This is Chené Swart – A Narrative Therapist
Interview with Chene Swart By Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius
I am Chené Swart, greetings from Pretoria, South Africa! As a child of this soil, I am gripped by the gifts of narratives, human connectedness, diversity, moving through and transformation that inspired my book, Re-authoring the World!
As a trained Narrative Therapist, I have been translating these ideas and practices with organisations, communities and individuals from various cultures and contexts both here in South Africa where I live, and internationally. I work as a coach, teacher and facilitator with the re-authoring and co-authoring of narratives in leadership, diversity and inclusion and organisational culture. I therefore stand on the shoulders of local and international partnerships that have deepened and widened the work.
For the last 20 years I have been exploring how we can take back the pen and re-author with dignity and beauty our human presence in this world. The work I bring is an offering to change and challenge the way we look so that we can see and do differently in our relatedness with ourselves, one another and the world. I believe strongly that “the way things are” can be challenged, re-authored and transformed.
Since 2012, I have facilitated apprentice journeys with leaders, coaches, consultants, teachers, social workers and HR professionals who would like to translate these ideas into their own contexts and host conversations that nourish alternative narratives.
I am committed to participate in and contribute to conversations and actions that re-author our world towards the common good, one narrative at a time!
Chené, what was your introduction to Kaospilot and how have the relationship been formed over the years?
A good friend of mine, Nick Nissley (USA), sent me an email mentioning that the Kaospilot team was in Cape Town in the beginning of 2013 and introduced me to Simon Kavanagh who connected me with the team. I happen to lecture at the University of Stellenbosch’s Business school in May, and Tue Juelsbo, arranged for me to share the re-authoring ideas with the team for a couple of hours at the Truth Café where they were based. Later that year I was invited by William Hewett to work with the first- and third-year students around leadership, teamwork and the re-authoring of our world through their final year projects. Since that first meeting, I have had the privilege to work with the different teams annually at the outpost (for the time it was hosted in Cape Town), preparing teams for the outposts, working with first year teams around their leadership narratives, organisational culture and team narratives, and introduced narrative process work to the second- and third-year teams.
This year I had the great privilege to meet with all three teams online focusing on team connectedness, leadership narratives and the relationship to the pandemic.
How would you describe narrative therapy, where does it stem from, what are the underlying beliefs and what does it “do”?
The Narrative therapeutic approach is founded on post-structural ideas and was first developed by two social workers, Michael White (Australia) and David Epston (New Zealand) nearly 30 years ago.
Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives
Narrative re-authoring work facilitates ways of seeing and doing that invite individuals, communities and organisations to take back the pen in the authoring of their lives and their worlds. It builds on the human capacity to weave meaning into narratives in our given world. As we do this work, the beauty, dignity and knowledges of individuals and communities are deeply honoured. Re-authoring work opens up new possibilities and imagined futures wherein human beings co-author their relationships with all things of the world.
Also as far as I am aware it is a form of psychotherapy and one may assume it is aimed at people with mental health problems, but your work with narrative I feel look a lot at developing potential as much as solving problems so to speak?
Because Narrative Therapy also has roots in cultural anthropology, social constructionism, literary theory and critical pedagogy, it provides a way of seeing and doing beyond the therapeutic context and individual work only. Narrative therapy is based on the best kept secret: that we are all meaningMAKERS and storyMAKERS who can nourish moments we want more of and separate from moments we want less of, and as we do, something shifts in what we take for granted.
In Narrative therapy work, we do not see the individual or community as the problem, but the problem as the problem. We believe that problems are supported by societal beliefs and ideas and our focus is therefore on separating problem stories from people or community’s identities. And as we do, alternative narratives become available.
How did your journey into narrative therapy start and what would you say are the benefits with this orientation?
The journey within Narrative Therapy started when a good friend of mine introduced me to this approach at the end of the 90’s. I was stuck in a story in my own life, and felt that the problem was inside of me somehow. That I am the problem. Great was my surprise when the kinds of questions that I was asked, situated the problem outside of me, and I could see the problem for the first time through the eyes of its cultural beliefs and ideas, where it had its roots.
The benefits from this approach are that questions centre storytellers as the experts of their lives with amazing knowledges about life and the art of living. This kind of approach opens up authorship, so that we can see our relationship to problems and problems’ relationship to our lives which opens up the possibility to choose again what kind of relationship we would like to have with the problem, now that we have been spying on its tactics to take over our lives.
In addition, this approach also provides practices that enrich and thicken stories we want more of by inviting our relatedness to all of life to become visible and to show what we have going for us against the problem.
Talk to us about your book “Re-authoring the World”; what is it about, what does it suggest/do/offer and how has it been received?
In 2010 I was invited to teach Narrative ideas to A Small Group in Cincinnati and was consequently asked by Peter Block to write a book that explains Narrative therapy ideas in the work with organisations and communities.
The Re-authoring the World book is written in three parts. Firstly, it provides the different practices and lenses that are gifts from the work. The second part of the book applies the ideas on communal and group work and the last part of the book applies these ideas to the work of leadership, coaching, consulting and transformation.
The book offers practices, processes and ideas that facilitate transformation of our stories as individuals and communities in relationship to the different contexts and worlds we come from.
This week, it is exactly 8 years since it was published and I have been so grateful and surprised that it has travelled to many places in the world and have inspired and invited so many people from diverse backgrounds into these ideas and practices. I am also excited that the book is now being translated into Japanese.
I know that many people I know have been very positive for your work with them and I am curious on your view of why your teachings and work land so well?
When participants tell me that the class was amazing or mind blowing (or any other description of their gratitude), I always ask into the experience for them, as I am curious to understand what the work does. Over the years there has been, a couple of recuring themes that have provided insights into why participants find it meaningful. The experience of human connectedness with strangers, the fascination with stories that have been long forgotten, the imagination and possibilities that open up for people’s lives, the experience of human dignity and respect, and always, the sneaky questions that we don’t have ready-made answers for. One of the Kaospilot students once told me that I become part of the class in such a way that I almost become invisible to the point that the team thinks that they have done this all by themselves. Maybe it has something to do with the way I deconstruct and decentre my power with the participants I journey with.
Consulting your work I feel it offer opportunities for individuals, groups and organisations alike, but how would you view the differences between working with individuals as opposed to groups of different kinds?
Individual work offers the possibility to give my focused attention to see where our curiosity leads us in the exploration.
The work with groups and organisations always offers the possibility of a diversity of stories and experiences and with it the possibility to be witnessed in our stories by at least two other gorgeous strangers in small group work.
There is something magical in groups, that if we are invited to make meaning together, and we name our experiences collectively, we do not need buy in because we have been part of the naming of our worlds and our dreams for the future.
If we talk about leaders and entrepreneurs, what is your experience of working with them in terms of narratives and authoring?
Right from the beginning in my work, leaders would often say, they don’t have a story, especially in western contexts. I was so grateful when the Narrative therapist, Jeff Zimmerman, introduced me to moments as the portal to stories. We all have moments when we showed up as leaders in ways that we want more of. Initially I asked, in ways that you are proud of, and that was also complicated as people did not want to be seen as better than others, or even arrogant.
So often when I work with leaders and entrepreneurs, they find it difficult to relate to these words because of all the descriptions that do not talk of their lived experiences. Participants would tell of moments that they just did what was needed in a particular time, without expecting fancy titles like leader or entrepreneur. As soon as participants name their own stories in their own ways, all of what a leader and entrepreneur should be and do falls away, and the unique contextual expressions of leadership and entrepreneurship receive an opportunity to be seen and noticed, and in a certain sense re-authored.
Given your experience with education and not the least students, how come the interest in your work and indeed narratives and authoring has been growing over the years you think? Also if we would embrace authorship in full, what would something like that require and what do you think it would do?
We live in a society that has so much in mind for our lives, when it comes to success, productivity, the good life and giving back or making a contribution. We are continually measured on continuums of normality for humanity which has then often invited experiences of not being enough and certainly not being good enough.
The imagination that opens up when primary authorship is invited into our lives through narratives, processes and questions often accompanies a sense of freedom and agency, almost becoming participants in our own lives again with the unique gifts we bring alongside a community that care about our hopes and dreams for the world deeply.
I think we live in a unique time where co-authorship of our world is not only possible but so necessary. To embrace authorship in full does not mean that our journey turns into an individualistic endeavour, but that authorship always happens in community, with those that supports our hopes and dreams, it becomes a co-authorship of what matters to and in the world. Authorship and co-authorship bring into focus our relationship to ourselves, one another and the world in ways that invite our imaginations, our lived experiences, our knowledges and gifts to leap into action.
ABOUT CHENE SWART:
Chené Swart is a coach, teacher and facilitator working with the re-authoring and co-authoring of narratives in diversity and inclusion, leadership and organisational culture. She holds a doctoral degree and has translated Narrative Therapy ideas and practices in her work with individuals and communities in South Africa where she lives, and internationally. Chené is committed to participate and contribute to conversations and actions that re-author our world towards the common good, one narrative at a time!
You can read more about her work here: https://transformations.co.za/