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Fam Proc 15:427-431, 1976

The Use of Teaching Stories in Conjoint Family Therapy

aProfessor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington.

Two general factors have been singled out as being held in common by all types of psychotherapy: an educational,
rational factor (often called "content") and a factor operative in the relationship between the therapist and his patient
(often called "process"). In the field of family therapy, the non-educational aspects of intervention are sometimes
presented in the form of "therapeutic, paradoxical communications" (Haley, Bateson, Jackson, Weakland) or the
"therapy of the absurd" (Whitaker, Malone). In the present paper, I wish to present a form of therapeutic
communication, the teaching story, that embodies a unique mixture of both the educational and the paradox, or absurd.
The goal of all therapy is change. Yet, before change can occur, the possibility of change has to be confronted and
actively entertained by the individual and/or the family system. There are a number of ways in which the therapist can
attempt to facilitate this: He can confront and interpret, he can act as a role model, an educator, an authority figure who
prescribes changes in behavior; he can promote and direct role-playing and role rehearsal or family sculpturing; or he can
restate old situations in new ways. The vehicle for all these interventions is the so-called "therapeutic communication." As
initially conceived in individual psychotherapy, the therapeutic communication is a clear, unambiguous verbal statement, its
purpose being simply to correct the patient's misinterpretation or misreading of reality. In family therapy, too, the primary
need appeared to be for the therapist to be as clear, precise, and unambiguous as possible and to act as mediator, interpretor
of garbled messages, and clarifier of confused and confusing communications. However, other classes of therapeutic
communications have gradually been added to this clear verbal one, some of which make use of nonverbal communication,
others of the double aspects of communication, the content and the relationship components inherent in all verbal messages.
In the latter area in particular, the Palo Alto group has over the past decades developed many of the ideas now widely
applied in the field of family therapy, such as the double bind and the therapeutic paradoxical communication. Jay Haley
(1), for instance, arrives at the formulation that therapists operate by offering families an educational factor to help them
behave differently and therapeutic paradoxes to force them to do so. If it remains a mystery just how the various manifold
methods of psychotherapy cause a person to change, it can at least be said that one factor held in common by all these
methods is that the therapist poses paradoxes for the patient in their relationship. It is, in Haley's words, a "dead serious
play" (1, p. 186).
In this paper we want to focus on a form of therapeutic intervention that provides a unique mixture of education and
paradox, namely teaching stories. These are not to be confused with parables, which are generally confined to the
inculcation of moralistic principles, nor are they stories told for entertainment. What, then, are teaching stories?
Idries Shah (2) defines the teaching story as an ancient, yet irreplaceable, method of arranging and transmitting a
knowledge that cannot be put in any other way. These stories are conscious works of art, devised by people who know
exactly what they are doing, for use by other people who know exactly what can be done with them. In accordance with the
degree of the preparation of an individual or group, successive layers of the story become apparent and successive
meanings can be unraveled.
The use of these stories, then, has several purposes. They are based on the conviction that one cannot learn the truth
(about oneself) from the outside, from being told. Each person must think it through and experience it for himself. He must
taste it in order to know it. This is another way of describing the effect of a teaching storyby saying that it connects with a
part of an individual that cannot be reached by any other convention and that it establishes in him or her a means of
communication with a nonverbalized truth beyond the customary limitations of our familiar dimensions. Incidentally, yet
another but quite different reason for the use of teaching stories in the past lay in their highly symbolic and metaphoric
form, which served to disguise their meaning and protect the story teller from the uninitiated. In this way, opinions or
"truths" could be expressed that were at odds with the prevailing doctrines of the time.
The quotations taken from Idries Shah refer to the Sufi tradition,1 but teaching stories have been used throughout the
ages in many philosophical and religious movements, and often the same story can be found in Sufi teachings, in the
Hassidic tradition, and in Zen. Many of these stories have found their way into fables, children's stories, folk tales, and the
like, often at the price of losing their original message. The advantage of using teaching stories in family therapy lies, I
believe, precisely in their multi-dimensionality, so that they carry a message or comment on several levels, not only of
understanding but also of impact. The intent of using this special means of communication is to go beyond the
communication of meaning through the ordinary intellectual channels alone. Furthermore, by telling a teaching story to a
family, one has in some ways put them into a double-bind position. If the therapist says: "I will tell you a story," he clearly
signals his intent to give them a message, yet the message that he gives is intentionally ambiguous and multi-dimensional.


Yet another reason for selectively using the teaching story form of therapeutic communication in family therapy derives
from certain principles of systems theory: the clear, simple, unambiguous verbal message is based, more often than not, on
the concept of a direct, linear, progressive, cause-effect chain of events. Family therapy, based on general systems theory,
views events as part of an interactional, circular, or oscillating chain of cause-effect-cause-etc. A simple Sufi story reflects
this point: A Sufi Master was once asked: "What is fate?" He replied: "Fate is an endless succession of intertwined events,
each influencing the other." His questioner was not satisfied and demanded to know how such a view could accommodate
cause and effect. "Very well,"said the Master, "Look at that," and he pointed at a procession passing in the street. "That man
is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which
he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?"
How do families react to the paradoxical aspects of the teaching story? In most instances, they will attempt first of all to
get more "clarification" from the therapist, who has suddenly deviated from his previous pattern of precise, clear,
unambiguous communication. Naturally, it is very important at this point that the therapist not let himself be maneuvered by
his audience into a discussion, elaboration, or explanation of the story, which would only lead to a restriction of the
ambiguity and multi-dimensionality of the story and thus defeat his purpose. Also, having labeled it as a story and not an
interpretation or explanation, he declines responsibility for any of the contents. He has not expressed an opinion; he has just
told a story. However, in so doing, he has commented indirectly on several levels of meaning about an ongoing situation,
and he has seeded a number of ideas, set in motion a number of forces. It is now up to the individuals themselves to make
their own discoveries, their own interpretation, and thus move toward possibly perceiving relationships in new ways,
toward "tasting," new realities. The task imposed on them is to decipher the metaphor, each on his own level, and then to
negotiate with each other for an interpretation acceptable to all. In the process, the boundaries of the subsystems are
redefined and the individuals emerge more clearly (to themselves and to each other), a task that is accomplished without the
direct help of the therapist who remains aloof and declines responsibility for giving further directions.

Most families demand an explanation early in conjoint therapy of why they all have to come for therapy, since the "index
patient" is obviously the only one who needs it. The therapist can deal with this demand in several ways. He can simply
state that he is a family therapist and that is the way in which he works (implying that they can, of course, choose to seek
help elsewhere); he can launch into an explanation of the principles of family therapy and the rationale for it; he can state
that he needs their presence if he is to help the "index patient"; or he can reply with a metaphor. For example, Carl
Whitaker (3) likes to use an aphoristic saying of Mark Twain to the effect that the index patient reminds him (Dr. Whitaker)
of Mark Twain's observation that the "town drunk" was an elected official, just like a judge: a man has to run for the
position and be elected. I, for my part, like to tell them the following Sufi story. One evening a man was walking toward his
home at the outskirts of the city. As he turned into a deserted street, he saw a group of men coming toward him. His
imagination began to work and he became afraid of what they would do to himrob him, beat him up, or worse. His fear
grew to the point where, trying to escape, he jumped over a fence and stumbled into a building site. The men in their turn
saw him jump and heard the commotion in the yard, became curious, and some went after him. They found him lying there,
frozen in fear, and one said with concern: "What is wrong with you, can we help you?" Our friend realized his mistake, his
fear abated, he sat up and started to think rationally again. He turned his attention now to the question of this man who had
asked if he could help him. He thought it over and said: "Well, it's more complicated than you assume. You see, I am here
because of you; and you, you are here because of me."
Another example concerns the situation in which a young man struggled desperately in his family to find his way
between his need to define himself as a person in his own right and his need to live up to the role and the expectation of his
family. I remembered the old Hassidic legend concerning Rabbi Susya, who said a short while before his death: "In the
world to come, I shall not be asked, 'Why were you not like Moses?' I shall be asked, 'Why were you not Susya?'"
In other situations, especially in couples therapy, the therapist often finds himself in the middle between the two partners
who try to force him to take sides in their quarrel. In his attempts to stay above their quarrel, the therapist again has several
options, among them the use of a number of teaching stories. One such story is about the new Rabbi who is sitting in
judgment over a quarrel between two families. The spokesman for the first family is most eloquent and states its case in a
brilliant display of rhetoric. The Rabbi is very impressed and says to the speaker: "That was a fine presentation, and I'm
sure you are right." Quickly, the court secretary intervenes and points out to the Rabbi that he has to hear the spokesman of
the other family before giving judgment. Of course the Rabbi consents and proceeds to hear the other spokesman, who is
equally eloquent and brilliant. Again, the Rabbi is so impressed that he nods his head and says: "Yes, I can see it, you must
be right." Whereupon the court secretary again intervenes and points out that both parties cannot possibly be right. The
Rabbi listens, reflects, and finally consents, saying to his court secretary: "Well, I am sure you must be right, too."
Another example concerns the situation in family therapy in which a pseudo-problem is brought up repeatedly and the
therapist is pressed to come up with advice for a solution. A pertinent Zen story tells of a monk who once approached a Zen
Master and asked to be enlightened about Zen. The Master said to him: "Come again when there is nobody around and I


will tell you what it is." The monk waited impatiently for an appropriate moment and some time later cam e again to the
Master and implored: "Now there is no one about, tell me the secret." The Master said: "Come up closer." When the monk
did so, the Master whispered to him: "Zen is something that cannot be conveyed by word of mouth."
The answer unmasks the pseudo-nature of the question. Instead of telling us what the problem is, Zen insists that the
whole trouble is just our failure to realize that there is no problem. Of course, if there is no simple problem, then it follows
that there is no handy solution either.
Another story with a similar message concerns the man who, one dark night, sees one of his neighbors on his hands and
knees under the streetlight in front of his house. Concerned, he goes out and asks him what is the matter. The neighbor
replies that he has lost the key to his house. So the man, too, goes down on his hands and knees to help him look for the key.
After a while, he asks his neighbor whether he is sure that this is the place where he dropped the key. The neighbor says no,
he thinks he lost it over there, but they can see better under the streetlight.
A last example is an Hassidic tale that tells of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. "I
will show you Hell," said the Lord and led the Rabbi into a room in the middle of which was a very big round table. The
people sitting at it looked famished and desperate. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, enough for everyone.
The smell of the stew was delicious and made the Rabbi's mouth water. The people around the table were holding spoons
with very long handles. Each one found that it was just possible to reach the pot to take a spoonful of the stew, but because
the handle of his spoon was longer than a man's arm, he could not get the food back into his mouth. The Rabbi saw that
their suffering was terrible. "Now I will show you Heaven," said the Lord, and they went into another room exactly the same
as the first. There was the same big round table and the same pot of stew. The people, as before, were equipped with the
same long-handled spoons, but here they were well-nourished and plump, laughing and talking. At first the Rabbi could not
understand. "It is simple, but it required a certain skill," said the Lord. "You see, they have learned to feed each other."

The Self of the Therapist

The degree to which a therapist shares a significant part or aspect of himself with his patients varies greatly from one
system of psychotherapy to another. In family therapy, and conjoint family therapy especially, the therapist cannot remain
detached. He must simply involve himself as a participant in his own right, as a real person. The form, the ways in which he
achieves this, are of course as numerous as are therapists. But it has been my observation that the avenue most often chosen
by the therapist is one using personal anecdotal material that conveys the message: "Yes, I know what you are up against; I,
too, have been there; I, too, have experienced that." Since the therapist is, a priori, the well-integrated man, he would be
using this personal anecdotal material to point toward another reality that presumably is accessible to the patient/family as
The true teaching story is an infinitely more personal contribution than such anecdotal material. It is a communication the
therapist himself has received at one time, from a teacher, a friend, a book or whatever, and on which he has thought and
meditated often and deeply until the story has assumed for him a deep and personal meaning and the value of an important
truth about himself. To share such a story is therefore a very personal act, a very private contribution. Whether this
particular and important personal aspect of his communication is effective, whether its sincerity will be recognized by the
patient or family, will presumably depend very much, like all therapeutic communications, on timing, appropriateness, and

1. Haley, Jay, Strategies of Psychotherapy, New York, Grune and Stratton, 1972.
2. Idries Shah, The Sufis, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1964.
3. Whitaker, Carl, "Psychotherapy of the Absurd," Fam. Proc., 14, 1-16, 1975.

Reprint requests should be addressed to Carl Fellner, M.D., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
University of Washington, Coach House, Building 8, 2309 N.E. 48th Street, Seattle, Washington 98105.

1Sufismascetic Islamic mysticism and system of philosophy, originating in Persia in the 8th century, seeking perfection of the