A Narrative Approach to Coaching

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Narrative coaching is a body of knowledge that draws on millennia of ancient wisdom, a century of social science thinking, and breakthroughs in domains like the neurosciences to create an approach to development fitting for our times. It is a mindful, experiential, and holistic approach to helping people shift their stories about themselves, about others, and about life itself in order to create results that matter to them. Stories are particularly important now as we struggle to retain the ancient and familiar narrative structure for our experience in a time when the past is swept away more quickly, the present is more compressed, and the future is increasingly folding back into our experience (Drake, 2009a).

A narrative approach to coaching helps people to (1) become more aware of their own implicit and explicit stories, (2) recognize how these stories shape their identity and their behavior at both conscious and unconscious levels, (3) understand that these stories are personally and socially constructed, and (4) be more authorial in order to authentically embody a new way of being in the world. Narrative coaches take a more “decentered” position in their role (Drake, 2009d), a more nondirective approach to the coaching process, and a more contextual view of peoples’ identity, development and behavior.

1. People’s situated identity and their situational behaviors are mutually reinforcing and each can be tapped as a lever for change.

2. The power created in the relational field between two people in coaching is more important than the specific techniques that are used.

3. Margins, borders and the unconscious are more central to making meaningful change than linear plans focused on symptom relief.

4. People’s own stories provide the primary material for coaching conversations and the language and vehicle for change.

5. A keen awareness of the present without judgment and the ability to pay closer attention are as critical in coaching as external goals.

6. The rites of passage model (a contextual frame) is more useful for guiding change than the medical model (a mechanistic frame).

General guidelines for a narrative approach:

1. Create nonjudgmental and generative spaces in which people can work in the moment with their narrative material in order to discover, explore and potentially reframe their habitual narrative patterns and open up new possibilities for their development and outcomes. It is less about causation and more about creation.

2. Track how people organize their stories, e.g. which events are included, which themes they organize around, which characters are portrayed as significant, and which voices are privileged in the telling (Botella & Herrero, 2000) . Help people examine their assumptions about reality through deeply engaging in their stories.

3. Listen for the gaps, the thresholds where the person’s emplotment strategies (how they make sense and meaning of events) have broken down or are no longer working. These gaps in narration can be seen as “breaches” (Bruner, 1986; Riessman, 1993) and the stories people tell us as attempts to resolve the discrepancy between what they expected and what has transpired (Ochs & Capps, 1996) .

4. These gaps in peoples’ stories can be an opportune time to help peoples formulate a different story and outcome because it is in these liminal, in-between spaces where growth most often occurs (Drake, 2009b). Therefore, stay present to what is happening in the session, in what narrative coaches think of as storytime and storyspace (Drake, 2007), in order to notice more openings for change. Everything you need is right in front of you.

Foundations of Narrative Coaching

Narrative coaches draw on three bodies of work: (1) narrative psychology as a way to understand and connect to the narrator; (2) narrative structure as a way to elicit and understand the material in the stories as they unfold; and (3) narrative practices as a way to understand and harvest the greatest value from the dynamics in the narrative field (Drake, 2009c). While the roots of narrative coaching in literary analysis are important (see Burke, 1969; McKee, 1997), the focus here is on its origins in the humanities and psychology.

The humanities (e.g. political science, sociology and anthropology) provide a broad understanding of stories as central to the very fabric of individual and collective life. Phenomenologists such as Berger and Luckmann (1966) and anthropologists such as Geertz (1978) provided insights into the processes by which we narrate our socially constructed experience and the ways in which individual stories are best viewed within larger narrative frames and forces. Of particular importance for narrative coaching is Campbell’s (1973) work on the heroic journey, van Gennep’s (1960) work on rites of passage, and Turner’s (see 1969) work to extend this model into broader cultural life.

In the area of psychology, William James (1927) was a seminal figure in bringing narrative frames to psychology, particularly in making the distinction between the I (the subject) and the Me (the object) – a distinction carried forward as the self-as-knower and the self-as-known (Hermans, 2004) and the author and the actor (Mancuso & Sarbin, 1983) . Other influences on narrative coaching: (1) Michael White and David Epston’s formative work on narrative therapy (see White & Epston, 1990); (2) Kenneth Gergen’s (1994) and Dan McAdams (1993) work on the social construction of identity; (3) Jung’s (1970) insights on individuation and on collective and unconscious influences; (4) Freire’s (1970) work on the liberating power of praxis; (5) Gilligan’s (Gilligan & Brown, 1991) work on the importance of ‘voice’; and (6) the links between narratives and the neurosciences through the work of cognitive scientist Roger Schank (1990) , developmental psychologist Dan Siegel (2007) and insight dialogue founder Gregory Kramer (2007) .

Coaching Applications

1. Who people see themselves to be and are seen to be, and how they act and are expected to act, are all mutually reinforcing. Therefore, identity and behaviors go hand in hand and peoples’ stories provide great material to use in working on both levels in coaching.

2. Focus on the quality of the relationship between you and the other person (ie, depth, trust and generativity) as it is more influential than the specific theory or technique in outcome variance (Norcross, 2001).

3. Pay attention to both the process of narration (including your own role) as well as the material that emerges. An understanding of narrative structure is essential in working with the stories as they unfold. The story spine is a good frame to use: (1) Once upon a time… ; (2) Every day… ; (3) But one day… ; (4) Because of that . . . until finally . . . ; (5) And ever since then . . .; and (6) The moral of the story is . . .

4. Help people relate to their stories with less judgment in order to loosen any grip they have on their identity, mindsets and behaviors. In doing so, they will gain greater awareness, trust in themselves, and ability to make conscious choices.

5. Put more emphasis on generating experiences and less on rushing to any interpretation, meaning, or action. Doing so, you are more likely to fully engage the whole person and create conditions more similar to what they will encounter after the session.

Narrative Identity in Coaching

A distinguishing feature of a narrative approach to coaching is its emphasis on the critical role of situated (e.g., somatic, relational, contextual, and adaptive) identity in understanding and supporting peoples’ development and performance. It represents a shift from thinking of identity as a set of static properties to a seeing it as reflection of dynamic and relational action (Gergen & Gergen, 2006) and from thinking of it as a fixed object to seeing it an adaptive performance (Mishler, 1999) . The more important a particular identity is to us the more our behaviors will be in service of confirming these identities (Markus & Nurius, 1986) , even those contained in what they call our “possible selves.”

Identity can be seen as a continuous psychosocial process in which people navigate between presenting identities that are acceptable and functional in their social contexts, and embodying identities that are authentic and meaningful in their personal context. There is an intimate connection, therefore, between the ways in which we construe ourselves and the ways in which we are likely to behave (Novitz, 1997) . Peoples’ stories about the past, present and future all contribute to the shaping of their experience in any given moment. Who they once were, how they are now, and whom they want to be all shape their current state, sense of self and behaviors.

Each of these three temporal dimensions is represented in a person’s narrative patterns and can be accessed in coaching them to unlock new stories. I saw this in a recent conversation with a client who commented that I seemed to know what he would say next at times. I responded by saying that I was just noticing glimpses of the future as it curled back into our present experience because of the sense of relational flow (Moore, Drake, Tschannen-Moran, Campone & Kauffman, 2005) we had created. Stories about who he thought he was, what he was noticing about himself as he was telling his story, and who he was hoping to be when he ‘retired’ came together — resulting in some new insights about what he would do next.

Coaching Applications

1. Provide both an interpersonal structure and a narrative structure in which peoples can safely and fully engage and explore their stories (Levitt, 2002) . In doing so, appreciate the centrality of “place” in how people carry their stories and draw on this embodied sense in creating a generative space for the conversation.

2. Realize that people tell stories to make, confirm or experiment with a way of being in the world/being seen by the world. Therefore, ask yourself, “What is this person trying to achieve through telling these stories—particularly at an emotional level—and how are their narration strategies working for them?”

3. Recognize that if you want people to adopt new behaviors or attain new results, you must help them build an identity, through an alternative narrative. To sustain that new identity, people need to enact new behaviors—and the stories that go with them (Drake, 2007).

4. Realize that people can only see as far as their stories will take them; they can only act as far as their stories will back them (before and/or after they act). As such, it is important to help people to connect in new ways to their stories relative to the social contexts from which they came and to which they will return.

Narrative Practices

Narrative coaches use a variety of methods in working with their peoples, some of which are drawn from related approaches such as narrative therapy and family systems work and some of which have been developed from within the coaching space. Coaches can use these practices to explore how people narrate their experiences, often as a result of long-held schemas (Schank, 1990) and attachment preferences (Drake, 2009d), and how they somatically and verbally express these narrative patterns. These neural-narrative roots are key to helping people develop “thicker descriptions” (Geertz, 1978) for new storylines in their lives. Stories are a great lens into people’s mental models, beliefs, assumptions, etc. about how things are “supposed to be.”

Narrative coaches access these powerful meta-narratives by staying in the lived experience of the conversation as much as possible. Kramer’s (2007) work on relational meditation is helpful here in remembering to pause, relax and remain open in order to trust in the process, listen without attachment, and speak only when it (and what) seems important. This echoes Stern’s (2004) research on the present moment and Freud’s call for ‘evenly suspended attention, a state Epstein (2007) described as “the absence of critical judgment or [any] deliberate attempts to select, concentrate or understand, and [the use of] even, equal, and impartial attention to all that occurs within the field of awareness” (p. 102) . Masterful coaches pay non-directive, non-judgmental, real-time attention to themselves, the other person and the conversation to discern the path forward.

Listening takes on a critical role and the Narrative Diamond™ (Drake, 2007, 2008, 2009c) is the primary frame that is used. It reflects narrative coaches’ decentered position and the fact that what they hear shapes what they ask (and not the other way round). It was initially inspired by Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) three-dimensional narrative inquiry space in their research on teachers, Herman’s (2004) notion of dialogical space, Davies & Harré’s (1990) work on positioning, and the realization from Jung’s (1970) work that the stories we tell in the day serve similar functions for our psyches as our dreams do at night. The presumption is that the events, characters, objects, images and metaphors that appear in our stories are systematically related to the other figures in ways that are important to explore and are often the source of the breakthroughs people are seeking. For example, the characters in a client’s story representing the communities she is trying to bridge in her project come to reflect the need for reconciliation among the many “communities” within herself.

Using this model in coaching enables people to make more visible, to themselves and others, their often invisible identity processes and “theory of events” (Foucault, 1965) . As such, narrative-based coaches listen carefully for (1) what is said (as a witness for the storyteller and to foster greater trust); (2) what is not said (as an advocate for the whole story and to identify the agenda for change); (3) what wants to be said (as a steward for the emergent narrative material and to support a vision for new options); and (4) what is being said differently (as an ally for changes that are already happening and to use them as a structure for new behavior).

Coaching Applications

1. Create a rich narrative field, notice what appears, remain connected even in silence, and actively engage with the people’s narration as it emerges. Invite peoples to stay in their stories as they unfold across a series of present moments. As they do so, the characters, context, and conclusions will become more apparent and available for renegotiation (Freedman & Combs, 1993).

2. Begin by asking them to tell a story about the issue at hand. Let the process build from there by exploring the story further, drawing out related stories, and/or connecting elements from their stories in new ways. Trust that people will begin at the level at which they are ready and the critical themes will be forthcoming regardless of where they begin. Any story or set of stories can be a portal into the larger issues at play and the path to reaching their resolution or aspiration.

3. Build rapport through hemispheric resonance by starting with people’s preference; then invite them onto the path of change by drawing on the other hemisphere to bring in elements that were not part of the original story (Siegel, 2007). Draw on the factual, sequential and verbal parts of the story (largely a product of the left hemisphere) and the more personal, contextual and nonverbal parts of the story (largely a product of the right hemisphere) as needed to elicit the whole story.

4. Help people to identify narrative data from their lives that support an alternate view of who they are and how they want to be in the world—what White and Epston (1990) called “unique outcomes,” Hewson (1991) called “exceptions” and the Heaths (Heath & Heath, 2010) called “bright spots.” At the same time, realize that in order for new stories or new relations between stories to take hold in peoples’ lives, they must build on elements of familiar stories in order to ‘scaffold’ their ascendance (Drake, 2008; Gergen & Gergen, 2006).

5. Therefore: (1) help people to become more aware of the contours of their available narratives and either reframe them or their relationship to them; (2) guide them in discovering and developing new options (often hidden as gems in their own stories) and a more evolved repertoire; and (3) help them to successfully launch their new story (Hewson, 1991) as the basis for fulfilling their aspirations. “Any story told in a coaching session, even if it has served as a transformational vehicle in that setting, must survive the ‘retellings’ if peoples are to sustain the changes they have begun” (Drake, 2009c, p. 120).


As part of our due diligence as professionals, it is incumbent upon coaches to be aware of our own unconscious biases and preferences that shape what we see and do with people and the stories they share with us. What are the acceptable shapes of a life we find ourselves promoting based on our training, professional/business pressures and aesthetic preferences (Phillips, 1994)? What our preferred formulation patterns (Drake, in press) and how do they keep us from more courageously and cleanly meeting others and their stories? In closing, I would offer the following nine ethical considerations in working with people stories; they serve as the bedrock for a narrative approach to coaching:

1. Peoples expect their coach to create a safe container for their storytelling.

2. Peoples expect their stories to be heard in a nonjudgmental, non-assumptive manner.

3. Peoples expect to have their community and cultural stories taken seriously.

4. Peoples have the right to tell their own story in their own way.

5. Peoples tell and understand their story as best as they can at the time.

6. Peoples have the right to change their stories, lives and selves as they choose.

7. Peoples are accountable for the impact of their stories on themselves and others.

8. Peoples expect their coach to manage their own stories, agendas and participation.

9. Peoples expect their coach to be exemplary stewards of the stories that are told.

David Grove

David is a keen observer of human behaviour, an avid gardener, and a master craftsman in working with narrative material. He is the Executive Director of the Center for Narrative Coaching in San Francisco. He is currently living in Sydney, Australia with his family on a three-year sabbatical, in part to continue his work with PricewaterhouseCoopers leading a multi-year coaching and culture change project. The Center is also planning an exciting new venture and community to launch in the Bay Area later this year. Prior to founding the Center in 2006, David spent fifteen years consulting on change projects, management and leadership development programs, and coaching initiatives in over fifty organizations. As part of this work, he was engaged by four organizations for multi-year projects to help them to develop coaching-based cultures and service delivery systems. He has also developed extensive training resources on coaching skills in the workplace and taught his coaching skills program to over 5,000 leaders, managers and professionals to help them shift the way business gets done. David also speaks regularly on the future of coaching, change and leadership using a narrative frame. David’s doctorate is in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in California. His primary research interest is the role of stories in understanding and shaping identity, development and change. He has also studied and taught Jungian psychology, grief work, spiritual formation, and rites of passage as a foundation for his work. Renowned for his breakthrough work in narrative pattern recognition, David works as a participatory anthropologist to advise leaders and their organizations who want to embark on significant change. David has taught advanced graduate and professional courses on narrative/coaching skills and management/leadership for six universities in the U.S. and Australia. He has written over 30 articles, papers and chapters on narratives, evidence, and coaching, and he is active in the international coaching community as a researcher, writer and presenter. He is the chief editor for “The Philosophy and practice of coaching: Insights and Issues for a New Era” published by Jossey-Bass in 2o08 (www.practiceofcoaching.com), and he is nearing completion of his next book, an introduction to narrative coaching. He also serves on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring (UK), the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations (US), and Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice (US).

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