Outsider Witnessing / Definitional Ceremonies

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Outsider witnessing/Definitional ceremonies is a process where the client re-tells significant aspects of their story while having an audience that listens carefully without judging, having an opinion, or making interpretations. The therapist mediates this process in order for it to go smoothly and be beneficial for all participants; particularly, the identified client. This process includes a series of telling and re-telling exercises. The audience or outsider witnesses always have the opportunity to contribute to the identified client’s re-telling of their story in a structured and organized system within the progression of the session. Outsider witnesses can be family members, former clients who have experienced similar challenges and been able to overcome these through therapy, and other mental health professionals.

The process of outsider witnessing is a unique one because it offers the opportunity for clients to feel validated, understood, and connected to others. This process is also helpful to therapists, as we can reflect on outsider witnesses’ contributions and analyze our work more effectively. Using outsider witnessing is also a process that reduces the isolation that can often take place in individual psychotherapy. Outsider witnesses donate their time to participate in the client’s therapy session. By doing this, they contribute to the process of rich story development. Outsider witnesses carefully listen to the story being told and answer to specific questions such as words or phrases that resonated to them, what they think about the person based on what they heard, other parts of the story that resonated to them, and ways they can use what they learned to implement in their own work or life. The latter one is quite powerful because it often provides the client with a sense of accomplishment and positive influence in the lives of others.

The use of outsider witnesses is not only helpful to rich story development, but it also offers the opportunity for all participants to develop a sense of community and support. This process is quite powerful as it providers the client with refined expertise of their lives and experience, and prevent them from feeling alone through the process of self-discovery and re-authoring of their lives.  In addition, outsider witnessing can be an effective tool for persons to reposition themselves in relation to the problem/s that bring them to therapy. Using outsider witnessing can be quite anxiety-provoking for everyone, including the therapist. It has been helpful to begin the process by emphasizing that everyone is willing and accepting of this process by just being there, and that nobody in the room fails, no matter what.

I have used outsider witnessing in my practice and it has been an amazing experience for me and from what I’ve been told, clients. Unfortunately, it was challenging to begin using definitional ceremonies in my clinical practice at the agency where I previously worked at due to confidentiality reasons. Nonetheless, I got creative and made this happen as I truly believed in the efficacy of this therapeutic process. I typically begin by asking clients to list supportive people in their lives and describe the levels and types of support they get from these people. This initial step allows the client and I to determine the importance of current (or past) relationships in their lives. I use these identified supportive people in clients’ lives in re-membering conversations. This process is helpful in solidifying re-authoring conversations and creating new possibilities. After this, I offer clients the opportunity to invite these supportive people in their lives to therapy, if the client feels comfortable with this. More often than not, clients are excited about this and willing to participate in definitional ceremonies, in which the supportive people in their lives will witness a re-authoring conversation and help with rich story development.

I recently received a gift from the universe, which is being able to open a private practice and focus my work on Narrative ideas and therapeutic processes such as outsider witnessing. This is exciting for me because I have seen the power of definitional ceremonies first hand. While I was training in Narrative therapy in Toronto; I got the opportunity to participate in a therapeutic conversation as an outsider witness. This experience was invaluable and it allowed me to experience the power of this process first hand. I enjoyed being on the other side of this process and being able to contribute to the person’s life. Definitional ceremonies and outsider witnessing is an amazing process and I believe that it is a redefining moment in clients’ therapeutic experience.

Freedman J. H. and Combs G. (1996). Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Madigan S. (2010). Narrative Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

White M. (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.



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