An outsider witness is an invited audience to a therapy conversation – a third party who is invited to listen to and acknowledge the preferred stories and identity claims of the person Carey & Russell, 2003a).
Having witnesses to the telling of an alternative preferred story is a way of thickening the preferred story, and makes it more likely that the person will take actions consistent with the preferred story in the future.
Outsider witnesses may be part of a person’s existing family or social network, or they may be invited from outside these networks (e.g. professionals or former clients who have experienced similar problems) (Carey & Russell, 2003a).
Witnessing and re-membering are based on the fundamental assumption of Narrative Therapy that our sense of self is socially constructed and exists in relationship to other people (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p68).
“If our preferred story of who we are remains only a conversation in our own head, it will not have the sense of being ‘real’. This sense of ‘realness’ or ‘authenticity’ only comes when our preferred stories are witnessed and responded to by a significant audience” (Carey & Russell, 2003a; p5).
Another rationale for witnessing is that problems often work to separate and isolate people from others, and so a key aspect of re-authoring work is to open spaces of connection and re-connection (Carey & Russell, 2003b).
In its most simple form, witnessing may involve the person telling others about the alternative narrative, about newly claimed aspects of identity, and/or the changes the person has decided to make (Kelley, Blankenburg, & McRoberts, 2002; p533).
Outsider witnessing may involve performing, in structured social contexts, actions that are part of, or which symbolise, the alternative narrative.
For young people a wide range of creative techniques can be employed as vehicles or media for outsider witnessing and widely circulated through art, music, and video.
A formal type of outsider witnessing developed by Michael White is called a ‘definitional ceremony’ (Carey & Russell, 2003a; p7). The person who has authored the alternative story is invited to tell the preferred story of his/her life with an audience present. In this case the audience is frequently a group of practitioners or former clients who are experienced with this element of Narrative Therapy. In this case the audience may be called a ‘reflective team’ or ‘outsider witness’ group. The role of the audience or reflective team is to actively acknowledge the person’s preferred story in particular ways – ways that express curiosity and resonance [see Note E8]. Witnesses are asked to focus on unique outcomes, expressing curiosity about them, but taking care to situate their comments in their own personal experience. Witnesses are also asked to focus on expressing what touched or moved them most about the person’s story, what it is in their own life that enabled them to be touched in this way, how they have been moved or where they’ve been moved to, and how their life may be different as a result of having been moved in this way. These sorts of responses demonstrate interpersonal connections based on shared values and commitments (Carey & Russell, 2003a; p9).
Outsider witness groups should take care to:
- Avoid offering applause or congratulations. Applause can sometimes be experienced as condescending or patronising;
- Avoid giving advice or offering further solutions to the problem at hand. This includes telling the person about strategies that you have used and found helpful;
- Not to talk too much or get carried away with their own stories. It is the responsibility of the group to ensure this does not happen, and to keep the focus on the life story of the person they have come to listen to;
- Ensure that their reflections do not inadvertently reproduce ‘norms’ of society or affirm personal values that the person at the centre has not explicitly expressed