Narrative Coaching
February 23, 2020

Narrative Coaching: helping your clients’ stories to come to life

By Paul Laughlin

How could Narrative Coaching help you as a coach or a client (coachee)? How might it enable you to see more clearly the story you are living in and the choices you could make?

I’ve shared before, after the 2018 Welsh Coaching Conference, how much potential I saw in Narrative Coaching & how inspiring David Drake was as a speaker. So, not surprisingly, I bought his book.

In this year of living my identity as a reader, I’ve finally got around to finishing “Narrative Coaching“. Finding it both an impressive resource and a challenging read. But, don’t let that put you off. I’ll share in this book review why it’s worth persisting & a tip to make it easier to access.

Narrative Coaching” by David Drake is surely the definitive book on this coaching approach. David has in many ways pioneered this field & this exhaustive guide may well be his Magnus Opus on the topic.

It is packed full of both a robust academic foundation (35 pages of references at the end) and examples of application from David’s practice. It also demonstrates the multi-disciplinary nature of this study, tracing its roots to anthropology, learning & development, Jungian psychology, mindfulness & narrative studies.

However, laying so many foundations in the first 2 sections of this book can be tiring to read. Keeping up with David’s polymath capabilities is an intellectual work out in itself. So, in this book review, I’ll aim to give you some pointers to help navigate this context and get the best out of it.

In the beginning…

If you’re like me, you often skip over the preface and introduction/overview sections of a book, so as to dive into the ‘real‘ text as soon as possible. In this case that would be a mistake.

In his preface, David not only shares his motivation and brings to life a couple of core concepts. He also advises the reader how to approach this text. This is worth taking on board. Both his suggestion of starting with a section you find more familiar & working out from there. Plus, his suggestion of taking quiet moments to reflect silently on what you have read.

The overview introduces many of the core elements of this book and theoretical foundations that he will be introducing in the first 3 sections. This will help you decide which parts of this book will be more accessible for you as a starting point. This is also where you are introduced to the basic version of David’s Narrative Coaching Model. A 4 quadrant diagram with a central spiral denoting the dynamic nature of this exploration.

David also shares 6 principles here that are reiterated and substantiated throughout the book. They are:

  1. Trust that everything you need is right in front of you
  2. Be fully present to what IS without judgement
  3. Speak only when you can improve on silence
  4. Focus on generating experiences not explanations
  5. Work directly with the narrative elements in the field
  6. Stand at the threshold when a new story is emerging

Although they can sound a little jargonised (especially the last 3), there is tremendous wisdom in those principles. Mastering them could be a lifetime journey of coaching development.

So, start by grasping these two introductory sections & let them guide where you start next on the rest…

Part 1: Narrative Psychologies

Across chapters focusing on how we work as storytellers, form identities & learn/develop – David grounds his theories is so much psychological research. Across 3 chapters, expect to visit Attachment Theory, NeuroScience, Social Constructivism, Hermeneutics as well as Learning & Development.

David uses these to prove the academic grounding of his work & reveal more layers of meaning in his Narrative Coaching Model. The reader comes to appreciate storytelling, characters in the narrative, as well as our ‘shadow selves‘ as powerful tools of transformation.

These are not easy going chapters. With the exploration led by someone who is so well-read in each theory referenced, the pace & depth can leave the reader breathless at times. My advice is both take the earlier advice to regularly pause to reflect and strange though it sounds, don’t start here.

Part 2: Narrative Processes

The next 3 chapters lead the reader deeper into examining those tools & the internal world of the narrator. Through studying Formulation, Narration & Rites of Passage – we come to appreciate how much is going on below the surface.

Once again there is a lot to take in. But, David does link back his key insights to the 4 quadrants of his central Narrative Coaching Model. Here it becomes clearer how what is needed in each of these quadrants:

  1. Situate
  2. Search
  3. Shift
  4. Sustain

The Rites of Passage chapter is particularly profound. For those not used to reading in the social sciences, parts may seem rather esoteric. However, if you take time to reflect, you’ll see that David is rather using metaphor & the lenses of different specialisms to reveal the needs of clients at key thresholds.

A powerful quarter of the book & one worth revisiting once you can start practising. But, by now two feelings were growing in me. First, I don’t know how to get started with a client. Second, my mind is filling up with so much to think about, I need to start trying to put this into practice before I can understand. Again, don’t start here, but do reference later.

Part 3: Narrative Practices

At first glance, this should be the most practical part of this book. Coaches keen to develop their mastery of a range of models might be tempted to start here. However, I’d advise against that.

Once again, across 3 chapters, David seeks to explain how the practices a narrative coach uses work. I say ‘seeks to‘ because I felt so much was being explained that I was drawn more to be impressed by the model than feel enabled as a coach to put this into practice.

Now, to be fair to David, he shares case studies & numerous examples of what he means in practice. Multiples times we are led through the 4 phases listed above. Together with the rather beautiful metaphor of a bird circling a tree as it spirals upwards.

This certainly is closer to a section that can be put into practice directly. The chapter on ‘how narrative coaching is done‘ guides our focus during each of the four phases. The chapter on ‘ how to bring new stories to life‘ explains why not to use goals & shares 4 useful tools to help along the way.

These 3 chapters are more accessible than the more academic first 6. It really does feel like you are getting into the nitty-gritty of how narrative coaching happens in practice. Yet, there is still a lot to think about and I was still left unclear how to start. How might a coach ask a client to share their story & what about? How much of this approach should be explained to a coachee first? How is so much reduced to a simple explanation they will find accessible?

Part 4: Narrative Practitioners

My favourite part of this book. This is where I would encourage you to start reading. I don’t believe it’s because the focus is now on me, the coach, as in many ways the whole book should be read as personally relevant.

In these 3 chapters, the focus strongly moves from knowing or doing to being. In line with the advice David gives in the preface, we learn to focus on our presence, rather than any model. We are walked through helpful chapters on ‘how to hold space‘, ‘how to listen to stories‘ and ‘how to inquire into stories‘. In that last chapter heading, the use of ‘into‘ rather than ‘about‘ is key, we are learning to move beyond an intellectual exercise.

Such a focus reminds me of how liberated I felt when, as an executive coach, I first discovered Gestalt coaching as an approach/philosophy. I’ve also really benefited from Maria Iliff-Wood’s short book “Coaching Presence“.

So, this is where I recommend that readers start, after reading the introductions. Immerse yourself first in how to approach narrative coaching sessions. That will help you approach the rest of the content in the right mindset or perhaps spirit is a better word. If you are open to it, there is a spirituality to this work, one that can inspire you.

How will you approach this Narrative Coaching journey?

I must confess I feel somewhat conflicted about this book review. I’m aware that at several points I’ve made clear there is a lot to take in & this is not an easy read. So, let me also make clear that I consider this a brilliant book and don’t want you to be put off. I anticipate coming back to it time & time again, as I have more experience in practising this approach.

My advice is to read this book in reverse order. Strange I know, but then this is a kind of counter-cultural work. To be more specific, I’d recommend you first read the introductions, then part 4 (in the normal order), then parts 3, 2 and finally 1. Take time to reflect as you go & practice as soon as you can.

My own conviction at the end is to get practising ASAP. An outcome that I suspect David would approve. I am still left with questions about how to start this process with a client. But, I’ve come to the conviction that will be better answered by my own real-world experience with different people. I look forward to my coaching clients benefitting too.

What this book provides is the inspiration to get started & a treasury of resources plus a depth of theory to come back to in my reflective practice. I recommend it to all coaches who want to work at a deeper level than goal-orientated coaching or the GROW model.