Narrative Conversations Denver
Mauricio P. Yabar, LCSW, M.Ed., CST
Most of us therapists have been trained to praise and affirm persons who consult with us in therapy. We have also been told that we must be empathic and practice compassion. Unfortunately, our training left out one really important skill, crafting and asking good questions. In therapy, I have often sat across from persons not knowing what to do next; and most of these times, I felt guilty. But the truth is that like many other therapists, I didn’t get taught good interviewing skills. Once graduated from school, we can recognize a great deal of knowledge on theory and pathology. This is inevitable the lens through which we assess persons seeking our help. Next time you feel stuck and don’t know what to ask next, remember that it’s not your fault, and that you can get there with practice.
There is no doubt that a therapist’s primary tool is his or her questions, and many of us don’t have enough experience with this. Think of someone attending music school and not being taught how to play an instrument. Or a chef whose training relies on learning recipes and not actually cooking food. it just wouldn’t work. Questions and good interviewing skills are essential for effective therapeutic work.
THE ART OF QUESTIONS
Crafting a good question requires creativity. Every human being has the ability to be creative. So therefore, learning to craft beautiful questions is quite possible. I have learned to view therapy interviewing skills as an artistic expression. An artistic expression requires active commitment. In a therapeutic conversation, the artistic expression that lives in our questions can stem from our commitment to our work. In addition, I believe that art has the potential to create more art expressions through inspiration. If therapeutic questions were crafted artistically and creatively, there would be a great potential for persons to expand their story in artistic and creative ways. When this takes place, possibilities are endless.
Therapeutic Conversation Transcript:
Th: Can you tell me how you were able to maintain good grades in school despite this problem’s repeated attempts to keep you from your hopes of graduating high school?
P: I guess I’m a really good liar. I have found really good ways to lie to people and get away with it. Never been caught… I guess, that’s my bad side.
Th: What makes it possible to lie to people and get away with it?
P: I don’t know, my personality. I’m pretty smart.
Th: Peter, would you be willing to describe how you’ve come to see yourself as pretty smart?
P: I pay close attention to everything, you know. People think I don’t care and I’m not listening, but I always am. My parents think that I don’t listen and that I don’t care because I’m arrogant, but that’s just a mask I put on.
Th: Can you help me understand what do you notice happens when you put on this mask?
P: People get off my back. I think that because they think I don’t care, they stop nagging me about things.
Th: Can you tell me a story about a time when you felt you were being nagged about something, but then you chose to put on the mask?
P: My mom thought I had stolen something from her, I don’t remember what it was really… But anyway, she was attacking me non-stop. She just kept coming to my room and just nagging me about it, you know? I wanted her to stop. I really hadn’t taken anything from her! [takes a deep breath] So I put my shoes on and just walked out the house. I had a smirk on my face the whole time, but I really wanted to cry, you know? I put that arrogant mask on and that’s why I was smirking, and it pissed her off even more, but eventually she stopped (gets teary-eyed.)
Th: Peter, can you imagine what could have happened if you hadn’t put on the mask?
P: I would have just cried like a baby. I mean, I cried but after I left the house. I got in my car and drove for a while> Eventually I pulled over and just cried…
Th: Peter, if those tears had a voice, what do you think they would be saying to you about your experience of being accused of something you didn’t do, and having to put on the mask?
P: They would tell me -why are you keeping me trapped inside? why don’t you just let me out? I need to come out, please let me out- you know? [starts to let the tears out]
Here, I am trusting my questions. I really don’t know where they’re taking us, but I am not overly concerned about this. Of course, my questions could have been much better, but I was more invested in crafting them artistically and creatively. I gave Peter’s tears a voice and invited them into the room. Peter followed by engaging his imagination and allowing himself to story his experience. This therapeutic conversation led Peter to understand that the arrogant mask was not only a way to stop the nagging, but also a protective shield.
The questions could have led us in many different directions. I noticed several entry-points to richer story development: getting away with lies (resourcefulness), his hope of graduating school, walking away instead of fighting, viewing himself as smart, etc. I avoided getting too excited about the appearance of these entry-points and instead kept my focus on creative crafting.
THE RELATIONSHIP WITH QUESTIONS
I recently attended a training in Vancouver that focused on crafting questions. The trainer asked us to think about the relationship we would like to have with our questions. In Narrative Therapy, we believe in the notion of people having relationships with everything and anything they come in contact with. Although I could understand what the trainer meant, it still caused me some confusion and even a bit of anxiety. I remember returning to my apartment after the training and reflecting on this idea without coming to any resolution.
We did a lot of role-playing the second day of training. As I was practicing my questions, I finally realized what the trainer had meant the day before when he asked us about the relationship with our questions. To establish a relationship with my questions meant to connect with my intentions. I concluded that at least in my situation, not having a clear understanding of the intentionality behind my therapeutic interview questions is a factor that contributes to questions that limit and even obstruct the process of storying.
So I have begun to reconnect with my intentions. In this process, I am recognizing that I what I want out of the relationship with my questions is trust. I want to trust that my questions will be authentic and help people move toward their values and their hopes. I also want my questions to challenge false information that many people have been told about who they are and what their place in this world is. I want to trust that my questions can be powerful enough to challenge the harmful social and cultural discourses that contribute to people’s problems. I was reminded of the many adolescents who see me for substance abuse issues, who continue to relapse, and get clean again; and how most of these relapses are caused or influenced by factors out of their control such as their health insurance not covering certain services. This is just one example of the many roadblocks that influence people to misinterpret their own experiences. I want my questions to uncover these oftentimes hidden processes.