On 12th May 2019, sitting amidst a roomful of 30 persons, gathered to spend the day in continuing skill training in Narrative Practices, I was transported to the cafe seats 3 years back. It was the day I met Raviraj and Jehanzeb to discuss the possibilities of bringing the Narrative training to Kolkata, with Mental Health Foundation as its host. And here we were, two years down the line. It was the first time the two batches met each other for a skill training class with our mentor duo R-J. Since our group was large we had to seek out a space outside MHF to contain us. A third batch was about to start a day later. All these were adding to the heady feeling of fruition of possibilities. It all culminated in all of us greeting R-J with a roar of excitement as they walked through the door straight from the airport.

Our collective is named Kol-katha. A name that is becoming synonymous with a safe space to contain the challenging skill training journey, a space where we are among friends, a space where hands are held and new directions were found together. A collective with a single focus of discussing and delving into Narrative ideas and practices made possible in Kolkata. Our ‘becoming’ is helped by the peer group meetings, in between and onwards from the training blocks.

While this space was made possible and all full of excitement and togetherness, our faculty had a keen eye on us and our skills. While discussing earlier about what the day should look like, they had felt that before we move on to learning other maps and contexts of application of Narrative ideas, we needed more skill development. So skill training became our goal for the day.

The training was roughly divided in two halves. The first half was an exercise. We got into groups. The task was simple: Make questions to interview a character. As we started with gusto, we kept making questions in small groups while Raviraj and Jehanzeb moved around hearing them. We thought of maps, made questions from the maps, altogether feeling on top of the exercise. I noticed from far, R-J asked more questions back to the groups that appeared to stir them up and re-strategize. It got me curious! Soon it was our group’s turn and the questions from them were :

  • What is your intention?
  • What do you think the question will put your interviewee (Tintin who had just returned from Tibet) in touch with?

And that was a game changer. It challenged us beautifully. And we got caught in specific words, language, intentions with renewed direction. R-J’s feedback that “yes you all are thinking of the Narrative possibilities” was very heartening and the new direction was the skill of creating a question as a bridge to transport the interview process to that area.

What helped me learn intensively was the fact that we did the exercise in groups. Our group of 6 supported the co-construction of the interview. We did need each other’s inputs and safely critiqued each word and language so they matched the Narrative maps. At the end, we heard possibilities of thirty brains and how they all converged to the skill of question-making with R-J as our guide. It was a power packed learning experience.

We knew this had borne fruit from the second exercise. It was a live interview where one of us volunteered as an interviewee, Jehanzeb interviewed, while the rest of the group of 30 watched. We observed the little things like body language, tone of voice, eye gaze, language used by the interviewer and so on. We were doing two things at once, (1) observing Jehanzeb and (2) being Jehanzeb to support the interview with more questions. We heard the story unfold, we joined in double listening.

While all of us looked calm on the outside, we were very busy framing useful questions that will help us and our interviewee friend find the preferred, the alternate. Because of the morning exercise we were more in tune with our intentions for the interviewee , then framing the question came easily. I noticed that the language was not as coherent as the exercises in handouts but were understood and well taken by the interviewee.  We felt challenged and rewarded at the same time.

After a day like this, I felt learning Narrative practices is often not easy. In a simplistic way it calls for a philosophical shift on part of the therapist, the attitude to deconstruct. It calls for being skillful in double listening to another’s story with the intention of unpacking the person’s skills, values and actions that generically gets described as ‘agency’. All this is tied up together with a skillfully constructed question at the face of it.

The reflections shared by the participants highlighted how useful the day had been by putting us all back in touch with the core skill of question building in an ongoing conversation. Something we have been trying by ourselves till now, we got a chance to collectively learn under the keen eyes and ears of Raviraj and Jehanzeb. Couple of phrases leap up as my take away’s:

“ Practice! Practice! Practice!”

“This is not done alone but practiced in communion”

At Kol-katha, reward, gratitude and hope prevailed.

About the Author –

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Priyanka is trained in clinical psychology with the chief area of interest being child, adolescent, young adults and family mental health. After completing her M.Phil in Clinical Psychology  from the University of Kolkata, she has been a mental health practitioner over last 12 to 15 years. She met Narrative Ideas in 2016 at the Conference hosted by Ummeed Child Development Center in Mumbai and was drawn TO THEM since. She imbibes narrative practices in her clinical work. The organization she belongs to, Mental Health Foundation, has community training and capacity building as one of its core areas of service and she saw an instant connect there. She has been instrumental in bringing Training in Narrative Ideas to Kolkata through inviting the rigorous training programme that was successfully under way at Ummeed, Mumbai to her city Kolkata.

She has been a learner and a coordinator for the training at Kolkata over last 3 years. She hopes to support the peer group supervision culture in her city.

She teaches in the Masters in Psychology programme at West Bengal State Universtity and visualizes what training in mental health can look like.

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