When it comes to coaching models, it is certainly not the case that one size fits all.
So far, the one that I like most is called Narrative Coaching. It’s described as a ‘mindful, experiential and holistic approach’ to shift my client’s stories thereby generating new options for desired change.
The idea is that stories are not only central to life but they are essential to our sense of ‘self’. Indeed, if you’re inclined to the post-modern viewpoint, we are literally narrated into existence. For example, when little Johnnie hears his parents and teachers tell him he’s a good boy when he studies hard, he might well form a narrative or story about himself that he’s good only when he studies hard.
Not only that, but little Johnnie must also make sense of recurring cultural themes or motifs like the hero’s journey (this is classic Star Wars stuff). Johnnie becomes the ‘hero’ of his story when he accepts his own ‘call to adventure’ and leaves his known world behind to face the challenges of the unknown. Perhaps little Johnnie considers his adventure of going off to University in this way? If so, then all is on track until he somehow gets derailed. Maybe his mother dies or girlfriend dumps him? Maybe his student funding falls through? Maybe he parties too much? Doesn’t really matter. The point is that because of some challenge or temptation he fails to conquer, Johnnie is not able to study hard anymore. This in turn leads to him dropping out of university and taking a job he doesn’t like. It isn’t long before both he and others interpret this as arising because in his hero’s journey, Johnnie failed to complete the socially acceptable story arc. When Johnnie leaves (or is pushed from) that job he doesn’t like, he’s not sure what to do next. Worse, he’s not entirely clear why he ended up in this situation. Yet somewhere in the back of his head, however, is that story of a ‘good’ boy turned ‘bad’ because he didn’t study hard enough.
When I invite Johnnie, now my coaching client, to tell me his story, I need to listen carefully. Which character does he choose as his narrator (i.e. does he tell the story through his own eyes or through the eyes of the mother or girlfriend or the administrator who cut his funding)? Does he sound enthusiastic about his partying? Which tense does he use? Is he the subject of the story (‘I did XYZ to him, her, them’) or is he the object (‘he, she, they did XYZ to me’)? What themes or motifs recur (or are missing) – illness, relationships, failure, temptation, bad luck? What labels recur (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’)? To whom or what do they attach? If listening to all these variables isn’t hard enough, I need to a remain aware that I’m always interpreting them through my own point of view. Am I making judgements on his story? Do I understand how telling it is making him feel? If it’s a sad story, does it make me sad? If so, am I sad because my client’s story touches some sadness (mother dying) already in me?
Through careful questioning, can I get Johnnie to rejig his story, throw it in a more positive (or less negative) light? Maybe he tries another point of view character (first person or third person) or verb tense (past, present, future) or even imagine a completely different crucial scene? How about rewriting a whole new story any way that he’d like? What or who might be different?
Interestingly, there’s lots of leeway here because although storyline (plot) must move forward (cause and effect) in time, narrative does not. My client can start at the end of his story (or how he’d like it to end) and work backwards. Happens all the time in murder mysteries. We start out knowing who got killed and maybe even who did it – but we don’t know that all essential ‘why’ and ‘how’ until we refollow the crucial events from beginning to end! My goal here is for my client to open up space for a different or new story to develop – an opportunity to fill in gaps and ambiguities or flesh out and develop certain characters and/or motives. We may all know that little Johnnie did drop out of university (the facts are on the table) but we really don’t know why until we explore it. We also don’t know where the story progresses from here – maybe Johnnie finds another unrewarding job (for whatever reason) or may he returns to university and wins a Noble Peace Prize.
Sound fun but not for everyone?
OK, I’ll accept that.
I also have to accept that purely by the nature and focus of my questions, I’ve influenced my client’s newly crafted story. Is it really still his story or has it now become mine?