As humans, we have been telling stories for eons. We even tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. We place ourselves in those stories and give ourselves characters to create certainty and reduce our anxiety around the events of our lives.
Sometimes we are the hero of our stories. Sometimes we are the victim. We might even call ourselves the villain at times. There is no limit to the personas we give ourselves in our narratives.
The problem is that sometimes these stories can be dysfunctional and sometimes we may not even be aware of the stories we are telling ourselves. Becoming aware of our narrative can empower us to act.
One of the ways to become conscious of our narrative is to gain distance from it. When we are ‘in’ the story, it is difficult to see; looking at it from the outside can allow for some objectivity. You can do this with a coach or mentor who is prepared to listen to you tell the story and ask questions about it. They will provide feedback and look for anomalies, challenging you about them. David Drake, one of the foremost experts on narrative coaching talks about discourse as a ‘powerful’ tool for uncovering stories .
In the discussion, (or in your journaling if you’re working through it yourself), consider the following aspects:
- What is the story? What are the events that make up the story? What are the actions of the characters in the story?
- Who are you in the story? What identity do you assume?
- How does the identity you adopt impact your behaviour? How do you perform as a character in the story?
In discourse and distance from the story, you may start to develop consciousness of aspects of your narrative you would like to change.
 Drake, D. B. (2010). Narrative Coaching. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova, & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), The Complete Handbook of Coaching (pp. 120-131). London: Sage.
Yesterday I wrote about how we build stories about our identity around the events of our lives.
I received the following feedback from Morgan (name changed for anonymity) who is a subscriber to my blog:
“I love this. The counter-point is that since this lived experience and narrative shapes everyone, we need to be careful not to pre-judge others as we cannot know their experiences and the narrative they assign to them. To me, that is at the very heart of inclusion … recognising all of us have travelled a different path but respecting each other enough to be genuinely curious about how that has shaped us.”
Firstly, thank you, Morgan, for your feedback. It is gratefully received.
Secondly, I couldn’t agree more. When we communicate with others, it is essential to understand how they are hearing you. It’s no point talking to someone in a language they don’t understand. That is not communication.
Genuine dialogue, the two-way exchange of ideas, requires advanced empathy from both parties to understand how the lived experience of the other person impacts their perspective and, thus, their understanding of what is being said.
This might mean that when communicating with people from different backgrounds or with different experiences, how you say it is just as important as what you say. This is one of the components of the Paradox of Authentic Leadership.
For more background on how our experience shapes how we communicate, I recommend Hugh Mackay’s book Why Don’t People Listen?
This week I had the opportunity to see clients in the Western Sydney suburb of Emu Plains, the suburb where I spent my high school years and where my parents still live.
After finishing my work, I took the opportunity to walk home and spend a night with mum and dad. The walk was no more than two kilometres through a nature reserve and along roads with which I was very familiar.
As a teenager, my school mates and I would play cricket on those streets until it was so dark, we could barely see the ball. We’d play handball and ride our bikes along those streets as well. On the nature reserve, we’d practise our golf swings trying not to hit the ball into the creek at the end of my street.
All of this was over 30 years ago.
As I walked that familiar route, I noticed the trees had become taller, the bushland denser. Some houses were the same, others renovated or knocked down and rebuilt. The images of those high school years seemed clear to me.
I reflected on the good times and bad. On the whole, there were more positive memories. At one point, I thought how all those things that happened so long ago didn’t matter today. It was all in the past. A lot of those friends have moved on. We have all changed, grown and matured.
Then I thought about the stories that we tell ourselves. The events of our past form part of the narrative that shapes our identities. Those events do matter because we assign meaning to them, and that shapes how we relate to the world today.
And this is where our power lies. We have control of the meaning we assign to events. We get to write our own stories. We can, if we are conscious of how we do this, control our narrative.
In this way, we can allow our past to inform our future and not define it.
Yesterday, I sat down with another coach to assist her with her coaching practice. In our profession, this is called ‘supervision’. Psychologists, nurses and other helping-professions also engage in supervision to develop and maintain their professional standards. 
We discussed the concept of success in coaching. What makes a coaching session successful? Previously, I’ve heard the following answers to that question:
- “I am successful if I can get the coachee to think differently.”
- “The coaching session is successful if I can get the client to have an insight.”
The problem I have with these answers is that it places the success of the coach in the hands of the coachee. As a coach, I can not control my coachee ‘generating insight’ or ‘thinking differently.’ That is up to them. All I can do is contribute to the creation of the conditions for that insight to occur.
Coaching is a collaborative endeavour. It is a two-way conversation, focused on the client, where meaning is shared and co-created based on the uncovered stories and narratives. Insight may happen, or it may not. But, I increase the chances if I help create the conditions for its emergence.
So I think a successful coaching session is one where I show up, ask questions I don’t know the answer to, and listen to the response from the coachee with as much empathy as possible. If I do what I can to create the best conditions required, if I control what I can control, and I trust in the process, then I believe I have been successful.
What might that mean for you as a leader in your organisation?
When you are having developmental conversations with your team, you can’t control them ‘getting it.’ But you can work to create the conditions for them to ‘get it.’ Ask them questions. Work through issues with them. Listen to them. Seek to understand.
The rest is up to them.
 I have mentioned my supervisor before here.
Yesterday I discussed the concept of adopting different character roles to provide options for approaching difficult issues in work and life.
Thank you to everyone who provided additional roles and characters from the ones listed yesterday. It was great to hear your stories and suggestions and the different actors you see play out in them, either by yourself or by others.
By way of thanks, here is an additional list of characters to choose from based on the feedback from yesterday’s post:
- Big Brother/Sister
- Devil’s Advocate
- Peace Maker
There is an infinite number of roles we can play, which means there is an endless number of options on how we can approach our issues.