Personal Story In Coaching

Personal Story In Coaching

Stories connect us to ourselves and to the larger World.  We can view them on a spectrum from simple, to complicated, to complex, and on occasion, multi-layered and to seemingly chaotic. In this, the third article in our series we take a simple approach to touch upon a few more ways in which story may be used to contribute to the coaching process. You will learn something about story and its power, and how to construct and tell a story.

(Readers may choose to dig deeper and explore these introductory offerings in greater detail for themselves).

The anatomy of story

Story has many components. They:

  • take place in a setting (forest, marketplace, home, sea, beach, boardroom, Universe …),
  • happen in a context (physical and emotional),
  • have characters (people, animals, angels, a virus …) with desires, intent and fears.
  • belong to a theme or rhythm and pace (tragic, comic …),
  • consist of a plot or storyline, problem, possibility, motive, and
  • a pattern (which is about movement).

These components vary from story to story. For example, a virus may be a setting, a context, form part of the plot, determine the theme, or be a character (antagonist) …

And story comes in many forms. They may be epic mythological tales, fables, historical accounts, biographical sharing, parable, poem – and reach us in literature (fact or fiction), cinema, newspaper, digitally, the spoken word, or in a dream.

There is power in story

Stories don’t constrain, although the stories that we believe or tell may trap and imprison us or they may liberate and uplift us. Story possibilities are infinite. Poetess Muriel Rukeyser says that “The universe is made of stories not atoms”.

Some stories exist to help us make sense of difficulties, challenges, brokenness – at a personal level, and at an organisation level. Story can break walls, bridge divides, connect, heal and grow us (at cognitive emotional, social and soul levels). We can engage, locate ourselves within the container that is story, and identify, activate our imagination to unleash possibilities, gain knowledge, make sense of, gain understanding, insight, hope, even wisdom – all through story.

Personally applying stories passed down through the ages

Belonging is a primary intrinsic motivation.  Published in 1845, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling is referred to by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as “a psychological and spiritual root story … one that contains a truth so fundamental to human development that without integration of this fact, further progression is shaky …”   She illuminates, “… when an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both instinctual and a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgement and acceptance, that person feels life and power as never before. Ascertaining one’s own psychic family brings a person vitality and belongingness”. (Estés, C. P. 2008)

I can attest to this power being revealed when sharing the ugly duckling story with a team facing redundancies, with a group of retreatants, and with individuals during their coaching journey.

Clinical psychologist Debbie Howes uses Little Red Riding Hood as a conditioning projective story technique to reach the unconscious mind.   LITTLE applies to the child aspect of our being, RED (the colour of blood) to our life force, RIDING represents our capacity to master and control the vehicle or journey we are on, and HOOD is that which covers and holds within all that we are. A rich treasure. (Howes, D. 2010)

The author of Women Who Run with Wolves, Jungian analyst and story teller Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés has, through the story of Bluebeard, an archetype of evil and of malignant narcissism, explored the far-reaching effects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in our current culture. Her analysis of Bluebeard offers a pathway to freedom, a way to identify the false empathy proclaimed by narcissists (and so protect oneself psychologically and spiritually), and how to rise above the oppression of this sort of culture or person. (Estés, C. P. 2019)

Encouraging Personal story within the 4W pattern

I encourage the use of a story pattern to engage clients, instil confidence and allow them to structure their personal story in a way that facilitates exploratory conversation. The pattern involves and encourages their expression of when, what happened, ensued, resulted, and where are you ‘at’ now?

There are a number of complex and detailed theories of the story pattern, developed by Syd Field, Levi Strauss, Gustav Freytag, Joseph Campbell and others. The most well known is what mythologist Joseph Campbell, refers to as the Hero’s Journey. (Campbell, J. 1991).

A simple, easily useable pattern that encapsulates the other patterns and drastically reduces the usual number of steps, is described in The Halo and the Noose. (Williams, G and Haarhoff, D. 2016)

In all of these patterns a story, in essence, captures a journey from a disrupted present state (‘Once upon a time …’) to a desired state (‘… and they lived happily ever after’). (O’Connor, J and Seymour, J. 1995), although it is seldom that effortless. Conflict at some level is a typical story trigger: “The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is” (John Le Carre)

The pattern I teach is of four journey-points or phases, being womb, wound, wander, and wonder. 4 W’s.

  • We begin in the WOMB, before the story starts. All is well, stable, safe, pristine, content. The Garden of Eden. Yet something may be brewing, waiting to emerge, come to the boil, disrupt, begin and shape the story. The ante story.
  • Then something happens – a WOUND. Time and death enter the World. Paradise is lost. Wounds are events, and recovery and healing are a transition process. When wounded – loss, hurt, disruption, unexpected change, death, a disappearance, a theft – we may experience shock, immobilisation, denial.
  • Our grief and despair can introduce the third journey phase, WANDER. We begin to respond – begin to move. We may reach acceptance. We wander and the work happens. Perhaps tentative and scared, we set forth on a journey. We desire to restore what has been broken. But we may be anxious, lonely, uncertain, confused.  “Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”.  (Carroll, Lewis 2005)

In a fairy tale and other story forms this is often the longest and richest part of the journey – the hero or heroine travels far and encounters many dangers, enters many bargains with helping creatures, fights transition battles, grows in stature. And brings back to the kingdom the quality or the thing necessary for transformation.

  • The fourth stage (THE WONDER) is about transformation. About wholeness. About alchemy. Out of the dross of pain, loss and setback comes the gold of strength, value and reward.

The fourth stage is not a return to the first stage. We cannot get back into paradise. (In Genesis, the angels bar the gates with a flaming sword). We have been on the poet William Blake’s journey from innocence to experience. We think of the velveteen rabbit’s journey from abandonment and heartache to becoming real. (Williams, M. 2005) A universal principle.

Follow the 4 W pattern here:

A pot stood on a shelf in the museum. Many came to admire it. The woman who worked there took special care of this pot. She dusted it carefully and arranged it so the light from the window fell on it. 

One day somebody left the window open and a gust of wind knocked the pot off the shelf. The pot lay in a thousand pieces. When the woman came to work the next day, she put her face in her hands and grieved for the broken pot. 

Then piece-by-piece she began to reassemble it. The woman glued pieces together and searched in the cracks between the floorboards. Those pieces she could not find, she measured and made. 

When she had glued the last piece, she stood back to gaze at her handiwork. Then she placed the pot back on the shelf. Despite its cracks many came to admire it.

We can think of the museum pot story at many levels:

  • Did someone deliberately open the window?
  • Can we see the pot as a symbol of an economy, environment, society, community, organisation, relationship or person that is hurt, broken, destroyed? 
  • What does the mending process of picking up the pieces equate to in terms of restoration, repair, regeneration, returning to wholeness?
  • What if we saw ourselves as the woman who looked after the pot – the heroine who does the work. What is required? What tools are needed? What ups and downs happen as the work continues? Who might come alongside to help?
  • And as we come to the journey end, what may occur?  Is it possible that the pieced-together pot is now more authentic, stronger, even more beautiful in its imperfection?

Another simple 4W example:

At school I was forced by my music teacher to sing a solo to the class after being caught talking during the lesson.

As my voice was breaking at that time, the result was hugely embarrassing and humiliating.

Thereafter I refused to sing in the class again, notwithstanding being sent often to the principal’s office for several weeks for six-of-the-best.

For many years after that incident, I refrained from singing.

Then I started saxophone lessons, years after leaving school, recovered my joy of music, and now sing again (albeit not in good voice!)

Sometimes a personal story that is a noose (strangling and trapping) has to be reframed into a halo (healing and liberating)

I once found my 5- year old granddaughter watching a horror movie on TV. Huge, slimy, green monsters were catching and eating people.

“Tiia” I said, “you shouldn’t be watching this. You’ll have nightmares”

“Oh no granddad” she said, “Don’t worry. I put myself on the side of the monsters. Then they don’t frighten me!”

That’s reframing!

Aids to reframing include:

  • In the Jewish tradition, there is the idea of Midrash. Midrash involves fleshing out a story we only have the barest details for – the bones of the story. By re-telling a story, filling in the gaps in order to expand, putting oneself into another character, and supplying details that are not recorded we allow for different interpretations of meaning, and personal revelations and insights. Often a different picture brings a deeper understanding
  • Telling one’s story from an observer’s viewpoint, perhaps as a myth, fairy tale or film script. This technique sometimes yields amazing insights and allows for positive reframing.
  • Time-lining. Taking the client back to a past event and examining the event (story) from a distance as if watching a black and white movie scene. Fast forwarding to the future to now imagine a full colour version of how the client would want the event or story to have played out. Then coming back into the present to anchor that version in order to decide the actions needed to move forward with it.

In future articles we’ll discuss other story applications for coaches.

If you’d like to arrange a story-in-coaching workshop or individual story coaching, then please don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected]


Campbell, Joseph (1991) The Hero’s Journey HarperSanFrancisco

Estés, Dr Clarissa Pinkola (2019) The Understanding Narcissism Summit Sounds True 4th November to 13th November, 2019

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola (2008) Woman Who Run with the Wolves: contacting the power of the wild woman Rider

Howes, Debbie (2010) Little Red Riding Hood Revised: A hypnotherapeutic Analysis, Interpretation and Application

Williams, Graham and Haarhoff, Dorian (2016) The Halo and the Noose (Version 2) HeartSpace Publications

Williams, Margery (2005) The Velveteen Rabbit Egmont, London

Graham Williams

About the Author

Graham Williams is an executive coach and management consultant who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He has worked in over 40 countries in a variety of sectors, authored 9 business books and is a Management Contributor for 12Manage, the world’s #1 management network.

Graham uses narrative, anecdote, metaphor, archetypes, poetry, imagery and conversations in his work. He is passionate about facilitating healing and wholeness in organisations and their members. And is often asked to conduct workshops for coaches on competency development and application areas suitable for the effective use of story, and the powerful possibilities inherent in story.

In this six-part series Graham shares his insights into a number of the key skills required by modern-day coaches.

He may be contacted at [email protected]

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