As coaches, we love to connect people with stories of power and grace. We do that through the questions we ask and the spaces we create. Too often those stories are buried under the rubble of discouragement, busyness, and hurt. But in the presence of one who believes in their existence, we can dig them out and use them as a foundation for future success. Remembering when we were at our best enables us to be our best, and that can make all the difference in the world.
Bob: I have been writing Provisions, more or less every week, since January of 1999 (shortly after the founding of LifeTrek Coaching International). In all that time, if there is any pattern to our reader replies it has to do with the telling of stories. When I tell a story, in detail, including the lead up, the experience, and the resolution, we receive far more reader replies than when I wax eloquent about some marvelous strategy for personal or organizational development. In short, bullet points fail to inspire.
Stories are different, however. Whether it’s a long, serial story (think “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter”), a work of fiction or non-fiction (think “The Da Vinci Code” or “Marley & Me”), or a collection of short stories (think “The Tipping Point” or “Freakonomics”), great stories consistently rank at the top of the bestseller lists. They draw us in and call us out. We see ourselves reflected and find ourselves empowered in their images, conundrums, and possibilities.
Judging from the feedback, that’s what the readers of LifeTrek Provisions have experienced whenever a great story has been told. Whether it’s yet another running exploit or a significant moment from the distant or recent past, great stories have become part of our collective consciousness. Because of their positive frame, even in the face of adversity, they are part of what inspires people to greatness.
This is the truth that underlies both Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and personal coaching. You may remember my AI Provision titled, “Discover Great Stories” Click. I wrote about the power of stories to not only increase motivation but to also design actions. This works in both negative and positive directions. Downhearted stories of failure depress motivation and suppress action; uplifting stories of success elevate motivation and encourage action. Positive stories are the stuff of both organizational and personal greatness.
That’s why both AI and personal coaching go out of their way to discover great stories. When times are tough, there is nothing more empowering than a great story, especially if that story comes from your own life experience or from the life experience of those with whom you identify. In self-efficacy theory, they call those direct mastery experiences and vicarious mastery experiences. The more we know about how to get things done, the more confident we become in our ability to do just that.
Much of my coaching is driven by the search for great stories. The questions that I ask and the time that I take to listen to the answers are due to my understanding that people respond better to their own wisdom than to the wisdom of others. Advice giving has its place, but it’s better when asked for and then only after enough great stories have been discovered.
I find that the protocol for an appreciative interview, utilized by AI practitioners in their work with organizations, is equally effective in working with individuals. When individuals are looking for a way out of the wilderness, I know of no better way to pick up the scent of the trail than to ask about the best experience they have ever had with the challenge they are currently facing, the values they were living out of at the time, the core dynamics that made the experience possible, as well as their hopes and dreams for the future.
Talk about inspiring and empowering! By the time we get through exploring these dimensions, most clients find themselves ready, willing, and able to act. They shift from the negative frame of what one client calls “stinking thinking,” to the positive frame of delightful destiny. They end up pulling closer, in other words, to their desired future state.
Health and wellness coaching frequently makes use of this approach. Clients come to us with challenges over which they feel a low-degree of self-efficacy. They may have tried to lose weight, get in shape, or manage their stress for years, without any real, sustained success. “I just can’t seem to…” is the common refrain. “I just can’t seem to lose weight and keep it off.” “I just can’t seem to find the time to exercise.” “I just can’t seem to avoid going over to the computer in the evening and losing sleep.”
Sound familiar? You can probably finish the sentence for yourself with your own stinking thinking. “I just can’t seem to avoid bumping my head,” is one negative frame that I’m pondering right now after a series of jolting encounters in the attic. When it comes to construction work, throwing myself into projects with reckless abandon • a quality that serves me well in many other contexts • can lead to injury and mistakes. But I am hard pressed to “measure twice and cut once” when I am in a hurry to get things done. Unfortunately, this is one area where a low-degree of self-efficacy is often measured in terms of scratches, bumps, and bruises.
To untie these Gordian knots we have to move away from the “I just can’t seem to…” place and move toward the “I remember when…” place. “I remember when I lost 65 pounds and managed to keep it off for years. I remember the energy and pride that provoked.” “I remember when I would pack my workout clothes for a trip before I would pack any other outfits. Then, I would actually use them along the way.” “I remember when I would shut down my computer before dinner and do other things in the evening. What a refreshing way to end the day.” “I remember when I worked alongside professional craftsman. There was no rush to get things done, and no injuries along the way.”
These are the “remember when moments” that can move us forward in dynamic, new directions. They are reality checks against low self-efficacy. We all have these moments, whether we remember them or not. This is one of the fundamental assumptions in both Appreciative Inquiry and personal coaching. In every situation and in every life story, something is always working. It may be hidden by a tarnish of discouragement and despair. But it is there, waiting for the right cleaner and a little elbow grease to make things look like new.
In the case of coaching, the right cleaner is the right question and the elbow grease is the effort to draw out the answer. It’s tempting to dig into the problem, with a root cause analysis, in order to come up with solutions. But this approach can make matters worse just as easily as it can make matters better. Problems are like weeds. The more we dig into them the more we discover about the length and depth of their roots. Talk about intimidating! Some weeds keep coming back no matter what you seem to do. They shoot up again in due time, often in new places and with more vigor than before.
The right question is not, therefore, “What’s getting in the way of your success?” We can play with that question ad nauseam, driving ourselves crazy in the process. The right question is, “What enables you to be your own, best self? To feel fully and confidently alive? To express yourself in the world with a satisfied mind?” No one ever gets tired of playing with those questions. They are the stuff of life itself. And they often generate both surprising answers and surprising results.
I remember my client Mark, who was passed over for a promotion at work and was thinking about quitting his long-tenured and lucrative position. I was brought in by the company to help him sort out his feelings as well as his options. Quitting, with a severance package, was a very real option. And this is where we might have ended up if we had spent our time trying to figure out why they had passed him up for that promotion and why they were treating him so poorly.
Instead, we took an appreciative approach to what was working well both in the office and in his life as a whole. This approach led Mark to identify generosity and creativity as two of his signature strengths. He donates large amounts of time and money to his church, as well as to other worthy causes, plus he plays in two bands. Telling me story after story, week after week, of his involvement with these pursuits revealed the importance of generosity and creativity to his sense of identity and purpose in the world.
Affirming this, we began to unravel how he could get more involved with his generous and creative interests. “One thing that would help,” Mark told me during a coaching conversation, “would be to work only four days a week. That would give me a lot more time and freedom to pursue my other interests.” “Would that make you feel better about being passed over for the promotion?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he responded, “in fact, I would probably feel happy about being passed over since I would not have as much responsibility and I would have more time to do the things I truly love.”
The light bulb had gone off in his head. Even though the company had no policy or previous experience with flex-time or part-time directors, this man had nothing to lose. If he was ready to quit anyway, and take a severance package, why not put his first choice on the table in order to see whether he could make lemonade out of lemons. “But I can’t do it now,” Mark told me, “there’s too much going on. I have to wait six months before I can make my request.” We talked through the details and worked through the strategy before ending our coaching relationship.
Later, when the time came, Mark reported back to me that he was given what he wanted. He took a 20% reduction in pay, in exchange for working 80% of the time, with no loss of benefits, title, or positional authority. The slight that he felt in being passed over for a promotion was more than eclipsed by the joy that he now feels in being given three-day weekends. That’s a lot of time, about two extra months per year, to devote to generosity and creativity. He feels blessed by the way things have worked out.
That’s what happens when clients connect with their own best experiences, core values, and core dynamics. They remember when they could, or when others could, and that leads them to believe they can.
Christina: The art of story telling is a vehicle that helps us deepen our learning about ourselves and forward our action toward our goals. Story telling opens our eyes, allowing us to not only see things more clearly, but also to see patterns, relationships, and themes among ourselves, other people in our lives, situations, our thoughts, feelings, and so on. Telling a story is also a way to verbally reflect upon an incident that impacted our life. Many “remember when” moments in coaching start out with the coach asking, “Tell me about a time when•”, but sometimes clients show up with a story they want to share about a high or low moment in their life.
One of my clients finds much fulfillment in sharing her stories. Telling her story each week is like a personal release for her, full of nuggets for her to crack open and learn from. I can count on her to share a story about an event or situation that impacted her in an interesting way during each of our sessions. The challenge of coaching is to not get wrapped up in or blinded by our client’s stories. Our focus before, during, and after the story is on how our client can learn from the story as well as on how the story is either enabling or interrupting our client’s intentions.
This past week, a client told me about how she’d responded to a promotion into management that she was offered at work, many years ago. I learned of the intricate details of her conversation with her superior including how she felt at the time of the offer. This promotion would only slightly change her job responsibilities, but with it she’d begin to manage a team of investment counselors.
She remembered being frightened by the thought of moving into management and being in the spot light at times. She also recalled her deep-rooted enthusiasm over the opportunity. As she told me the story, I could hear the excitement in her voice that called her to take that promotion. We used the key learnings from this experience to determine her next step with a job offer she was anticipating in the coming weeks. We used her “remember when” moment to explore what might get in the way with this expected job offer and how her natural reactions would support her to make a smooth and fulfilling transition.
Erika: Today, television tells most of the stories that we collectively know. We gather around co-worker’s desks to discuss what happened last evening, in someone else’s fictional life, before we consider divulging the stories of our own lives.
Sam Keen, who was an editor of Psychology Today, describes today’s culture as “a people written on from the outside.” No longer sharing stories as a sacred tradition, we have become “like blank slates waiting to be scribbled on by whoever or whatever chanced along.”
From a similar perspective, author Julia Cameron believes that “until we do the work of excavating, claiming, and owning our own life stories, we run the very real risk of seeing ourselves, describing ourselves and proscribing ourselves as others see fit.” In other words, until we know our story, we can not know ourselves at all.
The etymological root of the word “story” is “to know.” And, stories are an excellent way to know oneself through the discernment of values. Pay attention to the stories that you, and your family, share repeatedly; woven throughout them are the clues to what is most important to you.
One of my favorite ways to use, and to honor, stories is to ask clients to share their peak experiences, mountaintop moments, and times when life was at its best. Within each story is a buried treasure of what is most dear and precious. For example, each of Jim’s stories included an element of honor and integrity while Donna’s stories were connected by playfulness and joy.
We can choose to tell our stories in many other ways. My family, for example, recently celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday and told her story not only through the sharing of oral history, but by singing her songs, and preparing her favorite recipes. Deb tells her stories through photograph. Theo tells his stories through music.
Whatever the vehicle, stories tie us together, while giving us the confidence to expand and explore beyond ourselves.
Kate: When I think of client “stories” I think of the texture they bring to our relationship. One cannot coach fully without seeing and feeling the client’s wholeness. And it takes their stories of who they are, to what they•re relating, and how they are feeling to appreciate that wholeness.
I am particularly touched by the stories that give me context beyond the coaching issue. I want to know how their significant relationships influence their career situation. I want to know how their beliefs and values influence their relationships and direction. And I want to know how they came to those beliefs and if they are being served by them.
A very poignant moment was shared in one coaching relationship, where my client was adjusting from the death of her beloved partner. I could not have served her fully in our discussion without the beautiful story she told of that love, his death, and her existence thereafter. Besides creating a much stronger bond between us, my fuller understanding of her experience and emotion allowed me to work with her in a much deeper way.
I love hearing and telling stories. They add a richness to conversation and relationship that is otherwise hard to come by. We can learn so much from each other, if we take the time share and listen.
Coaching Inquiries: Can you remember when you had a great experience that enabled your signature strengths to shine? Who was involved? What was the occasion? How did it make you feel? What shifts did it provoke? Are your signature strengths still shining brightly? If not, how could you buff them up? Who could assist you in the process?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I have to tell you I loved the Provision that you, Erika, and Kate did on Breakthrough MomentsClick. They were beautifully captured. Thanks!
I forward your Provisions to my sister who says, as I do, “Gosh, this guy is good!” She also says, “I wish I could meet him. He sounds like he is onto something!” She’s a pretty smart gal. Maybe she will get to Williamsburg and visit someday.
I trust this question can be filed under the heading, “No question is a dumb question.” 🙂 But when you instructed your client to write an affirmation with both hands Click, did you mean to actually hold onto the pen with both hands, or to write it one time left-handed, then the next time right-handed? (Ed. Note: I meant the latter. But not alternating, line by line. I instructed my client to write most of the affirmations with his dominant hand, and then to write the affirmation five times with the other hand. Not a dumb question at all!)
I love your poems Click. Thanks.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
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