Research Paper By Shruti Sridhar Murthy
(Leadership Coach, INDIA)
Introduction- What’s the big deal about stories anyway?
Humans and our connection to stories have always fascinated me – Especially because we seek them, connect with them, learn from them, share them and build on them ALL the time.
And stories, in turn, seem to have a way of teaching us, entertaining us, providing us with an escape, and re-orienting us towards our goals, not just consciously but even at a sub-conscious level.
Given below is a collection of quotes that really brings alive this connection beautifully:
- ‘We are the stories we tell ourselves’ – Joan Didion
- ‘We are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves’ – Deb Caletti
- ‘Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?’ – Scott Turow
- ‘The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world’ – Vikram Chandra
- ‘Stories, we all have stories. Nature does not tell stories, we do. We find ourselves in them, make ourselves in them, choose ourselves in them. If we are the stories we tell ourselves, we had better choose them well.’ – James Orbinski
What’s the connection between the stories we sub-consciously tell ourselves and Coaching?
One of my observations as a coach is the many layers my clients have as dynamic individuals with all their dreams, desires, values, beliefs, strengths, achievements, experiences and challenges. While their willingness to explore, reflect and work on themselves is nothing short of inspiring, I have also experienced first-hand how these individuals with immense potential stand in their own way, struggling to move from intention to impact because of the stories they tell themselves.
Let me demonstrate this using The Karpman Drama Triangle.
The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction – the triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. A drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis. It consists of 3 key roles:
- The Victim – Feels Powerless; A victim of circumstances that are happening ‘to’ them
- The Persecutor – The person making the victim’s life intentionally difficult
- The Rescuer – The Rescuer feels guilty if they don’t go to the victim’s rescue. Yet their rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the victim dependent and gives the victim permission to fail while allowing the rescuer to avoid their own problems
In the context of the stories we tell ourselves, I believe that we don’t even need an external persecutor or rescuer. Across different coaching sessions, I have found that most of us end up donning all 3 hats at different points or even all at once in our own stories as below:
- The Victim – Feeling like we don’t have a choice, that we are bound by reasons beyond our control
- The Persecutor – Constantly belittling ourselves, doubting our capability and questioning whether we even deserve better
- The Rescuer – Coming up with the story that justifies our actions and that we can share with the world so that others ‘get us’
Interestingly, the combined effect of these three roles makes us more certain with each passing day about the disempowering stories we tell ourselves.
All this is interesting, but is there science that can prove the impact stories have on us?
Given below is a sample of some very interesting research I found when I started diving deeper into the ‘science behind the art of storytelling and the stories we tell ourselves’:
- Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson writes that “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”…There are additional scientific elements at play. Scientists are discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Why does that matter? If we are trying to make a pointed stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. When it comes to creating deeper connections with others, oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in the building, deepening or maintaining good relationships.
- Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges overcome and suffering we have endured…An individual’s life story is not an exhaustive history of everything that has happened. Rather, we make what McAdams calls “narrative choices.” Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events, good and bad because those are the experiences we need to make sense of and that shape us. But our interpretations may differ.
- Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener – an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy. ...So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there. In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans – Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone – were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two- dimensional surface. The only other object on the screen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side. Only one of the subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about.
- A particular bias, known as the self-serving bias may be at work here. We tend to remember ambiguous events in a way that benefits us. We tell the story the way we think will result in an outcome we want. But our conscious selves may not be aware of what we “want.” Instead, we construct or reconstruct events in a way that serves a need…. The confirmation bias, my brain’s proclivity to seek only the information that reinforces my understanding of the facts, was also at work. 
Coaching Application – How can coaches help clients re-craft their stories or at least change their relationship with their stories?
This would broadly involve 3 key steps:
- Uncover the stories most important to them
- Explore their relationship to their stories – how their stories are serving them or standing in their way
- Encourage them to author the story that will support them towards the outcomes they seek – complete with changes to the storyline, action, learning and more changes till they are absolutely certain that this is the story that empowers them, gives them wings and propels them forward
I have tried to capture below my learnings from different sources of inspiration that we can leverage to help our clients change the stories they are telling themselves about themselves
Modified for Coaching Application
The Empowerment Dynamicwhich is a shift from the Drama Triangle. It includes three new roles:
1. The Victim becomes Creator – Where the person proactively works towards the desired outcome
2. The Persecutor becomes Challenger – Creates a positive tension for the Creator to grow
3. The Rescuer becomes the Coach – Asks questions to help discover and achieve what the Creator wants
TED Talksthat have touched on the power of Personal Narratives
1. For the shift from Victim to Creator:
a. When the client shares a limiting story, ask them to come up with two to three different versions of the same story
b. Ask them in what way they can create space for new validations of the version of their story they like best
c. When they use terms like ‘I can’t’, ask them to rephrase it as ‘I choose not to’. That puts the choice back in their hands…ask them what, if anything changes when they realise it is a choice they are making or have made
2. For the shift to Challenger, ask in what way they can challenge their inner critic and constructively support the Creator in them instead.
3. For the shift to Coach, ask them to reflect on what they are learning about themselves in this process and in what way those learnings are further influencing their story.
Byron Katie’s The Workwhich includes the following questions after isolating a particular thought:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without that thought?
5. Turn the thought around. Is the opposite as true as or truer than the original thought?
Work with the client to identify the story they are telling themselves and then ask:
1. Is the story true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react, what happens when you believe that story?
4. Who would you be without that story?
5. Is a completely opposite, ‘more positive story’ as true or truer than the original story? (Can you find at least three specific, genuine examples that validate your alternate narrative?)
The Hero’s Journey 
The concept of the Hero’s Journey began in 1949 with a book by Joseph Campbell titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
It offers a circular structure where the story begins where it ends, but takes the hero from a known world to an unknown one (literally or figuratively), introduces them to powers or skills they never knew they had and forces them to lay everything on the line to achieve personal success or help their communities. While the hero is where they began at the end of the story, their experience forever changes them.
Christopher Vogler (a Hollywood screenwriter, author and educator) in his interpretation of the Hero’s Journey took it a step further and added the inner journey: the emotional and mental transformation that takes place concurrently with the outer journey. When paired, the inner and outer journeys make for a clear and concise interpretation of the emotional and mental state of the hero during each stage of her journey.
This is something I haven’t yet tried implementing, but I am most definitely inspired to:
· Share with my client what the Hero’s Journey is along with the visual
· Ask the client what stage of their journey they currently are at and partner with them through the rest of their journey (There are many nuances that we can leverage from the Hero’s Journey – As an example, there is an additional step of ‘trials, allies & enemies’ between crossing the threshold/ committing to change and entering our innermost cave. In the coaching context, I would apply this learning by working with the client to ‘build their muscle’ in order to be ready to make the big change happen)
Thought to provoke Stories/ Poems/ Quotes
Share short stories/ poems/ quotes that we consider inspiring and relevant to a challenge the client is dealing with (Should not be more than 5 mins of talking from the coach’s end) and ask them what’s coming up for them as they are hearing this story
Conclusion – Where to from here?
In Coaching, we say don’t get into the client’s story but as humans, we are also known as story beings. Plus this Research has made very compelling for me the influence of the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we consume, in our lives. As I have tried to connect these seemingly disparate dots between two fields of work that I am personally very passionate about – Coaching and Stories, I have realised that the Coach’s role is to facilitate our clients to come face to face with the stories that matter to them, without going into them ourselves.
What has been captured in this paper is just the start of my journey exploring ‘The Power of Stories and what it means for Coaching’, but the results I am beginning to see as I am applying some of these learnings with my clients have been truly encouraging.
 Wikipedia (2019). The Karpman Drama Triangle. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karpman_drama_triangle
 Lani Peterson (2017). The Science behind the art of storytelling. https://www.harvardbusiness.org/the-science-behind-the-art-of-storytelling/
Emily Esfahani Smith(2017). The two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves.https://ideas.ted.com/the-two-kinds-of-stories-we-tell-about-ourselves/
 Frank Rose (2011). The Art of Immersion: Why do we tell stories?
 Angela Noel (2017). Cognitive Bias Series: The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
 Mae Rice (2018). To Avoid Drama you need to break the Karpman Drama Triangle. https://curiosity.com/topics/to-avoid-drama-you-need-to-break-the-karpman-drama-triangle-curiosity/
 Donald Davis (2014). TEDx Talks: How the Story transforms the Teller.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgeh4xhSA2Q
 Sarah Vaid (2015). TEDx Talks: Change Your Story, Change Your Life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTjN1K-zsSM
Byron Katie (1986). The Work. https://thework.com/
Patrick Takaya Solomon (2011). Finding Joe -A documentary on the Hero’s Journey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3LozCNO30w
Sam Peek (2016). The Hero’s Journey Guide to Creating Irresistible Patient Testimonials. https://www.incrediblemarketing.com/the-heros-journey-guide-to-creating-irresistible-patient-testimonials/
Blog (2018).The Hero’s Journey; A Perspective That Can Change Your Life For Good.https://sunwarrior.com/blogs/health-hub/the-heros-journey