As coaches we need to build a strong working alliance with our clients so that they trust us and feel safe to be vulnerable and explore aspects of themselves that they may have been unwilling or afraid to examine or that they were unaware of.  When we show genuine empathy, unconditional positive regard and non-possessive warmth[1], we provide that safe container for them.

One way to do this is to listen to our client’s story.  Listening to stories develops our ability to relate to others through increased empathy and intercultural sensitivity[2]

When we hear a story, our brain reacts as though we were experiencing it ourself.[3]

Research[4] conducted at Princeton University showed that when this communication is successful, the brains of the storyteller and the listener exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.” i.e. the listener’s brain is a mirror of the storyteller.  The coupling of the brains means that the storyteller can get the listeners to experience the same thing that they have.  Whilst listening we are searching for a similar experience that enables us to experience the same feelings of terror, joy, pain, fear etc.  Dr Paul Zak[5] found that “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”  He also found that “character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis”.

Using Storytelling in Coaching

This research points to the fact that storytelling is a powerful means of building connection in the coaching relationship.  Used skilfully, the coach can also use the stories that the coachee tells to create awareness and energy for change in them.

We can do this in multiple ways.

  1. In coaching sessions, we usually ask the client to give us the context for the topic/area that they want to explore/resolve so we can understand the field we are working in with them. Clients need to feel able to express themselves fully and often gain new insights merely by the recounting of events or telling the story out loud to someone other than themselves.  A dilemma we often face as coaches is achieving balance between giving enough space to the client to tell their story with letting them ‘go on’ too long and thus decrease the value of the telling.

There is no right answer to this; giving room to clients to speak may be a powerful intervention in itself.  Clients have been surprised at what they say to me and confess that it is the first time that they have admitted to themselves what they are really feeling.

At other times there is more value in interrupting the client.  You will know what the right thing is to do, based on your relationship, if you remain in the moment with the client. I think it is helpful to check-in with the client to determine whether they need to share more of their story or not.  You can help them recover their place by giving a prompt on what they were saying.

  1. Coaching sessions are a safe place for clients to rehearse for important events; be that a town hall, speaking engagement or a critical conversation with a colleague. Often clients will talk through the mechanics of how they will approach the situation and the words they will use. This is useful in that they can determine what to do differently.  Added value comes if we seize the moment and ask the coachee to practise what they have determined to do in the coaching session.  When I do that, clients often gulp and then step into it.  Feeling what it is like to say what they have planned and get feedback on how it lands with their coach helps them to refine their approach and get more comfortable before they have to ‘do it for real’.
  2. Another way that stories can lead to breakthroughs is when we notice the style of delivery that the coachee is using. What words are they using?  Are there some words that are repeated throughout the coaching session? Is the client speaking softly or with passion? How fast or slow are they talking? What gestures and facial expressions do they make?  How animated are they? Being alert to all this can provide valuable clues to the coachee when we reflect this back to them e.g. “I noticed that your face really lit up when you said that.  What was going on for you at that time?”  “Your voice got quieter and your body became more hunched up as you spoke.”
  3. Sharing how we feel as we listen to our clients’ stories can provide other opportunities for the client to gain new insights. If we are confused or bored or are not convinced by what the coachee is telling us; we can express that in a non-judgemental way that gives room for exploration.  I have experienced moments with clients where I get lost in their storytelling.  When I have reflected this back to them it has led to some significant shifts and breakthroughs in the session.

Storytelling plays a powerful role in coaching and enriches the coaching relationship.  Trust your instincts to use the client’s story to deepen their self-insight and facilitate their learning and growth.

‘Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin…’

[1] Rogers, C R 1995, A Way of Being, Houghton Mifflin, New York

[2]  Saphire, DH, 2015, How Storytelling Affects the Brain https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2015/03/03/how-storytelling-affects-the-brain/

[3] Joshua VanDeBrake, https://medium.com/swlh/the-science-of-storytelling-why-we-love-stories-fceb3464d4c3

[4] Stephens, GJ, Silbert, LJ, Hasson, U, Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 2010, 107(32),  14425–14430, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922522/

[5] Zak, PJ, HBR, 2014, “Why your brain loves good storytelling”, https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling

Dr Joan van den Brink, “your personal chemist”, is a freelance management consultant and owner of Araba Consulting. She works with individuals and organisations to tailor solutions that make them stronger and more capable. Joan has had a rich experience in a wide-ranging career that spans Marketing, Operations, HR, Communications and Management Consulting in global and local public and private sector organisations.  She has travelled extensively throughout her life, working in the Americas, Asia, Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.