There are times when people leave the walk-in counselling clinic without clear next steps.  Sometimes I’ll hear that our time together was useful as it was just “a chance to talk to someone outside of things” and "to get some things out".  For a long time I had wondered about these statements and considered if, as the therapist, I hadn’t done well enough.  Perhaps I hadn’t asked the kinds of questions that would offer a path to other possibilities.  However those considerations would not be acknowledging of this feedback and what people did take from the conversation.  Through further consideration the practice of what I refer to as ‘contexting’ has come to the foreground and has me wondering more. 


Contexting refers to the ways in which our questions foreground the context of people’s distress assisting them to make sense of their experiences.  It’s a process of questioning that establishes links between events in life and distress experienced.  Context is ever present in narrative thinking.  Its necessary for making sense of ones life, other people and events. Yet master problem narratives have a way of leaving context out.  They profit from a tabloid approach to story, eclipsing important details and promoting stock plots and thin characterizations of people (Lindemann Nelson, 2001). 

Often youth and adults come to the walk-in clinic experiencing the meaning of distress as split off from events in life.  They struggle to link their experience of distress to the events of their lives or in contributing to the conclusions they hold about themselves.  Their experience of distress is often storied as an aberration of the brain, a mental illness, or some flaw in character or personality.  These narratives lack the context that assist people to make sense of their experience.  They are highly limiting narratives making for a very narrow field of responses to the world. 

In bringing the context of people’s lives into the conversation people may find new or revised meanings that offer  new or different ways forward and/or more preferred ways of knowing themselves.   In discussing context we are recognizing the complexity of life and honouring the lived experience of people who consult to us.   The practice of ‘contexting’ emerges easily in brief narrative practice as understanding the person in context is of prime interest. It is rare to meet someone without context to their distress.  When I do meet people with decontextualized problems I will query physical contributors such as food allergies, celiac, thyroid, and request blood work to rule out possible physical aspects. 

There are many ways to assist people to bring forward the context of their lives.  

  • Externalizing conversations provide a way to learn about the context of people’s distress.  Questions that seek to learn when the Problem first came into their life or began taking up too much space in their thinking can be useful in drawing links.  
  • Context also comes available when we hear ‘expressions of life’ as ‘responses’ rather than ‘symptoms’ (see Wade, 1997). What is often seen as a symptom of a mental health problem often make sense as resistance in the context of people’s experiences of hardship, violence, trespass, or oppression.  Understood as responses to these aspects, distress takes on a meaningful place in the flow of life. 
  • We can ask linking questions that wonder about connections between experiences and distress. What sense do you make of this distress you have been experiencing?  Do you connect this in some way to the experiences of bullying you have endured?  
  • Lastly people may be making their own connections to the events in their life.  How can we be open to hearing those ideas and develop our curiosity about them?  

In light of these kinds of conversations at the walk-in therapy clinic it now makes more sense to me how people will find ‘just talking’ useful and perhaps in small ways liberating.    

In Curiosity,



Lindemann Nelson, H. (2001). Damaged identities, narrative repair. Cornell University Press, New York. 

Wade, A. (1997). Small acts of living:  Everyday resistance to violence and other forms of oppression. Contemporary Family Therapy, 19 (1), 23-39.

© Scot J. Cooper Inc. 2023