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Integrative Psychotherapy Articles

‘No stories, no self’:[1]
Co-constructing personal narratives in the psychotherapy session

Joanna Pawelczyk

Psychotherapy constitutes one of the contexts in which narrating one’s personal experience is highly encouraged and expected. By telling their life stories, clients are able to organize their ‘autobiographical self’ (Damasio 1999) as well as voice the aspects of their experience that need therapeutic intervention in order for the client to live a more fulfilling life (cf. Hermans 2004; Greenberg and Angus 2004). Informed by insights and methods of conversation analysis and discourse analysis, this paper discusses narrative[2] as a practice situated within social interaction. The study examines how clients’ personal narratives in psychotherapy sessions emerge as co-constructed interactional accomplishments, focusing on the active role of the psychotherapist in facilitating clients’ trouble-telling. The functions of the therapist’s interventions will be scrutinized in terms of their interactional and sequential import as well as corrective functions. The analysis presented in this study is based on two psychotherapy sessions conducted by the same psychotherapist (cf. Moursund and Erskine 2004).

Originally published: Pawelczyk, J. (2011). "No stories, no self": Co-constructing personal narratives in the psychotherapy sessions. Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics. 48:1-21.

1. Introduction: Self, big stories, small stories

Stephen Mitchell writes that “we are our stories, our accounts of what happened to us”, thus “no stories, no self” (2002: 145). In other words, we live our lives by story-telling.[3] The importance of narratives and story-telling has been recognized across almost all social sciences (e.g., Bauman 1986; Harré 1987; Kohler-Riessman 2008; Johnstone 1996; Schiffrin 1996) and this significance invites interdisciplinary dialogue (Brody 1998). Kohler-Riessman (2008: 8) states that “storytelling is selected over non-narrative forms of communication to accomplish certain ends.” In short, narratives are used by people to “remember, argue, justify, persuade, engage, entertain” and even deceive others (Kohler-Riessman 2008: 8).

Research has shown that narratives constitute one of the most fundamental means of making sense of one’s experience (cf. Labov 1972) , and so of making sense of oneself (cf. Freeman 2002). In fact, narrative and self cannot be separated (Ochs and Capps 1996: 19). This is to say that narratives enable us to give voice, sense and order to our experiences, and that by doing so we are able to access different aspects of who we are, i.e. different ‘Selves’ (cf. also White 1980; Polkinghorne 1988; Dyer and Keller-Cohen 2000:285). In this sense, narrative becomes a site where (personal) meaning is organized (cf. Emerson and Frosh 2009: 10). Importantly, however, stories offered by a narrator are selected from an array of situations and events and arranged in a meaningful way. As Dyer and Keller-Cohen postulate, this arrangement reflects the teller’s own “interpretation of that set of events” (2000: 285).

Narratives of personal experience in particular offer subjective representations of events and situations (cf. Ochs and Capps 1996). They are “partial representations and evocations of the world as we know it” (1996: 21) and thus are favored as “fertile sites for research on the construction of identity” (Dyer and Keller-Cohen 2000: 284). Narratives in this sense can reveal the individual as a member of society by “which she is shaped and within which, at the same time, she is a shaping agent” (Dyer and Keller-Cohen 2000: 283). Riessman (1993: 2-4) construes personal narrative as talk organized around sequential events in which the teller in a conversation takes a listener into a past time or ‘world’ (‘taleworld’ or ‘storyrealm’, Young 1982) [4] and recapitulates what happened then to make a (moral) point. Bruner (1990) states that personal narratives are triggered at points of difficulty or trauma in a person’s life,[5] and again provide a primary way of making sense of experience.

The current narrative turn (de Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008; Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008; cf. Georgakopoulou 2010; Page 2010) which marks a shift from the so-called ‘big stories’ (cf. the prototypical Labovian paradigm of canonical narrative research; cf. also the ‘grand narratives’ of Lyotard 1984) to the ‘small stories’ framework[6] in particular underlines the function of narrative as a site of identity work. Thus while the ‘big story’ paradigm “analyzes the stories as representations[7] of world and identities” (Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008: 382), the ‘small stories’ perspective focuses on how people use stories in their interactive engagements “to construct a sense of who they are”. With its focus on practice within social interaction, and fleeting, contingent and multiple selves (Georgakopoulou 2007), the ‘small stories’ framework lends itself to investigating the process of how one makes sense of his/her life experiences in the midst of social interaction. The concept of ‘small stories’ as defined by Bamberg and Georgakopoulou (2008) functions as an umbrella term for “a gamut of underrepresented narrative activities, such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events, shared (known) events but also allusions to tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell” (2008: 381). Within the small stories perspective, the narrative emerges as an interactional project, often accomplished by multiple tellers and triggered by the surrounding conversational context (Georgakopoulou and Goutsos 2004). Consequently, the narrative’s tellability (cf. Bruner 1991) ― one of the defining aspects of the prototypical Labovian paradigm ― is interactionally achieved, and not embedded in the narrative prior to its telling. With its focus on situatedness of forms and functions, the small stories (interactional) perspective relies extensively on methods and insights of conversation analysis and ethnomethodology.

This paper draws upon selected aspects of conversation analysis and discourse analysis to examine how narratives are interactionally co-constructed by the client and the psychotherapist in a therapy session. Similarly to the bulk of work on face-to-face interaction, including narratives, this paper “takes the co-construction of discourse as fundamental” (Dyer and Keller-Cohen 2000: 287), but focuses on the interactional realization of narrative construction. Thus it considers both the therapist’s and the client’s actions (cf. Bercelli et al. 2008). In particular, it concentrates on the role (forms and functions) of the therapist’s contributions to the client’s ongoing storytelling as an important clinical tool (cf. Sarbin 1986; Machado and Goncalves 1999).

2. Narrative and psychotherapy

Rosen (1996: 24) states that “the task of therapy is to assist clients in revising their old stories and in constructing new ones that have more relevance and meaning for their current and future lives.”[8] This pivotal role of narrative appears to be recognized across the apparently vast number of psychotherapeutic ‘schools’[9] (Angus and McLeod 2004). Russell and Wandrei 1996: 317) observe, “given the fact that humans use language, and specifically narrative, in the most basic to the most complex meaning making activities, it comes as no surprise that clinical psychologists use narrative in almost all aspects of assessment and intervention”.

Personal narration plays a key role in self-disclosure, which is considered a cornerstone of psychotherapy (Farber 2006; Pawelczyk 2011). To a great extent, a successful therapy session consists in the client’s offering his or her subjective version of their life experiences. The process of self-disclosure promotes the client’s reflection and reflexivity, thus allowing him or her to look at the reported events from a critical distance (Freeman 2006: 132). Kohler-Riessman (2008: 8) regards the therapeutic setting as a place where clients are able to access and reassess their memories, which “may have been fragmented, chaotic, unbearable, and/or scarcely visible before narrating them.” Importantly, however, the client’s narration should be produced against the therapist’s ‘active listening’ (Sarangi 2000; Herman 2004; Hutchby 2005; Pawelczyk 2011) as it enables the client to reengage with his/her distressing experiences and creates a “dialogical space” between the client and therapist (cf. Angus and McLeod 2004).

The dialogue makes it possible for the client to incorporate existing story parts (experiences) as well as add new elements that have emerged during ongoing interaction. Thus the client invests his/her “enormous autobiographical memory database” (Angus and McLeod 2004: 79), i.e., his/her inner experiences, while the psychotherapist lends “professional vision” or professional expertise (cf. Goodwin 1994; Hutchby 2004) in the form of theories and methods which enable him/her to assess and possibly change the client’s existing narrative. What needs to be underlined is that the desired change in the client’s narrative can only be accomplished when emotions are evoked in the process of retelling the experience (Czabała 2006). Consequently, the emotional experience that accompanies the client’s reporting of his/her issues allows him or her to experience old problems anew, this time in the company of an empathic listener (the therapist), and thus gain a fresh insight into the (old) troubling personal experience. For many clients, the context of psychotherapeutic interaction offers a novel opportunity to reformulate their own narratives in order to organize complex emotional experiences (cf. Pennebaker and Segal 1999).

To reiterate, by telling their life stories clients are able to organize their autobiographical self (Damasio 1999) and voice the aspects of their experience that need therapeutic intervention for the ultimate goal for the client to live a more fulfilling life (cf. Hermans 2004; Greeneberg and Angus 2004). In fact, the speech event of psychotherapy can be understood as “a significant cultural arena in which a sense of personal coherence can be constructed and maintained” (Angus and McLeod 2004: 77). Therapists are also aware of the power of psychotherapy to enhance a person’s ‘narrative coherence’, and particularly of the crucial role of disclosure in promoting this function (cf. Mitchell 2002).

The therapeutic relationship (cf. Horvath and Greenberg 1994; Moursund and Erskine 2004; Czabała 2006) that characterizes the client–therapist engagement assumes an active role of the therapist in promoting the client’s self-disclosure. As mentioned above, the psychotherapist is not merely physically present in the session but is actively involved in the process of the client’s disclosure. This involvement manifests itself two ways. First, the psychotherapist tends to elicit the client’s narrative by reformulating the latter’s account of his/her troubles (cf. Pawelczyk 2011). Secondly, as the current discussion will demonstrate, the psychotherapist offers contributions to the client’s narrative with the aim of moving it in a therapeutic-oriented direction. Therefore, a personal narrative in the context of a psychotherapy session emerges as an interactional event co-constructed by both client and therapist.

3. Defining personal narrative in the current context

Narrative has been defined differently depending on the methodological framework adopted and the context under investigation (cf. Kohler-Riessman 2008; Bercelli et al. 2008). I refer to a personal narrative in the psychotherapy session as talk that centers on the individual’s report of his/her life. The current analysis particularizes personal narrative in terms of the three following premises:

1. Stories are socially situated, i.e. each and every narrative is produced for a specific audience and is tailored to their expectations (cf. Emerson and Fresh 2009) as well as the social setting in which it transpires, and serves a specific purpose (cf. Kohler-Riessman 2008). In other words, the same experience can be recounted somewhat differently depending on whether it is told to e.g. one’s friends or one’s counselor. Consequently, certain aspects of the narrative can be highlighted, backgrounded or even deleted contingent on the circumstances of retelling. In this way, stories emerge as creative or imaginative acts (cf. Hazel 2007). Stories are tellable because the narrator gears them to his/her listeners in a specific social setting so as to make them meaningful. The socially-situated aspect of narrative is also linked to the well-recognized fact that ‘stories change as people change’ (Hazel 2007). In this sense, certain experiences and situations can be evaluated quite differently after a given lapse of time. For example, a certain event evaluated negatively in one’s adolescence and depicted narratively as dysphoric can at a later life stage be described as neutral or even positive.

In the context under scrutiny, clients are expected to give voice to the experiences and situations that brought some disruption to their lives, and/or events that they consider to be pivotal to their life choices. Thus clients are likely to focus on stories of pain and emotional upheaval in their interactions with the psychotherapist.

2. Stories can be organized thematically. A certain theme which unites a narrative constitutes an alternative to defining the story in terms of temporal ordering. A thematic focus enables a teller to explore more deeply the situations experienced, often delving into their emotional aspects. It seems that the thematic organization of the story slows it down interactionally, thus leaving more space for rumination and insight. This is of great significance in counseling settings.

In the analyzed setting, clients tend to focus on a certain theme or themes (grand narratives) in their lives that – they believe – cause them to seek psychotherapeutic assistance. Such themes can be for instance, an unsatisfactory relationship with one’s parents, incidents of abuse, unfulfilling relationship(s), etc. A particular theme is then discussed in detail (in the form of small stories) and approached from different angles.

3. Stories constitute an interpretation of reality. A narrated story represents how an individual personally construes an experienced event or situation. Thus a story does not reflect reality in general but rather constitutes its individual interpretation (cf. Polkinghorne’s [1988: 18] concept of life-scripts). In this way, a narrative gives access to a person’s ways of making sense of the world around him or her.

In the investigated context, this aspect of narrative is of paramount importance, as it enables the psychotherapist to ‘enter’ the client’s personal script.[10] By telling their stories, clients evidence how they have determined to function in the world and how they envisage and realize their roles in the relationships in which they are engaged.

Since narrative in the context of an interaction between the client and the psychotherapist can be best analyzed as a situated practice, the analysis to follow is predominantly based on the methods of conversation analysis (Peräkylä et al. 2008; Peräkylä and Vehviläinen 2007;

Hutchby 2005; Madill et al. 2001). Conversation analysis offers a fine-grained empirical analysis to describe how aspects of (our) social lives are performed. This qualitative approach to talk-in-interaction aims at identifying how people, through talk, accomplish actions and make sense of the world around them (Madill et al. 2001). Conversation analysis as a method of data analysis can be most aptly described in terms of the following three characteristics: its activity focus, turn-by-turn analysis and emphasis on participants’ orientation to the business at hand (Madill et al. 2001: 415). This interactional perspective can best capture narrativity in the particular social setting of psychotherapy. As discussed above, the CA-inspired analysis is favored by the small stories framework (de Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008). The methods and insights of conversation analysis can reveal clients’ fragmented, often unfinished or alluded-to personal narratives and evidence their highly co-constructed character.

4. Data and research questions

The analysis to follow is based on two psychotherapy sessions taken from a corpus of 65 hours of client–psychotherapist interactions (cf. Pawelczyk 2011). The sessions were conducted by the same seasoned male psychotherapist working within the Relationship-Focused Integrative Psychotherapy conceptual paradigm (cf. Moursund and Erskine 2004). The first three extracts feature a male client, the fourth one a female client. The analysis focuses on two clients only in order to best detail how, turn by turn, the emerging narrative becomes a co-constructed interactional accomplishment. The key questions addressed in the analysis are as follows:

1. How are clients’ stories elicited by the therapist?

2. How are stories co-constructed by clients and the therapist?

3. What is the function of the therapist’s contributions to clients’ ongoing narrative?

4.1 Data analysis

SESSION 1: Remembering childhood: “So maybe we need to talk about normalcy

The three extracts presented below (1, 2, 3) feature an adult male client who is recounting his distorted relationship with his mother. The client’s grand narrative falls into the category of troubled relationship. This general theme, however, is interactionally realized by a number of small stories co-constructed by the client and the therapist.

Let us consider extract 1:

Extract 1

1 C: It’s a situation that comes back to me all the time, I can’t

2 forget or erase it, (.) it has to do with ↑trust. °I’m a little boy 4

3 or 5 years old and I have done bad things°.=

4 T: =What bad things?

5 C: (2.0) I didn’t clean my room (.) I didn’t eat the food that my

6 mother prepared for ↑me

7→ T: So: what’s bad about that?

8 C: .hhh the bad thing is that it should be done when my father

9 comes back home.

10→ T: What’s ba:d about a 4 year old boy who does not want to

11 eat the food?

12 C: I don’t think it’s ba:d.=

13→ T: =<And what about a 4 year old who doesn’t want to clean the room?>

14 C: °It’s not bad.°

15→ T: Ok, so that is your mother’s worry.=

16 C: =Yeah, >and when my father comes home she tells him how good

17 I was today< and I’m standing there (.) in the kitchen and I’m very

18 frightened what my father will do a::nd she tells me how good

19 I was.

20 T: Is that true? (1.0) Were you goo:d most of the time or all the time?=

21 C: =No, I don’t think I was, I think I was a normal chi:ld.

22 T: So: maybe we need to talk about normalcy.=

23 C: =Yeah

24→ T: Because it’s pretty no:rmal for a 4 year old to look at certain

25 food and say: <I don’t eat that.>

26 C: Yeah.

27→ T: And it’s pretty normal for a 4 year old <not to want to pick up

28 their toys> and not to clean up their room (2.0) that’s pretty no:rmal

29 for a 4 year old.=

30 C: =Yeah.

[ ]

37 C: °Yeah°, so I think it was normal, but it wasn’t normal in the wa:y

38 she punished me.

39 T: °Tell me about that.°

40 C: (.) When I didn’t eat my ↑food, she put me in my room and told

41 me that I could come out when I’m ni:ce.=

42→ T: =So to not eat is mystified, the real issue is that she wants

43 you to do certain things.=

44 C: =Yeah.

In his first turns (1-3), the client introduces the theme of the session (grand narrative)., i.e. his early-developed lack of trust towards his own mother and its further consequences. The therapist in line 4, relying on the client’s lexical item (bad), asks for an elaboration of the statement. In this way he begins to build and then focus the interaction on the client’s affect. The client’s grand narrative gets gradually unveiled (lines 5-6, 8-9). In a series of questions (lines 7, 10, 13), the psychotherapist challenges the mother’s actions and thus creates space for the client to reveal his own view of the situation — something he was not able to do when he was a child. Thus the function of the therapist’s interventions in lines 7, 10 and 13 is one of normalization, i.e. acknowledging the normalcy of the client’s behavior at that age (cf. Moursund and Erskine 2004).

The first part of the narrative-building ends with a therapist offering a formulation[11] in line 15 (cf. Heritage and Watson 1979; Hak and Boer 1996; Pawelczyk 2011). The formulation of the problem is interactionally ratified by the client (yeah) and further elaborated on with a small story (lines 16-19). This elaboration ― contributing to the client’s grand narrative ― reveals the client’s confusion as a child when he was faced with his mother’s incongruous actions toward him. In line 21, the client embarks on a new topical line of his grand narrative, i.e. “being a normal child.” Again, the therapist begins to build an interaction around the lexical item used by the client (normal). Interestingly, it is the therapist at this point of the interaction who contributes more to the developing narrative (lines 22, 24-25, 27-29). The client, however, immediately orients to these contributions by offering minimal acknowledgements. The therapist’s contributions in lines 22, 24-25 and 27-29 normalize the client’s behavior as a child. They aim at reaffirming the client that his early behavior was typical and expected of his age. The series of therapist’s normalizing statements is recognized by the client. This recognition signals the first change in his understanding and interpreting of the familiar situation (lines 37-38).

In line 37 the client, still relying on the lexical item “normal” (twice), attempts to topicalize another aspect of his childhood experience, i.e. being punished. The therapist elicits the small story by asking a direct question (line 39). The client’s telling of the problem is turned into a formulation (lines 42-43). The offered formulation aims at deconfusing the client by exposing his mother’s intentions. The formulation is ratified by the client with an acknowledgement marker (line 44).

This extract demonstrates how the psychotherapist, by actively co-constructing the client’s small narratives − relying on the client’s lexical items and topicalizing them, presenting a series of rhetorical questions, offering formulations − normalizes and validates the client’s behavior as a child (thus his grand narrative).

Extract 2 below contains another part of the same session:

Extract 2

1 T: And I was wo:ndering (.) you have the appreciation that to be

2 isolated can be worse punishment than being hit.

3 C: But I kno:w that the pa:in and the hit do not last long.

4 T: <Your words are profound>, to be rejected and isolated

5→ that lingers a long time. So you must have worked

6 very ha:rd to cooperate with your mother’s demands.

7 C: Yeah.

8→ T: Did you?

9 C: Yes, in some ways I wasn’t good.

10→ T: Give me an example.

11 C: When I was si:ck she had to take care of me.

12 T: °So did you make yourself sick sometimes?°

13 C: Yeah=

14 T: =How did you do that?

15 C: (.) I complained about not being able to ↑breathe so she had to

16 take care of me (2.0) When she forced me to eat I vomited.

17 T: And then? What effect did vomiting ha:ve on her?

18 C: She was mad at me (.) she went crazy.=

19→ T: =Instead of saying, <maybe> there is something in the foo:d

20 the kid is allergic to=

21 C: =Yeah.

22→ T: <There was something in the food that you had an aversion

23 to>, I don’t wanna eat it, it’s da::ngerous.=

24 C: =But she often forced me=

25→ T: =And I presume you learnt to cooperate.

In lines 5-6 the psychotherapist, on the basis of the client’s disclosure (line 3), offers a formulation in order to elicit a small story, this time concerning fulfilling the mother’s demands. The formulation is minimally ratified by the client (line 7). The client, however, does not elaborate on the formulation offered to produce further small narrative. Consequently, the psychotherapist produces post-formulation turns (lines 8, 10) in order to elicit the stories from the client. What is worth underlining is that when the client (finally) starts producing narrative, it is to a great extent facilitated by the psychotherapist. It can be observed how the client’s disclosures in lines 11 and 15-16 trigger the psychotherapist’s adjacent comments. The therapist’s contributions in lines 10, 12, 14 and 17 aim at facilitating the client’s small story to further exemplify his childhood situation. Thus the therapist by co-constructing the client’s stories gathers more knowledge of his life circumstances. The collected knowledge is then used in an attempt to change the client’s grand narrative. This is evidenced in the psychotherapist’s turns 19-20 and 22-23, which are geared toward correcting the client’s early experience. The correction involves the behavior of the mother and highlights the agency of the client by introducing the constructed reported speech. The client aligns himself with the psychotherapist’s correcting turns by offering agreement (line 21), and then (line 24) reveals another aspect of his childhood experience. The disclosure is topicalized by the psychotherapist in the form of a formulation (line 25). The offered formulation can trigger another small story from the client.

The presented extract shows how the psychotherapist actively co-constructs the client’s small stories by formulating the problem to be further documented by the client, and offers normalization and correction of his early childhood experiences (i.e., the client’s grand narrative).

Extract 3 below presents the continuation of the same session:

Extract 3

1 T: So far you haven’t given me an example of your

2 protest, what you’ve to:ld me is that a little boy

3 is misunderstood (.) a little boy who is controlled,

4 a little boy who has definitions put on him

5→ that are not true (.) and who is punished, °pretty soon

6 you’ll be ready to explode.°

7 C: Yeah.

8→ T: When does it go away?

9 C: I <think> when I was a teenager.=

10→ T: =You waited that lo:ng=

11 C: =Yeah.

12→ T: So you must have been a good kid all those

13 years.

14 C: Maybe to other people (1.0) but not to myself=

15 T: =Tell me that story.

16 C: I began to have bad grades at school=

17→ T: =Yeah.

18 C: A:nd I had the worst grades and I started getting

19 the lowest grades for my papers.

20→ T: Well, (.) <those are the symptoms of kids who have already

21 lost hope when they have been punished falsely and

22 controlled and nobody understands them>, those are

23 the symptoms of a child losing ho:pe in education

24 and losing hope in trusting grown-ups.

25→ C: °Yeah°, I remember one teacher in the 8th grade (.) she asked

26 me why I acted the way I did and she said she didn’t

27 understand it because I am no:t stu:pid and she asked:

28 ‘why do you do this?, you are a clever boy’=

29→T: =Yeah, that’s a difficult question for a child. Did

30 you find it difficult?

31 C: I couldn’t answer it=

32→T: = Because it would take hours and hours and hours

33 to tell her the story

In lines 1-6, the psychotherapist summarizes some aspects of the client’s grand narrative that have already been disclosed in the session. These aspects relate to the client’s own perception and understanding of his childhood experiences. The psychotherapist’s review ends with a formulation (lines 5-6) which relates to the very emotional aspect of the client’s ways of protesting. The offered formulation does not immediately elicit more narrative from the client (cf. lines 7, 9). As a result, the psychotherapist produces more post-formulation turns (lines 8 and 10), but these do not trigger further small stories from the client either. The client’s seeming resistance is respected by the psychotherapist, who offers another formulation (lines 12-13) which elicits a succinct comment from the client (line 14). This is a very powerful disclosure which might reveal the client’s early, painful decision-making process. The revelation is instantly taken up by the psychotherapist as a direct request for elaboration (line 15). In the remaining part of the presented extract, the client narrates his experience of being “a bad boy”. The psychotherapist signals his active listening in line 17 and then relates to the client’s disclosure by attempting to normalize the disclosed experience (lines 20-24). This is to say that the client at this particular moment in his life, given the situation and resources available, had to act this particular way (cf. Moursund and Erskine 2004). The psychotherapist’s normalizing contribution triggers a small story from the client (lines 25-28). The client’s experience is then validated by the psychotherapist in lines 29-30 and 32-33.

This extract illustrates how the psychotherapist co-constructs the client’s narrative by offering post-formulation queries and encourages the client to disclose by manifesting his active listening, as well as offering comments that normalize and validate the client’s grand narrative of being misunderstood and controlled.

SESSION 2: Living with a terminally-ill child: “Will you tell me about that?

The next extract presented below portrays a female client who is taking care of her terminally-ill daughter. Thus the grand narrative she brings into the therapy session relates to the painful experience of living with a terminally sick child. At the beginning of the session, the client was asked to describe her daughter:

Extract 1

1 C: […] °she is tall, slim with masses of blond, curly hair°

2 and she laughs >and laughs and laughs<, she seems to

3 a:lways come up with something to laugh about

4 including the most dreadful things that have happened

5 to her, (1.0) and e:ven °in those most dreadful moments°, we’ve

6 laughed.

7→ T: <What’s it like for you when you hear her laughter?>

8 C: For a few mi:nutes >while the laughter is being laughed<

9 when the laughter is happening, it feels as if everything

10 was no:rmal.

11 T: Normal

12 C: Just for a few minutes.=

13 T: =And when she was little (.) did she la:ugh?

14 C: Everybody said when Kate is around, everybody feels better.

15→ T: °Did that include you?°=

16 C: =Yeah.

17→ T: So: this is a child whose laughter contributed to your

18 feeling better.=

19 C: =And when I said she was born to make other people

20 feel better, it sounds like a terrible burden for a child

21 but it was never hard work for her, (.) it was spontaneous

22 so

23→ T: // Was it ever a requirement of yours?

24 C: Uhm, (.) I don’t think I nee:ded her to be like that and (.) sometimes

25 the other side of her is that giving so: much in her

26 ↑relationships is that she has been very and is often

27 very demanding,(1.0) wanting >more and more and more.<


55→ T: <You said earlier that she was demanding.>

56 C: Yes.

57 T: Will you tell me about that?=

58 C: =Yes, yes, I used to pick up the courage to go and pick her up

59 from nursery school because the minute we got out she

60 would be “can we do this, can we go there?” and then we

61 would do this after that and it was all, >you know<, keep

62 going, keep going […]

63→ T: There must have been times when you really wished she

64 had stopped that.

In lines 1-6, the client provides a description of her daughter. The short but highly emotional portrayal of the daughter ends with the mention of laughter shared by mother and daughter even in the most difficult stages of the illness experience. This particular mention (laughter) is taken up by the psychotherapist to refocus the client’s narrative on herself rather than continue with stories of her daughter only. Thus in line 7, the psychotherapist’s questions attempt to elicit some emotional small story from the client. This is the psychotherapist’s first attempt to build the session interaction around the client’s emotions[12] concerning the tragic circumstances.

In lines 8-10, the client responds to the query ending the self-reflection with the adjective “normal” (line 10). The adjective is echoed (cf. Ferrara 1994; Pawelczyk 2011) by the therapist (line 11), thus indexing an appeal for elaboration. The client, however, does not develop the theme of “normal”, but rather offers a minimal acknowledgement (line 12). In line 15, the psychotherapist again attempts to topicalize the client’s emotions. The psychotherapist’s question constitutes yet another attempt to encourage the client to focus the offered small stories on herself rather than on her daughter. Again, the client does not produce extended documentation, but minimally acknowledges the statement (line 16). Consequently, and in order to elicit more reflective narrative from the client, the psychotherapist offers a formulation (lines 17-18) strongly geared toward eliciting the client’s emotions. Even though the client elaborates on the formulation, the narrative is (again) entirely focused on her daughter. What is interesting is that the client relies on the lexical item introduced by the psychotherapist to refer to her (“feeling better”, line 18), but uses it in relation to her daughter. The client’s developing narrative is interrupted by the psychotherapist (line 23) in yet another attempt to concentrate her self-disclosure on her own emotions. The client responds to the question by starting to address the negative aspects of caring for her daughter (lines 24-27). This is quite a departure from the narrative she has produced so far. The disclosure ends with her referring to her daughter as quite “demanding” (line 27). Thus the client begins to relate to the emotional aspects of caring for her terminally ill daughter.

In a later part of the session (lines 55-64), the therapist topicalizes the theme of her daughter being “demanding” (line 55). This uptake receives a minimal acknowledgement from the client (line 56), without any further elaboration. Consequently, the psychotherapist asks directly for the extended documentation (line 57). This direct request triggers a small story; in fact, the client expands on the challenging personality of her daughter (lines 58-62). The extended response leads to another formulation by the psychotherapist. The formulation in lines 63-64 attempts to elicit from the client a narrative that focuses on herself and her negative emotions.

This extract thus demonstrates how the psychotherapist co-constructs the client’s narrative by attempting to refocus the grand narrative (of the client’s painful experience of living with a terminally sick daughter) on the client herself and her negative emotions.

The four extracts discussed above evidence the psychotherapist’s active involvement in the production of the clients’ small stories. In terms of his interactional effort, the psychotherapist offers formulations, manifests his active listening, and asks postpositioned queries in the midst of the clients’ ongoing narratives. The question to be posed is whether the psychotherapist’s active involvement does not thwart the clients’ narrativity and the stories themselves. The answer is no, not if one considers the overall goal of the psychotherapeutic interaction. Clients become involved in dialogue with the psychotherapist in order to ― in terms of a long-distance goal ― live more fulfilling and satisfactory lives. The psychotherapist then is in charge of the interactions, and his active involvement (i.e. his contributions to the clients’ narrative telling) serves to orient those interactions toward therapeutic ends. In the extracts analyzed above, the psychotherapist’s contributions geared the interactions toward therapeutic ends by normalizing and validating the clients’ experiences, (re)focusing the narratives on the clients’ (own) emotions, as well as concentrating their disclosures on themselves rather than (even significant) others.

5. Conclusions

The Self is made up of stories, both euphoric and tragic ones thus ‘no stories no self’. Psychotherapy offers interactional space for addressing the tragic aspects of one’s experience. Personal narrative constitutes an important means for the psychotherapist to access clients’ lived experiences. Yet as this paper has aimed to show, the client’s offered small stories are to a great extent facilitated by the psychotherapist. Clients do not often spontaneously produce the stories of pain upon entering the psychotherapy room, rather they tend to be accompanied by the psychotherapist in their narrativity effort. The therapist helps the clients to produce small stories ― in the course of the psychotherapy session ― that give voice to their harrowing life experiences. The therapist’s contributions to the client’s ongoing narrative aim to access and ultimately correct the client’s phenomenological experience, thereby changing his/her understanding of familiar situations and events. The therapist’s involvement in the clients’ trouble-telling not only attempts to orient the interaction toward therapeutic ends, but also greatly contributes to building a therapeutic alliance between the parties involved. It is thus communicated to the client that she/he is fully supported in his/her interactional endeavor by an empathic and understanding listener. By narrating dysphoric experiences in the company of an empathic and involved listener, clients are able to find new meanings to their troublesome experiences and create fresh understandings of themselves. Co-construction of personal narratives in the context of psychotherapy session is realized by the psychotherapist and clients building small stories to evidence yet ultimately change the clients’ big (grand) narratives.

Transcription conventions

(based on the standard conventions of Conversation Analysis, cf. Jefferson 2004; Hutchby 2007)

C– client

T– therapist

↑ – rising intonation, ‘intonation spike’

↓ – falling intonation

:: – elongation of the sound

(3) – timing in seconds

SHE – increase in volume

Here – increase in emphasis

>here< – word or phrase spoken rapidly

<here> – word or phrase spoken slowly

(h) – laugher particles embedded in the rush of talk

// – interruption

= – neither gap nor overlap in talk; latch

.hhh – h’s preceded by a dot indicate audible inward breathing.

hhh – h’s with no preceding dot indicate outward breathing.

(.) – A ‘micropause’, i.e., a pause of less than one tenth of a second is indicated by a dot in parentheses.


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[1] Mitchell, Stephen. 2002. Can love last?: The fate of romance over time. New York: Norton.

[2] The current paper uses the terms narrative and story interchangeably, but see for example Georgakopoulou (2011) on the differences between the two terms.

[3] Cf. Joan Didion’s oft-quoted comment that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” (2006: 185).

[4] I owe this reference to one of the reviewers.

[5] Kohler-Riessman (2008: 198) refers to ‘disrupted narratives’ as personal narratives particularly related to trauma and characterized by “incoherence in the testimonies, reflecting fragmented lives.”

[6] The small stories perspective in narrative research problematizes and de-essentializes the widely held view of narrative as a privileged mode of communication (de Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008).

[7] Emphasis mine, J.P.

[8] Emphasis mine, J.P.

[9] There are approximately 400 forms of psychotherapy at present (Bongar and Beutler 1995).

[10] This is defined by Erskine and Moursund (1988: 30) as “a fixated series of defenses that prevent the feelings and unmet needs of childhood from coming into awareness”.

[11] Pudlinski (2005) states that formulation constitutes an instance of emphatic listening.

[12] Cheshire and Ziebland (2005: 21) discuss narratives of affective stance, “where narrators reveal their feelings about the events they are recounting.”

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