Documentation in Narrative Therapy

There are a number of things that distinguish Narrative Therapy from other modalities of therapeutic work. Some are theoretical and some, like documentation, can be very practical.

Imagine that you have just finished working with a client. You have a fairly standard report that you complete? Why do you complete it? To remember what has happened and (with traditional therapy) to cover yourself legally? The focus of this documentation is not something you usually provide to the client to help him or her on their journey. The client will rarely see any of this sort of documentation.

This focus on audience is a huge distinction. Rather that writing something in a stylised format for a specific industry, rather than writing something in industry specific jargon, rather than writing for colleagues/judges/insurers, in Narrative Therapy you are writing for the person who has come to you for help. You are writing using language the client can understand. You are writing something to help the client along his or her journey.

The founders of Narrative Therapy, Michael White and David Epston note, in Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, that:

The life of the file [reports generated for a client from therapy] proceeds through the process of ‘retranscription” and in this process the patient’s experience is appropriated and transferred into the domain of expert knowledge. The language of the patient is transcribed into “official language,” everyday descriptions of problems into correct diagnoses – from “feeling miserable” to “displays low affect.” Eventually the patient’s experience is not recognizable within the terms of it original presentation.

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In addition to the role of the modern document in the redescription and presentation of the self of its subject, it has another role that is perhaps more primary in many circumstances. This is the presentation of the self of its author. Documents are shaped by a rhetoric, and this rhetoric serves to establish, in the reader, “a certain impression of the character and the moral qualities of the . . . writer in a given situation” (Haare, 1985). Thus, documents are a vehicle for the presentation and display of the author’s worth according to moral criteria that have been established in a particular discipline. And in so doing, such documents shape the author’s life, as they do the subject’s. (p 189)

Arguably, these post-consultation documents do not emphasise the client, but the therapist, colleagues, the profession, legal and financial considerations.

This was one of the things that strongly attracted me to Narrative Therapy – sitting down at the end of a session and writing a summary of the session that was primary for the client. Writing something that would potentially help the client in therapy – something that would emphasise my experience of the session for the client, which would allow the client to see “progress over time”, something that would become part of the client’s evolving narratives.

Are you, as a therapist, writing primarily for your client, or are you writing primarily for yourself?