Guidelines for Using the Narrative Approach
With Out of Poverty Participants


Participants in Out of Poverty have problems. Part of the facilitator's job is to help participants work on these problems. Often, participants are defensive about why they are in the program, why they do not have a job, etc. Some of this defensiveness is an attempt to avoid being identified with a negative social stereotype - "welfare queen," "indigent," etc. Self protecting defensiveness can get in the way of productive change. Techniques adapted from "Narrative Therapy" can help participants reduce defensiveness and promote change. The approach encourages the participant to separate his/her sense of self from the problem, examine how the problem has tried to control the participant's life, and discover ways in which the he/she has successfully resisted the problem. Narrative techniques are used within Out of Poverty in two ways: 1) problem focused dialogs between the facilitator and participants within lessons, and in letters from the facilitator to the participants. Structured dialogs occur with participants to explore the relationship they have had with the problem. The dialog moves from the influence of the problem on the person's life to the ways in which the person has thwarted, interfered with and overcome their problem. This dialog develops in stages:


Collaborate with the participant to come up with a mutually acceptable name for the problem.

Participants explain their situations in a variety of ways. These explanations start out as either the conclusion of a narrative that has not been expressed, or as a narrative that leads to a conclusion. Some of the most common problem description themes include


I just can't find a "good" job. This theme is perhaps the most frequently verbalized problem statement. Participant use of this theme has several different meanings. Their lack of success can be job search frustration - "my past efforts have not been successful, but I'm still trying," job search discouragement - "I've tried and tried, but now I'm not trying as hard or as often," or job search despair - "I'm not really looking anymore, there's no use." The facilitator needs to be sensitive to which of these distinctions the participant intends.


I want to finish my education first. This theme has had at least two different interpretative possibilities. First, the participant genuinely believes that the thing that has held him/her back in the past has been a lack of specific skills, degrees, licenses, certificates, etc. - lack of credentials. The second possibility is that the participant is using this theme as a socially acceptable explanation for why he/she is not engaging in active job search. In this case, the real problem has not yet been identified. This second possibility will become clearer as the participant begins to explain how the problem has influenced his/her life.


The "system" won't let me. Participants are dependent on the benefits they receive from public assistance. They realize that when they become employed, these benefits will stop. They believe that the system operates in ways that keep them dependent on it.


I've been treated unfairly. This theme has a variety of causes including past employers, racism, family life, child support, etc. The effect of unfairness in the past has led to a belief that the participant is absolved of responsibility for the current situation and is owed some form of restitution. The participant is stuck - until the unfairness has been corrected, he or she cannot go forward.


It's there, so why not take advantage of it? Participants who use this theme see public assistance as something-for-nothing. They consider it foolish not to take advantage of the benefits that are available to them. As far as they are concerned, it is free money.


My troubles started when.... Participants who use this theme have one or more significant events that have doomed their lives. Often it is an employment story in which they were victimized. There are a variety of other sources - a sick or aging parents, a jail term, etc. Regardless, trouble has dogged them ever since.

Regardless of the explanation, the first step is to give a name to the problem. The purpose of the name is to objectify the problem and separate it from the person. This separation leads to a perceptual switch for the participant. Rather than being a person with a problem, the participant comes to see the problem as existing independent of him or her self.


Personify the problem and attribute oppressive intentions and tactics to it.

Once named, the problem is personified and destructive intent is attributed to it. Although the problem is separate from the person, it is having an effect on the person's life. The participant is led to explore his/her relationship with the problem. A series of questions are used to explore dynamics of this relationship. The participant is encouraged to describe the influence the problem has exerted in the past. Focus on the problem's influence on self-worth, goals, relationship, etc.


How has "the system" tried to tear you down?


What does "trouble" want you to do?


What happens when "discouragement" bullies you around?


What does "something-for-nothing" tell you about other people?


How does "lack of credentials" try to make you feel small?


Investigate how the problem has disrupted, dominated or discouraged the person.

Focus attention on the various ways in which the problem has attempted to control or influence the individual. It is important to show how the problem has operated in the individual's life without creating a sense of despair. Look for examples from the past and understand the modus operandi of the problem, but keep in mind that the participant has also been engaged in resisting and defying the problem. Do not let them forget this fact either.


When has "something for nothing" convinced you to do things that you regretted later?


What kinds of tricks does "the system" use on you to alienate you from those you love and who love you?


How has the kinds of lies "lack of credentials" has told you kept you from getting a job?


Discover moments when the person hasn't been dominated or discouraged by the problem or his/her life has not been disrupted by the problem.

The participant may be more keenly aware of how the problem has dominated them and not as aware of their own successful resistance to it. The participant should be encouraged to think of instances where even small acts of resistance have thwarted attempts of the problem to dominate his/her life. Attempt to identify counter examples that would refute the all encompassing dominance of the problem.


What is the longest time you have stood up to the lure of "discouragement?"


Can you tell me about some times when you have not believed the lies "unfairness" has told you?


Find historical evidence to bolster a new view of the person as competent enough to have stood up to, defeated or escaped from the dominance or oppression of the problem.

At this point in the dialog, participants are looking for successes in defeating or escaping the problem.


Tell me about a time when you were completely free of the clutches of "trouble"?


What can you tell me about your past that would help me understand how you have been able to take these steps to stand up to "unfairness" so well?


Who knew you as a child who wouldn't be surprised that you have been able to reject "the system" as the dominant force in your relationships?


Evoke speculation about what kind of future it to be expected from the strong, competent person that has emerged so far.


As you continue to resist the lure of "something for nothing" thinking, what do you think will be different about your future than the future "something for nothing" has planned for you?


As you continue to disbelieve the lies that "the system" is telling you, how do you think your disbelief will affect your relationships with your friends?


Creating an audience for perceiving the new identity and new story.


Who could you tell about your development as a member of the anti-"unfairness" league that could celebrate your freedom from unfairness?


Are there people who have known you when you were not under the influence of "the system" who could remind you of your accomplishments and that your life is worth living?


Is there some way in which you might be able to tell others about how you have freed yourself from "discouragement" that could help them?

Letters to participants is the second way narrative techniques are used in the program. Letters consolidate, summarize, and reinforce the changes and progress participants are making throughout the program. Letters are appropriate at any time. However, at least three occasions are particularly appropriate. The first letter should be written after Lesson Three. By that time, participants have looked at themselves, their history, and their commitment to change. They have a clearer idea of the nature of their problem. The first letter addresses the steps one through three of the narrative approach. It documents and externalizes the person's definition of the problem. In this letter, the facilitator points out the negative intent of the problem, illustrates in one or more concrete examples how the problem has interfered with the participant's life and relationships. It concludes by commending the participant's courage and commitment to resist and defeat the problem. The letter can include one or more strengths that the participant has exhibited thus far in the program.

A second letter is appropriate after Lesson Six. At this point, participants have looked at how attitudes and behaviors can be changed in ways that can help them successfully resist and defeat the problem more consistently. The letter is designed to summarize examples of successful resistance, newly discovered personal qualities and resources. This letter summarizes progress on steps four and five of the technique. It identifies and illustrates the personal strengths and resources available to the participant.

The final letter addresses steps six and seven of the narrative technique. This letter is written after Lesson Twelve. It begins by reviewing the participant's progress. The letter speculates about how the participant's life is likely to be different in the future. It identifies audiences that are likely to be supportive of the steps the participants have undertaken to change.


White, M. and Epston, D. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 1990.

O'Hanlon, B. "The Third Wave: The Promise of Narrative." Networker. December 1994.

Epston, D. "Extending the Conversation: The Promise of Narrative." Networker. December 1994.

Wylie, M. S. "Panning for Gold: The Promise of Narrative." Networker. December 1994.