Updated: Feb 13
There is no other country quite as unique as South Africa. Our 11 languages and multiple cultures, sub-cultures and religions provide a melting pot of understandings and socially accepted stories, some of which co-exist peacefully together, and other that don’t.
In such a mixed and varied society narrative therapy provides useful principles that promote understanding and productive coexistence in a wide variety of settings.
Whether it be business, theological, family or community groups, the practice of these 5 narrative therapy principles will help you to understand and enjoy those around you.
Principle 1: No Assumptions
The first narrative therapy principle is to make a choice not to make assumptions about another person. Now this may be a simple application when it comes to big elements such as skin colour, or age, but often we get tripped up on the little things. A great example of this is eye contact.
In some cultures, in South Africa, it is seen as a sign of respect to look a person in the eye when speaking to them. In other cultures, in South Africa, it is seen as a sign of disrespect to look a person in the eye when speaking to them. Regardless of which cultural side of the eye contact coin you come from, there is often an assumption of a lack of respect depending on how a person responds when you speak to them.
We recommend taking the approach of asking the other person about their culture when it comes to eye contact, or, if it is inappropriate to ask, perhaps do some research.
This additional knowledge will help tremendously in understanding where the other person is coming from and help your interpersonal relationships.
Principle 2: No Judgement
Some of the greatest conflicts that occur in South Africa have to do with assumptions and then, immediately after that, judgement made on a situation or behaviour where there is limited understanding.
By choosing not to judge another person without first taking the time to better understand their background, you will be opening yourself up to a world of new possibilities and richer relationships because as Mother Teresa once said “If you judge people you have no time to love them.”
Again, it’s often the little things that trip us up. Take something like body art as an example. For many who tattoo their body it is a very personal expression of something that means a great deal to them. There is great potential to judge another person based on their choice to have a tattoo or not to have a tattoo.
An interesting approach is to start a conversation about whatever you are having trouble with, with someone who is different to you so that you can better understand why they have made the choices they have made.
Principle 3: Acceptance
These kinds of conversations also help to bring you to a place where you can accept the other person for who they are. In a local and global society that demands perfection from everyone and everything, it is all together refreshing to choose to accept others, faults and all.
Here are some interesting questions to think through on your acceptance journey:
Have I made unfair assumptions of this person?
Have I judged this person without giving them the opportunity to share their story?
Are my expectations of this person realistic given that everyone is different but equal?
How could my acceptance of this person broaden our relationship?
In choosing to accept other people you will not only take the pressure off of them, but will also take the pressure off of yourself as you’ll recognise the fantastic freedom acceptance brings.
Principle 4: Respect
There is a saying that “respect is earned”. In narrative therapy we find that respect is possible only when there is an absence of assumptions, judgement and a commitment to accept one another.
There are so many opportunities to give respect once these first three principles are in place.
Take for example business relations. There are opportunities in dozens of interactions a day to demonstrate respect.
The way you greet and accept greetings from others – handshakes as a great example of this.
The way you listen and offer opinions.
The language and structure of emails.
The body language you use in meetings.
All of these tiny nuances communicate respect to colleagues on a constant basis and can help deepen relationships.
In South Africa, our rich cultural and diverse backgrounds demands a thoughtful and sensitive approach underpinned by respect.
Principle 5: Curiosity
The final narrative therapy principle is curiosity. So often conversations, in all contexts, lack real curiosity as the person asking for information is already thinking about what else they could add to the conversation instead of allowing the conversation to unfold on its own.
Here are some ideas to hold when participating in your next conversation
Are the questions I’m asking filled with assumption or do they allow for new and unexpected ways of thinking?
Am I asking questions with the expectation that I will participate in the conversation by telling my own stories?
What specific words is the other person using that are unexpected?
So often in the rush and busyness of everyday life, we miss the opportunity to ask genuinely curious questions. Questions that would enable a deeper understanding and a stronger connection with that person.
Narrative therapy principles equip you to journey with those around you in a way that opens new and interesting opportunities for understanding and enjoying the people in your life.