Some Extra Information


Notes on Using Figures in Consultations

Relationship overviews

Getting started

Theoretical perspectives

The story of the app


Relationship Overviews

When you can’t see the forest for the trees. A situation where people are over-focussing on the day to day tribulations of their situation they can easily lose sight of the larger picture of their values and considerations.   Using figures in a conversation about relationship issues invites a person to consider their situation from an elevated position, to see an overview and where the broader context are made apparent.  The person is invited to survey their situation, and where they are having difficulties arising from the stressors of everyday living and limited mentalizing, the process of surveying can provide enough insight and understanding to give impetus and direction for helpful change.

A relationship overview can contributes to the conversation by giving the participants a different position and additional perspectives for considering their situation and for talking together.

When someone arranges the figures everyone is drawn in to a joint focus on how they are being placed in relation to each other.  This will usually awaken curiosity about how the process should be interpreted and understood as the conversation unfurls.

One difference is that the people will be looking at the relationship overview as well as at each other.  Their view will be from a short distance away and slightly above, an elevated position of observation and participation. Aspects of the ‘forest’ can appear from their viewing above the ‘trees’. As I see it, they will adopt an observing surveying position as well as a participant position to their situation and they will be exploring as well as demonstrating their perspectives.  Making a relationship overview often involves moments of uncertainty and a duality of statement and question: ‘This is how I see it’ and ‘Is this how I see it?’.

Making a relationship overview involves addressing the question ‘What is in my life?’ on a broader level.  Talking about difficulties in relationships can lead to people getting caught up in the details of everyday frustrations and connections between difficulties and perspectives may get lost.  It is often more helpful with  a meta question.
In an elevated observing position you can explore how you see things and how they can appear differently.  It has become an area for exploration.

A relationship overview invites questions of who the other people are for me, who am I for them, and how do we belong together.  It opens for questions about the assumptions people hold about each other, about beliefs, feelings and behaviour.  The history they have had together, the part they play in each others lives now and their hopes and expectations for the future.

A relationship overview can help to clarify dilemmas, difficulties, resources and solutions. When working with couples families or groups people are able show each other their point of view as well as talking about them. Family sessions become more child friendly as the children have something concrete to relate to when they are expressing themselves and it is easier to give everyone their turn to talk.

Follow this link to go to Steven Balmbra's website about relationship overviews and read about how they can contribute to counselling and therapy.

Getting Started

People in my Life can be used in different stages of family conversations. Some therapists prefer to get to know the family before they introduce figures, where as others use them at the beginning as a way of becoming acquainted with the family and their situation. It can also be used again in later sessions as a basis for talking about how things have changed for the family.

Introducing Using Figures to the Family

Using an app in a conversation will be an unusual form of communication for most families.
It a good idea to begin by talking about how you intend to manage the conversation.
You can say that you will start by talking to one person at a time, listening to their point of view first and then hearing from the others about their perspectives.
Ask the parents if it is ok to begin by talking to one of the children, and let them know that you would like them to just listen at first, even if what is said seems to be incorrect, because you will also talking to them about their perspectives and they will have plenty of opportunity to put forward their own views.

Allaying Children’s Concerns

When talking to children, it is important that they do not feel worried about making mistakes so begin by letting them know that this is not a game or a test, and that they do not have to be worried about winning, losing or doing it wrong.  They can think of the figures on the screen as little actors who they can take the place of the people they know best to help everyone to understand them better.


The age and level of maturity of the children will influence the way you talk about the set. Younger children may need some of guidance. Tell them that you will be asking them questions and helping them as they go along, but that they do not have to answer if they do not want to. If they want to ask someone for help to answer, that is quite all right.

Adolescents might think that using figures seems childish and so it is as well to say that although it may appear as a game, this app is not just for children and is also used by adults.

Reluctance and Refusal

If a child is reluctant to be the first to use the set then start with one of the others. They may well change their minds after others in the family have had a turn and you can ask them later if they want to try. It is also possible to take a circular questioning approach and ask if another family member can set out the figures for them, and that they can say if they do not do it quite right.

Using figures is a very direct form of communication and children might be worried about being disloyal. Do not press children to use the figures if they refuse - they may have a very good reason for not wanting to do so and it is not ethical to use them to expose secrets in their family. This is not generally a problem, but in some circumstances exposing a family secret could put them in a difficult position.

Choosing and Placing Figures

When you open the figure window and ask the person to choose a figure that can represent them self you can say that the figure does not have to look just like them, in the same way an actor in a film does not look exactly like the person they are playing.

When using the hexagon background the first figure is usually placed on the centre.

The other family members who are present can choose their own figure, but sometimes the choices they make for each other can be a source of interesting discussion.

Pets can be central members of a family, good friends and sometimes trouble-makers and when appropriate they should be included. Questions like “What do you think that Buster would say about this if he could talk?” can be very helpful.

You can ask if there is anyone that they no longer have contact but who has been important to them.  Figures for people who are deceased or have moved far away can be given a grey tone to indicate that they are no longer present in their lives.

It is generally more useful to focus on resources rather than weaknesses, and on solutions or attempts at solutions rather than on difficulties. However it is important that the person experience that they are being heard and that their concerns are being taken seriously.

It is well to ask whether there are people that they do not like, that have caused them trouble or that they are afraid of. Ask them to try to find a place for them and talk about what they have done to make things difficult.

Do not stick with a person’s here-and-now situation.  You can ask them, for example, how they would like to see things to be for them in the future and then talk about what kind of changes they think would help to get there.

The Kind of Questions it can be Helpful to Ask

Relationship Questions

Who knows whom, how they get on, what do they do together?

Which figures belong together and which do not?

Who can they turn to if they need caring or support?

Who they think understands them and the situation that they are in?

Who can explain things to them, and what do they want to know

Who they look up to, have fun with, like to be with, feel safe with?

Is there anybody else that should be here, or that you wish could be present?

Who do they not like or are afraid of and why this is?

Alternative Views

How the figures were before their present difficulties began?

How were the figures when a certain event happened?

How they would like things to be in the future?

How they are worried things could turn out?

Comparing Perspectives

After a child has set out the figures, ask other family members whether they have understood the child's situation in a similar way or differently. You can ask parents to keep the child’s figure in place but move other figures to demonstrate how they have understood their child's situation and talk about the differences.

Circular Questions

You can also ask the person to rearrange the figures to show how they think another person see things. “If your sister were to set out the figures now, can you show me how you think she would do it?” Why would she do it like that?

Problem-orientated questions

If a family member has a particular problem you can ask them to chose a Trouble Troll to represent the problem and bring it onto the board.  The colour and size of the Troll can reflect what the problem is like for them.

Ask about

Where should it be placed and what effect is it having on them?
Is there anyone else it is affecting?

How is that?

Who can help them deal with the Trouble Troll, and how?

Change-related questions

You can move certain key figures and then ask what would be different for them if the situation were like this?

Ask them to choose a Fantasy Friend

Ask who the Fantasy Friend would want to help first?

What they would want to do to make things better?

Who would help?

A few more suggestions

Each conversation should be allowed to develop in its own unique way so do not be tempted to develop a fixed procedure for how you use the figures and backgrounds.

Keep a curious “not knowing” position and be aware of interesting or unexpected positions of figures and ask in detail about these.

The focus of the conversation does not have to stay with the figures during all the session. The tablet can be put down while discussing a theme that turns up, and be returned to as and when it is appropriate.

Encourage children and family members to be creative in the the way they use the figures.

Working with Figures with Families

Many years ago, Dare and Lindsey described family therapy as “doing couple therapy in front of the children" which pretty much described many of the sessions I was leading as an inexperienced family therapist. When I began introducing figures in some of my conversations with families, family sessions changed in a number of ways.

I found a variety of ways of bringing in the various perspectives of all the family members and I noticed that we got to talking about fundamental issues more quickly.  Using figures gave the conversations structure and direction.  Words and images worked together to expand the communication in a way that engaged the whole family and helped to clarify and simplify the problems that they were dealing with.  There was often strong elements of playfulness and humour which tended to unlock rigidly held positions and promote more creative attitudes to looking for how to go forward.

I usually told the parents in advance that I wanted to talk with their children about their understandings and asked them if they would agree to let me do so without interrupting, even if they disagreed about what was said.  I said that I would be asking them about their points of view after a while but that I first wanted to find more about the inner understandings of their children.  Of course they could help out their children if they wanted it.  In the session I Would tell the children about this agreement and this made it much easier for me to intervene if a parent forgot themselves and started to take over.
Sometimes there were parents whose perspectives were very dominant in the family.  They became uncomfortable with points of view that contrasted their own being expressed and I would have to deal with this.  However, it seemed to me that this was an important part of helping these families to find better ways of dealing with their difficulties.

I usually arranged a follow-up session with the parents shortly after the family conversation to discuss how to understand what had come up.  In the follow up I found it best to begin by asking the parents to talk about their impressions and particularly what seemed unusual or had surprised them.  I also shared my own impressions with them and discussed similarities and differences of understandings, not to decide who was correct but to broaden the horizon of possibilities.

I avoided setting up a routine of practice with the figures and rather tried to be sensitive to which aspects had most energy in them.  When talking about the overviews there were often two different pathways to follow, to talk about the broader picture, how things were associated with  to each other, or to go into the details of one particular relationship or a small group.  There were often important relationships outside the family to talk about, such as bullying and ostracising, and the ways different family members perceived these and related to them.  The figures seemed to help families make sense of each other’s dilemmas.

Theoretical Perspectives

Using People in my Life figures to make relationship overviews and with other therapeutic approaches.

Other Approaches

Mentalizing, Collaborative, Externalising problems, Solution focus, Circular questions.


The mentalizing window invites family members to discuss how they remember a person said, what they believed they were thinking, how they felt and their bodily condition in a particular situation, including here and now.

What was the situation concerned and what they remember that people did and what they said.  What they think people were thinking, what they think they were sensing and feeling.

How they think other people understood the situation they were in. Whether their understanding of the situation has changed in any way.


The original Family Dialogue Set was developed to encompass the problem systems or language systems approach that has now become the collaborative approach.  All the relevant participants in difficult situation can be brought onto the screen and their perspectives and contributions can be considered.  The data tablet can be easily connected to a TV, screen or projector via a cable or blutooth so that the visual presentation is available to any number of people at a session, meeting or consultation.  


The trouble trolls in the app can represent externalised problems and brought into a narrative about the scope of a problem and the determination, means and resources for tackling it.  The Trouble Trolls are in different colours and sizes to represent a variety of difficulties a person or family may be struggling with.

Problem Solution

The Fantasy Friends represent 'magical' problem solutions that can be brought into the conversation.  The clown can be said to have the ability to make someone who is sad more happy.  The conversation could concern who the clown would think needs help the most, what s/he would could do to make the person happy, how would others notice that this had happened and what consequences would that have for them.  Similar conversations can concern a fairy who can grant certain kinds of wishes, a clairvoyant who can look into the future where things have changed and a robot with the strength to intervene in threatening situations.  Children may find their own ways of using the figures and an experienced professional can be creative in ways of including then in conversations.


Drawing a genogram is one of the most useful aids to conversations about family relationships. Genograms can be made constructed using figures, bringing more to life what is usually a plain diagram.  The genogram or family map is a very useful tool in work with individuals, couples and families.

The blue lined background can be used as a base to produce a genogram illustrated and brought to life with figures.  Family members that are deceased but still very much a part of peoples thoughts and feelings can be included and shown in grey scale to indicate that they are no longer alive.  Genograms can be very useful in talking about how the culture of the family has developed through generations.  Attitudes, coping strategies, health and sickness, interests and preferences, conflicts and alliances can be discussed in the light of the family's present situation.  Symbols and labels can be added to make these aspects more apparent.

Attachment Narrative

When figures are placed on the background, questions like who sought comfort where and how it was given can be brought into the conversation.


This approach was fronted by Bronfenbrenner who devised a way of mapping social networks by drawing symbols on a 5 sector circular chart.  Others have developed their own versions of his original chart, The 6-sector Circle background used is the same as the Circle Board of Family Dialogue Set, developed for the placement of figures instead of drawn symbols.  The advantage of using figures is that the visualisation of the social network is more flexible and dynamic.  With People in my Life the sectors can be defined and named in any way by using the label function and figures can be both placed and re-arranged as the conversation around them develops.

Labels can be added to define social areas such as family, relatives, friends, school/work, religious institutions, clubs or teams, professional helpers. Figures can be placed in the relevant sectors and closenedd to the centre can show their importance or relevance to a person or circumstance.

The social network is mapped with a particular focus on significant others who are placed in relation to each other while the conversation unfolds. Themes for conversations concern fundamental relationship issues such as closeness and distance, fellowship, personal boundaries, difficulties, trust, comforting, recognition, consideration, care, support, belonging, communication, understanding, similarity and difference. Talk about resources, shares activities and interests, decision-making, influence, mutuality, ambivalence, resistance and progression. Perspectives fron the past, present and future, regret, anxiety, hope, longing, intention, concern and fear can be shown as a basis for discussing understanding and change.

Emotional Awareness

Some people have difficulty in recognising and expressing basic emotions and this can leave them at a great disadvantage in dealing with and understanding relationship issues.  The coloured circle board has been designed so that each of the 8 segments can be defined as a different emotional response.  There are several theories of emotion, each proposing a different number of basic emotions and so the sectors have not been given names but can be defined by a therapist in the way they find most useful. Emwich, the consultant used in the film Inside Out proposes 8 basic emotions identified with colour.  Anger is red, sadness blue, happiness green, fear  


Role reversal and role play. When the figures are deliberately neutral in appearance and when they have been set up on the screen a professional used to active methods like gestalt and psychodrama can ask the family to role play or sculpt a situation that has appeared on the screen. Different peoples perspectives can be shown and worked with.

The Story of People in my Life

Beginning to use figures

Family Dialogue Set

Virtual Dialogue Set app

People in my Life

Relationship Overviews

Beginning to use figures

I am Steven Balmbra, an English child and family therapist who has been living and working in the north of Norway since 1983. When I began at the family unit of Nordland Hospital in 1987 I struggled to find a way of talking with parents and children together. In family sessions, the younger children usually became either bored and withdrawn or over-active and disruptive. I speculated about why it was so difficult to involve them and I realised that during these sessions I was communicating with children using only words, in a very adult-like fashion. I had an imagine of the words swarming over their heads, hard to understand and very easy to misunderstand. I worried that I might add to their confusion and do more harm than good.

When I began at the family unit of Nordland Hospital in 1987 I struggled to find a way of talking with parents and children together.  In family sessions, the younger children usually became either bored and withdrawn or over-active and disruptive.  I speculated about why it was so difficult to involve them and I realised that during these sessions I was communicating with children using only words, in a very adult-like fashion. I had an imagine of the words swarming over their heads, hard to understand and very easy to misunderstand.  I worried that I might add to their confusion and do more harm than good.

Luckily, I read an article in the Journal of Family Therapy by Alison O’Brien and Penny Loudon entitled ‘Redressing the balance - involving children in family therapy’ (JoFT 1985 v7.2 81-88).  It described the dilemma I was facing and suggested several ways of using drawing and objects to include children in family sessions. When my own two boys and their friends played they usually used objects, toys and dolls to create stories about.  Then a colleague showed me a set of wooden figures that the Norwegian family therapist David Kvebæk had developed for working with families, based on the object relations theory, and I started to use toy figures to talk with children about their thoughts, feelings and experiences.  

At the family unit in Bodø we were fortunate to be supervised by the American family therapy professor Harry Goolishian during the last three years of his life.  At the Houston Galveston Institute he had developed the Problem Systems Approach together with Harlene Anderson (now Collaborate Therapy).  This looked beyond the family members and took into consideration other significant people in active dialogue around difficult ‘stuck’ situations.  

For me to use figures in accord with this approach I required a much larger selection than those in Kvebæk's family sculpture technique, and so I put together a large set of Playmobil figures.  When I tried using these figures in family conversations I found that talking about their relationships became more inclusive, more child-friendly and a lot easier for me.  

At the unit I often played board games with the families and I decided to make a board for younger children to place their figures on, and I based it on hexagonal shapes because they boarder each other equally.  For talking with adolescents I made another board based on Bronfenbrenner’s social network chart, which I had previously drawn on a flip-chart.  Now the social networks became moveable and more flexible.  I also used the figures to set out genograms on the table for the children to see after I had drawn them up during earlier sessions with the adults.  

I became more structured in my work, the conversations were more focused and while the pace seemed to slow down we still arrived quickly at important issues. Other systemic approaches also influenced our work at the family unit, such as circular questioning,  reflective processes, externalizing problems and a solution focus and I supplemented the set of figures with various bits and pieces to accommodate to these.

Family Dialogue Set

After a couple of years my set of figures had been so helpful to my work that I believed it would also benefit other professionals. I decided to have a go at producing a figure set with Playmobil figures for use by other family therapists. The figures were glued onto round bases and placed in wooden trays for display. I wrote user guidelines, included ‘magic figures’, pets, pens, thought bubbles and plasticine and put everything in a briefcase so that it could be carried easily. I named it Family Dialogue Set – emphasising it as aid to conversation and avoiding the concept of a test. It came into production in 1991 and sold widely in Scandinavia during the following 20 years. Family Dialogue Set was, however, quite expensive and proved difficult to produce on a larger scale. Because of this it was not marketed outside of Scandinavia. Nevertheless I sold almost 300 sets before I ended production.

Using Family Dialogue Set
by Steven Balmbra

I think that it is most important that conversations using the figures develop in ways uniquely suited to the particular child and family, just as any other family therapy conversation would be. The following guidelines are suggestions of how figures can be used, and not prescriptions of how they should be used. The guidelines are largely based on my own practice in the child and adolescent mental health, but the set is used in different ways in other settings.

I usually take the time to get to know the family before introducing Family Dialogue Set, but I have spoken to some therapists who use it very early on. I often introduce the set to the family prior to the session and to tell them about it and how it is used, so that they do not feel taken by surprise by all the colourful figures. I tell them that I usually start the session by concentrating on talking to one of the children, but that I will draw the others into the conversation by and by. I ask for their co-operation in listening to what the child has to say, even if they do not agree with them, and that I will also be asking for their opinions as we go on. When I am using the set with adolescents I tell them that we will be using figures that younger children play with, but this is not a game, and I will not be treating them childishly. I assure them that the set is also used with adults, and that Playmobil figures are there for their convenience, not because they are toys. They are like small actors that we can use to understand their situation better. I usually use Family Dialogue Set with one child at a time, together with their parents, either with or without their brothers and sisters present, depending on what seems best – sometimes I also ask parents what they think. Some therapists have used Family Dialogue Set in individual sessions with children, but I see its strongest potential in its use with children and adults together, when it can function as a communications bridge.

The child’s age influences how I explain about the set, and how I guide them along and develop the dialogue. When children have refused I do not like to press them but I have sometimes asked if they will agree to another family member placing figures on their behalf and that they can so if they see things differently. We can then proceed with a form of circular questioning.

I have a big low table that we can all sit around, and I sit next to the child with the board in front us and the case of figures open and at hand. Parents and siblings have a good view of the board. I usually keep the ‘magic figures’ to one side to use when I see them as appropriate.

It is important that the children are not afraid of doing something wrong and do not feel under pressure of achieving something with the figures.

I say that this is not a game where somebody wins or loses, and that there are no rules for right or wrong. I will be asking them questions and helping them as we go along so they do not have to be worried. I say that think they might find that this turns out to be quite interesting for them, but that it does not matter if it doesn’t. With young children I usually begin with the hexagon board which provides plenty of structure for placing figures. With adolescents and adults I usually begin with the circle board or the blue board. Figures can, of course, be placed directly on the table, but using the blue board allows for writing and drawing lines between figures.

The Hexagon Board

The hexagon board is a good place to start when working with younger children and when there are important issues concerning belonging. I begin by asking children to find a figure to represent themselves and place it on the red hexagon at the centre of the board, seeing as they are going to be in the centre of this conversation. I ask them to find figures to represent their family and people they know well (family members present can choose their own figures) and place them on the board where they want them to stand.

I ask about the people the figures represent as we go along, keeping an open, “not knowing” position. I try to be aware of interesting or unexpected positions or constellations of figures and I ask children to tell me more about these and may ask for their parents or siblings comments.

I talk to children about where they place the figures, and sometimes ask whether they would like to move or add figures as the conversation develops. I do not consider using Family Dialogue Set as a form projection of an inner mental reality, but rather as an aide to conversation, so it is not important to me that we stick with the first placements the children make. What matters most for me is the developing dialogue. Whenever it seems appropriate I draw the others into the conversation and ask about their points of view and opinions.

There are two ‘rings’ on the hexagon board, where the boarders of the hexagons are thicker. I do not usually point them out, but children often notice them and use them as boundaries for belonging, closeness and distance. I try to see if they are using them and be inquisitive about what they stand for.

We talk about things like:
How the figures are place in relation to each other.
Who knows whom, and how they get on together. What they do together.
Which figures belong together.
Who they can turn to with their difficulties.
Who they think understands them, who they can (or want to) talk to.
Who they look up to, have fun with, like.
Who they don’t like, or are afraid of and why this is.

Having talked to other users of the set i have become aware that the mental image of how the figures are placed is often strong and lasting. I think that it is important that that this image does not stick as a representation of how things really are. To counter this I think it important to include alternative arrangements of the figures.
This can include:
How they think other people see things. (e.g. family, teachers, friends).
How they think things would be if the figures were placed differently.
How the figures would be placed if certain circumstances were different.
How the figures would have been placed in the past or could be placed in the future.
How they hope things will turn out to be and how they are worried they might turn out.

The Circle Board

The circle board comprises concentric circles divided into six segments. It can be used as a network map in same way that Bronfenbrender uses his five segment circle, with the segments to represent social settings like close family, other relatives, work/school, neighbours, friends, team/club members, congregation, professional helpers, etc. (Svedheim 1985, Fyrand 1994, Klebeck & Ogden 1995). Instead of drawing squares and triangles and then writing names on a sheet of paper, figures representing people can stand on the Circle board and make the network map three dimensional, flexible and more alive. Since the figures can be moved, the network map is not static, and this opens for the representation of contrasting perspectives and the comparison of different alternatives.

The Circle board is laminated in plastic and can be written or drawn on with the water-based pens that are provided with the set. The centre area is much larger than on the hexagon board, so that there is room for all the members of a family. This allows the family to be shown as a unit in relation to other systems.

Another way of using the board is to use nearness or distance to the centre as expressions of the depth of feelings. For example:

The different sectors can represent situations, events, feeling, etc. The figures can be placed according to how the family members see themselves and each other, in specific situations.

I have also used this board to look at how decisions get made in the family. The sections of the circles represented different alternatives, and the closeness to the centre family members placed figures showed how much they liked or agreed with the alternatives. Getting family members to show how they think others would place them gives circular feedback.

The Blue Board

The blue board has no pattern and can be written and drawn on with water-based pens, and wiped clean afterwards. Figures can be placed freely, or a pattern can be drawn on the board and the figures placed accordingly. An example of this is drawing the desks or tables in a classroom.

Genograms drawn up in therapy sessions with parents can be used as the basis of discussions about parental roles and childhood experiences through the generations of their family. (Finne et al 1994). It can be helpful to show the genograms to children and talk to them about their backgrounds. Drawing the genogram on the blue board and supplementing with figures can bring it much more to life for children than just using the circles and squares to represent important family members.

Some further ideas about using Family Dialogue Set
Be open for what the child and family are expressing, and give room for their creativity.
Ask the parents for comments when it seems appropriate.
Try and keep the conversation on the children’s terms.
Some children appreciate plenty of space to express things themselves, whilst others like their parents to be quickly engaged.
Ask the parents if they have seen the child’s situation differently than they are expressing it now. Have them rearrange the figures to show how they have understood the child’s world.
Ask the parents to move figures to show how they would like to see things change. If they want to include other figures ask them to explain why.
Avoid following a recipe for Family Dialogue Set sessions. It is important that the conversation develops in its own unique way.
The focus can well leave the figures at times, and perhaps return to them later.
Parents can set out the figure anew, with themselves in the middle to explain how things are or have been for them. This can also be done with in a session with all the family in the room.
Clarifying adults perspectives can help in lifting feelings of responsibility and guilt from children.
Parents can use the set to explain to their children things they have discussed previously with the therapists.
Themes may crop up that can be explored further by setting the figures out again to demonstrate specific situations. For example the playground or classroom can be drawn on the Blue board when talking about school.
Circular questioning can be employed using the figures. The question “How do you think your sister would place the figures if I asked her?” can make a circular question understandable for children.

The scale

The laminated sheet with the 1 to 9 scale can be used to show the degree or strength of a feeling, hope, a preference, responsibility or certainty. The variable can be written at the top and figures can then be placed according.

The Playmobil Figures

The Playmobil figures used in this set have a minimum age limit of 3 years because they have parts that can be swallowed. The are mounted on plastic counters to increase their stability.

I tend to play down the importance of how closely the figures are like the people they represent, and have recently introduced them as a troop of tiny actors that can help to understand them better. For some children it is quite important that they match as well as possible. To help with this, the hair on the adult figures can be removed and swapped but this cannot be done with the child figures. The faces of the Playmobil figures are as simple as possible. Beards, glasses etc. can be drawn on with the pens provided, if it is important for the child, and wiped clean afterwards. Some children say the faces are too happy, so they can draw on a frown, down-turned mouth etc. The figures are mounted on white plastic counters to help prevent them falling over. The names or initials of the people the figures represent can be written on the base with the pens to help remember who is who.

Male and female figures vary in their hair style and body shape. The figures are arranged in the tray in rows of women, men, girls and boys so that they are easy to pick out. It is a good idea to organize the trays after each time the set is used.

The ‘Magic’ Figures

The set includes some ‘magic figures’ intended for solution focused work These may vary according to availability but can include a clown who can make people happy, a good fairy who can grant wishes, a robot that can be controlled to do things, a knight in armour, a fortune teller who can look into the future and a mermaid who can help to change things. These figures are very suitable for solution-focused work (Furman & Ahola 1992), where children can use them to bring about desired changes.


I have used Family Dialogue Set for role-playing externalising problems (White & Epston). The plasticine supplied with the set can be used to make monsters or trolls representing externalised problems. The monsters can then be used in combination with the figures to create a drama, grabbing them etc., while we talk about how the problem is affecting the lives of the figures on circle board. We have talked about how to win over the problem monster, who can help out in this task and how they can help. The plasticine is soft and malleable, and so the monster can be ritually crushed, and defeated. (Balmbra 1994, Finne et al. 1994).

There are a number of counters in different colours provided with the set. They can be placed under figures to indicate an aspect of a person or their role. For example, ask you can ask children to place one counter under the figure they think is most sad, or has most responsibility or can help them the most with a problem. and then talk to them about why they think that.

Thought Bubbles

Family members can write words in the thought bubbles to show what they think a person is thinking about. Questions like “What thought do you think is behind that?” or “What do you think is most on their mind?”. This can help to show the family how they are understanding each other.

The Coloured Discs

The coloured discs included in the set can be placed on the board to represent other groups of people – other families, professional agencies etc. Figures of the people represented can stand on the discs, and family members can talk both about them as members of their group and as individuals. The backside of the discs is printed with concentric circles. When a figure is placed in the middle the person can show the different limits they have for other people by how close they will let their figure be placed. In individual work, for example, an adolescent might show how they allow another person close physical intimacy but be very wary about how much to trust them. Using the discs can help them to explore these differences.






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