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Advancing the Plot: Narrative Therapy and Artful Mediation

Particularly in family mediations a narrative therapist working in tandem with the mediator can be immensely useful in ‘advancing the plot’ toward resolution. Indeed, narrative mediation has its roots in narrative therapy. The parties in a mediation, just like writers, are engaged in developing a common story, developing their characters and advancing the plot to achieve resolution.

Just like characters and plot, the parties and the problems they are trying to resolve in a mediation are intricately interwoven. Sometimes the problem seems identical to the person, a common misperception, which belies the truth of our freedom to create our own stories. Michael White, a leader in narrative therapy, often reiterated this truth: “People aren’t the problem; the problem is the problem.” People, just like the characters in a story, may feel caught up and defined by the problem, but we are in fact free to make decisions about the problem.

Dove Pressnall, a gifted storyteller and Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist (LFMT) points out, “When people are only encouraged to talk about the problem, they can feel stuck there. A narrative approach puts the problem in a larger context and invites people to consider what part of their story they want to build.”

Practices used in story telling can apply to a clients’ problem solving. Writers plot each story’s arc which follows relatively consistent patterns. First there is the presentation, the characters in their world. That world becomes disturbed as a problem comes to light. Then tensions rise toward a crisis where it seems the problem will win.

In a moment of clarity a character makes a key decision or takes an action that achieves redemption and resolution.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are almost always many plots and arcs within a good story. In art, as in life, we need to see the connections and interlinking of stories to make sense of the complexity of our experience.

In family mediations both artful therapy and artful mediation support families to see themselves as free agents in a complex of relationships, to make transitions, using dramatic techniques that help all participants become authors of their stories. The conflict is merely the motor of the drama and the impetus for character development.

First, the problem and its back story are explored. What happened before the conflict erupted? It is not necessary to achieve consensus about the back-story but it is important to explore each person, each character’s perspective and motivation. As the nature of the conflict is better understood, the tension is brought to the surface. The process moves toward “surfacing the tension,” advancing the plot.

Family dynamics are sometimes extremely complex, so mediators need to be particularly careful here, perhaps working in tandem with a therapist. As Dove Pressnall points out, “Particularly in a divorce, which is almost always emotionally charged, ignoring the emotional content of the back-story can actually be quite counter-productive. The mediator is, by necessity, somewhat focused on one plot line–clarifying important points of agreement and conflict while identifying what is at stake and what the nature of the conflict actually is while keeping the process focused on resolution. Meanwhile, the therapist can help the family or individuals in the family to explore the others plots at play, including their emotional reactions. Given the space to do this, the parties will be less likely to get caught up in that content in the mediation room.”

Like a good film or play, a successful mediation process works to help the parties look toward the future, ‘advancing the plot.” The mediator or therapist might ask the question “What if…?” There are always several options, and the parties can be encouraged to ask the question themselves, and to come up with several plot twists and possible resolutions.

Both the mediator and the therapist can use ‘brainstorming’ with a few guidelines borrowed from the theatrical practice of ‘improv’. This technique can be more fun, creative, and productive when the participants are coached to stay positive. A rule in improve is that everything shared is treated as a gift. Rather than saying “no” or “but _____,” participants are asked to accept each contribution with an enthusiastic “yes, and_____.”

As the brainstorming/improvisation exercise progresses, parties can record, demonstrate, and talk out some of the better plot points that arose in the ‘what if’ exercise.

Stepping up to play the role of the director at some point, the mediator or therapist might suggest that the family or couple give their ideas a try. In the table reading of a new play this is often a magical moment, when the ideas come together and come to life. This would be the moment to create a written agreement or notes that will be incorporated into an agreement.

Then there is a moment when the director announces it’s time to “put this play on its feet.” The energy rises as people stand up, and there’s often humor in lines and moves that previously seemed leaden.

It can be helpful for this process to be carried out in parallel in therapy, exploring the individual experiences in more depth, developing the richness of the many plotlines involved.

Ultimately, the acting out of their co-created play can provide release and new perspective. It’s odd how the word ‘self-consciousness’ means both aware and embarrassed about one’s own behavior. When parties stand up and speak ‘their’ lines, there is a unique opportunity for understanding—that ‘ah-hah moment’ where experienced awareness mixes with some embarrassment and relief.

That ‘ah-hah’ moment can lead to a deeper resolution. The players’ involvement becomes physical, not just conceptual, and leads to new options, new resolutions, and renewed energy. Looking back, participants may wonder – what was all that drama about? Clearly then, they’ve already moved on. Having finished the chapter or even having closed the book, they are creating a new story with a new beginning.


Roberta Morris

Dr. Roberta Morris specializes in narrative and facilitative mediation models. She is author of several novels and works of non-fiction, including the resource Ending Violence in Families. Presently she is writing Artful Mediation, compiling best practices that draw upon the many gifts people bring to the table as they find means… MORE >

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