Making sense of narrative coaching

Monica Cable, IECL Associate, shares with us the profound value that a narrative approach can bring to coaching. She shares with us the essence of the approach, and how it helped her counterpart overcome an organisational obstacle. 


Narrative coaching has its roots in narrative therapy, a methodology developed about 30 years ago in Adelaide by a social worker, Michael White, and his colleague, David Epston.

Early on in my previous career as a psychotherapist, I spent a year studying Narrative Therapy. It took me months to get my head around understanding the concepts. I could see from all the demonstrations that the methods were incredibly powerful, but I found the training very ‘heady’ and the language that was used seemed so complex. I felt incredibly frustrated. It was only when I experienced a few narrative sessions from a seasoned narrative specialist that I was able to personally appreciate its extraordinary impact. I had a huge ‘Aha’ moment when I realised how transformational this approach could be in helping me to reframe challenges both in my own and my clients’ lives. I really understood what is meant by saying: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”.

I have since learnt that using a narrative approach helps people externalise their issues; it is a way of assisting them to stand back from their challenges and look at the various different parts of themselves with new eyes. In my experience, people find this incredibly empowering and, rather than staying stuck in the same old story they’ve been telling themselves, they start to have a very different understanding of themselves, their old stories. By adopting a really curious approach and asking great questions, the coach can assist their clients to develop a whole new way of looking at themselves.

The narrative approach has made me so much more curious about myself and others. It offers so many possibilities for changing and developing ourselves. It’s helped me to look at issues with fresh eyes and to stop using labels to put people in boxes.

I don’t use this approach all the time in my coaching practice. I use it when people present me with “stuck” or more challenging behaviours that are preventing them from moving forward.

So how does narrative coaching work in practice?

I recently had a particularly poignant experience in a coaching session with ‘Mary’ who was having serious challenges with a team member. There appeared to be an intransigent personality clash between the two executives. Mary said that she felt undermined and disrespected by her colleague. This had been going on for several months and I had been brought in to try to resolve the issues which were starting to have a detrimental effect on the whole team. Mary noticed that she was now also responding to this person in disrespectful ways and told me that this had been a pattern for her whenever she’d felt challenged by people. I realised that this was a perfect opportunity to try using a narrative approach with my client. I explained that I was really curious about these disrespectful ways and how they were showing up in her life. I asked if Mary was able to give these ways a name –  whether they had a colour or maybe even a smell. I noticed her body language changed almost immediately as she responded positively to the question. She sat up, smiled and looked me straight in the eye. “Oh yes” she said, “that’s the Rebel.”

We then went on to explore how the Rebel had shown up in her life from early childhood to now. We looked at ways that the Rebel had been a challenge for her, and we also looked at how the Rebel might have tried to help her in some way.

We spent a good couple of sessions exploring the wily ways of the Rebel. We then moved on to looking at the “preferred story” – in other words, ways in which my client would really prefer to live her life both at work and at home. Mary named this part of herself as the “Nurturer”. She was excited when talking about times when the Nurturer had shown up in the past. She realised how keen she was to experience more of the Nurturer and that, by doing this, she could lessen the impact of the Rebel.

This coaching assignment had a good ending: Mary reported that her relationship with her colleague had improved dramatically. She was now able to recognise when the Rebel showed up – and had developed strategies to contain the behaviours that had been pushing her around so negatively. She said that the Nurturer was helping her to have compassion for herself, and that she now had a far greater understanding of why the Rebel had arrived in the first place. She was able, for the most part, to contain her negative behaviours and her self-awareness was greatly increased.

I hope this reflection has helped make sense of integrating a narrative approach into coaching, and would welcome any further insights to this powerful approach.

Further reference

Narrative coaching is taught in IECL’s Level 3 coach training.

Story Matters: An Inquiry into the Role of Narrative in Coaching

Monica Cable is an Associate of IECL, specialising in executive coaching, team and leadership development and coaching supervision. She is passionate about enabling individuals to realise their potential through their work, to meet their own goals and in turn meet their organisation’s goals.