The Dot Exercise by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs

Jill Freedman and Gene Combs (2013) developed the Dot Exercise as a tool to visually demonstrate the aspects of narrative therapy. The video shows many dots on a screen wherein each dot represents an experience in a person’s life. The first line drawn connects the dots and shows the problem saturated story line, which is most often the first story line told by the client. The clinician can then probe further and ask questions based off of the problem saturated story line that can lead the client and clinician into other life’s story lines. Multiple story lines can develop giving meaning to the person’s life. These storylines do not take away from the problem story line, yet they create new meaning and help separate the person from the problem.  Below is a visual example that demonstrates all of the many storylines and the possibilities that can lead the clinician to help separate the person from the problem as a meaning making process.

A limitation to this thought process is narrative therapy is a post modern approach and operates from the premise that we can not objectively know reality; all we can do is interpret it (Freedman & Combs, 1996, p.33). This interpretation comes from empathically listening to the client tell and retell implicit and explicit story lines. Narrative therapy involves questioning the dominant truth in both theory and practice leading to the thought of no absolute truths. The offender’s narrative is placed before the dominant cultural narratives (Doran, 1998; Minuchin, 1998; Haugaard, 2015).  This leads narrative therapy to be viewed as a resistant therapy (Haugaard, 2015).  White and Epston (1990) address this concern directly regarding mandated clients, “helping people separate from the problem and assessing it objectively can help them assume responsibility for it” (p.65).  When the offender no longer self-identifies as the problem it can be easier for the offender to accept responsibility for the problem.

Although narrative therapy may be viewed as resistant, clinicians are on the front lines providing mental health treatment and it is important to use best practices to address gaps in treatment services that may not be working. Qualitative research studies show that when aspects of narrative therapy such as valuing the offender’s viewpoint and focusing on the therapeutic relationship between the clinician and offender can yield positive outcomes. A study conducted in North Carolina with sex offenders (Grady & Broderson, 2008) utilized this focus and after treatment asked the offenders what part of treatment they benefitted from. An offender reported after the study:

The respect offered by the therapist helped me separate my crime from my sense of self. The clinician influenced me by letting me know that I was a good person who just made a bad mistake” (Grady & Broderson, 2008, p.337). 

Another offender reported:

“They helped us identify who we are as people” (Grady & Broderson, 2008, p.338).

     Guiding an offender through the narrative therapy process of externalization, deconstruction, and reconstruction can be a process that gives the offender self dignity and empowerment. Developing insight into the offender’s problem saturated story line can help separate the offender from the problem and highlight positive storylines as a meaning-making process. This meaning making process can help improve accuracy in self-assessment, increase responsiveness to change, lessen stressful encounters, and facilitate collaborative problem solving and decision making (Brownell, 2015). As the offenders begin to realize they have an audience in the other group members, they tend to share more of their skills, beliefs, and values which assists them in self-assessment. They are also more responsive to change once they begin receiving feedback from other group members. The offender is viewed as the expert in his life and the therapeutic alliance between the clinician and offender must collaborate on problem solving and decision making throughout the treatment .


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