3 Questions with John Launer: A New Approach to Training in Narrative Practice

John Launer is a retired family physician and family therapist, now working as a full-time educator and writer. He has taught internationally on the application of narrative ideas and skills to medical practice including patient encounters, supervision and teamwork. He is also a member of the NBM Lab’s International Advisory Board.

John spoke to us about the Conversations Inviting Change (CIC) trainings he co-originated. These trainings are narrative-based models for interactional skills used in encounters with patients, clients, and families, as well as for individual and group supervision, mentoring, coaching, team facilitation, and conflict resolution.

Damian: Tell us about Conversations Inviting Change (CIC). What are the needs that led to this project? How did the work begin?

John: We started to teach Conversations Inviting Change in 1995 at the Tavistock Clinic in London — a training institute for mental health with a tradition of teaching therapeutic skills to health professionals, including general practitioners (GPs) and nurses. We wanted to help practitioners manage their everyday work, such as complex physical and emotional problems, and family or childhood issues. We drew on a lot of ideas from family systems therapy and narrative therapy. We helped people apply the same approach to consultations but also to training, supervision, and teamwork. We were already doing this when the narrative medicine movement emerged, and we found a natural place within it.

Damian: Could you take us into the details of your approach in these sessions? What form does this training method take? Who are your participants?

John: Nearly all our training consists of interactional work in small groups. Participants bring narratives of real cases and dilemmas. We coach them to offer peer supervision to each other, applying close listening and focused questioning in order to create space for new thoughts and resolutions to emerge. We teach people that stories have their own momentum:

You don’t need to interpret what people say or nudge them in any direction, just allow them to breathe new life into their own stories.

Once people learn this approach and the techniques that go with it, they report being able to use this with patients, learners, and colleagues. We run workshops lasting from a single day to once a week for a year. We’ve taught thousands of professionals from primary and secondary care: not only doctors and nurses but physiotherapists, osteopaths, dentists, counsellors, and just about everybody.

Damian: I understand Conversations Inviting Change has expanded internationally. What has been the response from participants around the world?

John: We’ve taught Conversations Inviting Change on four continents — Europe, America, Asia, and Australia — and in over twenty countries. We try to adapt for each cultural context, but the core concepts seem universal. These include the need to tell stories about one’s difficulties and hopes, how helpful it is to be on the receiving end of close listening and careful questioning, and how liberating it is not to have other people try and fix your problems for you – or to have to try and do this all the time for others.

Damian: What are your future plans for this project?

John: An increasing amount of our teaching is online, so people can join workshops or courses from around the world. We’re also combining this with live workshops and events. Currently, we’re offering an online course for physicians in Japan, following two weeks of live teaching there. I’m also in discussions with the School of Health Humanities at Peking University about teaching there. My hope is to build many more bridges between narrative medicine in universities and training for clinical practitioners.

Visit the Conversations Inviting Change (CIC) website to learn more about their future work.