A Coaching Power Tool By Stephen Baker, Empowerment and Transformation Coach, UNITED STATES
Fact vs. Fiction: Accuracy in Narrative
your life is your life. know it while you have it. you are marvelous the gods wait to delightin you.-Charles Bukowski, The Laughing Heart
This power tool is intimately related to a core belief of its author. I would be remiss in claiming to always be successful in implementing it myself. However, as life progresses, I continue to grow in the belief that this is a tool of infinite value for self or client. Two of the points set forth by Leonie Sugarman in her book Life-Span Development reverberate through the purpose of this power tool:
- The narrative is central to humans making sense of their lives – the life course is experienced as a story, and
- There is a continuous reconstruction and reinterpretation of a recollected past and an anticipated future.
This power tool evolved over the course of many conversations with clients. I developed the opinion that many people tell a story that ignores or over-emphasizes certain facts. This does not speak to intentional misrepresentation, but to the possibility that the client has told themselves an untruth and may be in a better position than suspected or create an awareness not previously present. Within coaching interaction, the possibility emerged that the narrative as described somehow makes them feel better than they believe that the facts will absolve them of responsibility. At first blush, this may feel like a focus on the negative, quite the contrary, discovery can be quite positive.
Fact vs. Fiction in the Narrative/Discussion
As one professional put it:
Coaching’s Holy Grail is to create relationships that free clients to fully express themselves, enabling them to better reflect on and learn from experience and expand their self-awareness in order to address their challenges.
The client is sharing a goal or resolution with the coach. In doing so, the client often provides a form of backdrop or one emerges during the dialogue. If the client’s perspective or situation could be described as a narrative, “…It is the coach’s task to identify and challenge these stories and help the client to rewrite them in a more constructive way that helps them fulfill their potential.”The chapter on narrative coaching in The Complete Handbook of Coaching posits that personal motivation springs from the life narratives that we create for ourselves with a connection between how people see themselves, how they narrate their daily life, and how they behave.It is the coach’s task to identify and challenge these stories and help the client to rewrite them in a more constructive way that helps them fulfill their potential.
Given the above, the goal of the power tool is to facilitate the client’s reflection on the facts of their story. What is really a fact? Is it something more of an opinion? s the broader perspective one that changes the “fact” in some way, positive or negative?
A narrative is a powerful tool. However, in her 2008 discussion on narrative in coaching, Dr. Stefanie Reissner identified that stories are often associated with lying (‘telling stories’), and inviting a client to ‘tell a story’ may not lead to the desired outcome. [In contrast] Invitations to ‘share experience’ or ‘tell me more’, however, tend to elicit the client’s story in a more subtle manner.
At some point, the tool requires the coach to inquire as to whether the client’s goals impact their narrative. A 2014 study involving 194 coaches asserts that specific, challenging goals can help clients focus and apply themselves, but they may also lead to a host of potentially negative outcomes (such as inappropriate risktaking, an unnecessarily narrowed focus, and compromised ethics). In this context, is the client modifying or ignoring parts of the narrative to what they believe justifies their current state or absolves them of responsibility?
The situations described below present highly summarized interactions. First, the client mistook a bad event that could be prevented from recurring as life-defining. In the second the client was looking to blame work for poor after-work choices.
Coach Approach to Fact vs. Fiction
The coach acknowledges that clients are responsible for their own choices. It is this responsibility that requires a coach to listen to the narrative and find meaningful questions. The power of coaching lies in challenging the client, looking and asking for evidence to corroborate or dismiss the story the client is concerned with, inviting them to rewrite (parts of) their story.”
In partnering with the client to define what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish in the session, the coach reflects back the narrative of the client for the client to encounter and decide how to proceed.
Listening to the facts and non-fact items of the client’s narrative requires the coach to be fully present. It takes observant focus to really hear the client. At the same time while listening, the coach cannot get lost in the story. In coaching a client separating fact from fiction, the coach must maintain an even-keeled curiosity. “What about the event is meaningful?” or “What additional facts or knowledge would change the way you approach this?” may be part of the discussion.
Present at the moment with the client, the coach is reflecting back to the client the narrative. The coach is asking questions about the client’s way of describing a situation or event. The coach facilitates the client’s awareness of the choice of language and description of items as facts or opinions or other.
Sample Interactions From Real Clients
Below are two greatly summarized and simplified client interactions. At the first, the client was telling themselves that they did not have the core competencies to investigate a job change. The coach worked with the client to understand the facts or events and distinguish them from the opinions that emerged from the events. In the second interaction, the client wanted to make a healthy life change to reduce the impact of a medical condition. The coach worked with the client to place the whole day into focus and identify events under control of the client. This resulted in a change of priorities with the client’s free time. Again, please note that these are highly summarized dialogues.
Client: I want to become an engineer but why bother when I am terrible at math?
Coach: What does terrible at math mean?
Client: I failed calculus in college.
Coach: How about other areas of math?
Client: I never really took many math classes before that.
Coach: How then would you describe your preparation for your calculus class?
Client: I just jumped into calculus, I thought I was smart enough.
Coach: What would it look like if you built the knowledge from the ground up?
Client: If I were prepared, it would not be so bad.
Coach: What is your view of doing your current projects without proper preparation?
Client: I can’t do my work if I am not prepared or don’t have the background.
Coach: How would you evaluate the difference between taking a math class and your current work?
Client: It makes it sound like I made a stupid decision to jump into the deep end of math without preparing.
Coach: What prevents you from acting on this?
Client: [Very awkward], nothing really. I could just start with one class and see.
Client: I want to lead a healthier life.
Coach: What is driving this change?
Client: My day-to-day is hard and I have already had to have procedures due to my current condition.
Coach: What keeps you from leading the healthy life you want?
Client: Work is all-consuming.
Coach: How does it impact your non-work hours?
Client: I don’t work outside of office hours.
Coach: What does your current after-work routine look like?
Client: I come home, relax with some food and drink and I get online and play video games for a few hours and chat with folks.
Coach: How would you describe the impact of your current routine in bullet points?
Client: Well now you make me sound like an idiot. I didn’t say that I play [voice drop].
- What does a successful outcome look like?
- How else could you evaluate this situation?
- What could you be leaving out of your analysis?
- What else could you bring into your decision-making process?
- How would you describe the situation in bullet points?
- Tell me about the challenges in your situation, how do they sound when I repeat them back to you?
- How would you like to see these items addressed?
- What is one of the most powerful things you could act upon now?
- What would amplify your success?
- If you were totally unafraid of any judgment whatsoever, how would you describe your actions so far compared to your desired outcome?
- How would you describe the situation if you were giving a corporate or scientific report?
In the end, this power tool is about truth. As best summarized by Vice Admiral James Stockdale when describing lessons learned from being a prisoner of war:
You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose —with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Vice Admiral James Stockdale
Sugarman, Leonie, Life-Span Development: Frameworks, Accounts, and Strategies. 2001, Hove: Psychology Press.
Peter Hill, Esher, Insights Into the Nature and Role of Listening in the Creation of a Co-constructive Coaching Dialogue: A Phenomenological Study, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No. 10, June 2016. Page 29.
 Reissner (2008).
Drake, D.B. ‘Narrative Coaching’, in E. Cox, T. Bachkirova & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.) The Complete Handbook of Coaching. 2010 London: Sage.
 Reissner (2008).
Reissner SC. Narrative and Story: New Perspectives on Coaching. The International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching 2008, 6(3), 1-5.
David, S., Clutterbuck, D. And Megginson, D. (2014) ‘Goal Orientation in Coaching Differs According to Region, Experience, and Education’, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, 12 (2), Pp.134-145 (Accessed: 19 July 2020).
 ICF Competency New Framework 2.1.
 Reissner (2008).
ICF Competency New Framework 3.7.
ICF Competency New Framework 5.1.
ICF Competency New Framework 5.2.
ICF Competency New Framework 6.2.
ICF Competency New Framework 7.2.