Research Paper By Stephenson Robert
(Transformational Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Having trained as an actor many years ago, the idea of the story has always been a part of my practice. Exploring the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we share with others, and also the stories we tell of our goals and challenges within the coaching space.
Part of my belief is that our stories are both an expression of the self and, a way of learning about the self. We tell our stories to share who we are and in that sharing understand who we are. Sometimes by the very act of the telling and hearing as we tell, as explored by the work of Micheal White in Narrative Maps, where he talks about externalizing our inner story by the telling, thus bringing it out of the self to be explored in the space.
Also in the telling of our stories, there is the reaction, which in turn creates a learning loop, however, as coaches, we can recognize that the reaction to stories is not always useful, thus being non-judgemental is such a key cornerstone within our coaching practices.
During my training as a coach, I connected the questions we ask our clients with the questions an actor may ask themselves about the character that they are playing. This connection leads me to explore further the idea of storytelling and coaching, especially as I learned about metaphors and their power within the coaching space.
And while I could spend the next lifetime exploring my thoughts and ideas around the work of metaphor, I would like to focus this paper on my interview with the founder of Narrative Coaching David Drake.
I was not only lucky enough to be a participant in his course a few years ago I also had the opportunity to interview him on the Power of Stories.
What follows is our exploration of Narrative Coaching and my attempts to connect our conversation to the work I do as a coach, my learnings, and hopefully enable others to further their own contemplations around Narrative Coaching and its place within their own practice.
I started by asking David about the origins of his work, to get an understanding of the context from which this school of thought arose.
He began by telling me how the work came from the research question of his Ph.D.; “could you trace the development of our clients’ development through changes in the stories they were telling?”
This question led David to explore what are these stories that our clients innocently share with us, how can we begin to listen to them and take note, pay attention to them, without getting caught up in them.
I can recognize that in the early days of my coaching, I would totally get wrapped up within the client’s story, similar to how we get drawn into the narratives of movies, tv shows, or books. But this stops us from noticing the meaning behind the stories or the learning, or the question that the story presents. This is why is so important to stay out of the story so that we can be objective within the space, holding onto our empathy without becoming collusive or sympathetic to what is being presented.
The stories our clients share are full of clues as to what they want to work on, as well as being multi-layered, coming from different aspects of the client’s self, history, desire, environment. They can also hold within them the resolution, the way forward o out for the client. These elements can be spoken but yet unheard or noticed by the client. And in our listening and reflecting, we become the mirror that enables the client to uncover their own answers.
Another part of Drake’s work is that of allowing the natural process of storytelling to be part of the coaching process, instead of a coaching process forcing itself into the coaching space. This reminds me of what Lorna Poole shares when she talks about not showing your process, how the coaching process sits with the coach but doesn’t need to be shown in the coaching session. This can become more evident when we become attached to our process or even more so a coaching model.
When coaching using a model, there is an importance of holding it lightly, playfully, and at a distance. When we hold too tight, the client is no longer the focus but the tool itself. I remember back in the early days of coaching when all I had was the GROW model and I would work hard to get my client to follow the model, without stopping to notice the subtleties of what the client was presenting, the clues to the challenge and the resolutions held within the client, while I was preoccupied with getting a SMART goal created at the top of the session.
Another element Drake talks to is that of the coach’s occupation with their own performance, where the focus is held with the self, thus missing the story elements as they present themselves. When we can fully shift into the space of the client, the client’s story, and the relationship between client/coach, we are present, to the clients’ story, the clients’ agenda, and the space between us. In some ways, this is similar to the emergent work of Gestalt coaching, where we are present to what is and creating an environment where new material emerges into the space to be witnessed.
A phase that Drakes uses that brings these thoughts together is that of the ‘essential dialogue, what is the essential dialogue here?”
One of the qualities that enable Presence in coaching, is our ability to sit with silence, one of the quotes Drake often uses in his work is; “Only speaking only when we can improve on silence”. This is a call to sit with the silence, not to rush in with questions, but to allow the rest in the dialogue to exist. We often get caught in the desire to add value in our coaching but filling the silence, coming up with the answers, driving the coaching forward, after all, we are being paid by our clients. However we can sometimes forget the value of silence, the held space with the quality of truly being listened to and given the space to process, this in itself is of value especially in the fast-paced, consumer lead results-driven environments that we live and work in. So this becomes a reminder to sit with the silence, to allow those moments of rest without the need to fill, even when the desire to fill might exist.
As we continue to explore the work of Narrative Coaching, a desire to define what we are speaking about comes to mind. As it can sometimes feel that this is all coaching, so why call it something different?
Drake begins the definition by sharing what Narrative Coaching doesn’t do, almost filling in the negative spaces so that the shapes can take form. Narrative Coaching he goes on to say:
“doesn’t set outcomes or goals at the top of the session, as often I clients don’t know what they want….the first order of business is the witness the human in front of us”
This for me is an essential part of all coaching, allowing ourselves as the coach, space, and time to simply witness the client, to really see them as they are in this moment. This is what Drake calls ‘Situate’, enabling and supporting the client to get present with this moment in time, with what is going on for them right now. This reminds me of the work of mindfulness coaches and therapists, although they have processes for creating that connection with them now, perhaps breathing exercises that you might do at the top of the session. Narrative Coaches are calling this into space but their witnessing and exploration of the client’s newness. As Drake says; “ a paying attention to what actually is”
And as we pay attention to what is, we can let go of our coaching agenda, know that everything we need is right in front of us, once we have welcomed the client into space. This draws on our trusting of self and process and most importantly the client. Trusting the client to find their way through, without us interjecting our interpretation, agenda, or assumption.
In a sense there is a pureness to this way of working, while at the same time there is a process at play, however, the process is part of the client’s natural flow, and so doesn’t interrupt what is taking place, we simply follow the Narrative flow as it presents itself through the journey of Situate, Search, Shift and Sustain.
There is a pause for reflection here. In the Situate phase of Narrative Coaching, as we meet the client as they are, allowing them to show themselves at this moment, we are also inviting in their emotion of this moment. When I first worked with Drake, this was an uncomfortable and challenging part of the process. My desire to help would be called into space, and often my inexperience as a coach would cause me to want to fix the emotions as they presented themselves. This I feel was my Rescuer sneaking into the game, and over time my Adult has been able to show up much more confidently, allowing the emotions to exist as they are without a “fix it” mentality getting activated. However, for me, this took time, practice, supervision, and self-reflection. An exploration of what was at play for me in the coaching, that I felt a need to fix. Where were my trust levels that I felt the need to rescue the client, and if it wasn’t about my trust levels perhaps it was about my own desire to feel needed and of value, as we have already spoken about? So there is a cautionary note about emotion in coaching, I truly believe that it is important to be able to sit with the emotions that present themselves, while I also believe it is important for us coaches to do the work and reflection, that allows us to sit in the space with the client’s emotion, especially as it may trigger our own emotions or responses. And a big part of this “work” is trusting in the client’s ability to manage their own emotions.
As we continue to explore the work of Drake, we touch on Roger’s idea of Unconditional Positive Regard, and how this is often not given the value it deserves. Drake talks about how Rogers, although in his early days was also fixated with goals and outcomes, developed the idea of the relationship being the most important thing in the coach/client partnership, and how time ins needed in the early stages of the session to explore or develop this relationship. We often talk about building rapport with clients, almost as a through away of something that happens in the session, but when we take Drake and Rogers lead, we begin to see the importance of the relationship and its power in enabling us to go deeper with our coaching, push and challenge harder because that relationship exists.
Drake’s work has with it the idea of the “energetic field” that exists between coach and client, space for the work to happen within, that is build upon from the relationship created, a trust built, and the welcoming and witnessing of the client in the space as they are.
One of the points that Drake brings to space is that of language and how as coaches we can bring a down to earth language to space, “not coaching language or psychological speak, but that of every day, that enables the client to not feel judged, processed or diagnosed” within the work.
Clients often speak of the coaching space being the only placed where they are listened to at this level, which Drake finds both common and sad. “And of how the relational quality, the sense of being seen and heard, is far more powerful than much of the talking that we do.”
Drake goes on to say that in a sense; “all coaching is therapeutic at some level, in the sense that we are dealing with the restoration of the person, not just the achievement of what they are after” This further illustrates the value of the coaching relationship, without the need for doing coaching, but being the coach that builds the relationship and holds the space. Using the idea of scaffolding to support the client to get to the edge of what they can do, and take them that step beyond with the support of the coach or significant others within the client’s world. This is less about the aha moment and much more about what will they do after the session, how will they put this learning into practice in the real world. Taking those small steps outside of the coaching session, which is where the work gets done, as the client takes their learning from the coaching and embody it as with Drake’s work where they create a small experiment, both inside and outside the sessions. Inside the session Drake works to create a visceral experience of the change or action to be taken, building upon the work of the session, then working with the client to explore when the next experiment outside of the coaching will take solace, something small, that the client can then build upon over time. These small external experiments are then checked on in between coaching sessions, just a touchpoint to create reflection and capture learning.
Drake thinks of his work as shifting the clients Narrative DNA, the client’s whole way of being in the world has changed, a paradigm shift if you will, that in a way they are becoming a different person, or perhaps more in my thinking, becoming their truer selves as they remove the unuseful Narratives that held them back from living their Life Stroy.