversationalist. You become so interested that your question conveys your intrigue. You burden yourself with the intrigue of questions, showing a willingness and a readiness to assist by providing another question pointing in a different direction even if that leads to a dead end from which you are forced to turn back – as if everything goes somewhere. I share the burden of traveling in the unknown but I invest that burden with anticipatory excitement that something is just around the next corner. The practice of professional humility becomes endowed with a wild enthusiasm that both of you should come to know more because such knowledge is there to be found out in the living of the other’s life.

The relevance of a narrative inquiry approach is that it ‘stirs a response’, generating thoughtful deliberation and innovative thinking. Intricate and intimate questions compel people to participate because such enquiries take organizational conversation some place it has never quite been before. People choose to stay in the conversation because they gain something personally and professionally from it. They also begin to see how the organization as a whole can benefit. Participants appreciate not only the respect accorded to them and that their contribution matters but also that the way forward is within their and the organization’s grasp. In many cases, the solutions to problems are already in use without public and/or formal recognition or, alternatively, the generation of a novel idea may provide an unexpected opportunity that diverse contributors can embrace. A narrative inquiry approach is flexible enough to shed light on modest consultations, such as to have social workers operating in a social service organization rethink the very purposes of note-taking:

How could your case-notes contribute to rewriting the stories of the families you work with, as they might wish to have their stories recorded? If families were to read case-notes that gave an account of their acts of resilience against considerable life challenges (however small and inconsequential they might seem to a bystander) as opposed to documenting a litany of failures, what impact might that have (1) on their collective confidence in going forward together and (2) on how you (and other professionals) regard case-notes?

Or alternatively, to deal with a considerable problematic such as the vexing situation of conflictual relationships between governance and management groups of a community organization:

If you were collectively to develop a story of how you worked together for the benefit of the community and for the long-term sustainability of the organization, what organizational and individual practices would you need to avoid and what professional practices might you actively seek to reinforce and support each other to take up? In reinforcing and taking up such chosen practices are you also likely to grow trust and confidence in the ability of each other (board and management) to perform your particular roles in a professional manner?

In narrative inquiry, illumination comes from the storied knowledges of organizational practitioners rather than the ‘know-all expertise’ of outside consultants. Such enquiries not only challenge assumptions about what is regarded as acceptable to talk about but also find ways to include those voices not often heard in critical decision-making arenas.

Finally, in this chapter we sought to continue our own experience of an apprenticeship in narrative forms of inquiry. Apprenticeship is an ‘age old’ tradition of learning that is still actively employed in various professions and trades. Our own experience of apprenticeship demonstrates how inspiriting, mutually beneficial and effective apprenticeship learning can be, provided both parties take the time and are willing to submit to its discipline. The queries of the apprentice ‘teach’ the apprenticer; they refresh his/her thinking and rescue it from the ‘tacit’. Perhaps the most significant benefit of the apprenticeship itself was that once again it ‘lived on’ in text and could be reflected on, not only ‘in action’ (Schon, 1983) but ‘afterwards’.




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The Craft and Art of Narrative Inquiry in Organizations