THERAPEUTIC CONVERSATIONS ‘13 / VANCOUVER, BRISITH COLUMBIA, CANADA
Reflections by Mauricio P. Yabar, LCSW, M.Ed. / April 28, 29, 30, 2016
The Therapeutic Conversations conference met all my expectations and more. On this blog, I will discuss my impressions about some of the workshops I attended, reflect on the Narrative ideas discussed, and share about my personal takeaways from the experience. My comments in this blog will be a reflection of my personal and emotional response to the workshops, the presenters, and the discussions had. I will also discuss my stance in relation to the ideas introduced and further developed at the conference.
I will start by saying that I met so many brilliant people from the international Narrative Therapy community. Some, I’d heard or known about prior to the conference; and others, I had the pleasure to be introduced to their work at the conference for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised by the community. I was quite satisfied about most of the workshops and presenters. I was challenged by some of the new ideas explored, and perhaps at times, underwhelmed by a few aspects of the conference. It was actually ideal to have this sort of balance when taking part in something like this.
First Nations Ceremony
Perhaps some of you are familiar with what a First Nation ceremony is, but I wasn’t before the conference. The conference took place in Vancouver where the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy is. The First Nations ceremony was a gesture of respect for the natives of this land. The ceremony was about honoring the ancestors and asking permission to have the conference on their land. They invited a Native American elder and his granddaughter to perform the ceremony. They danced, sang, and gave permission for this year’s Therapeutic Conversations conference to begin in Vancouver. They blessed all attendees and our journeys at the conference. They ended the ceremony by wishing us well upon our return back to our homes. It was quite emotional. I felt part of something significant. This was a necessary gesture that symbolized respect while embodying the spirit of Narrative Therapy.
Days before the conference, I received an e-mail informing us that all attendees would be divided into small groups so we could discuss our feelings and thoughts about the presentations of the day. I learned that David Epston himself would be in my small group. For those of you who don’t know who David Epston is, he is one of the founders of Narrative Therapy, along with Michael White. Unfortunately, David was only in my group the first day; I don’t know what happened the other days—that was sort of disappointing. Nonetheless, it was an honor and one in a lifetime opportunity to discuss my thoughts and ideas in Epston’s presence. At the end of our small group discussion, David approached me and asked if he had met me before. He insisted that he knew me and asked “are you sure?” You can imagine my reaction. Here is one of the most respected and influential Narrative Therapy person, talking to me and saying he has met me before. I of course, respectfully and anxiously explained that I didn’t think this was the case. I thought I would have more opportunities to talk to him, but sadly, I didn’t. I dream that there will be other opportunities in the future.
The Narrative and the Stories (Presentation by David Epston and Arthur Frank)
I had the honor of attending one of David Epston’s presentations at the conference. It was an honor to hear this man talking about the ideas he developed alongside Michael White. He was accompanied by Arthur Frank. Arthur Frank followed David’s ideas and work for many years and wrote about this. David shared the story of how they met each other and became acquaintances. If I remember correctly, David kept referring to their relationship as “professional stalking” –quite similar to what I have been doing to those Narrative scholars I idolize such as Jill Freedman or Bill Madsen. Arthur Frank talked about the differences between a narrative and the stories. This idea resonated with me because it served to organize my thoughts about Narrative Therapy and how Narrative ideas can be most helpful when applying in practice. Arthur talked about a narrative being the platform for the stories. This can be easily illustrated with the following metaphor. A narrative is a blank canvas and the stories are all the images, colors, and writings on that canvas. Therefore, people have the ability to tell their narrative by coloring their stories in whatever ways they prefer. The metaphor makes this idea much richer.
I also had the opportunity to watch some videos of David Epston doing therapy with clients while Arthur Frank deconstructed his work. It was quite interesting to watch. They collaborated about the therapy process, the questions that David asked, and deconstructed the clients’ stories to demonstrate the thickening of the person’s narrative. It was actually quite lovely to witness. Overall, this workshop was one of my favorites. I didn’t know about Arthur Frank’s work before the conference, but after hearing him talk and deconstruct David’s work with clients, it was evident to me that this is someone whose work I must begin to familiarize myself more with.
Marcela Polanco on Translating Narrative Ideas into Other Languages
I already wrote a whole blog on this, but I wanted to share about the professional impact that Marcela’s talk had on me. I focused more on my personal and emotional responses in my previous blog about Marcela’s talk. Marcela’s presentation covered so many crucial aspects of this work; however, I will only talk about one here. She discussed the difficulties of translating Narrative ideas into other languages. Marcela opened up about her struggles communicating with clients in therapeutic conversations. Example of questions that came up included: How to ask about this? or How to expand the story? I also had several questions going through my mind. In addition, I had questions about my own challenges around culture (which you can read more about in my previous blog—My Story Starts with “Soy de Perú.” I was transported to sessions with Spanish-speaking clients when I knew exactly what to ask, but didn’t know how to do it. During these therapeutic conversations, I didn’t know how to translate Narrative ideas into Spanish; and I’m sure, I still don’t. It was refreshing to hear that others also have this struggle and are willing to talk about it. I think this is a work in progress. Perhaps, the idea of translating Narrative ideas into Spanish is something I can work on myself. I will have to say that everyone at the conference simply fell in love with Marcela and what she brought to her presentation. It was evident that everyone felt engaged and was mesmerized by this presentation.
Poetic Counter-Storying (Presentation by Kay Ingamells)
I first learned about Kay at the conference. Kay is from New Zealand and has a thriving private practice there. I was signed up to attend a different workshop; but this had been canceled last minute. I had the option to attend any of the other workshops available. I chose to attend this one without knowing what to expect. Kay was engaging in the way she presented counter-storying and also clearly passionate about her work. I was pleasantly surprised by her ease with Narrative ideas. I heard that Kay enlisted the help and supervision of David Epston to polish her skills as a Narrative therapist. I think this is pretty cool and speaks to Kay’s professionalism and commitment to this work.
Kay used a metaphor to illustrate counter-storying in therapeutic conversations which really resonated with me. She described the process as “opening a door leading to a room full of more doors, and having the option to open any other the doors.” Those who know my clinical work know very well that I love the use of metaphors and that I use them in practice quite a bit. This is usually how I learn too. Kay’s metaphor was a precise representation of how counter-storying can develop in therapeutic conversations with clients. Kay showed us several videos of clients she worked with. Kay showed a video of a session with a teenage girl, who I will name Cait in this blog. Kay’s ability to build a relationship with this girl in one or two sessions was unbelievable. As perhaps many of you know, there is a great deal of therapeutic letter writing that is involved in Narrative Therapy. Kay told us that we could write Cait a letter if we wished to do so. That day, I went back to the apartment and thought about what to write to Cait. The next morning, I wrote a short note which I will keep personal and not share here. I handed this note to Kay and she said “Oh she will love it.” I hope she does. I love writing notes and letters to clients. It’s one of my favorite ways to build strong therapeutic relationships.
Kay has such interesting charisma about her. I have to say, I was a little intimidated at first. She approached me in the hallway and I didn’t know what to say. I probably didn’t make a great impression, but that doesn’t matter!
Based on her presentation and the videos shown, I gathered that Kay is an extremely talented and effective therapist. I hope one day I have the opportunity to work with her in some capacity. She is a Narrative therapist and author who I hadn’t heard about before the conference; but I was quite impressed with her. I will definitely look more into her work.
Narrative Questions and Therapeutic Letter Writing (Stephen Madigan, David Nylund, Erling Fidjestol)
In this workshop, Madigan interviewed Erling Fidjestoy (a Narrative scholar from Oslo). Attendees were put in pairs to work on developing questions to assist enhance the therapeutic conversation between the presenters. They paused a few times during their conversation, and had us contribute with our questions—this process was mostly facilitated by David Nylund (Therapist and author in Sacramento). The interviewee would then choose a questions that most resonated to him. He answered the questions and the therapeutic conversation continued this way. What I loved the most about this process is that it felt as if everyone was an essential part of the therapeutic conversation.
I am returning to Vancouver later in the year to participate in a Narrative advanced training. I understand that we will be participating in a similar process at the advanced training. I’m sure it is going to be great. It’s really an exceptional learning experience.
Weaving Narrative in Organizational Culture (Nina Tejs Jerring and Bill Madsen)
This workshop focused on the use of Narrative Therapy in agencies and organizations. They talked about the complexities of using Narrative in agencies, where there is often an emphasis on “evidenced-based models” such as CBT. I loved this presentation because it gave me great ideas as to how to continue implementing Narrative ideas in my work. Many of you know that I also work at an outpatient clinic in a hospital.
Nina and Bill started this workshop by describing the idea of welcoming and inviting people. Nina had candles and cookies to create this inviting space. She called this process INSERT DANISH WORD, which is a word that means “welcoming” or “making someone feel special.” I was pleasantly surprised with this. I was inspired to do this in my practice with clients. I will find out what that word was and share in the future!
There was so much useful and helpful information at this workshop. Nina is a Child Psychiatrist who manages a small team at a hospital. She talked about protecting her team from upper management and administrative requests, which often stresses therapists out and distracts them from their actual work with clients. She used the metaphor of “holding the umbrella” to create an environment where the therapists on her team feel comfortable and committed to their practice with clients because Nina is protecting them. This metaphor resonated with me as I have a similar experience at my job. Our team leader, who is also a Child Psychiatrist, holds the umbrella for us; and it is really awesome. He creates space for us to grow and focus on the therapy and not what gets in the way of it.
Nina and Bill Madsen also described the process of “inspiring” other professionals, as opposed of forcing our ideas on them. I talk to people about Narrative Therapy a lot; but I know they will have their own worldview and gravitate toward a philosophy that makes sense to them. The best way to make others respect what I do is to inspire them by sharing aspects of my work, accomplishments, and failures (for a lack of a better word). I am known for sharing my forms and handouts, doing presentations or workshops for free, and sharing whatever resources I have. I also celebrate other professionals’ accomplishments and validate their work and the approaches or models they are passionate about.
Lastly, they talked about treatment planning using a Narrative approach. They described treatment planning as “visions” for the future. They talked about opening space to identify resources and barriers that could help or get in the way of the process. In agencies, we often think of goals and objectives and step by step methods to “meeting goals.” These treatment plans also focus on measurement and evidence—as if therapists in agencies had time to do any of this… I’m just being realistic.
This workshop was my favorite. There were not many attendees, which perhaps made it more intimate and engaging. Nina and Bill were really great together. They made us feel very comfortable. I was particularly impressed with Nina. She was not afraid to be vulnerable. This is rare in accomplished speakers / presenters. She was really fantastic. I will make sure to connect with her and hope to attend another event with her in the future.
This whole experience was life changing. The conference was moving, inspiring, and motivating. This is all I expect when I go to this sort of professional events. I can’t wait for next year’s conference. It was a pleasure to be part of this, and it felt very exciting to be part of this community. I met other Narrative Therapy lovers, from David Epston, the co-founder to students just finishing their masters program—every single one of these people, very passionate and infatuated by Narrative ideas.