The narrative approach to coaching investigates the stories that people construct in their lives to define who they are and what they do. It is the coach’s role to help clients identify stories that are limiting them from achieving their full potential and to assist in finding an alternative story that is more beneficial.

The coach has four main aims when implementing the narrative approach:

  • Search for alternative explanations
  • Search for unique outcomes
  • Encourage a future with the alternative story
  • Find ways to create an audience who will perceive and support the new story

Main Concepts

Let us look at some of the main concepts of this approach:

Dominant Stories: Dominant stories are stories in a person’s life which he or she strongly believe and have had things happen in life that have reinforced this story. They can have both positive and negative affects on the individual’s life and affect not only the present but also the future.

Stories consist of the following elements (De Jong & Berg, 2002):

  • Events
  • Linked in sequence
  • Across time
  • According to a plot

For example:

John is a successful executive to an important financial company. However, he lacks confidence in his typing ability due to situations that have occurred in the past. For example, when he was in high school he failed in a typing course.

In his first job as an administrative assistant he was always in trouble for taking too long to complete projects and he thought this was due to his typing “inability”. Now that he has his own administrative assistant he gets him to type everything for him but is finding that other tasks are not completed due to this problem.

John’s dominant story of not being able to type has been reinforced by past incidences of being told he can’t type and failing a typing course. He now reinforces this issue by getting someone else to do the typing for him. Although John’s story is quite basic, you can see how this dominant story affects his present and will also keep affecting his future.

Externalising Language: Externalising language is used in coaching to separate the problem from the person. For example, a person may say “I am a sad person”. This implies that the person has a sad quality or characteristic of sadness rather than it just being something that affects the person from time to time.

Coaches working from a narrative perspective are attuned to the language they use to represent an issue or problem in their coachees’ lives. They assume that the issue or problem is “having an effect on the person” rather than the issue or problem being an intrinsic part of who the person is.

Rather than saying “you are lacking in motivation”, a coach working from a narrative perspective may ask “when did motivation leave you?”  OR rather than say, “you are stressed” the coach may enquire, “when did stress get a hold of you?” 

Unique outcomes: Unique outcomes are situations or events that do not fit with the problem-saturated story. When searching for unique outcomes, coaches focus their attention on finding any event or experience that stands apart from the problem story – even if the situation appears to be inconsequential to the client.

Example transcript:

In this example, Ben is in year 12 and is aiming to achieve a scholarship for university. Ben doesn’t usually have a problem with motivation, but lately he just can’t seem to find the energy to study. With assistance from his coach, Ben has named his lack of motivation, “the energy-zapper”.

Here is part of the conversation that takes place between Ben and his coach.  

Coach – When did the energy-zapper first make an appearance in your life?

Ben – Hmm, well I think I first noticed him in grade 9. I went through this stage where he was turning up and zapping my energy all the time!

Coach – Was there ever a time when you were able to overcome the energy-zapper’s powers? 

Ben – Umm…yeah, once I was so behind in Maths that I just knew I had to study otherwise I would fail the next exam.

Coach – So what did you do?

Ben – Well, I guess, I just focused. I turned off the TV – I knew I had to turn off the TV – Then I thought, right I have to do this. I just have to.

Coach – And did you do it?

Ben – Yeah, you know, I did… and it really wasn’t that hard to stay focused once I got into it. I stayed up all night to study for that exam.

Coach – So the energy-zapper loses his power when you really focus your attention on something.

Ben – Yeah, I guess he does (laughs).

This conversation reveals a unique outcome for Ben.

Technique: Naming the Problem

Let’s look at one narrative approach technique called “naming the problem”. Naming the problem is used as a way to establish a sense of distance from, and control over the problem. This is a main aim of the narrative approach.

Payne (2006) has identified a number of questions you may wish to use to help the client name the problem:

“I wonder what we will call this problem.”
“Do you have a particular name for what you’re going through at the moment?”
“There are lots of things happening to you- shall we try to pin them down? What are they, what name shall we put to them?”
“I’ve been calling what they did to you ‘constructive dismissal’. Does that seem the right term to use?”
“Judging by what you say, you’ve been subject to emotional abuse. How would it feel if that’s what we called it from now on? Or perhaps there’s a better name?”

If the client has trouble coming up with a name, you could suggest possibilities.

For example:

Sam is a 25-year-old professional, who has recently been promoted to a business development position within her organisation. As part of this new role, Sam will be required to provide product information to a large number of potential customers in a conference-style presentation. Sam considers herself to be ‘nervous by nature’ and is worried that she may find this aspect of the role intimidating.

Sam and her coach have named her nervousness, the intimidator.