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Outsider witness practice

Some time ago I wrote a blog post on integrating narrative and solution-focused approaches, and my interest and work  in this area continues to develop.

One of the aspects of the Narrative Responses to Trauma congress I attended in Palestine in November 2012 that inspired me the most was the use of outsider witness practice. I was one of a small group of conference participants who, with Mohammad, a Palestinian narrative therapist, visited a Palestinian family in a refugee camp near Ramallah.

Our job was to be ‘outsider witnesses’, to listen as Mohammad helped Salim to tell his story, and then to offer our reflections on what we had heard. Our reflections being guided by the outsider witness structure developed by Michael White, we were led to make personal connections with Salim, who had spent several years in an Israeli jail, as had his son and daughter. I have heard recently from Hugh Fox, whose training in narrative therapy I have been attending, that Michael White, before alighting on the name narrative therapy for his developing approach, had considered calling it ‘Linking Lives’ therapy. It is becoming increasingly clear to me how this would have been a fitting label.

White drew on the work of anthropologist, Barbara Myerhoff, and her descriptions of the ‘definitional ceremonies’ and outsider witnessing of an elderly, poor and neglected Jewish community in Venice, Los Angeles. Being “relatively invisible to the wider community”, they were “deprived of important reflections on their own lives, and at risk of becoming invisible to themselves – at risk of doubting their very existence. It was by ‘definitional ceremonies’ that the people of this community countered this threat” (White, 1995).

Having been exposed further to outsider witnessing on Hugh’s (excellent) training last week, I found myself using the structure at the end of my session with Mark, an inmate of Wandsworth Prison, on Monday morning. He was articulating his personal struggle between ‘doing the right thing’ as a man, and ‘being a real man’, which he had been brought up to believe would involve the use of violence following some perceived slight or injustice. As with most men that I know, I have struggled too with cultural norms of masculinity and have felt pulled in different directions. My outsider witnessing meant that I could get inside and alongside his struggle, rather than keep the safe distance that is always an easy option for a helping professional working with a prison inmate. I haven’t looked into any so-called ‘evidence-base’ of effectiveness of using these practices, but the ethical case for using them seems to me very strong, and I certainly perceived a richer quality developing in my relationship with Mark, who is keen to see me again.

And now I am talking with Leo Kay, the director of Unfinished Business, an endlessly inventive performance and live art company, about using outsider witness practices in one of their works currently under development. Change My Mind is a fascinating performance project involving a group of artists who will be carrying out tasks set for them by a variety of others, to see what changes result. I first came across Leo when I attended a 1-1 interactive performance piece of his (i.e. I was an audience of one), in which he had me re-enacting an argument with a significant other in my life, but this time, the way I had wanted to do it! His current focus on change in his performance work is stimulating to the max and led us to seeing links in what we each do. I am fascinated to see where Change My Mind leads – watch this space!


White, M. (1995). Reflecting Teamwork as Definitional Ceremony, chapter 7 of Re-Authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

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