Research Paper By Michail Vasiliou
(Business Coach, GREECE)
“When the finger points to the sky, the fool looks at the finger”: this is a hook sentence that immediately catches one’s attention. It implies the two-fold relation between an authority figure in possession of knowledge and/or experience and a recipient who can easily get lost in their own thoughts or misinterpretations. Coaching seeks to unblock the client, engage them in a productive sequence of thought, and open the way to new perspectives. In this effort, various narrative techniques and attention-getters can be valuable, as they can quickly engage the client, help them immerse in uncharted territories, and, eventually empower them in both their work and their life.
Successful coaching does not only entail deep knowledge and understanding of the respective subject matter; it is also about knowing one’s audience to choose the appropriate methods for communicating with them. In that sense, experience and knowledge are equally important as how they are transmitted. This is why coaching should be open to various creative pathways that can appeal to one’s perception, all the while allowing them the freedom of self-exploration. This research paper will examine alternative ways of communicating with the client and their impact on perception, attitudes, and behaviors, and, subsequently, on the agency.
Narrative Definition and Techniques
A narrative or story can refer to a sequence of events communicated through language, images, sound, or multimedia. The act of storytelling has been present in human history and culture for thousands of years, and, for this reason, it has established itself as a primary means of successful communication. Whether representing a fictional or non-fictional series of events or issues, whether synchronous or asynchronous, the narrative is almost always about sharing some kind of experience, knowledge, or idea, regardless of the style or genre used to that effect. The narrator situates the story and chooses the circumstances under which they want to use it, depending on the reasons why they choose this form of communication. This kind of flexibility allows the narrative to be eligible for many different definitions, as is the case in so many different sciences (e.g. narratology, discourse analysis, psychology, etc.). This is exactly why narrative can be useful and effective in innumerable instances and occasions, where communication of other forms is deemed less ideal.
Narrating can help the recipient visualize the elements of the story, perceive deeper meanings, and remember them in the long run. Research in cognitive psychology has shown that “stories are how we remember”, as they bring us face to face with objectivity that transcends our own initial expectations (Fryer, 2014,n.p.). In this way, the information meant to be shared when choosing narrative discourse is communicated more effectively than the dissemination of plain facts or bullet-points. It is also imprinted on the human mind, thus ensuring a sort of permanency in the process.
Storytelling can take many shapes or forms, and, according to research, it can affect mental processes by welcoming or inspiring different interpretations of reality and agency (Herman, 2007, p.314). Overall, regardless of its size, a narrative can have a strong impact on the recipient, and, if strategically situated, it can capture their attention. Whether a story with a plot, an anecdote, a simple proverb, a hook-sentence, or any other type of attention-getter, the narrative device has the potential of opening new channels of communication, by transcending the limitations encountered in traditional forms of interaction. This is why it can be very valuable in coaching.
Engage the Client
“[…] data that proves to be right doesn’t mean people listen to you” (Simmons 4).
In coaching, what really matters is not to spoon-feed the client with what they need for their own growth and development. On the contrary, the idea is to engage them in a productive sequence of thought that will allow them to discover, on their own, new ways of interpreting events or issues. In this way, coaching seeks to enhance one’s knowledge by expanding their perception of reality. This process requires a receptive attitude on the client’s part. To enhance this kind of attitude, attention-getters and narrative techniques can ease the way to voluntary openness, thanks to their immediacy and the sense of immersion that they instantly evoke (Buchanan, 2006, p.16). Immersion is feasible thanks to cognitive and social abilities innate in the human brain, as scientific research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology shows; it also explains “why human beings love entertainment so much”: because they can “enter in a story” (Stromberg, 2009,n.p.). As a form of entertainment, narrative discourses are a cultural element worldwide.
In any face-to-face interaction, it is essential for all parties concerned to be equally engaged and motivated to reach a productive outcome. Human motivation theories have underlined the importance of satisfying three basic human needs to reach satisfaction: “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” (Reinecke et al., 2014, p. 3). If applied by coaches, narrative techniques can offer the autonomy of interpretation, they can reassure the client of their own competence to respond to challenges, and they can offer the necessary relatedness through familiar paradigms. In this process, the client can become deeply engaged in the coach’s effort, and the occasional narrative will have a greater impact.
Re-wire the Brain
The human mind is capable of both automatic responses and slower, more conscious ones. The automatic responses are often called “mental shortcuts” and refer to reactions, choices, or decisions that are not thought through. As such, they can be (and often are) “cognitive traps” able to deprive people of sound logic or productive thinking; these traps can lead to mistakes or low-risk attitudes and not so carefully chosen paths (Beer &Coffman, 2019, pp. 2-3). Especially in business, this can be very detrimental and unproductive, either for an individual or for a whole group. This is the reason why applying narrative discourses in coaching aims, in a sense, to re-wire the brain: to urge the client to pause and consider alternative perspectives. In other words, narrative can ease the way to the desirable mental shift: instead of using mental shortcuts, the client will be motivated to dig deep and discover new pathways.
By being able to immerse themselves in a narrative, people can discover alternative ways of weighing a situation or evaluating an occurrence. Therefore, the initial automatic response will (ideally) be replaced by a deeper and deliberate self-exploration. This process has the potential to restore the balance wherever subjective expectations are in significant conflict with objective reality: in this context, the coach, through narrative discourses, can invite the client to “dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth” (Fryer, 2014,n.p.). Re-wiring the brain in this way will empower the client, as it will re-affirm their individual competencies: it will restore gaps in the perception of different or multiple variables, and it will help them choose how to act accordingly.
The client’s empowerment, in this case, is a complex intertwinement of sound and realistic analysis, of inspired action, and the resulting confidence. Making the client face and process an unanticipated narrative device can produce the desirable introspection and mental shift. With such a shift in mentality, coaching can ensure that the client gains a sense of control over their own life’s narrative: by presenting events or situations as open to various interpretations, narratives can help the client reconsider their perspective, and choose the most empowering pathway to make the best of this experience. In this process, the client can achieve self-awareness and appreciate their own potential for alternative perception and action.
Agency through alternative rationales and choices can also be promoted if the coach chooses an interesting role reversal. In this case, instead of being the narrator, the coach can ask the client to tell a story. The scope here is to enhance the client’s creativity and to let them discover the hinges or complexities of given situations on their own. By trying to invent and communicate a logical sequence of events, things, thoughts, or even feelings, the client is bound to consider certain parameters that can otherwise be overlooked, due to their –seemingly- lesser importance. Hidden truths, secondary but crucial factors, different endings: these are only a few of the endless possibilities that a narrative can offer to its performer. Therefore, if the client is granted the chance and the time to compose a narrative, they may even end up surprising themselves. Telling a story requires introspection and coherence, as well as honesty and courage. For this reason, the agency resulting from this process can be very satisfying and empowering.
Whether the narrator or the listener, everyone can benefit from narratives. In discursive psychology, discourse is a perfect stage for performing (or thinking about) action and finding alternative ways of thinking, all the while successfully interacting with people and, thus, keeping one’s feet on the ground (Wiggins & Potter, 2008, p.73). This kind of “action orientation” allows a better understanding of the interrelation between knowledge, cognition, and reality, by clearly revealing the true context of occurrences and their actual situational frame (Herman, 2007, pp. 306-307). Accordingly, narrative devices – even in their simplest form (e.g. logical sequences)- can clear one’s mind, remove doubts, motivate, or even lead to intentional positive reactions. This can happen because the narrative has a freeing effect: it can transform both a person and their disposition by replacing passive observation with a proactive approach. This kind of approach can give the eagerness to overcome any obstacle, and the capacity to seek the most profitable solution; it can also re-affirm one’s confidence through the valance restored in their own actions. Such a productive context can give someone a compass, and, thus, make it very difficult for them to get lost again in the future.
Overall, narrative devices and attention-getters can eventually help the client respond to challenges, as well as too distressing thoughts and emotions, mindfully. From the very beginning, a narrative makes the client fully aware of a certain situation and its components. It also leads them to acknowledge the situation’s true implications, regardless of their complexity. Secondly, the narrative urges the client to stop their initial train of thought, detach themselves for a bit, and re-think or re-consider occurrences or events. Finally, by opening new horizons, the narrative can set the client free, remove their occasional blinders, and change their perspective.
Re-evaluating situations and re-positioning one’s self towards reality or different perspectives can eventually lead to new forms of wisdom and to new ways of appreciating facts, thoughts, people, or emotions. In this process, a person can gain full awareness of themselves, of others, and the world around them. Awareness is crucial for avoiding “cognitive traps” like egocentric bias and other fallacies in sound judgment and decision making (Beer &Coffman, 2019, pp. 11-14). The human mind can gradually get trained to mindfully process every experience. Subsequently, the client will be eased into choosing the appropriate or better suiting path and, hopefully, into growing, in both their work and their life.
Narrative techniques and attention-getters can be powerful tools in the hands of savvy coaches. As alternative ways of communicating with the client, they can make a difference in coaching practices: by carefully structuring innovative narrative interventions, the experienced coach can immediately engage the client, immerse them in occasioned constructions, unveil new perspectives in their minds, and empower them. Added plus: narrative devices can be fun and entertaining.
By examining the impact of this process on perception and one’s mindset, and by restoring the value of personal agency in passive or overwhelming situations, this paper has underlined the importance of creative thought and creative, narrative discourse in coaching. Although the narrative definition is vast and comprises numerous styles and genres, coaching can benefit from any narrative form that does not seek to persuade or to convey a specific message; on the contrary, coaching needs narratives that are open to interpretation. Here, the client will gain knowledge through their own mental processes, provided that they are properly triggered.
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