Creating Stories That Work

Applying narrative assessment to executive coaching.

As individuals, we strive to make sense of our life experiences. Our narratives, or life stories, are the organizing vehicles we use to weave our daily experiences into meaningful patterns. As with any good novel, each life story comes complete with its own unique, tangible plot (i.e., “the search for redemption,” “being fully committed to success”); unexpected plot twists (i.e., job loss, divorce, unanticipated eldercare responsibilities); and associated themes (i.e., life story as drama, tragedy, comedy, or action-adventure).

So what do narratives have to do with your coaching practice? To answer this, you first need to understand that our life stories are not descriptions of our life events; they are the method we use to construct meaning from those life events. In other words, when it comes to constructing our narratives, each of us carries around an active editor in our head.

Just as we use stories to make sense of our personal lives, we also use them to construct a meaningful framework for interpreting our organizational experiences. One company leader might see himself as the heroic figure who is valiantly attempting to battle against a host of “villains” (the boss, work team, or other department heads). Another, having been recently passed over for a promotion, might view herself as the victim of cruel fate. The critical point here is that every leader you encounter is walking around with an interconnected series of significant life stories in his or her head, and these stories help shape their effectiveness as leaders. With that said, there are three characteristics of narratives that make them important to your coaching practice:

1. We strive to make our stories consistent. Research shows that once we have constructed our most important life stories, we are likely to ignore, minimize, or selectively edit new information that is inconsistent with our story’s overall plot and theme. Thus, a leader who feels that “my team is out to get me” is likely to ignore or rationalize away situations in which team members initially went out of their way to provide support and assistance. The implication for coaching is that once you are able to deconstruct a client’s story, you are able to go much deeper in your coaching engagement to better understand why that person appears to selectively screen out certain feedback regarding his or her leadership behavior.

2. Leaders are “storied” by their organizations. At the same times that leaders construct narratives to explain their behavior, they are being “storied” by others in their organizations. The stories that form around a given leader influence the degree to which that person is liked or respected, and how that individual is viewed as an organizational member. I contend that an important aspect of coaching involves helping client leaders reframe these organizational stories in more positive ways. An example of story reframing would be advising a leader who is attempting to change certain aspects of her problematic behavior on how to approach key organizational stakeholders in order to explain her underlying positive intentions for making these changes.

3. Our stories extend into the future. Just as we use our stories to explain our past, and to justify our present circumstances, our stories strongly shape how we view our futures. Because every life story establishes its own positive or negative trajectory, an important part of the coaching process involves helping leaders deconstruct their stories to consider the most likely future implications of those narratives. Each story conveys an individual’s implicit views about what is both possible and desirable for him or her in the future. By helping clients to articulate their stories and extend these stories forward in time, clients can gain insight regarding whether their current actions are consistent with their future goals.

USING NARRATIVES IN COACHING ASSESSMENT

Often, the initial coach assessment interview is viewed as a data collection process. Viewed from this perspective, the coach asks targeted questions on subjects such as where the client fits into the organizational structure, the leader’s span of control, or key performance accountabilities. While all of these data bits are important, when added up, they don’t provide us with a coherent picture of our coaching client. Ken Ideus (my coauthor of “Working Deeply: Transforming Lives Through Transformational Coaching”) and I feel that a better approach is to make use of broad questions that encourage the client to tell her story in any way that works for her. In “Working Deeply,” we devote two chapters to detailing coaching questions you can use to deconstruct your coaching clients’ past, present, and future stories. Consider the following examples:

What has been omitted from the story? A good opening question is, “Could you tell me the story about how you came into your organization, and where you think that journey has taken you so far?”

As your client responds to this question, you often can learn a lot by listening to what appears to be intentionally omitted or glossed over. The leader who shakes his head in frustration about his inability to get superior performance from his peers may leave off the part of the story where he has consistently waged a war of attrition with these stakeholders by escalating disagreements into win-lose battles. In the same way, a leader may focus his discussion on how he has worked to drive the performance of his “ungrateful team,” without mentioning the part of the story where his angry outbursts resulted in the voluntary termination of two of his best people.

Who are the cast of characters? As you listen to your client’s story, see if you can determine who your client identifies as being key to her organizational success. I once was asked to conduct a series of 360-degree interviews for a senior director who previously had been identified by his management as a high-potential leader. As we discussed who we needed to include in those interviews, the leader told me, “Let’s restrict it to the senior team. After all, they are the only ones who count.” That comment told me a lot about this leader, and was consistent with some things I already directly observed, such as this person’s tendency to snub peers who lacked his title or status in the company.

How does the story end? During my first coaching session, once a client has shared his story with me, I always ask the following question: “As you listen to the story you have told me, ask yourself this—if nothing in that story changes and it continues along its current path, how does the story end?” In my 30 years as a coach, I have found this to be a powerful question for encouraging deep self-reflection on the part of my coaching clients. Often, even the most hesitant or resistant leader will give a significant pause, as that person begins to consider the most likely outcomes of the story he or she is living.

Our life stories or narratives reveal much about how we see ourselves, and the general view we have of the world in which we live. The next time you are in a coaching discussion, ask a broad, open-ended question and listen carefully to the story that emerges. You never know where it will take you.

Robert Barner, Ph.D., is a college professor in the Graduate Program of Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management at Southern Methodist University. In addition, he has had 30 prior years of experience as a corporate talent management professional and executive coach. He is also co-author, with Dr. Ken Ideus, of “Working Deeply: Transforming Lives Through Transformational Coaching,” the book on which this article is based.

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