Explorations in narrative documentation with people from refugee backgrounds by Chanelle Burns

This video explores the use of narrative documentation in work with people from refugee backgrounds, specifically in contexts of responding to trauma. Through the lens of narrative  documentation, a number of narrative principles and practices are explored, including eliciting responses to trauma, scaffolding, externalising, re-authoring, and outsider-witnessing.

Chanelle Burns is a Social Worker based in Melbourne, Australia. She has worked in a variety of roles with people seeking asylum and from refugee backgrounds. She is currently working as a counsellor advocate at the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (also known as Foundation House). Chanelle is particularly interested in how narrative therapy traverses language and culture.

If you would like to respond to this presentation or ask any questions, please contact Chanelle at chanelle.burns@gmail.com.

In particular, responses to Rayan are welcomed. Rayan’s willingness to share his story is informed by a commitment to his story and experiences helping others.  If you were moved by his story and particularly the poem ‘My Story To Be Told’ you might like to write an outsider witness response that you can send to Chanelle to pass on to Rayan. You might like respond by answering these questions:

  • Was there an expression that stood out to you?
  • Did this expression evoke any images?
  • What did this expression or image suggest to you about Rayan?
  • What is it about this expression or image that you connect with?
  • Where have you been taken on account of hearing this story?

To read more about the ideas Chanelle has shared in this video please see her article here.

Presentation references:

Behan, C. (n.d.) Rescued Speech Poems: Co-authoring Poetry in Narrative Therapy. Retrieved from www.narrativeapproaches.com/?p=1546


Wade, A. (1997). Small acts of living: Everyday resistance to violence and other forms of oppression. Contemporary Family Therapy, 19:1, 23-39.


White, M. (2004). Working with people who are suffering the consequences of multiple trauma: A narrative perspective. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 44-75.


Yuen, A. (2009). Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma. Explorations: An E-Journal of Narrative Practice, 1, 6-16.


Some resources about the practice of narrative documentation:

Fox, H. (2003). Using therapeutic documents: a review. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, (4), 26-36.


Newman, D. (2008) ‘Rescuing the said from the saying of it’: Living documentation in narrative therapy. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, (3), 24-34.


Newman, D. (2013, January 24).  The written word and narrative practice [Video file]. Retrieved from http://narrativetherapyonline.com/moodle/mod/resource/view.php?id=584


Pentecost, M. (2008). A letter to Robyn: explorations of the written word in therapeutic practice. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, (1), 17-27.


White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Counter Documents. In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


Other narrative therapy resources I have found useful in context of responding to trauma:

Blackburn, P. (2005). Speaking the Unspeakable: bearing witness to the stories of political violence, war and terror. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, (3 & 4), 97-105.


Blackburn, P. (2010). Creating space for preferred identities: narrative practice conversations about gender and culture in the context of trauma. Journal of Family Therapy, (32), 4-26.


Denborough, D. (2005). A framework for receiving and documenting testimonies of trauma. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, (3 & 4), 34-42.


Yuen, A. (2007). Discovering children’s responses to trauma: a response-based narrative practice. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 4, 3-18.

Published February 26, 2016

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Ray Lazarus

    Dear Chanelle
    Thank you so much for your presentation. I’m South African, so, where we have, as you may know, we have 11 official languages, which are quite widely spoken – and that doesn’t account for other languages (of migrants refugees, amongst others), so your presentation really speaks to our situation here. The vast divides of privilege, still here more than 20 years into democracy, mean that many in the ‘helping professions’ work with ‘clients’ whose home language is different from their own. Sometimes we are told that divide is unbridgeable. Your work suggests otherwise. The use of co-created documents (and, sometimes, performance of them) seems to me a potentially fruitful way to try to bridge the gap. Thanks for providing such clear account of your explorations to guide those of others.
    On a separate point: you mentioned the issue of resistance and the way in which it can help overcome powerlessness and loss of identity. In the bad old days here, I became aware of just how powerful small acts of resistance can be in maintaining a sense of self. I’m sure there are instances where resisting the exercise of power even in less extreme circumstances (e.g. by bureaucrats, employers, those in high places)and perhaps as a collective, goes unrecognised and that recognition can contribute to a sense of empowerment.
    Thank you again and thanks to Ryan for showing how it is possible to find a way to balance the ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’

    1. Chanelle Burns

      Dear Ray,

      Thanks so much for your response to my presentation.

      I am aware of the many languages spoken in South Africa and can only imagine how complex this is, alongside matters of history and privilege. I am really excited that my brief sharing has opened a space for you to see that a bridge across the divide of language in South Africa is possible. I would love to hear more about how you are journeying across (or maybe even co-building) this bridge in your work. Please feel free to keep in touch by email if you are interested to do so.

      Ideas around resistance really interest me and I can only imagine how South Africa’s past gave you an insight into the value and power of ‘smalls acts of resistance’. Like I said in my presentation, I am drawn to the work of Allan Wade and found his work really supported me in connecting with the idea that the act of resistance is important rather than what it did or did not achieve. I think that often it can be easy to get caught up in big acts of resistance and to miss the small but significant acts that are informed by people’s hopes, dreams, values, and commitments. What does it mean to connect to, story, and give voice to these small acts of resistance? I think you’re right that in all sorts of circumstances people are enacting small and big acts of resistance and the telling and sharing of these can be powerful.

      I’ll be sure to let Rayan know of your gratitude to him ‘for showing how it is possible to find a way to balance the ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’’.

      Thanks again and maybe I’ll hear from you in the future.

      Warm wishes,


  2. Poh Lin Lee

    Dear Chanelle,

    Thank you for sharing this precious exploration that you have been committed to in your conversations with people from refugee backgrounds.

    As you spoke about the considerations you have for offering back documents I was struck by your words, ‘read out loud…performance’. This brought to my mind the image of creating a sacred space, transforming the counselling room into a co-created theatre in readiness to perform in honour, the person’s words. It had me thinking about the pace in which the document is read, the tone of your voice as you speak the words, the influence you offer in your emphasis and pauses, the way that your pace and tone might influence and invite the interpreter to join with you in the performance. This highlighted to me the importance of care and ritual in this practice.

    While listening to you speak I was connected to the idea of how this practice is moment-by-moment, it is co-created in its finest detail offering counter-practices to power and professional privilege. I appreciated the way you resisted offering cultural norms or truths about ‘how to go about this practice’ opening space for people to assign their own meaning and choose what they value and draw upon from their own language and culture to inform ‘how we will go about this practice together’.

    With warmth

    1. Chanelle Burns

      Dear Poh,

      Thanks so much for your reflections and thoughts.

      I appreciated the imagery you offered of the counselling room as a co-created theatre and I particularly connect to how this imagery steps us into thinking about the different aspects of ‘performing’…like you said pace, tone, pause. I think your mentioning of the interpreter joining in the performance is an important aspect to think about as well…how are they prepared for this performance? Were they part of the co-creation of the document prior to the performance or are they stepping onto the stage for the first time? How might they not only interpret the performance but also contribute to it, or ‘join with’ as you said?

      I resonant and connect with the idea of this practice being moment-by-moment. In reading your reflections and thinking further on this, I found myself thinking about how this moment-by-moment practice is also about offering myself a space to be in the work without expectation of myself and how I am ‘meant-to-be’ in it…a way of personally (and of course professionally) resisting the idea that I have to get it ‘right’. When I am able to resist this, I can embrace how each moment can be an opportunity to co-create, collaborate, do mutual care and respect, and learn alongside each other.

      Thanks again Poh!

      With care,


  3. Kassandra Pedersen

    Dear Chanelle,

    so many things stood out for me while watching your presentation!

    Most of all I hold a big respect for your consideration on the principles that informed your practices. And I was so moved to watch how your consideration expanded as you were becoming more and more engaged with the particularities of the co-creation of narrative documents across language and culture.

    All the thoughtful questions you addressed to yourself that lead to new learnings e.g about ways of note taking that fits with the person you meet. The explorations of the different kind of culturally informed meanings that documents may have for them or according to their past experiences.
    Additionally, I had never thought before that the receiving end is also something to co-negotiate as it’s a another part founded on values.

    As I heard Noan’s story, I was drawn to your note that the document you co-create and the re-telling of him and you as witnesses contributed to the connection to his own unique knowledges. This made me realize the importance of using narrative documentation with people without claiming (or expecting) that this exclusively offers “THE” solution to their problems. After all if trauma disconnect people from their values and from what is important to them, then I see this kind of thoughtful documentation as a mean that contribute to people’s sense of self.

    Ιt was also so moving to watch your eyes fill with restrained tears squeezed and ready to make their appearance while you were reading Ryan’s poem of his multi storied life.

    Thank you Chanelle for sharing this video!

    1. Chanelle Burns

      Hi Kassandra! Thank you so much for your words and thoughts on my video.

      I appreciate your noticing of how my considerations expanded as I engaged more with practices of documentation. I think this is why I was intentional in my use of the work ‘explorations’ in the title of this video (and associated paper) because it really was an exploration with journeying in lots of different directions and making discoveries along the way. My narrative journey continues to be an exploration actually…I love how the notion of ‘exploration’ offers me a space to embrace an ethic of learning and discovery, and to resist ideas of getting it ‘right’ or ideas of failing against a certain idea of what the practices should look like. As you noticed I ask myself a lot of questions that support my learning and exploring…I also bring intentionality to using questions in this video to resist ideas of ‘expertise’ or suggest that how I did things is the way everyone should. I hope that from my work and questions people might find their own questions, discoveries and new ways of being and doing this work.

      Your comment about realising that we can use ‘narrative documentation with people without claiming (or expecting) that this exclusively offers “THE” solution to their problems’ really resonates with me…this was such an important learning for me and has supported me so much in resisting ideas that suggest we need to find solutions as practitioners. As a social worker I think there are some really dominant ideas about ‘problem solving’ and coming to the point of realising that narrative documentation (and other narrative practices too) can be valuable regardless of how it might change or solve a problem has been a journey as well for me.

      Finally my restrained tears…whenever I speak Rayan’s poem out loud I am taken to back to the moments that contributed to it and to my deep respect for Rayan’s story, survival, wisdom, tenacity…these restrained tears speak to all of this. It is a privilege and an honour to work along side the people I do, and I believe that I am even more honoured by Rayan that he would let me share our work with you and everyone else out there. In the sharing of this work I hold Rayan’s and my shared commitment that it might contribute to the work and lives of others. Thanks for sharing how it contributed to you, Kassandra!

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