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The Power and Peril of Good Narration — Social Workers as Sacred Storytellers
By J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW

Leo Tolstoy may have been a great writer, but I’m not sure what kind of social worker he would have been. Though often remembered as the one who wrote many impossibly long novels populated by characters with hard-to-pronounce names, few would dispute his literary skill. In fact, he was such a good narrator that he had you believing whatever he wanted, whether or not it was true. Take his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I must have read it a dozen times before realizing I’d been misled by a master storyteller.

Recently when I reread the book, I was struck by the way Tolstoy’s judgments and lack of compassion for Ivan’s wife skewed his narrative in ways that always had left me disliking her. In the wake of Ivan’s death, Tolstoy dismissed the wife’s tears as mere show. He judged her money concerns and implied that she was self-absorbed, making no attempt to put himself in her shoes as a widow with a young son.

It’s easy to forget that good narrators like Tolstoy make choices, leaving out details, developing one theme over another, writing their own biases into the story. Even when they’re barely scratching the surface of a person’s life, they can have readers believing the writer speaks with oracular authority.

Narrative powers like Tolstoy’s should confer great responsibility. Without compassion, this power is easily abused. This is even truer for social workers than it is for writers. We are, after all, telling the stories of real people, not fictional characters.

Viewing Others’ Stories Through Our Lens
Most social workers find themselves serving as narrators of the stories of those who are struggling and afraid, people whose defenses are activated as they try to make sense of realities that may feel overwhelming. Whether giving an assessment of a client and her family to professionals on the team, interpreting their experience in a clinical note, or internally crafting a mental story about what they sense to be happening, social workers constantly find themselves in the position of narrator.

This gives social workers the potential power not only to influence how a person’s life is understood but to condition the very nature of what we can see as we interact with clients. If we paint a one-dimensional picture, if we slant our stories in ways that overly accentuate dysfunction or communicate distrust in a client’s capacity for wisdom, resilience, or insight, we may inadvertently place others in the kind of narrow box into which Tolstoy placed Ivan’s wife.

No Easy Answers
Insurance companies often require deficit-based language and fixed diagnostic labels, which fly in the face of the mysterious world of our clients’ inner experience. The perceived need for evidence-based, best-practice protocols that have many social work departments and practitioners scrambling to cloak their interventions in the garb of objectivity can undermine our appreciation for the subjectivity and contradictions of human life. Assessment tools, though they may have a section for client strengths and positive coping, often focus on what’s wrong, subtly reinforcing an emphasis on our clients’ limitations.

It seems we’re daily pressured with demands for quick, simple characterizations of other peoples’ lives based on only a handful of interactions. Sometimes we are asked to construct stories about the whole of a person’s experience after only one visit. These demands often intersect with expectations that our stories fit into conceptual models and systems that may emphasize psychopathology, conflict, or inadequate coping and which often are laced with specialized jargon that may not lend itself to true understanding.

So how are we to narrate with an eye toward our clients’ interior experience, catching glimpses of that deeper self when many of us practice in high-stress, time-crunched environments that demand that human lives be quickly reduced into neat frameworks and wrapped in clinical jargon? I have no easy answers.

Three Reminders for Responsible Narration
In my attempts to be a responsible narrator, I often remind myself of these three facts:

• No matter what I think I know about what makes a client tick, I never really know for sure.

• Stories need to be changeable and able to take in rather than screen out new information and new ways of understanding.

• Stories about clients should always be told compassionately and respectfully.

Every interaction is unique, too vast and multidimensional to be cast into simple categories. The goal is to engage each client without preconceived notions, expectations, or assumptions, free from the blinders of habitual thoughts and any illusions of infallibility on our part. Basically, it’s a reminder that no matter how strongly we may believe something, we can’t be certain, so we’d better be careful when crafting stories about others.

Keeping the story flexible means not getting too attached to our narrative no matter how nicely constructed or compelling the language and storylines. When we get attached to a story, we may filter out aspects that don’t support it or slant events to conform to our expectations about what we see. It’s a way of letting the story unfold without demands or judgments. It’s not about being an expert defending a viewpoint; it’s about bearing witness in the here and now. We don’t need to impress professional peers with dazzling insights; we simply need to do our best to reflect the lived experience of clients inasmuch as we’ve been able to observe and sense it.

When we admit that, though we may have ideas, we are not all knowing, and when we manage to quell our ego’s compulsion to constantly judge and place clients and families into boxes, compassion and respect naturally emerge. This doesn’t mean we overlook things like manipulation and conflict or anxiety and depression. It simply means we don’t stop there. We don’t let these characteristics define clients.

Knowing that, like any narrator, we’re making choices, try to look deeper for important themes that may otherwise be overshadowed by surface dramas. What is this person really hoping for? How do things look from her perspective? What may be going on underneath all this anger? As counterproductive as this person’s behavior seems, it makes sense to her. She’s doing her best in a trying situation, so how may we better understand? What is she trying to say?

Maintaining Balance
The story isn’t balanced until we’ve made an attempt to put ourselves in the client’s shoes with an eye toward seeing the inner self that’s seeking expression. Most social workers already are tracking these inner qualities, but folding them into our clinical stories sometimes is another matter.

In the press for time and the demand that we get to the bottom and focus on presenting problems, it can be hard to keep our stories as balanced as we may wish. It can be even more challenging if there are others on the team inclined toward stories of deficiency and who prefer not dealing with ambiguities or paradox.

Sometimes we get pressure from peers to join them in stories they wish to tell about how lost a client is or to validate simplistic formulations and stock phrases which they may offer, describing someone as “controlling,” “manipulative,” “looking for attention,” “in denial,” “unable to self-regulate,” “passive aggressive.”

And while these may be something to consider, we also must consider that we really don’t know with certainty what’s going on inside another human being. If we become too attached to our judgments or overly assured in our expertise, or if we bend too quickly to convenience and time constraints, our ability to catch the humanity of our clients may suffer.

A Long Tradition
Social workers share more with Tolstoy than being in a position to frame narratives. We are part of a longer tradition stretching into the distant past, a tradition in which stories about human lives convey deep truths about the human condition and what it means to be alive and to search—sometimes successfully and sometimes not—for answers to life’s challenges and struggles.

Throughout the generations, these stories have taken many forms—myths, legends or ballads, folk tales and cautionary tales, or simply oral histories passed down familial and communal memories. In many contexts, these stories have sacred value. To share this tradition, we don’t need to idealize or romanticize our clients’ struggles. We don’t need to overstate their strengths or overlook their blind spots. Being sacred storytellers doesn’t mean we no longer will have those clients who we dread showing up for their appointments. It just means we try to place at the center of the stories we tell about them real human beings, however imperfect, each one with strengths and hopes, and that we speak with respect and compassion regardless of time’s press or demands to simplify.

— J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, has been a hospice social worker for 20 years and currently works for Duke Hospice in Durham, NC. He authored the book The Dawn Is Never Far Away: Stories of Loss, Resilience, and the Human Journey.