Story matters – how narrative awareness assists coaching

By Martin Vogel

Coaches can learn from exploring how narratives unfold
Coaches can learn from exploring how narratives unfold

The findings of my academic research into the use of narrative in coaching have been published by the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. I interviewed six coaches whose approach is informed by a sensitivity to stories.

The project was an opportunity for me to take further my life-long interest in narrative. My background to this was as a journalist who naturally makes sense of things through shaping events and information into stories. When I first experienced coaching, I was drawn to becoming a practitioner because I noticed an affinity with my earlier career as a reporter – asking challenging and open questions, cutting to the chase, synthesising and summarising on the fly. While my approach has changed since then, I realised that this story-driven frame of reference was still influencing my style as a coach, even though I wasn’t consciously nor explicitly make it a part of my coaching model. So I decided to use my research project to bring some rigour to my belief in the relevance of narrative to coaching.

Some of the coaches I interviewed drew on a different tradition, that of oral storytelling, and for them narrative was a much more intentional act of creating emotional connection. Other influences that I discovered included the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and the narrative therapy movement which took inspiration from the ideas of Michel Foucault.

As a result of the study, I still wear lightly the affiliation of a narrative coach. I am not drawn to encouraging clients to think of their coaching challenge as the fashioning of a new story. I might use narrative techniques – such as encouraging someone to imagine their story from another person’s point of view – to help clients gain a fresh perspective on things. More generally, I find myself listening for the narrative that unfolds between coach and client and reflecting this back as a means to improve the quality and depth of the client’s self-awareness. I am very conscious that every time a story is told it is unique to the specific circumstances of the telling and that this puts an onus on me as a coach to be sensitive to my part in its narration. This is not to call into question the coaching doctrine of non-directiveness. Rather, it highlights for me what is involved in maintaining a non-directive stance.

Story matters: an inquiry into the role of narrative in coaching (pdf) is in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol 10, No 1 pp. 1 – 13.

My thanks to the coaches who participated in the study: Jackie Bayer, Lisa Bloom, Karen Dietz, Cliff Kimber, Judy Rosemarin and Limor Shiponi. Also, to Ian Wycherley, my supervisor, and to David Drake, who was a generous expert informant.