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Six Tips – How To Incorporate Storytelling Into Coaching

Written by: Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Most of us live our lives and never tell our stories. It is true that every day we are generating stories that originate from our daily lived experiences. The concept of storytelling is a powerful way to open up a space to hear and validate what another person is saying and how they are expressing a problem that is of concern to them. To some extent, there is intrigue in hearing another person’s story, but there are other reasons why a coach can use the skill of storytelling to enrich the experience for their clients. I believe that there is value to be gained from the perspective of the storyteller and the listener.

business team having a meeting in the office

I grew up in a strong storytelling culture, possibly because my family did not have the luxury of television and other modern-day devices for entertainment. We relied on human connections as people drew together and sat around in circles telling stories based on real-life events and human tragedies. Although we were not looking for a solution to people’s problems it invoked community spirit just to talk about stories. Most of these stories began with the prefix. Did you hear about…? ‘Do you know? Or do you remember? Using these questions raised interest and gave the speaker the opportunity to open up as others became engrossed in hearing the story. Telling stories whether they were true or fictional brought people together and gave them a sense of cohesion. Listeners became part of the story because, in a strange way, they owned it. It was a practice that added richness to people's lives particularly if the story was shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

There is commonality and complexity in sharing stories both from the perspective of the storyteller and the listener. We frequently see ourselves through the eyes of others and it provides a point at which we can identify with another person’s story. From the viewpoint of the storyteller, it can be cathartic and for the listener, it offers an opportunity to be empathic. It is a process that allows for the verbal expression of emotions, particularly if safety is created.

Placed in the context of coaching sharing a story allows people to begin to open up and share memories that might have been forgotten or sublimated. As the story unfolds, it brings to light memories leading to the expression of emotions such as crying, anger, bitterness sadness, surprise, disappointment, resentment, frustration, joy, happiness, contentment forgiveness and resignation. These are all emotions that are frequently expressed during a coaching session. That is why you can turn storytelling into a winning strategy. Here is how a coach can use storytelling!

1. Use storytelling as a tool

There is a subtle difference between using storytelling to promote professional intervention and using it for personal reasons. The intention must always be to use the story to help the client see patterns and consider new ways of thinking and behaving. By acknowledging the client’s story, your intention must be to validate them and give them the space to work through aspects of their story that they might have hitherto denied or pushed to the background of their minds. Thus, storytelling is a powerful tool to help a coach drill deep to bring to light what is hidden.

2. Know how to deal with the risk of exposure

After a client has told their story they might suddenly feel unsafe and vulnerable. They might regret sharing their story. They may feel shame or as if they are less of a person in your eyes. Shame has the effect of stripping away confidence and inevitably produces guilt. They may have feelings of remorse at having exposed themselves. One of the best ways to deal with the risk of exposure is to ensure confidentiality and give reassurance. Communicate acceptance and listen without judgment. Taking these simple steps will allow the client to build rapport, trust and a meaningful relationship with you. Rapport is generally established from the inception of a session and at the point where the client begins to disclose sensitive information. Your sensitivity to the story will help the client to relax and become familiar with your style of working.

3. Be curious

There are times when a client might believe that their point of view is the only one worth considering, but a good coach will be curious and encourage the client to consider other perspectives by analysing the story and placing it in the wider context of who, what, when, where and how types of questions. By being curious a coach will help the client to remember events and how the memory originated as well as how they dealt with it in the past. There are many lessons a client could learn through your curiosity, one of them is how to give unconditional positive regard. This is a way of building a therapeutic relationship through self-awareness. Clients can also be encouraged to identify any resistance that could be impacting them negatively and stopping them from moving forward. The challenge is how the coach uses the story as a springboard to ask the client questions that will help them to acknowledge the stage they are operating at particularly if they are holding onto erroneous or harmful beliefs. The biggest challenge when introducing the concept of storytelling into a coaching session is to be an effective listener. As the story is told be on the alert for your internal and external blocks. The ability to listen will determine your success and the client’s ability to grow. Listening with keen attention and sensitivity to another person’s story during a coaching session could provide the impetus to learn, and expand your thinking. Make a decision to speak less and listen more.

4. Allow the story to build from one stage to another

Once a story begins, it is natural to want to know what happened next. It is like reading a book and rushing to read the end before reading each chapter. When people skip to the end, they miss what is in the middle and do not gain a holistic picture of the story. The sequencing of the story will be lost. Therefore, it is essential to avoid trying to get all of the information in one session, but instead, allow the story to build and unfold from one stage to another. This approach to storytelling will help a coach to make sense of each aspect of the story and to dissect it as if they were in a laboratory carrying out an experiment. Building on the story produces a storyline that flows and makes sense, and this is what the coach will reflect back to the client. When I first began to carry out qualitative research, I was fortunate to interview many people with unbelievable stories that they had never expressed to anyone. Although some of the stories they told originated in the family, they were secrets that no one spoke about. These stories remained buried within their souls so that they could not talk about them. My biggest task after listening was to engage in a way that enabled me to build a plausible storyline. I found that it was a skill I could introduce into my repertoire of coaching skills.

5. Sense-making

Much of what happens to people is not logical and it does not always make sense. Thus, it may not always be necessary or possible to come up with a logical conclusion after listening to a story. Life in and of itself does not have logical endings, but as far as possible the coach can use the storyline to arrive at a point of sense-making. This will not happen over a few sessions because stories are encased within lifelong events some of them hidden, and some distorted. Distorted stories happen when people are in denial or when they are unable to confront past life events because the memories are too painful or contain, trauma and horror. The best way you can help your client to make sense of their story is to rehearse it back to them through a process of reflective listening. It is only as they verify the story you have heard that it will in turn make sense to them. The most difficult aspect of storytelling and sense-making is how the coach develops enabling skills. These are soft skills that encourage people to talk to you from a position of safety. In order to help a client make sense or meaning out of their story, you must develop a connection with them and demonstrate that you are willing to listen to their story whatever form or shape it might take and wherever the journey may lead.

6. Use timelines to contextualise historical events

The use of timelines is a powerful tool to help a client use their narrative to plot past events and fit them into the present and future. They can also be used within the story to set goals and to plan for the future. Within the timeline, you can help your client to consider what has worked well for them, as well as the areas where they need assistance to cope with emotions that might stop them from reaching their goals.

Timelines within storytelling are also helpful in exposing limiting beliefs. For the client who is lacking in self-confidence the use of a timeline could help them to see that part of their story is also about the achievements they have made. I use timelines to show how people progress or regress from one stage of their development to another. For example, I ask them to recall their first memory of independence. My aim is to help them use the story from birth to the present to chart their progress in positive ways. This approach works well for clients who are lacking self-confidence. As I use the story clients are able to identify the point at which they began to develop self-doubt or when they first began to self-sabotage. The story helps the coach to unfold an important trail of events that people often forget, yet they are important aspects of their development. The story timeline could include every achievement and disappointment in a person’s life.

7. Listen with intention

To identify with a person’s story is not only to share in their experience but also to listen in a way that connects the storyteller and the listener. This is true for older people suffering from dementia where reminiscence work is used as a tool to assist them in remembering times gone by. Reminisce is a strategy that helps to call forth memories by telling the story. The role of the listener is critical in helping the individual to self-express and bring their story alive. Listening leads to sharing and it calls forth the part within the listener that craves to understand the link between adversity, helplessness, hopefulness and survival. In order to make the most of another person's story a coach must first develop the capacity to be an intentional listener. They must be intuitive and empathic in the way they listen to the story. To listen closely is to build a connection with the client that helps the coach to understand what is being communicated.

Learn more about storytelling and how it can improve your coaching. Contact me now!

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Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway began her career in 1982 when she qualified as a social worker. After making child-care her specialism, she became a team leader and a manager. She has worked for forty years in the public and private social care sectors making a significant contribution to the development and learning of others. In her role as a manager, she developed leadership skills which she has used to teach and influence others. She became an educationalist working as a lecturer for many years. As a life coach, keynote speaker and author Dr Ince-Greenaway is known for her enthusiasm and passion concerning such issues as leadership, social justice, social inclusion, empowerment, personal development as well as the development of others.



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