How "Joint Stories" Can Help Therapy Clients Move Forward

A counselor’s tool for helping clients get unstuck.

Posted Jan 31, 2019

MaxPixels, CC0
Source: MaxPixels, CC0

The joint story technique is deceptively simple. I tell the client, “We’re jointly going to create a story."

I’ll start, for example, “Once, there was a 40-year old woman who was successful but miserable.”  I craft that first sentence to be similar but not identical to my client’s current situation.

I then point to the client and if necessary say, “Continue.” The client adds the next sentence or more. When the client can’t think of what to say next, I, as briefly as possible, continue the story, quickly ending with an opportunity for the client to add substantively to the story.

We alternate until we reach the end of the person’s life. Then I ask if there are any nuggets in that fictional story that might help the client in moving forward.

Here’s a sample:

Me: A 40-year old woman who was successful but miserable and so she decided...

Client:  to figure out why she’s so unhappy. She decided she felt isolated in her engineering job so she thought about leaving engineering but then took a course in management in hopes she’d get promoted and have more people contact and....(At that point, the client didn't know what to say next.)

Me:  And while her current employer didn’t promote her, she invoked her network which got her an engineering project manager job at a company in a completely different industry, and...

Client:  The industry was fashion, something she had never thought of but found fresh and fun. But she still was unhappy. So she journaled a lot, talked with her friends a lot, and realized that she had been pressured by her feminist father to go into an female-underrepresented field like engineering and that she really wouldn’t be happy unless she pursued a career more aligned with her natural strengths and interests. So she decided to get a librarian degree but specializing in engineering so she could leverage her background and improve her employability compared with generic librarian and...

Me: She completed her library degree and although she had to move from the apartment she loved, she took a job at an engineering college 100 miles away.

Client: But she still felt something was wrong...

Me: She found herself drinking and then vaping more often than deep down she knew was wise and....

Client: One day at work, she was helping a patron at the library and he looked into her eyes just a bit longer than did the typical patron, which reminded her that she had too-long suppressed her desire for a relationship and...

Me: She couldn’t muster the courage to look back at him but soon, she started to flirt a bit and a few months later, at a librarian conference, she met a man and they lived happily ever after. And at age 97, on her deathbed, she was looking back on all the decisions she had made and concluded....

Client: That maybe she should have been a family lawyer and maybe shouldn’t have married.

When I sense the story has run its course, I say something like, “Of course this wasn’t you but a character you created." (The client usually laughs, knowing it largely was about her.) Then I add, "but were there any lessons embedded in the story that might be helpful to you as you contemplate your next steps forward?”

The joint story is particularly effective with ideationally fluent people who are trying to envision their future but feel stuck. In the same way as puppet therapy can get a child to reveal thoughts about themselves, the joint story can free-up a client to think more creatively, often more boldly, about their story’s protagonist’s future than when thinking about their own.

Of course, no tool works all the time, even with a client for whom the tool is well-suited, but I’ve found the joint story to be one of my toolkit’s more valuable items. It may also be useful in self-help: just tell yourself the story of your twin.

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