The vulnerability of helping professionals in the face of a single story

In her lecture on the danger of a single story, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie reminisces Fide. When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

basket dyed raffia
She was startled. It had never occurred to her that anyone in that family could actually create something.
The poverty-story had made it impossible for to see them as anything else but poor.

Years later.
Adichie is in the US now. She will go to university now and she meets her roommate.
This roommate is shocked when she discovers that this African woman:

  • Speaks English,
  • is a fan of Mariah Carey, and
  • knows how to use a stove.

How come?
Throughout her life, she had been exposed – as an American – to versions of the same story about Africa: pictures, tales, facts about beautiful landscapes and animals, but also about poverty, cruelty, and backwardness.

The Africa-as-catastrophe story.

africa mooiafrica violence
Again and again.
The American student had not been able to imagine that African people could be a lot like her.
Feelings? Pity.

More years later.
Adichie travels through Mexico.
She realizes – to her shame – what the years in the US have done to her perspective on “the Mexicans.”

trump mexicans
Mexicans in US media:

endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border
Versions of one story: “the despicable Mexican immigrant.”


Adichie gives example after example of the impact – for everyone – when the same story keeps circulating. A single story about people. A single story about a place.
How a single story infiltrates our perspective.

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become.

Exposed to a single story about people, we become limited in what we can feel.
It impacts the dignity of the people the story is about.
It impacts our experience of fellow humanity.
Our ability to connect with each other.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.


And another thing. The link between stories and power:

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

‘The’ story. How things are. The truth.


The story vulnerability of professionals

Adichie quotes

How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.

I ask myself that.
Not that we are impressionable and vulnerable when we are exposed to a story.
But ‘particularly as children’?
Am I, a 53 years old psychologist, any less impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story?
Are we, helping professionals, not affected and vulnerable when we are exposed to stories about people who take a client or patient position?

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

What % of Paul seems ‘psychotic’ in that phrase?

A human being.

Glass full of water with ink color drop

Like a glass of water.
A drop of psychosis.
The entire glass turns psychotic.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

How impressionable and vulnerable are we in the face of such a story?

hersenen en neurotransmitters

I‘d say, pretty vulnerable.
We, professionals, have been exposed to stories of psychosis.
Not the comics where someone shows up with a hat of Napoleon. Then we smile.
But what with stories from the professional culture with a pretense of scientific and authority?

Stories with words in it like ‘brains’, ‘neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘disability’, ‘cognitive’, ‘psycho-education’, ‘research’ …
Stories claiming to be the story that is no story anymore.
Claiming to speak the truth. What’s going on? What’s wrong?
They want to be the only story.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

My guess is: in the face of these stories we are vulnerable.
They infiltrate us without us even noticing.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

In my experience, such a story can have a big impact on

  • our experience of Paul,
  • how different we experience Paul from ourselves,
  • the conversations we are (not) going to have with Paul,
  • the things we can (not) be curious about,
  • what we can (not) feel for Paul,
  • what we can (not) imagine about future possibilities for Paul.

And this has an impact on Paul’s life.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

We are vulnerable and at the same time we are in a position of (relative) power in relation to Paul.

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

So our single-story-vulnerability increases Paul’s vulnerability.

If we take an expert position, we not only have the ability to tell the story of another person but to make this the definitive story about that person.


The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Disorders, diagnosis, treatment

As helping professionals, we want some recognition of the value that we bring.
One way to do that is drawing parallels between our work and that of medical doctors.

That’s why we call some of our stories “diagnoses.”
What we do and try, we sometimes call “treatment.”
Or “therapy.”

Medical doctors owe their existence and recognition to the existence of diseases and symptoms and syndromes and physical damage.
We do psychosocial diseases, disorders, symptoms, syndromes, injuries, disabilities.

Because judgments of doctors enjoy a higher regard than that of laymen, inequality is at play.
Their story has an authority that the story of the layman does not have.
One way this authority works is through the use of a language that is different from the spoken language.
Reports often show a high density of jargon.
Letters are written * about * the person concerned, and sent * to * the fellow doctor.
Helping professionals do this too.dossier mental-screenshot-2
It is one of the ways to achieve our professional identity.
But this writing tradition does in stories-that-claim-to-be-the-only-story.
And then these stories and writings end up in a collection of high authority, called ‘dossier’.
Dossier: for and by people who are vulnerable to this kind of stories (however much we know the power of the ’confirmation bias).
For people that occupy a position of relative power in relation to the people the writings are about.

Confirmation bias: we’d better not underestimate its force.
How often do I hear: “Is this not typical of people with X?”

( “This” is an experience or initiative, and X is one of those words that we helping professionals are vulnerable to single-story-and-claims-of-truth-and-professionality-words )

That confirmation bias is a catalyst for the production of versions-of-the-same-story: “Yes, indeed …”

Thus, we contribute to the creation and confirmation of stereotypes:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The stories circulating in the professional culture.

Stories with a pretense of scholarship and authority.
We are vulnerable in the face of such stories.

Not to stories like:

Paul has worked for 25 years in a garage.
Paul adores his son Jon and his daughter Trish.

When someone is introduced to us with these stories, it remains easy for us to be curious about a variety of things.
Easy also to engage in the most diverse conversations.
Easy to experience Paul as a human being much as we are.
Easy to keep realizing that there is so much we do not know about Paul.

Ella is chronically depressed …

Oops. Our vulnerability is hit.
A glass of Ella. Full of chronic depression.
Stories from the professional culture with ingredients as “mood disorder, ‘’ neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘therapy-resistant’, …

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of bedsheets.


Can we protect ourselves from the danger of the single story?

The risk that we contribute to dignity degradation?
Can we protect ourselves in our vulnerability to stories that have “diagnosis” as a theme?
Can we protect ourselves against the impact of jargon-pretense?

This is what Adichie says:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me.

So how can we talk to people (in client and colleague positions) so that a diversity of stories can arise and circulate?
How can we respect the distinction between problem and person?
How can we talk to each other so that we limit the influence of pretentious words and language for all those involved?
What we’re going to ask Paul? And Paul’s partner?
How can introduce Paul to each other?
What are we going to write? How? To whom?

How can we write so that our readers do not get caught up in a single story?

I find these important questions.
I think these questions as such can and must play a role.
And I’m curious about your ideas.

If you want, you can download the crowbar exercise. This practice liberates professionals who find themselves stuck in a negative story about a client (when you notice that you’re always saying the same (negative) things about the person).

The crowbar exercise

Kind regards,
Johan Van de Putte

PS Do you like this post? Please share it.

PPS Want to watch the entire talk of Chimamanda Adichie: click The Danger of a Single Story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TED Talks.


Hope-friendly helping conversations

Ella consults a care provider. What is she hoping for?
Or is she losing hope?
Or both?
Isabel is the care provider. She wants to facilitate a hope-friendly conversation. So what can she do?
I will outline some options for Isabel to allow Ella to get hope within her sight, in a rich and full way.
Especially Ella’s sight, as these will be conversation options that are meant to help open up life options for Ella – conversation options make hope more noticeable, concrete, and fertile, so that new ideas may present themselves to Ella.

Pop-ups of hope?

How can hope present itself?

  • Ella takes the initiative to consult a care provider. What does she hope this will result in?
  • Victor does not accept what is happening at work. Does he nurture the hope something might change?
  • Much is uncertain, but Emma is feeling happy. What is it that she is connecting with? What does she have a connection with that keeps these uncertainties from generating fear? What are some of the possibilities that she is sensing?
  • Lucas is suddenly taken over by fear. His larger than life fear: ‘this will never get better again!’ What had made it possible for him up till that moment to have a different attitude? Before the fear struck? What did he see? What did he understand about himself, or others, or life?
  • Elise has suffered much cruelty as a child. And as an adult. What has – even by a little – supported her to keep on going? To get back onto her feet after she lost courage? A sparkle of hope that things might someday get better?

Hope can take many forms: an initiative, a refusal to give up, trust where fear could rule, even hopelessness indicates hope (i.e. one from which one is getting separated).

Hope is an intimate experience. A state of being open for possibilities. Possibilities that are dear to us, which we have some kind of relation with.
Hope penetrates our entire life experience, just as the loss of hope does.

Some perspectives on hope

Some basic principles. (Only for people who like lists of principles.)

  • It is not useful presume that hope is something deeply human or existential. The idea that the ability to maintain hope under the most difficult of circumstances is somehow inherent to human existence discourages us from asking questions. Questions which can facilitate a Conversation (with a capital C). Conversations with a capital C are not about ‘communicating’: they engender experiences and perspectives. During a Conversation, people are given the opportunity to give meaning to their experiences, and that transports them to a different place in life than before. In a Conversation people get the chance to trace back their hope, and give meaning to it.
  • The experience of hope is often connected to various (often implicit) perspectives on or conclusions about oneself (i.e. concerning skills, qualities, what someone’s life is about), the world, other people, life. These (hope-friendly) perspectives and conclusions are associated with (hope-friendly) experiences from the recent or the distant past.
  • Experiences are hope-undermining when they put hope-friendly perspectives or conclusions into doubt. At that point, we lose touch with those hope-friendly perspectives/conclusions, as well as with the experiences they connect to.
  • The intensity of the connection we feel with hope-friendly experiences can vary from strongly to weakly. When that connection is weak, hope is also weak or fragile. Is our connection strong, however, our hope is potent.
  • A potent hope stimulates ideas. Also in connection with taking potential hurdles. A potent hope generates the desire and the impulse to take action.
  • It is useful to have conversations about hope-friendly perspectives, conclusions as well as the experiences that form (or formed) the basis for it. These conversations strengthen the connection we have with hope-friendly experiences, perspectives and conclusions.They afford more possibilities for hope to become potent. They create a platform for ideas, cooperation and action.
  • Hope should not be mindlessly pumped up through verbal encouragement. By richly retelling the experiences, perspectives and conclusions that are intimately connected with a certain hope, it will automatically gain a natural, powerful form. This might result in some very useful ideas and impulses. It is also possible that the person will re-form the hope.

A history of hope

Because hope is so strongly connected with concrete experiences, we simply must ask about the experiences that have led hope to enter someone’s life, and/or
* to become nourished or strengthened or confirmed.*

You might consider questions like:

  • When do you think this hope (that …) first came into your life?
  • Can you tell me something about the experiences that may have created a foundation for this hope (that …)?
  • How has this hope come into your life?
  • When did you first come into contact with this hope?
  • I think you might have experienced things that may have brought you to the idea: ‘maybe it is a real possibility for me to …’ What do you think? What are some of the experiences that may have confirmed to you that … might also be a possibility for you?
  • And what are some of experiences in the course of your life that might have confirmed this hope? Or strengthened it? What have you experienced or done (or attempted or read or seen or heard about) to give this hope some vitamins? Which might have confirmed that this hope might be a justified one?

The social/relational history of hope

There is another important category of questions: Questions about hope-generating encounters with people or figures from the life history of the person. For instance, we might have met someone who made us feel appreciated. This brought a skill or quality into focus, which allowed us to imagine a future in a way we had been unable before. Or we felt that the other person treated us as someone who is entitled to a bit of happiness, or a humane life, or respect. Or the other person saw us as someone who would turn out alright. Perhaps we connected with a character in a book, movie or television series, and that awakened an awareness of a possibility. For instance, the awareness that staying the course may pay off in the end, or that you may be able to retain your humanity, even in inhuman conditions, or you might recognize a skill in the character that you yourself (might) also have.

Some examples of questions from this category:

  • Can I ask you something? … This hope we are talking about: If you think of one person who might have contributed to this hope, who would this be?
  • What person or figure may – in one way or the other – have contributed to your ability to nurture this hope?
  • Who in your life might have confirmed the validity of this hope – perhaps just because of their way of doing things?

The heartbeat of hope

When you have managed to trace one or several experiences from the history of hope, this gives you a starting point. Which is important, but it is only just a starting point. The point is to sufficiently revive these experiences. They have to be woken up. The person must be able to see his/her hope almost concretely.
Touch it.
Hear it.
Taste it.
Smell it.
The shape of it.
The colours.
The texture.
The limbs.
The heartbeat.
The temperature.
The surrounding landscape.


We ask questions about the concrete circumstances of the experiences.
And we explore what the person knew at that moment, saw, felt, (re)discovered which helped to develop or confirm a certain hope.

Ask about concrete situations

We need to ask about the concrete circumstances of hope-generating or hope-affirming experiences and context.

  • When?
  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who did what?
  • Where?

*Ella: I think that even as I child I had the feeling that I would end up alright. Despite all the trouble I had with my parents and at school.
Isabel (caregiver): How old were you – do you think – when you first became aware of this feeling? … As a child you said: Are we talking about kindergarten, or elementary school. Or later?
Ella: Hum, maybe in primary school. Year four, or five?
Isabel (caregiver): What experiences in year four or five might have meant something special in regard to this feeling you had that you would end up alright?
Ella*: I had a friend back then, Charlotte. I used to come over to her home. Sometimes, I stayed over. She had lovely parents. Very different from mine.
Isabel (caregiver): Can you tell me about Charlotte? … What kind of things did you used to do? … And what about her parents? What do you remember about them? … What can you remember about what they did that was different from what you were used to? … What struck you the most about them? … How often did you come over? …. Perhaps it might not be that important, but do you remember what Charlotte’s home looked like? …

Questions about (re)discoveries, insights, perspectives

Once we have done some digging through the concrete memories, we can start asking questions about perspectives. Such as:

  • At that point, was there anything about yourself that came into sharper focus?
  • What did you become aware of? What skill or quality you have did came sharper into focus?
  • What possibilities for your life did you possibly sense at that point?
  • What did you sense that X appreciated about you? How was that for you?
  • Is it possible that this evoked a new perspective for you?
  • Was this the first time you got the feeling that … or did this confirm something were you already aware of, somewhere deep down?
  • So it confirmed something you were already aware of. Could you say something about that? What earlier experiences had you had that …?
  • What other stories can you tell me that fit in with this?

Isabel (caregiver): Just now, I asked you about some of your experiences might have nurtured your sense that things might end up alright for you, despite the problems. You thought of Charlotte and her parents. What is the link between these experiences with Charlotte and her parents and your feeling that you might end up alright? What is it that you might have experienced with them, or discovered about yourself?
Ella: Charlotte’s mom was always happy when I was there. I really got the feeling she was happy I was Charlotte’s best friend. That was so completely different from my life at home.
Isabel (caregiver): What could Charlotte’s mum see in you that your parents might have been blind to?
Ella: That I was a good kid. A normal kid. A good kid. With them, I even felt special.ladder
Isabel (caregiver): How was it for you to experience this?
Ella: (Tears) … It is hard to think back to that … It sounds a bit stupid, but I think it might have saved my life …’ (tears)
Isabel (caregiver): Let’s say I could have talked to you back then, and you would have trusted me, and I would have asked you: ‘You experiences at Charlotte’s home, how do these impact the way you view yourself? … What images does this evoke about the future? … What kind of possibilities do you see for yourself, later, when you think about how happy Charlotte’s mom is that you are her daughter’s friend? … What would you have told me?
Ella: A normal life! Like Charlotte had. A normal life. A good life. Just like her! And that I was entitled to it too! That that shit back home really was shit, and I didn’t deserve it.
Isabel (caregiver): That awareness that you were entitled to a normal, a good life, has it supported you in any way then or later, during hard times?
Ella*: That’s a difficult question. I never thought about that before.
Isabel (caregiver): Sure. Do you think these experiences of being normal and good and of being entitled to a good, normal life might have made something possible for you, later, one way or another? Or may have supported you somehow?

A spark of hope

I recall having a conversation with a man, years ago, who was feeling hopeless. He told me that, a few weeks before, he had experienced a spark of hope, briefly. It had seem odd to him, as there seemed to have been no foundation for such a spark. After all, after days of wandering he had ended up on a psychiatric ward. It had been a wandering around with the sole perspective of ending his life. So I asked him about the spark.
Questions, such as:

  • Can I ask you something about that spark of hope that you experienced?
  • Do you remember where you were? And what happened?
  • When it was still there … What if I had asked you at that point: What possibilities are you seeing right now? What would your answer have been?
  • At that moment when that spark of hope was in your life: What did you recognise about yourself that you could no longer see later on? What did you know at that point in time (which may have eluded you later)?


A Conversation developed. During that Conversation, the man was able to once again see and feel what he had been able to see and feel weeks before, as by the hand of grace. Without me having to make him feel better or give him words of encouragement.

So: Do not skip on hope. Not even faint one. Not even a spark. Not even a spark of hope that might not be there anymore.

Skills in reclaiming hope

During a conversation about a hope that was important in her life, I asked Martha if she had known moments that she had lost hope. She confirmed this, and told me about a time when she did not have a job and lived somewhere where she hardly knew the language. How did she manage to reclaim that hope? She told me a story of headstrong just keeping on trying, despite all rejection: ‘just keep on trying, keep on trying’. She also told me a story about Kathie, a woman who had helped her. I asked her why she thought this woman had done that. She told me what she had meant to Kathie. What Kathie had seen in her, and appreciated. She showed me a picture of Kathie. I asked her for another story about ‘keeping on trying’, and she told me a more recent story.
We can facilitate a Conversation about skills to reclaim hope. With questions, such as:

  • How did you succeed to reclaim that hope? To re-possess it? Could you tell me something about that?
  • What has been important to make it possible for you to reacquire that hope?

The other side of despair

Let’s look at the following questions:

  • You said that you could no longer continue on. Would it be okay with you if I asked some questions about your sense of what you had been continuing on with up to this point? Or perhaps about what it was that you had been depending on to see you through up to now?;
  • You said that you have given up. Could I ask some questions about what it is you are giving up on? Or perhaps about what it is that you are getting separated from, or losing touch with, that had been important to you?;
  • You said that you can’t see a future for yourself any more? Would it be okay for me to ask you about what possibilities you had seen for your future? And how, at least to a point, this has been sustaining of your life up to this time? Or perhaps about what it was that had made it possible for you, until recently, to keep this future in sight?

These questions provide

the possibility to explore the hope or the perspective that has been lost by the person.
I found these in an article by Michael White about the other (implicit) side of expressions of psychological pain.
No misunderstanding: It was not Michael White’s aim to avoid having a conversation about the loss of hope or perspective. He suggested exploring:

  • the experience people have of the despair they experience,
  • how despair manifests itself in their lives: i.e. the effects of despair on somebody’s life, thought, relationships, …,
  • the contexts of this despair, such as its socioeconomic conditions and the power relations of local culture, and
  • possible approaches to these contexts.

However, Michael White was a proponent of double-listening, which may make people feel *double-heard*: not only heard in the experience of their despair, but also in the hope they were getting separated from, or are in danger of being separated from. ShadowFollowing that line, you may, for instance, recognise:

  • What the hope enabled to think and do,
  • What the hope provided that was valuable to the person,
  • Which experiences and beliefs and relationships offered a platform for that hope,
  • What hope has contributed to the lives of others.

When we try to ‘double-listen’, we might not only hear the absence of hope, but also the tone in which it is expressed. Does that tone express that someone is at peace with the loss of hope? Or does it point to discontent, to protest, to a complaint? To the preciousness of that hope? To actions to get it back again?
A rich conversation can be developed based on this.

So here we are.
Some options for hope-supporting helping conversations.
The perspectives that are associated with hope.
The experiences that are associated with hope.
The possibilities that give hope.
Skills in the reclaiming of hope.
We can also research the effects of hope together: what the person thinks about these effects.
We can research options to give up a hope, or to transform one hope into another.
But that’s for another time. I hope this will be of help in your work.
Do you have an anecdote about a conversation about hope that you would like to share with me?

Here you can download a cheat sheet: cheat_sheet_Hope_Affirming_helping_conversations.

Kind regards,
Johan Van de Putte
16th of May, 2016

Protecting against black magic: ‘people always respond’

People always respond

Michael White already mentioned this when he talked about having helping conversations with people who have gone through a traumatic experience.

I am often reminded of this.

Also in conversations about issues that are simply difficult to deal with for people, or painful, or have been so.

Worries that overshadow your life. Despair. Fear. Fights. Feelings of failure. A threat. Memories that haunt you. A coghost-bottle2ntext in which you are continuously being evaluated.

When people talk about their painful or hard experiences, they put themselves at risk: Memories which are far too painful may be awoken, as well as: painful conclusions about one’s identity (in terms of failure, weakness …), about the world, about the future.

Talking is more than just communicating. Did they teach you this as well: that ‘communication’ is about a ‘transmitter’ sending ‘information’ to a ‘receiver’? Well, this might hold true for a weather report, but is it also true when we are talking about the things that really matter to us? What happens then might be more like magic. White magic, or black magic.

Talking awakens. Genies come out of their bottles. And when you speak about painful stuff, the genie that comes out of the bottle may hurt us.

People always respond.

This is what Michael White meant:

  • People always react. People will always do something to respond to the things that are coming at them.
  • People will always do something, in response to
    • what is threatening to happen to them (i.e. to try and avoid it);
    • what is happening to them (to try and exert some kind of influence on it);
    • what has happened to them, to limit the damage sustained or to get back on their feet.


No matter how much impact the difficult situation might have,

No matter how significant the feeling of powerlessness might be,

No matter how serious the consequences might be,

No matter how young the victim might be,

assume that people will always try to exert some kind of influence in order to avoid bad stuff, to limit the damage, to pick up on one’s life.


Muster all the courage you can find to ask about it, and to keep on asking about it.

So, People always respond.

This motto invites us to

  • not only zoom in on the sense of powerlessness experienced by your conversation partner;
  • not only create a space in which to express one’s experiences about being helpless;
  • not only offer acknowledgement for this (important) dimension of their experience.


This motto invites us to also be curious about the initiatives – no matter how small – that people have taken (or are taking):

  • ‘So, what did you do then?’;
  • ‘What have you tried to …?’;
  • ‘So, what did you think?’;
  • ‘What have you done or tried to do in the hope that it might make a difference (even if only slightly)?’;
  • What have you considered doing (even though you finally did not do it, because it did not seem a good idea in the end)?;
  • ‘Do you think that you are doing things, at this point in your life, to reduce the influence of what happened to you then? And to lead a life which is in line with what you think is important, or like to do or enjoy?;


Show curiosity about the slightest initiative or idea or consideration or inclination in an attempt to try

  • to avoid it, or
  • to limit the impact during and after.


Also when this initiative or idea or inclination has not had the desired effect.

Also when the person spontaneously assigns no meaning to this.

I was visiting some people again. I paid them a visit once a month. They were concerned about one of their children (as well as her children), as there was some domestic violence going on.

During the visit, the grandchildren happened to be there as well. They were watching TV while we were talking. Then, one granddaughter walks in. She is of primary school age. Grandmother says: ‘It’s no fun when daddy and mommy fight, eh, Babette?’

Babette: ‘No.’

Johan (‘People always respond’): ‘Babette, when your daddy and mommy fight, what do you do?’

Babette: ‘I turn up the TV. Or I go to my room and put on music. And I dance.’

Johan: ‘Who taught you that?’

Babette: ‘I got this from my friends at school. They have parents that are divorced.’

Johan: ‘You guys talk about this?’

Babette: ‘We give each other tips.’

Johan: ‘Do you sometimes think about how you would like to do things when you’re all grown up and living together with someone?’

Babette: ‘I would talk more … Oh yes, we also play with the kids from next door. They’re here every two weeks because their parents are divorced.’

Instead of zooming in on the experience of powerlessness, we can consciously zigzag between experiences of being powerless and experiences of trying to exert some influence.

Doing so provides your conversation partner with some solid ground. A specific kind of ground, a kind of identity ground, different from the watery, slippery identity ground where we end up when we start talking about painful circumstances without protection.swamp

Miriam and I explore the effects of the ‘feelings of depression’ on her life. During the course of the conversation, I note down the effects on the whiteboard. A column of all the effects that the ‘feelings of depression’ are having on her life, her body, her relationships, her thinking …

Johan: ‘When people have to deal with these kinds of circumstances, in their desperation they sometimes go out and try things, in the hope that something might get better, even by a little. Can you tell me if there is something that you have tried during the past few months, in the hope that you might be able to leave this behind you? Whether it has made a difference or not, it doesn’t matter: I am interested in everything you may have tried or thought of.’ I draw a line on the whiteboard for a new column, entitled: ‘things done or tried.’

Miriam: Well … all kinds of stuff. Nothing worked.

Johan: Like what?

Miriam: Flower remedies. Pills. Sleeping. I even went to the tanning salon a couple of times because my sister-in-law said that I needed some sunlight. But absolutely nothing helped.

Johan: Can I ask you about the flower remedies?

Miriam: (nods)

Johan: How did you arrive at the idea: ‘maybe flower remedies might help?’

Miriam: It had been helpful before, when I went through my burnout from my job.

Johan: Can you tell me more about that? How did you arrive at the idea to try that? And what did you experience, or discover that it did with you? Or what did it enable you to do?

Miriam: A friend had recommended it to me, back then.

Johan: Your friend recommended it to you … So, how did you take that first step to try it out? Was it easy for you?

Miriam: I was willing to try anything. I just wanted to be myself again, the real Miriam.

Johan: So that was your goal. Can I ask you something about that, about the real Miriam? What kind of person is she?

Our curiosity about the responding will help to identify a number of those responses.good ground

And that creates a starting point for a bit of white magic, for a form of talking that might awaken some other things: other memories and other conclusions about yourself; some solid ground to stand on.

Then it pays off to have some conversation tools available which allow you to help the other person give meaning to that particular ‘little’ initiative or attempt. Then we might discover that, instead, it actually was meaningful. Then some conclusions about one’s self that are nice and dignified and exciting and hopeful might be drawn.

On its own, this has value, but it also gives people further opportunity to put into words some of the misery that exists in their lives, without it bringing them further down.

Those conversation tools, that is fodder for another article altogether.

People always respond.


In a conversation about challenging situations or dilemmas, let us talk about

  • the difficult circumstances and;
  • what people have done or thought, in order to respond, to safeguard themselves, to protect something that is important to them, to try and exert some kind of influence in the face of counterforces, to (try to) recover from some major impact, to reshape their lives according to their own preferences.


When we get an opportunity to talk about  our responding, the following elements may be awakened:

  • An experience of being at the steering wheel;
  • An experience of trying to exert influence;
  • An experience of what the person gives value to, treasures, i.e. wants, hopes, desires, personal preferences, ethical principles, intentions …
  • A sense of trying to intervene in one’s life for the greater glory of what one considers vitally important.


How valuable is this: an experience of being able to step in or intervene in your own life, based on what you think is important and your intentions …?

People always respond.


Johan Van de Putte




Therapy, a Two–Way Street: 8 anti-burnout questions for care-givers

Occasionally, you experience something that makes you realize that your life will never be exactly the same again.

Sometimes you realize that you have changed:

  • You see something in a different way.
  • You react in a different way.
  • You think in a different way.
  • You do something which is unusual for you.

When that happens to me, I wonder how that came about.

The way I look at PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), mourning and depression has changed through conversations with a dad and a mom. One of their children had taken his own life. Too much injustice at school, for too long. Thanks to the things they shared with me, I came to realize certain things. Such as …

That assigning a diagnosis like PTSD, complicated mourning, depression … does not necessarily contribute to acknowledgement and hope. Words like these had been experienced by them as a mockery of the value of their child and their relationship with him, as a disregard of the (not widely acknowledged) injustices that drove their child to let go of this life, as a trivializing of the impact it had on their lives.

That those words (‘PTSD’, ‘complicated mourning’, ‘depression’) contain a call to action: to ‘process it’, to ‘mourn successfully’, to ‘recover from depression’.

That something in this call to action added to their suffering because the words, concepts, and the preconceptions that come with it lead care-givers to engage in conversations and proposals which worked to isolate them even more.

For about 25 years now, I have been trying to make a difference for people at a time their lives are overshadowed by sometimes great difficulty, worries, issues.

Those conversations have their effects on me, on my job, and on my life.

In 2005, I attended a workshop by Michael White. The very first hour I knew it: My work would never be the same again. My life: never the same again.

Two years later: I – behavioural therapist, educator and supervisor – find myself in Australia for a year long training in narrative therapy.

The conversations change, in many ways.

A bigger and more clear and rich focus on what is valuable to people.

The life stories people tell me become richer, and because of that, more potent.

It makes me a witness of much that touches me on a personal level, and it touches me more deeply than it used to.

For example:

  • Someone has not abandoned the hope for a better life, despite many things discouraging that hope;
  • Someone has remained faithful to certain values, even with very little support.
  • The richness and depth of the connection someone has with someone else (even if that person might not be around any more);
  • The significance of a (at first sight banal) gesture, such as an expression of recognition, of support, of appreciation, of solidarity.

When a driver brakes to allow me to cross on a pedestrian crossing, I always give him a little thank you. There is pedestrian crossingalways that association with that ethically sensitive gentleman, with whom I had helping conversations. He once told me something about these kinds of crossing-the-street situations. He mused out loud: might this be the ultimate thing we can do to try and make the world a little better? Thanking someone for suspending – just for a moment – his own self-interest, allowing him to experience a bit of joy in the moment: and that he might do it again?


The one way view

How is the (correct) relationship between care-giver and the person in the client position often portrayed?

Care-giver => client.

The care-giver employs ability/knowledge/engagement => a positive influence on the life of the client.

One-way street.

A therapist who would let it be known that: ‘My life really changed because of my meetings with client X!’…

… might be regarded with suspicion as: ‘Having a problem maintaining appropriate professional boundaries?’

Years ago, a young woman told me about the meaningful relationship she had had with her grandfather. The remarkable thing was that her grandfather had died before she was born. His partner – i.e. her grandmother – had remained faithful to her beloved throughout her life, and introduced all the people she came across to her husband. Including, of course, her granddaughter. Which meant that from a very young age she had known that her grandfather would have loved to have seen her, and this was a reality for her that she had lived through. A reality that helped her when her life was recently turned upside down.

Was it shortly after this conversation that I told my little boy that I thought my dad (whom he had never known personally) would have liked about him? And about the kind of grandfather he would have been?

This one-way-street kind of presentation, what effects does it have?

One effect is that care-givers do not feel encouraged to consider questions such as:

  • What is the influence that these conversations with this person have (had) on me and my life?
  • How has this conversation enriched my life?
  • In what way am I not quite the same person after this conversation?
  • What have I learned? I.e. about life, about what matters, about what courage is, about …

This way, we miss out on much that is valuable, as we do not consider the ripples left in our lives by these meetings as significant. This way, we miss out on chances to make worthwhile discoveries, chances to develop both as a human being and as a care-giver.

And there is something else that comes into play with this one-way view: Sometimes the people who consult us are represented as mostly a cause for burnout, with all their issues and crises and vulnerabilities and needs. You get the advice: ‘Guard yourself! Set boundaries!’

Michael White raised some question marks about the whole one-way view. He questioned whether it might not contribute to the vulnerability of therapists for burnout.

As it makes them myopic.myopic

As it does not encourage them to notice how the meetings enrich and nourish their lives.

As it makes it more difficult for them to assign meaning to these experiences, to talk about it, to develop them in a more full and nuanced manner.

Also because it denies that we are not just ‘intervening’, but were are also witnesses.


How has my life become different due to the fact that people open their heart to me?

Those question marks have opened a door for me to ‘something else’.

What are some of the valuable things (of the people and of life) that I have learned thanks to the sincerity and trust that people who are in the client position have offered me?

That someone opens his heart to me, that someone takes me into her trust. What does this mean to me, as a human being? What are its effects on me, later that day? Later that week?

People who consult us introduce us to some of the important figures in their lives, and this way, we get to meet them as well. What are some of the ripples of those meeting in our work and our lives?

I will never forget how one mom – on my invitation – introduced me to her recently deceased little son. She illustrated in colour the kind of boy he had been, what he used to like to do, what others found special about him. And she explained to me the kind of mom she had tried to be for him, and the relationship they had had with one another. When and how she felt that he was close to her. What place she wanted to give him in her and their live. And much more moving stuff. At the end of the conversation, when I started to thank her for what I had experienced, as not ‘as a matter of course’, but as ‘a present’, I realized that my life had become enriched thanks to this meeting with this little boy whom I would never meet in person, and I expressed this.

How has this conversation enabled me to speak to a group of parents, some years later, who had all lost a child as a result of cancer? And to find a different way to listen to two parents who introduced me to their baby afterwards, with its little head tattooed on their lower arms?

Is it conceivable that ripples of this conversation have spilled into my life? In how I have related to the mortality of my own children?

The more people you meet, the more people you can ‘call on’ as a care-giver.

Your therapeutic repertoire becomes more polyphonic and your presence becomes plural, with the voices and the presence of people you have met in the past.

If someone told you that in his occupation, he has to travel quite a lot, with different people, into areas which are new for him and them. He never knows beforehand what is going to happen.

You ask him whether those adventures and experiences have some kind of influence on his life?

Answer: ‘Yes, of course, meeting people, the welcome as well as the not so welcome surprises, what you learn … all of that (and more) has a major influence on my life’.

Would this answer surprise you?

Is the job of a care-giver who tries to have helpful conversations any different?

catNever say “cat” to a cat. A woman – a single mom of a son – committed to provide her son with a home where he would always feel welcome. We started exploring where she had picked this up, and the skills she employed to realize this. At first we bumped into her overriding experience of the opposite when she was a child herself. When she looked a little deeper, she remembered her cat, and how it welcomed her as a child and gave her a warm feeling by rubbing against her legs and lying on her lap.

Could I have appreciated the contribution made by our cats to our lives in the same way without this conversation?

For 6 years, I worked on a psychiatric wing for people whose lives were overshadowed with anxiety and/or depression. During this time, I met many people who suffered a lot. Robbed of their ability to think creatively, to experience hope, to take initiatives. Often, I wondered whether I would be able to – under similar circumstances – keep myself from going under, to keep myself alive, to try out things, to dare to cherish a sliver of hope.

That is one of the things you learn when you have the privilege that people consult you about life questions: you start to realize that life can go into all directions, and that you cannot predict how you will fare when things get tough.

I do not know. Maybe that the memories of some – if it ever comes to that – will give me strength and inspiration: memories of them as a person, memories of the steps they took. Some of them, I also told them this at the end of our series of conversations. During this period, I have also encouraged people to defy their fears. Fears that had taken over virtually all their living space. Ideas and practices from behavioural therapy supported me to navigate them back to some more freedom of living.

Often, I asked myself – also out loud – ‘Johan, would you be able to muster the courage to conquer a fear like this?’

One effect of this question was that it raised my curiosity:

  • How is this person capable of doing this?
  • Where does she find the courage, the strength of will, the willingness … to take these steps?
  • Why is this so important to him/her?

Sometimes, this led to a conversation that helped her further along. And me too.



Of late, I ask myself: How kosher is it to keep these effects on your life 100 % to yourself? So that the people who consult us remain under the illusion that they are 100 % in the receiving position?

Of course, the people who consult us should be central a therapeutic meeting, as well as the people who are important to them.

And not the therapist.

But is it as blameless to act, ethically speaking – for ourselves and for the people who consult us – as if all influence travels in only one direction?

A woman tells me: ‘I want to learn. I want inspiration.’ And there is something in the way she says it. She convinces me. It resounds within my head. It haunts me for days after.

I realize that this is something I find important as well, and that I want to give it more space in my life – within a short space of time.

In the next conversation, I tell her something about this.

Is it possible to keep the person central, and to also be transparent about the fact that our work and our lives are touched by these meetings?

That you thought about something said by the person.

That you have done something because you have started to realize something, thanks to the person.

That you have learned something.

We are talking about a moment of considering suicide. She expresses how critically she was looking at things in her live she otherwise finds valuable. But it is no nonsense, this critical looking. No bullshit. Cut the crap. And she tells me about that side of her, and also about its value.

A day later, I remember and something tickles me. Now that is something: a force of will and acuity which makes short work of any illusions. I suddenly decide to trash a pile of papers that has been piling up for years. A week later, I get down to my inbox. It is empty in no time. Once again, I think about what happened in that conversation.

Should I tell her something about this, next time?

Does it add something? For her? For me?

A therapeutic practice which I have grown fond of: occasionally creating a document for the person, such as a letter describing the important developments in the person’s life, as well as about some of the new conclusions about who he (also) is and what his life is about. In the hope that this will contribute to an experience of realness, as well as the importance and the authenticity of these developments and insights.

Occasionally, I have added something to it about the effects of the conversations on my life.

‘It has been a joy to me to to witness your honesty, your quick, common sense, the way you interact with people and what people get out of that, your respect for children, your openness, your healthy stubbornness, your desire for happiness, your will to get all you can out of life, your vitality, your wisdom. That someone who is 25 years old, with so much pain in the history of their life, can demonstrate so much wisdom, has touched me and taught me that wisdom has nothing to do with age.’


Some helping questions

Over the years, I have come to experience these effects more frequently and more richly.

Amongst other things, this has also to do with a few questions I ask myself. Questions I have not invented myself. I have learned about them through a therapeutic practice where you work with outsider witnesses. And yes, that is what we care-givers are: Witnesses.

I have created a PDF with 8 of these questions.

You might want to try them out after a conversation. Or now and again.

They might help you to ‘capture’ some of the valuable effects of you being a witness, and they might assist you to give meaning to those effects. This might add to their potency.

They could support your development as a human being and as a professional, and they could also protect you against burnout.

(Click here if you want a pdf with 8 anti-burnout questions for care-givers: 8_antiburnout_questions_forcaregivers.doc.)

How do you experience this?

Do you experience any nice effects from your meetings with the people who consult you? On your life and your job?

What do you do with it?

Do you ever share this with the people who consult you?

How do they respond to that? How does that impact on you?


Johan Van de Putte

Guest post: First steps on the road of Narrative Therapy. A mosaic of stories.

Hello everyone, my name is Annie. I work at a psychiatric hospital, offering pastoral care in the broad sense of the word: care in terms of creating space for conversations about meaning. In March 2015, I attended two introductory workshops about Narrative Therapy, from which I returned home veritably brimming over with enthusiasm! What surprised me most, though, was that I was able to immediately pick up some “little bits” of Narrative Therapy to help steer conversations in a different direction: naming a specific step; facilitating a rich story about a sparkling experience; digging up more stories in the same vein; placing the problem outside of the person …

I am reminded of Marcel

58 years old. He has not had a particularly nice life: child abuse (the scars of cigarette butts are still visible on his arms), at age 14 he started living on the streets, alcohol and drug addiction … His wife who ‘rescued’ him from that life, died well before her time, and on top of that he got Parkinson’s disease which limits his abilities to an ever greater extent. At some point he told me: I asked my counselor from Sheltered Housing for a new bed, even an expensive bed, so I would be better able to turn myself over. This sounded new to me, an initiative like this, so I decided to ask him, in a very ‘narrative’ way, what name he could give to his action. He did not know.

Hesitantly, I asked him: might it be something like ‘taking care of yourself’?

He resolutely told me: no, it’s sticking up for myself.

– Ah, like that, sticking up for yourself? How so?

– Well yeah, as a kid I got nothing but beaten, and no food; but now I can decide for myself.

– Could you perhaps tell me another story about sticking up for yourself, something from when you were young?

He could not remember anything from when he was a child or a teenager, but when he got married and decided to stop drinking because he wanted to have a good marriage, he considered that as ‘sticking up for himself as well as his wife’. Our entire conversation was tinted by it: how he had readmitted himself after she died, was something he now saw in another light. The fact that he is learning Spanish and English at the activity centre is in the same vein: I never had the chance to study, but now I am doing so anyway. Marcel does not have children, but he wanted to do something for children in need. He currently supports a Plan child in South America:

it had to be a girl, because they get fewer chances than boys, and I wanted to do somPlething for those who need it the most.


Besides the storylines of ‘being a victim’, ‘being ill’, ‘being dependent’ there also emerges a storyline of someone who can stick up for himself, and can also take care of others! In my eyes, he walks out of the front door more powerful than ever.

I am reminded of May

She is about 50 years old, and has gone through a whole psychiatric journey. She sees herself as being of little value and of no use. On several occasions, she mentioned she once owned a dog, as well as that she loves her mother’s dog, Blackie, and how he always comes walking up to her when she goes there. But I did not do anything with it, until I was given a few narrative levers. When Blackie was mentioned again, I wanted to see whether I could thicken this storyline:

May, could you try and explain to me what it is that you have that animals find appealing? As, to be honest, that is something that I do not have at all.

– Well, you know, she says, I just feel that love, and when I look into Blackie’s eyes, it calms me down, and him too. I think he can feel that.blackie

When I ask about other stories about peace and calm and love of animals, it turns out that, as a child, she used to protect the newborn kittens her grandmother wanted to put into the ground, and that she gave names to all the chickens so they would not go into the pot. With a shy giggle, she tells me that her neighbour did not like her, as she used to go over and pull out all of the mole traps.

From animals, we continue to human beings: she took care of her own children with patience, and when she was still working in care, she preferred to be with the senile patients:

I really like to do that, those people moved at a very calm pace, and I was able to care for them with lots of patient and tenderness; that also gave me peace. Most of my colleagues did not have the patience.

And then it turns out that this woman-who-thinks-she’s-worth-nothing has been visiting a mentally handicapped man every week for years now, together with her mother, and here too is able to ‘sense’ what it is that he needs: to have a smoke together, and eat four ham sandwiches. Much more would have been possible with this conversation, but May called it ‘a relief, nice memories of animals, and that I can actually have quite a lot of patience with people’.


I am reminded of Sam

35 years old. Usually, our conversations take only about 10 minutes. Because of his fears and paranoia, it is difficult for him to concentrate, and it takes a while before he says anything. Everything happens at a very slow pace. I knew he liked music, and especially U2, but, well, there the conversation often died out. Here too, Narrative Therapy offered inspiration, and I started to work on Sam and his music. What music does he like to listen to? Retro. Could he name a few groups? Woops, I’m familiar with only just one of those. Where does he find all that music? It turns out that all his CDs and records once got stolen, and he is now trying to find ‘a whole bunch of tracks from the old days’ back through YouTube … And how, or with whom, did that start?

My grandma gave me my first record player. And I used my pocket money to buy records. retro-platenspeler500

The conversation rolls on: once he was a popular DJ with his own nickname: Spy! And yes, that U2 concert at Werchter, and how Bono picks one person to dance with every time … He promises me to lend me a DVD of one of these concerts one of these days, because I need to have seen that! After 50 minutes, we have to end the conversation. Sam tells me that he has never told anyone as much as now. I have never seen him so ‘clear’ and sparkling (yes indeed!), even though he has relapsed now, and confined to isolation. But this sparkle, at least we’ve had it, and now I can see more in him than just a psychotic man. Now, I can also see the music lover, the DJ, the Sam who says that ‘music saved him’. Next time, I will ask him how music is saving him now!


I am reminded of Carla

26 years old … She tells me about her inferiority complex. I feel inferior, I can’t do anything, I compare myself to other people of my age and feel worthless. I am going to attempt to create a little distance between ‘the problem’ and ‘herself’.

So, I ask her: ehm, Carla, this may sound a bit odd, I know, would you mind putting this Inferiority Complex on the table over there. Now look at it. What does it look like?

– Small and dark blue and sneaky.

– What does the dark blue thing want?

It wants to drag her down, every time she feels good and kind of proud of herself. Then she tells me, apparently without any reason, a story about some girlfriends at secondary school who started to tease her in a ‘very sneaky’ way, who ‘dragged her down’ and messed up her relationship with her first boyfriend. It makes her quite emotional, and angry.

Friends like that aren’t really friends.

But because of the image of the ‘sneaky thing’ she says she is getting more of a handle on the problem.

It comforts her that it is not something within her, but just the voices of the past that still resonate today.

I wonder whether there might be some real friends in her life now, and I enquire after it. And yes, she tells me passionately about her three most important friends right now, how she got to know them, what they mean to her, and what she means to them. friendsA lovely tale of friendship from secondary school suddenly comes to her mind about ‘writing each other notes’ … Together, we come up with the idea that she could ask these three friends to write her a letter, with everything in it they appreciate about her. Those notes she wants to keep close, just in case the dark blue, sneaky thing wants to strike again.



These are just my first few steps on the road of Narrative Therapy; and I am hugely curious where it is going to take both me and my conversation partners.


Click here if you want a pdf with some of the ideas Annie used: Inspiration_from_Narrative_Therapy.


(*This participant of some introductory days about narrative therapy wishes to remain anonymous. The name ‘Annie’ is fictional and also the names of the patients she writes about)

Taking notes in therapy: 8 ways of using notes in helping conversations

Do you take notes during the helping conversations you have?

I take quite extensive notes. But what do I do with them?

  • Taking notes helps me to listen attentively: to the words and expressions of my conversation partner.

What ‘s the advantage? This way I can reflect them back (instead of replacing them with my own words). I think it is important to respect the language used by the person who is taking the client position. Regardless of the fact that I, together with so many other colleagues of mine, was taught that ‘parroting’ is inferior to ‘paraphrasing’. Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and Michael White – big names in the world of helping conversations – were careful parrots.

  • Shortly before the conversation, I will read through the notes from the previous conversation. So?

I am quickly up to date with the experiences, initiatives, insights, evolutions … which we discussed in our last conversation.

What the person told me, I can now read with fresh eyes. I underline, circle and box words and expressions. New questions occur to me (which I add to my notes).

  • At the start of our conversation, I will often suggest to go over a few items from my notes from our last conversation. I might also mention something about the questions that have occurred to me in the mean time. Why?

This gives the other person more of an opportunity to take up certain topics. It makes it easier for him or her to remember certain experiences that fit some of those topics.ring-notepad-with-quill-in-vector-design-87190

I keep in mind how my curiosity as to any new steps (following on a first step), or how a certain realization or insight might have been expressed since our last conversation, may add to the viability and further development of certain themes, evolutions and goals in a person’s life.

  • During the course of a conversation, I will go through my notes of the current conversation to find the exact expression used by the person in the previous conversation. Once again

in order to expressly not translate it (into my own language), and

to enable my conversation partner to hear what he said, so that less gets lost for him. As so much gets lost for the speaker, while speaking.

  • Or I rummage for the notes of a previous conversation, because I am reminded of something my conversation partner said in the past.

This way, my conversation partner may experience a common thread between something present and something past: between experiences she has not yet linked together.

  • Sometimes, I will expressly record on paper what the other person is saying: I will then repeat it out loud at the same pace as I am writing. At this moment, I am a clerk, secretary or filing officer, who commits to paper and records important ideas, words, insights or intentions.

This way, I confirm the value of such, and contribute to the authentication of an insight or intention.

The loss of time which this results in is, however, not a loss. Quite the opposite: what is important is not lost in continuous talking; instead, it gets space and time. Like a wine taster, who also does not quickly down one glass after another.

  • During the conversation, I write words, experiences, insights onto the white board. This, we then look at. New connections, memories, ideas occur to us. We keep on writing. Also about contrasting experiences: i.e. a moment of desperation as well as one of tenderness. Or the effects of guilty thoughts as well as the facts that speak against these. We take pictures of the white board, after which I send the photo’s by mail. I got the idea from Art Fisher, a Canadian maggie careygentleman who helps men who employ violence against family members. Maggie Carey, an Australian lady who has continued on the inspiration of Michael White, is also a big fan of working with the white board. I get the impression that this adds many worthwhile aspects:

It creates more possibilities to reflect.

Something about looking at the board together (vs. staring at each other).

Less gets lost.

The possibility to examine very different experiences simultaneously, next to each other.

People appear to enter into relationships with certain ‘pieces’ of the board. They refer to it afterward: ‘then, I thought of … (a sentence or expression on the board)’.

Sometimes, people spontaneously get up to pick up the marker and write, change, make connections.

  • And what do you think about the idea to sit side by side while you are writing, so your conversation partner can keep track while you are writing?


How about you? Do you take notes?

How do you make that work in your helping conversations?

Do you feel the drive to do something with it?

Thinking about it, I feel driven to make the note taking more of a shared undertaking.

P.S. Michael White always asked permission to take notes. He also told the people he consulted that they were the owners of the notes: they are his/her words, after all. I resolve myself to make this systematically clear to my clients.

P.P.S. I am reminded of a lady, who, when our series of conversations had finished, wanted to have and take with her ‘my’ notes. What a queasy feeling 🙂

P.P.P.S. Today, I heard someone explain to me how she uses carbon paper. I asked her if she could write a bit about that for this blog.

Johan Van de Putte


And God saw that it was good!? Expressing your appreciation in helping conversations?

In a recent post I discussed the giving of compliments to the people who consult us. However is it possible that the praise you express towards your conversation partner might be badly received? Or might it feel wrong to give praise, even if your appreciation might be sincere?

Michael White points out that power is not divided equally in a relationship between a caregiver and the person who consults her. Seen in this context:

  • a show of appreciation may be interpreted as: ‘according to my standards, you have done well’ and ‘I find it legitimate to make such a judgment’, and
  • a caregiver who gives a compliment may be seen as being patronizing.

Question: Can we express the appreciation we feel in a way which steers clear of being patronizing, as well as a kind of: ‘Let’sl happily encourage you to do things according to my own standards’?

Option: Situate your appreciation in your experiences.

What the hell does that mean? Situating your appreciation in your experiences?

The opposite of that would be: ‘Very well done, you!’

  • = Playing God (‘And God saw that it was good’).
  • = I keep the experiences that have brought me to this appreciation out of sight.

So, what does ‘Situating my appreciation in my experiences’ mean? An example:

‘You haven’t smoked a single joint for X months now. I really respect that. I will tell you why: During the past 25 years now, I have spoken with a lot of people who have struggled with substances like alcohol and narcotic-like stuff. These conversations have taught me that it isn’t easy at all to quit such substances, not even for a couple of days or weeks. My own … (relative) had an alcohol problem. As far as I know, he never took the step you have. That’s why I feel respect for what you have done.’

What happens here?

  • Appreciation is expressed, and
  • it is placed within the context of the experiences of life of the professional.


The person who is in the client position can understand where this appreciation comes from. He may understand it (or not). He may accept it (or not). But at least we have firmly departed from the ‘and God saw it was good’ context.

Another example of situated appreciation:

A young woman explained in detail how she managed to have an open conversation with her mum. I tell her that I couldn’t imagine working up the courage to start such a conversation with my parents at her age. Which is why I had such a feeling of Wow!, and it also made me imagine all sorts of other things she might be brave enough to do.

As such, the appreciation is situated in the caregiver’s life experiences, such as memories and fantasies. Similar to the following example:

I think it’s really exciting that you said you’re going to … You know, I once followed a workshop from someone about anxiety therapy. I will never forget that workshop. That guy – Omer van den Bergh – had a bunch of little spiders with him, and he made us practice in relation to our own fears. Now, I’ve got the fantasy that if Omer were sitting here now, in this conversation, he would say: … I have learnt from him … Which is why I think this is so exciting.


So this is what I mean with ‘situating your appreciation in your experiences’.  We can express our appreciation without playing god. And this allows our conversation partners to experience a greater level of freedom in how to relate to that expression of appreciation.

You can now also ask your conversation partner how he/she evaluates the act or initiative, and why.

Then the central issue is: the appreciation of the person in the client position, based on what he or she finds precious.


Johan van de Putte

P.S. As far as I am concerned, this has nothing to do what-so-ever with ‘(positive) reinforcement’. The word ‘reinforcement’ is usually used in the following context: ‘what can the caregiver do to gain control over the behavior of people?’ I.e.: ‘how can I make sure that the person does more X by praising him when he does X? Regardless of the question what he or she might want of finds important.’

Firstly: you cannot know whether a behaviour is being ‘positively reinforced’ when you praise someone for it. This will have to show from an increase in the frequency in this behaviour.

Secondly: if you praise someone after he has talked about something he has done, are you reinforcing the ‘talking about’ or the action which he is talking about?

Thirdly: I am concerned with conducting conversations that the person experiences as helping. Not to bring his behaviour under my control.


Affirming in helping conversations: deliberate compliments

Conversations have a fleeting quality. And that goes for helping conversations too. Just ask your interlocutor a week later what he or she remembers of your last conversation. So what are ways to affirm important initiatives or aspects of the identity of your interlocutor? So that we might rescue these from this fleetiness? Here are some options:

  • You can give a compliment for something you appreciate.
  • You can express what strikes a chord for you and why.
  • You can ask your interlocutor how she evaluates an initiative and why.
  • You can be respectful of the words and phrases your interlocutor is using.
  • You can create a document around words/ideas/initiatives/experiences of your interlocutor.
  • You can come back to something your interlocutor has said before.


In this post I will give some tips on giving compliments in helping conversations.

So what is the context? The person who consults you says something that makes you feel excited. Or something that moves you. Or something that triggers your appreciation. You identify a skill, or a quality. You realize that he has taken a difficult step. You suddenly hear of a dream that he hasn’t given up on, which he could have easily.

Will you give a compliment?


Compliments => quick therapy?

Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg: pioneers of the solution-focused approach. Steve de Shazer & Insoo Kim BergThey were deliberately generous with compliments, during a conversation as well as in their feedback at the end of it. Why? Their idea was:

The more compliments in helping conversations => the sooner people reach the conclusion: “things are is actually well enough; I don’t think I need therapy anymore.”


They were deliberate in the formulation of compliments, i.e. about:

  • a commitment
  • putting in effort
  • the use of a skill
  • an idea
  • a knowledge or insight
  • holding on to a goal or hope
  • acting in the face of uncertainty
  • wanting something
  • trying something
  • taking serious an intuition or feeling
  • holding on to something
  • an achievement
  • having an intention
  • holding on to an intention
  • asking questions about something
  • entering into a partnership
  • looking up someone
  • asking for advice
  • following a piece of advice
  • not following a piece of advice
  • daring to do something that is uncommon


Insoo and Steve (life partners) each had their style, also with giving compliments.

Insoo: enthusiastic and warm and all-over-the-place.

Steve: restrained (“good”) and sometimes – totally unexpected – shaking the hand of his conversation partner.

Witnessing them made you realize:

Just give your compliments the way you feel comfortable with.


The difference between direct and indirect compliments

Another thing they taught us: the difference between direct and indirect compliments.

Direct compliments: this is the usual in-your-face type of expressing appreciation, such as:

  • You have done very well!
  • I find it extraordinary that you…
  • Super!
  • Wow!


Indirect compliments: your interlocutor experiences your appreciation, without you being explicit about it. For example, you could ask questions such as:

  • How did you know this was the way to proceed?
  • How did you know that was a good idea?
  • How/when/from who did you learn this?
  • From whom did you get (this quality)?
  • Are there more people in your family with (this quality)?
  • Why is it that you have such a good relationship with your ((girl)friend, children, colleague,father, …)?
  • Why is it that X likes you?
  • How have you managed to stick with your beliefs all this time?
  • How have you managed to hold on to this all this time?
  • What qualities does one need to be able to [X] (i.e. play the piano, play hockey, weld, be a mother, …)?
  • How difficult was this? If it was hard:
    • How did you manage to do it?
    • What qualities and skills did you to bring into the game
    • Where did you get the courage/strength/confidence to …

So when should you give a direct compliment, and when an indirect one?

According to Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg

direct compliments do sometimes feel unpleasant.

Insoo once mentioned that their daughter, when she was 16, rejected direct compliments. She only allowed indirect compliments.

To be honest: I often feel uncomfortable when given a direct compliment. And how many times have I heard someone say: “when I get a compliment, I think: what is behind this? What does he want from me?”

So be aware:

Indirect compliments are sometimes easier to digest and trigger less resistance.


If your compliment is being rejected

And here is some advice I heard from Luc Isebaert (a psychiatrist who did a lot to give solution-focused therapy a platform in Belgium):

If your conversation partner rejects your compliment (“oh, that’s not true, it wasn’t a big deal, everyone would…), don’t argue.

Say for example: “You don’t have to agree, that’s just what I think.” And just continue with the conversation. That makes sense, right? If you would enter into a discussion, what would be the result? Probably the result of most discussions: the two parties ending up even more convinced of their own right.

What about you? How do you go about giving compliments?

Have great day!
Johan Van de Putte

Tapping into inspiration! And re-the-opposite-of-traumatization.

How exploring nice, pleasurable, or otherwise sparkling experiences can free up inspiration in the face of problems and dilemmas.

A reflection on how exploring sparkling experiences might be similar to a re-traumatizing conversation. In a weird way:)

We are so used to think that THE way to help people deal with problems is through focusing on, and analyzing these problems. So the question is: how can exploring sparkling experiences help people move forward in the face of real problems?

So let’s look at what can happen as people explore some of their sparkling experiences.

So, becoming more capacitated to think along lines of skill, of knowledges that count, of agency, of cherished intentions, the grip that the problems are exerting on our thinking, remembering and imagining loosens.

There is more to be said about this. My guess is that conversations about sparkling experiences impact beneficially on psychological phenomena like state-dependent memory, the specificity of memory and because of this: on problem-solving capacity.

I hope you enjoyed the reflection, and that it made sense!



cheat sheet: 6 types of questions for an empowering conversation

In 2008, in Adelaide, I heard David Epston tell a story about a first interview with a family. david-epstonThe family struggled with some problems. Because the night before he had hardly slept, David suggested that in their first meeting they would not discuss these problems. They would do that the next day, in a second interview. So in the first conversation they only talked about sparkling aspects of their identity, of their relationships, of their lives. After this conversation the family found a second meeting no longer necessary. They felt launched. Speaking of sparkling aspects of people’s lives: this can be ‘launching’. E.g. you can discuss what your conversation partner likes to do, is good at, finds precious, and who is precious to her or him. This can be empowering for all parties involved.
So here you have a little cheat sheet with some suggestions for questions for an empowering conversation.

The starting point I chose is: you picked up something that your conversation partner likes to do: cycling, cooking, walking, doing crosswords, playing music, eating, sleeping, playing drums, watching TV, traveling…


Starting point

You identify something your conversation partner likes to do: it could be something like cycling, cooking, walking, doing crosswords, playing music, eating, sleeping, playing drums, watching TV, traveling…


Step 1

Leave your personal curiosity free rein and ask questions to the specifics:

  • what kind of…? (walking, painting, running, dancing, …)
  • how often…?
  • or whom…?
  • alone or with others?…
  • ..

Suggestion: Let go of the idea that “open questions” are better than closed ones. Go with your genuine and personal curiosity.


Step 2

Now explore aspects such as:


  • Effects of the activity on the person: What does … bring to your life?

What does spending time with your mates bring to your life?

This brings people to express aspects they value: e.g. freedom, my imagination is stirred, the connections with my mates, …

And this brings you to the following aspect:


  • Values: Is … (that kind of joy, your imagination, …) important to you?
    • Can you tell me more about that?
    • Why is this important to you?skills-image

This sense of connection you mention, is that something you treasure? How important is that to you? Can you tell me a little bit about why you cherish this the way you do?

  • Skills: What kind of skills does a person need to have or develop in order to … (run, dance salsa, appreciate French cuisine, …)?

So what would you say a person needs to be able to do in order to play the drums and enjoy it the way you do?

  • Social and relational history questions about values:
    • How did you learn to appreciate this? (e.g. freedom, creativity, that kind of joy, …)
    • When did you get to know the taste of …?
    • When did you start appreciating …?
    • Who taught you this?
    • Are there any people who might have inspired you in this learning to value …?


  • Social and relational history questions about skills:
    • How did you learn this?
    • What people have played a role in your learning to …? As a teacher or an inspiration? Or because they encouraged you?


  • Questions about significant others (with whom there is/was a warm relationship:
    • What does… appreciate about you … (the activity that the person likes to do)?
    • How does that impact on her life?


Have fun experimenting (even in a first meeting) with these questions and find out in what way this can be empowering!


Have great day!
Johan Van de Putte