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Psychology co-hosts successful Narrative Therapy Conference

Date Released: Fri, 5 August 2011 10:00 +0200

Last week, the Rhodes Psychology Department and the Grahamstown Narrative Therapy Network co-hosted a Narrative Therapy conference where participants experienced both cognitive and emotional shifts with positive implications for practice through the rich variety of input.

The conference was well-attended with international presenters from as far afield as New Zealand, the United States and Ireland as well as local presenters from Durban, East London and Grahamstown.

 In his welcome, Professor Michael Guilfoyle, head of the Rhodes Psychology Department and chairman of the organising committee, described how the idea for the conference emerged and developed during meetings of the Grahamstown Narrative Therapy Network – a cross-disciplinary gathering of professionals with an interest in narrative practice.

The conference programme offered a variety of perspectives on narrative practice to the more than 85 participants who had gathered from various parts of the country.

Elmarie Kotzé, from the University of Waikato, New Zealand opened the day with a challenging presentation, inviting practitioners to consider how, in the moment of an utterance, they position themselves and their clients. Elmarie shared how she grapples with the concept of positioning in her own work and in the training of students.  

Kim Barker’s paper considered narrative conversations in the context of faith or ‘lived religion’. She appealed for a reconsideration of the binaries: secular/sacred and spiritual/religious and for an awareness of the potential of religious beliefs to be both emancipatory and oppressive.

Drawing on both attachment theory and narrative ideas, Therese Hegarty of Froebel College, Ireland, highlighted the importance of teachers’ awareness of their role in co-constructing learners’ identity stories, and in structuring environments in which learners feel secure enough to exercise curiosity. She also addressed the process by which children acquire reputations: how these surface, attach themselves and become fixed, and how reputations can be changed as children have other aspects of their identities witnessed and acknowledged. She concluded with a strong argument for more extensive support and supervision for teachers.   

Prof Guilfoyle’s paper presented a strong theoretical argument for a shift from the question ‘Who am I?’ to the question ‘How shall I conduct myself?’ or ‘How close can I come to the principles I have set myself?’ as a guide for living. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s later writing, Prof Guilfoyle argued for consideration of what he called the ‘Ethical subject’ who holds him/herself accountable to a personal ethics/ethos. Using a fictitious composite case study, he demonstrated the implications of this shift in focus for narrative therapy conversations.

In the paper which followed, Stephen Gaddis of the Salem Centre for Therapy, Training and Research in the United States, described the painful terrain he had covered in his own life in an attempt to answer the ‘Who am I?’ question and his subsequent commitment to engaging in conversations in which clients are positioned as agents in their own lives.  Particularly moving was the story of his correspondence with a young man in South Africa around their shared experiences of family violence and their commitment to becoming different kinds of fathers.  

Another local presenter, East London-based Judy Rankin, invited participants to consider the role of metaphor and creativity in the generation and thickening of alternative storylines. She described the workshops she runs in which visual images play a central role.

The afternoon sessions focussed on narrative community work with the Rhodes University Masters in Clinical and Counselling students presenting their challenges and successes from community work projects over the past two years. Yvonne Sliep from the University of KwaZulu Natal closed the afternoon’s presentations with a discussion of her powerful work using Narrative Theatre in traumatised communities, with particular reference to her work in Burundi.

In closing, Lisl Foss facilitated an opportunity for participants to reflect on the presentations and discussions which the conference had offered.

Story by Kim Barker

Photo by Adrian Frost

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