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, 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
When we hear a story, our brain reacts as though we were experiencing it ourself.
Research 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 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.
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.
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…’
 Rogers, C R 1995, A Way of Being, Houghton Mifflin, New York
 Saphire, DH, 2015, “How Storytelling Affects the Brain” https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2015/03/03/how-storytelling-affects-the-brain/
 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/
 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.
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Diverse career enables me to connect and relate to my coachees.