An Open Letter to The Narrative Community

We at Re-authoring Teaching hope to contribute to a richer conversation about how, as a community, we make space for useful dialogue about all the variations and emerging approaches. In a previous News Blog entitled What are Insider Witness Practices, we posted some background information in the hopes that by educating ourselves, we can each decide for ourselves about the value, ethics and possibilities for this set of practices in training, supervision and higher education. Below you will find links to the Newsletter that sparked the controversy, to a previous newsletter that ironically argued against handling differences in the narrative community in injurious ways, and to some initial responses from those who feel like the descriptions of Insider Witnessing Practices have been inaccurate and unfair, and who feel that the process by which these concerns have been aired involved questionable ethics and use of power. We also include some of our Board’s contributions as we reflect on Narrative Luminaries, Online Ethics, and our intentions to continue this conversation.  Please join us!

Vancouver School of Narrative Therapy October  & December Newsletters

Regarding Injurious Speech

I feel quite strongly committed towards living the Musketeers code: all for one and one for all. I also feel it is crucial at this time that in order for narrative therapy to survive it is fundamentally important to collectively band together. Banding together in an ethic of trustworthiness.

I hold no pollyannaish belief that we have to fully agree with one another, or for that matter, have to become best friends or even like each other! But a certain amount of respect for difference and the realization that we may be pulling the therapeutic rope in the same direction might go a long way. Because participating in slanderous and injurious speech about our community members is (in my humble opinion) an entirely reckless way forward.

Stephen Madigan

Read More: October Newsletter

Regarding David Epston, Tom Carlson & Insider Witness Practices

Read More: December Newsletter

Calgary Women’s Health Collective Responses

Their Call for Next Steps

The Calgary Women’s Health Collective posted on their Facebook page eleven questions to the VSNT faculty, seeking to shed light on the December newsletter by Stephen Madigan, and toward repair and redress in the Narrative Community. Here are their first five questions:

Respectfully, we have some questions in response.
1.What has happened here?
2. How might members of the Narrative community make sense of the 2 recent newsletters, when the October newsletter warns of practices of injurious speech and calls for a spirit of solidarity and the December newsletter seems to be an unapologetic engagement in said practices of injurious speech?
3. What is the rationale for lowering the standards of fair and thoughtful critique of practice between members of our community to personal attacks of this nature? Do you all stand in agreement that the remarks in the recent December newsletter satisfy any ethical standards for our engagements with each other?
4. How do we engage in vigorous conversations with each other when we are in disagreement about practices?
5. What is the rationale of posting these remarks in a newsletter that does not leave the implicated parties with a way to respond?

The Calgary Women’s Health Collective
Read more: CWHC Call for Repair and Redress

Who Holds the Storytelling Rights?

Please read the second CWHC Facebook post, which questions the collective agreement about the contents – and tone- of the newsletter letter

We are calling on you to shed some light on the recent December newsletter from Stephen Madigan that evoked a royal “we” and so presumably was sent out in all your names. We at the CWHC have been long time friends and colleagues of Stephen Madigan, have attended his workshops, and have learned a great deal about beautiful Narrative therapy practices from him, including the aforementioned question about story-telling rights. In this light, the story that emerges in the newsletter is all the more baffling.
Calgary Women’s Health Collective
Read More: CWHC Post #2

What Can We Do

LogoSquareIn light of recent events in the Narrative community, The Reauthoring Teaching Board – and community- would like to contribute to efforts to develop constructive conversation about online ethics and etiquette. We are driven largely by the belief that the Internet is a vast resource which opens up new possibilities for engagement, connection, education and community-building.

However, we must also acknowledge- perhaps now more than ever- the multi-storiedness of the Internet. The same medium which allows us to build relationship can just as easily assist us in tearing it down. Some of the most remarkable, useful elements of online communication- such as its speed and ability to connect us across distance- can just as easily promote rash responses and an erasing of our humanity, or the humanity of others.

We are sitting with several questions related to this topic, and we are certain there will be more to come. Hopefully they will spur rich, respectful thought processes and dialogue across our global Narrative Therapy community:

  1. What kind of online community do we want to co-create?
  2. How might we go about conversations when we disagree with one another?
  3. How do we make space for dissent, worry, doubt, and concern?
  4. How can we best maintain personal integrity, as well as the integrity of the work, through our online communications with one another?
  5. How do hold self and others accountable for the effects of our words when we are not conversing face to face?
  6. What is the best and most accessible platform for dialogue and dissent, one which allows all parties equal access and ability to respond?
  7. How do we remain aligned with our values and preferred ways of communicating in the face of forces such as anger, disagreement, and defensiveness?

Cherished Narrative Luminaries

In beginning to ponder the above questions, we are collecting cherished Narrative tenets that represent the broader philosophy guiding our work.   These guiding principles are like luminaries that can help guide us  in our work and through darkness. Our hope is  that together we can create a culture of reflective practice that orients us  to “Walk the Talk.”  Is there something you would like to add? Please send us your ideas through our Contact link. We are sincerely interested in your responses!

Narrative Luminaries: READ MORE

Using the Internet in Productive and Socially Responsible Ways

Many interactions in the Narrative Community are online now and up for consumption by community members familiar, unfamiliar and interested in narrative practices. What are some of the some ethical guidelines for our online interactions? What is Netiquette and what does it mean to be a good Netizen? What is Trolling, and how can we prevent it?

Read more about what guides our online ethics

Continuing the Conversation

We want to begin this conversation here, and will also be on the lookout for similar conversations cropping up in other contexts. It is our hope that these various conversations will coalesce and find a central home, so that as many as possible can participate. We hope to continue to generate productive dialogue that aligns with our philosophy and values. Is there something you would like to add? Please contact us by leaving a comment below or through our Contact link.  We also welcome reflections and questions regarding this Blog Post on our Facebook page. We are sincerely interested in your responses!

Please note: Trolling is defined as making a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.  Alternatively,  we wish to open a forum for very careful, deliberate and earnest responses. Let’s draw from our best skills in facilitating difficult conversations and being relationally respectful. No trolling please!

2017-12-24T08:04:05-04:00December 23rd, 2017|8 Comments


  1. la fabrique narrative December 23, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    A message from la Fabrique Narrative (France)

    We at the Fabrique Narrative are shocked and distressed by the article in VSNT newsletter by S. Madigan. We are saddened to see differences of opinion and view point expressed in a manner that appears to us to be lacking totally in respect and human courtesy. As Narrative Practices develop it seems natural and healthy that we question each others’ practices, with respect, and dignity.

    However M. Madigan’s article brings forward the question of ethical questioning, done first of all, in a person to person forum with the others and not in a public bashing.

    M. Madigan says : “I of course would never dare speak for Michael White, but I’d like to imagine that he, like the rest of us, valued the…” and we would like to invoke the spirit of Michael White in saying: I (we) of course would never dare speak for Michael White, but (we’d)I’d like to imagine that he, like the rest of us, valued above all respect, honest differences of position, above all expressed in a manner as to honor all involved and their points of view and in their human dignity”.

    We do not support the article and do not find it in any way expressive of the spirit of Narrative Practices, nor of Michael White.

    The team of La Fabrique Narrative

  2. la fabrique narrative December 23, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    In a more personal way and speaking only for me, I would also like to add that we proudly invited 3 times David Epston and recently Tom D. Carlson in France (in last September) to study in detail these insider witness techniques. As a recent narrative country (15 years), we might not be the world’s most sophisticated high-level demanding audience, but most of us have really enjoyed this creative and innovative work. Apart from the supervision sessions, some of us successfully transposed and use currently the insider witness practices (which we have renamed here « conversations par procurations”) with teens in difficulty in colleges. Others use them in big companies for inaugural / final coaching sessions or to work with professional conflicts. This is an interesting and effective technique, certainly perfectible, but why refuse and disqualify innovation and those who are interested it, in a so scornful and violent manner?

    Pierre Blanc-Sahnoun
    Co-founder of la Fabrique Narrative

  3. Larry Zucker December 23, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    I have many strong feelings about what’s transpiring here. But for brevity’s sake in this forum, I will make two comments at this time.
    1. The manner in which Stephan Madigan raised questions about the ethics and efficacy of Insider Witnessing Practices is totally unacceptable to me. I want the narrative therapy community to struggle—as we all must throughout our lives—to balance critique and inclusion. We can’t believe everything, and we must alway be wrestling with where our beliefs and practices do and don’t fit with those of others. And the narrative community—AS A COMMUNITY—has a right/need to stand against some therapeutic practices. But this will not be achieved through personal attack, misinformation, or claiming that posthumous witnesses agree with you.
    2. Which leads me to my second comment: Even a casual reading of the initial writings about IWP reveals that there IS NO RENDERING OR DOCTORING of transcripts as part of the practice. Consultants conduct a hope-biased interview of a therapist embodying their client, who speaks imaginatively in the first person as an embodiment of that client. That conversation is recorded, and that unedited video and sometimes a verbatim transcript are gone over with the client in a subsequent session. The interviewer, therapist, and client examine the video/transcript phrase by phrase, precisely so that the client can move into a greater position of authority over their own experience, as they weigh in on their therapist’s take on their hopes and dreams and the forces that constrain them. The beauty of the work is the opposite of Stephen’s fears: the client’s authority over their own experience—and the languaging of it—INCREASES through this process. I simply don’t understand Stephen’s reading of this.

    • David Pare January 24, 2018 at 8:48 am

      Thanks Larry and to all of you who commented on this topic; I’m late joining you as I wasn’t aware of it until recently. As others have mentioned, there seems to be a puzzling and unfortunate disjuncture here between what I take to be many of the cherished values of narrative work and the tone of the blogs that gave rise to the conversation. In reflecting on how to add to these exchanges I’ve decided to comment on my experience of insider witnessing practices informed by the presentation from David Epston and Tom Carlson in Vermont last spring. There was no mention of rendered transcripts, but only an unpacking of David’s development of these practices, an outline of the sequencing of the process, and the demonstration of an exquisitely sensitive interview by Tom Carlson founded on a profound respect for the therapist interviewed and the client who was the subject of the conversation. My impression is that these practices, carefully executed, have the potential to have lifelong impact for the persons involved. They strike me as an exciting and useful addition to the repertoire of narrative practices. I’d like to thank David and Tom and their colleagues for sharing their practice and I hope that the value of their work is not overlooked amid the controversy.

  4. Frank McGrath December 24, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Thank you Peggy et al for this forum as I find the silence from VSNT to be deafening. I have been practicing and teaching in Narrative Therapy in Calgary, Canada since meeting Michael White in 1988. I want to go on record as in complete disagreement with the tactics and opinions that were offered in the recent VSNT newsletter. Apart from the “facts”, which seem to be irrelevant to VSNT, the opinionated, self righteous and sarcastic tone of that newsletter is, at least, a betrayal of Narrative principals and ethics and at worst an example of abuse of power and privilege that is an embarrassment to behold. In my opinion an apology to Tom, David and Michael are in order as well as a retraction of that newsletter.

    More importantly, an apology is due the CWHC therapists and clients here in Calgary who are exploring IWP. I know first hand that they were never consulted by the VSNT faculty as to the principals and ethics they were guided by. One of these principals is to be very open to discussion of different perspectives, constructive questioning and critique.

    A constructive exploration of any differences or concerns over IWP can follow these apologies and retraction. Otherwise we are at risk of condoning and entitling abusive practices.

    Frank McGrath, Ph.D.
    Healingchange Calgary.

  5. Linda Moxley December 27, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Hello everyone, I want to wish everyone a happy new year.
    Last week, I posted on this site, stating some my concerns about some of what was said in the last newsletter published by Stephen Madigan, about the insider witness practice that David Epston and Tom Carlsen are doing. Due to technical problems these comments were lost so will be written again. I really appreciated Peggy putting on line more information and the thoughts that were stimulated by this part of the newsletter, so I could make my own conclusions.

    Nevertheless, I had some concern in relationship to the potential rift that could occur in our tiny narrative practice community and would prefer that this did not happen. While I feel that we all are responsible for questioning both our own work and that of others for efficacy and ethics and value questioning, I was surprised by the way that Stephen’s concerns were presented. Perhaps I misread or misunderstood the content and the objective of Stephen’s statements and I do plan to ask Stephen about this. If it was to bring to our attention some things he wants us to consider while reflecting on the work of Tom and David, then I am afraid the way of presentation might take away from this objective and at the risk of sounding judgmental, the flavor of this part of the newsletter sounded overly evaluative to me, and given the response of some of the narrative community I was not alone.

    I have had the opportunity have a position of management in health care, where I was given the responsibility of trying to help others settle differences of opinion. I even took trainings on how to resolve these difference of opinion, and very much appreciated what I learned. I was often approached by members of my team and department relating to concerns that one person had about another person’s statements or actions. I was taught that the first thing I could suggest was for the person to express in person to the other person their concerns and have a conversation about them. If the two were not able to come to an agreement, I was advised to suggest that these people find another mutually trusted person to join in as a sort of mediator to try to resolve their differences and perhaps make a plan to do something different. If the concern that still remains the people in at least a position to agree to disagree but to leave the situation, then another body (group) of hopefully respected people would be approached. This approach would most likely happen if there were concerns about something being illegal, amoral (which can be also a perspective), or unethical (which also has some gray parts to it) to try to clarify the matter and perhaps add something to the conversation. I am not sure that we have anything in our organization set up to do this sort of thing (body of people), but I wonder if this could happen when there are differences in opinion. Unless illegal or unethical enough to go to a professional organization, if differences were not resolved but were not illegal or unethical, the situation would probably go no further. However, it was suggested that if ever it went public, it would not be personal but more along the ideas of opening up to the public, a situation or question in a more global way. There was a feeling in my own personal and certainly potentially biased response to what was written that there seemed to be some personal elements included in the statements.

    It is my hope that conversations will be opened up that can be inclusive rather than divisive within the narrative community and that we will not get caught in what might be interpretation but to consider underlying questions of the comments to place in our own practice and to share with each other concerns in a respectful way.

  6. Kay Ingamells December 29, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    David Epston and Tom Carlson are my closest colleagues. Anyone who has had the privilege of coming to know David and his work will appreciate that he is a person of utmost integrity. Tom is a profoundly ethical practitioner whose work speaks for itself. My response is simple because, at heart, I believe this is a simple matter, albeit deeply disturbing.

    I have reason to believe that this is a malicious and unwarranted attack designed to undermine both Tom and David’s reputations, but primarily Tom’s, and to damage the standing of the new practices they have been developing together. I consider that this attack has been designed to inflict as much harm as possible through abuse of the considerable power that Stephen harness’s over the narrative community. Although Stephen is a very accomplished and gifted narrative therapist who has been a leader in our field, he does not appear to me to be living by the ethics of narrative practice and has abused his power aided by his extensive mailing list, to make a personal and malicious attack. I invite you as members of the narrative community, but especially the VSNT faculty, to carefully consider whether you want to be associated with someone who is behaving in a way that appears to be antithetical to the values that we claim to espouse.

  7. Sasha McAllum Pilkington December 30, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    I would like to respond to Stephen’s newsletter by sharing some thoughts and offering some clarification about “case stories” which are sometimes called “teaching tales” or “exemplary tales” in Narrative Therapy literature. Such stories may be co-authored with the person a counsellor meets with or they may be a weaving of a number of therapeutic conversations and the authors imagination (for example to create different people from the original to protect confidentiality) to create a story illustrating practice.

    Teaching tales/case stories are not written to be a sole pedagogy for Narrative Therapy but rather to be used alongside more traditional teaching methods such as transcripts and videos, reading, practising etc. In my view they have some particular attributes that make them a powerful adjunct to traditional methods of teaching.
    In my practice I meet with people who are dying and their families. I find stories of practice can provide a unique means of support to counsellors new to this area where the power relationship plus restraints of confidentiality are such that video recordings and transcripts are almost never available for teaching purposes. I write stories that illustrate practice to support colleagues new to palliative care and for practitioners interested in learning narrative therapy. The stories represent not only therapeutic conversations and a genre of questions that I engage with every week but also the unspoken that isn’t present in a transcript.

    For new practitioners, being in the company of a person who is dying can be such a daunting prospect it can de-centre the person they are meeting with. Stories can prepare a practitioner new to the area as they evoke the senses so the practice is experienced rather than just read. In my view this is important when preparing to meet with people who are seriously ill. Stories also offer an opportunity to illustrate some of the unspoken nuances of therapy. For example, when I wait outside a person’s room for an invitation to come in rather than following the usual practice of walking in, or the way I might companion someone experiencing severe symptoms as the therapeutic conversation unfolds.
    Stories aren’t accurate transcripts. Their verisimilitude varies depending on the author, the story and the restraints operating in the area of practice. A good story however will reverberate with authenticity and be instructive. In my view stories offer something valuable and unique while circumventing restraints of confidentiality and imposing on people at what might be a crisis point in their lives. For those of you who are interested there is considerable literature on this topic.

    I would also like to share my experience of the Insider Witness Practice workshop that Stephen mentions in the newsletter. The workshop was held the day prior to the conference TC13 in April 2016. I was lucky enough to attend as I had been invited by David Epston and Stephen Madigan to present at the conference. As a practitioner with more than 30 years experience when I attend a workshop I look for inspiration, new ideas, to be reconnected with what matters to me and so on. I was both inspired and moved by the IWP workshop. I returned home and drawing on the workshop began performing therapeutic letters differently plus I used the ideas to inform my questioning as I co-authored a new kind of therapeutic document with someone I was meeting with. As we all know there are as many stories as there are participants. This is my story. I hope it will offer all of you and Stephen a helpful counter balance alongside the reported

    Sasha McAllum Pilkington

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