Why we should watch what we say!

In a fascinating paper referenced below, Wendy Drewery introduces and develops the idea that conversation is a powerful means of performing relational identity – what she describes as “different ways of doing relationship and different ways of performing identity” – and suggests that “narrative therapy offers an approach to everyday as well as therapeutic conversation that is specifically crafted to avoid the risk of erasing or minimizing the other [and that] the basis of this approach is respectful inquiry based on the presumption of difference rather than commonality.”

She then goes on to show how careless language can result in subjugated minimized subjects by applying the concept of position calls to the expression of power relations in everyday life). And she uses two compelling examples to make her case: that of a despicable physical education teacher who browbeats his student and a very anxious mother who blames her son for not taking better care of himself. Specifically, she deconstructs the conversations in these two encounters using four key therapeutic concepts:

1. Choosing to “speak in ways that do not invite people into polarized positions and oppositional relationships” (Drewery, 2005, p. 315).

2. The importance of encouraging participants in a conversation to take an “agentive position” in which they have the opportunity to participate “as moral actors in and producers of the conditions of their lives” (Drewery, 2005, p. 315).

3. Distinguishing between good position calls that offer a participant the chance to respond as a true agent versus bad position calls that only offer the participant the opportunity to respond as a subjugated or passive subject (Drewery, 2005, p. 316).

4. The importance of “skillfully finding ways of speaking that do not presume to know the meaning that is made of their experience by the other” (p. 318). And Drewery emphasizes how crucial this goal is by enlisting Foucault and his concept of “respectful curiosity” and Michael White and his deep appreciation of the importance of installing “the person whose life is being spoken about as the expert by thickening the narrative that positions him or her agentively” (Drewery, 2005, p. 319).

But the most stimulating aspect of Wendy Drewery’s paper is to be found in what she proposes near the end of it: nothing less than the elimination of self-concept and self-esteem as “stable…aspects of the psychological self ”(Drewery, 2005, p. 320). A few nights ago in a recent episode of the Charlie Rose Brain Series, Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for demonstrating that psycho-educational experiences have a measurable impact on brain chemistry, made the crucial point that Freud always recognized that his hypotheses of an id, ego and superego were nothing more than mere hypotheses, even intelligent speculations, and that there was no implication whatsoever of fixed structure. It was mainly the Americans who reified Freud’s hypotheses by enshrining them as irrefutable, categorical definitions (think DSM-IV-TR here) of human identity. Back then, Kandel emphasized, Freud didn’t have tools such as fMRI’s to measure palpable changes in brain activity in response to various social or conversational stimuli. He then concluded in a delightfully animated, passionate manner that if Freud were alive today, he would most certainly be a neuroscientist!

Does narrative therapy which draws attention to the ways in which people speak to each other – good ways and bad ways, particularly ways that exclude them from taking agentive positions (p. 320) – provide a means of empirically measuring trauma and healing as Wendy Drewery suggests or at least implies in her paper, now that we have the tools to observe their physiological effects? Imagine Freud today as a neuroscientist working closely with reflecting teams of narrative therapists engaged in relational exchanges with their clients!


Drewery, W., (2005). Why we should watch what we say: Position calls, everyday speech and production of relational subjectivity in Theory and Psychology. Sage Pulbications. Vol 15 (3): 305-324. www.sagepublications.com

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