I recently had a supervision session with someone on the value and purpose, or not, of storytelling in coaching. Is it really coaching? It led me to thinking I would offer a blog on my perspectives and thoughts on story telling in coaching. I will look at the types of storytelling that could happen in coaching, what the purpose and value might be when offered by the client, or indeed the coach, and how therefore it might be used in support of a client’s desire for change.
Types of Storytelling
Here are some of the types of storytelling that might occur in a coaching session (and this is not meant to be exhaustive):
- The client giving an example of what has happened and what they want to change.
- The client gives an example of when they did something in the past that worked or didn’t work.
- The client may be asked to provide some background about themselves in a chemistry session or the first coaching session, which is also a form of storytelling.
- The client comes into the session and starts downloading (perhaps sometimes ranting) about something that has happened most recently and may stay with that for several minutes or sometimes the whole session. This also could then become a pattern of engagement.
- Throughout the session the client continually refers back to a negative story – often concerning other people.
- The coach may offer a story (real or fantasy) as a way of offering a piece of direct communication or to give a message that might shift the client’s perspective.
You will notice that this primarily focusses on stories the client may tell, however there is a place on occasions for the coach to offer a story.
Purpose and Value of Storytelling
Historically, storytelling was used to pass on information that was useful to others. Before the age of the printing press, that could mainly only be done orally. If we look at fairy tales, most of them have some sort of moral or lesson to be learnt which is wrapped around the story. From a Transactional Analysis (TA) perspective, Eric Berne introduced us to the concept of ‘lifescripts’ or “scripts’ as ‘a set of decisions made in childhood which continue to influence behaviour as an adult and lead to a predetermined goal’. As we grow up, those learned behaviours and ideas about ourselves can stay with us and its sometimes those very behaviours and thoughts that need to be modified, adapted, changed or simply understood, as we learn more about ourselves as adults.
What this means is that listening to some stories from the past can inform what we need to do in the future. i.e., what’s the change we now need to make and why?
How can clients’ storytelling be helpful if we accept the idea that coaching is about change and the future, rather than fixing the past? There needs to be a purpose for the client in telling the story and the coach needs to have a purpose in listening to the story and being useful to the client. Our skill as coaches can be to listen for patterns, themes, emotions, hidden behaviours, values, motives etc., and be able to offer those to our clients to support their forward thinking (much like metaphors do as we looked at in a previous recent blog). A simple question before a client embarks on a story might be “what would you like me to listen out for as you tell your story about what happened?” This really demonstrates the partnering needed with our clients and also our deeper listening skills in service of the client. The coach can then offer what they hear beyond the words of the story and be curious about what the client is learning as they hear themselves tell their story, that would be useful to support the change they are looking to make.
In essence, our past can inform our future, and this is where story telling as described in points 1-3 above can be useful in coaching.
Where it may be less helpful is where a client may come in and simply download what has happened, sometimes described as a ‘rant’ (4 in the list above). It may be that the client simply needs a safe space to be able to ‘vent’. The challenge comes when this is all that happens at each session. There comes a point when the coach may need to intervene to discuss the value to the client of this kind of expression and perhaps even restate what coaching is and isn’t.
Another less helpful form of storytelling (No 5 in the list above) may be where a client is stuck in the story. The story sometimes includes other people and they simply keep coming back and recycling the story. Is this a helpful use of a coaching session? Well, it can be if the coach intervenes, offers what they notice and supports the client to ‘unstick’ themselves from the cycle and move forward.
In essence, you could argue that all stories a client tells you can be useful, it just depends on what the purpose is in telling the story and what the coach does to integrate it with the clients desired outcomes. By listening closely to what the client is saying we can hear those values, beliefs and behaviours of our clients that will make us even more useful to them in the future.
Using Storytelling for Change
We come then to how coaches might use storytelling in service of the client’s needs. This needs to be done carefully and as a simple short offering, with permission. There is a very well-known story about a boy on a beach surrounded by starfish. He is seen throwing star fish back one at a time… This story can have many meanings; however, the meaning is whatever the teller and receiver make of it. Telling a story such as this, might enable a client to hear a message that may shift their perspective on something. It has the possibility of taking the client out of their head and into their heart, their gut, their imagination etc. to be able to see something else. Stories have the ability to move us from our logical brain into our emotional and creative areas which is often what is needed for us to make real changes in ourselves. Changes that will take us into the future and into what’s possible.
In answer to my own question about storytelling, my belief is that it’s very much part of coaching and can really help the client understand themselves when the coach uses their skill of deep listening with curiosity and questioning to evoke new awareness. Like everything we do, it is done in partnership and in service of the client as we co-create the work together.