Michael White has described ways in which certain lines of inquiry can be used to build a ‘scaffolding’ that “assists people to recruit their lived experience, that stretches and exercises their imagination and their meaning-making resources” White, 2005; p7).

Wolter, DiLollo and Apel (2006) note that ‘unique possibility questions’ are “future-oriented, backward-looking” questions that invite clients to imagine possible futures unencumbered by the influence of the problem and then examine the present for potential changes or stepping stones to change (p173). 

In terms of Landscapes of identity, Narrative Therapists are interested in ‘intentional states of identity’ (i.e. intentions, values, hopes, commitments) as opposed to ‘internal states of identity’ (i.e. traits, qualities, characteristics) White, 2005; p8).

Carey and Russell (2003) explain that “locating identity as something internal to us generally limits the possibilities for re-authoring conversations. If you identify the reason someone acts as due to internal qualities such as their ‘strength’, their ‘compassion’, their ‘determination’, it can be difficult to know where to go next with the conversation” (p65).

Michael White describes a hierarchy of intentional states of identity which includes: (i) intentions or purposes, (ii) values or beliefs, (iii) hopes and dreams, (iv) principles for living, and (v) commitments (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p65).

Inviting people to think about how these intentional states connect with particular unique outcomes or sequences of events in emerging story lines helps to thicken the alternative story, and the further you go up the hierarchy the thicker the story becomes. Questioning along the hierarchy focuses on a particular action or set of related actions:

  • starts by asking about the intentions and purposes that shaped a particular action,
  • then enquires about the values and beliefs that support those intentions,
  • then moves to the hopes and dreams for the future that are associated with these values,
  • followed by the principles of living that are represented by these hopes, and
  • finally the commitments or what the person is standing for in his or her life.

Narrative Therapists who adhere strictly to its post-structuralist philosophical base would avoid talking in terms of ‘strengths’ that refer to internal qualities. Internal qualities such as strength, compassion and determination are structuralist categories (White, 2005; p8).