Coaching and Mentoring: The Buying and Selling of Stories. Part 2: Making Mystery Into My Story

Posted by Simon 30 June 2011
Filed under Coaching, Mentoring, Personal Empowerment, Professional Impact, Story Work.

© Simon Bruce

What is a story, and what is storytelling?

For me storytelling is all about making mystery into my story.

There a many definitions and descriptions of stories but for me one of the simplest (and, arguably, therefore the most effective) definitions is:

“A story is the narration of a sequence of events deliberately arranged for telling. Kind of like reporting an event. Except that the teller controls the events”.

This definition comes from Will Eisner, one of the great graphic artists. Therein lies the essence to his understanding of a story; his work as a graphic artist required that he communicate his stories simply and effectively with a minimum of words.

He relied on his characters and images to create the visual setting but made use of words, language, metaphors and dialogue to allow his stories to play out.

He depicted his understanding of what a story was in the following diagram.

A Story's Structure

Pretty neat, I reckon. Although simplistic, it does help capture the structure and particularly the direction a story can take.

Now, if we overlay this model to the discussion in Part 1 where I suggested that Coaching and Mentoring is really about the buying and selling of stories then we can see that the elements of a story are what help give a story its structure and determine its direction, duration and ultimately, its outcome or conclusion.

What are the elements of a Story?

For me these elements need to include such things as being relevant, credible and realistic and also being useful and timely. Ultimately stories are based on experience and believable.

These elements will form the basis of questions asked by the coach and by the mentee in a conversation.

It will be such questions that will help refine the stories to create a new story: a story that may have the same beginning but almost certainly will have a new outcome…and therefore will pave the way for a new beginning of another, yet untold, story.

I have depicted this in the following diagram, which is my reworking of Eisner’s original.

How Questions Refine Stories

So the questioning activity in coaching and mentoring helps get the information in formation! It’s the questioning by the coach and by the mentee that enables them to “buy” the stories. And by doing so they help create a story marketplace, one which is often filled with bizarre stories.

So you could say, they help create a bizarre bazaar.

What is the Cost of these Stories?

If the stories we’re being told are competing against each other in this marketplace, what do we have to give when we “buy” them? What is the cost to us?

Well, for me there are two clearly defined costs.

The first is rather obvious. It is our time. We spend time listening and engaging with the teller of the stories and in probing with our questions and enquiries. This is time we could be spending in a range of other pursuits and activities.

Obviously if we are in a paid setting when we are acting as a professional coach for a coachee, you may believe that the time factor is not as relevant.

However, I would argue that it is as equally relevant as if you were not being paid as your client is expecting results and value for money from the coaching relationship. Your time as a coach is best spent assisting the coachee, firstly, towards issue identification and then towards resolving or dissolving issue.

If you are not spending your time in this manner because you’re having trouble “buying’ the coachee’s story and you have to continually question, probe and challenge, then this is time being miss-spent. You will never get this time back, so it has been a considerable cost to you.

The second cost is perhaps not as obvious. It stems from the simple fact that listening to another’s story requires us to do just that; listen. The act of listening requires focus, presence and concentration. This is especially more so in a coaching and mentoring relationship, and particularly if it is a fee for service relationship.

But this activity can be draining and on occasions comes with distractions. And often it can be a challenge to maintain our attention, especially if the stories are a little hard to “buy” and you find yourself seeking clarification to strengthen your understanding.

The second cost of listening can be best summed up in this quote by Herbert Simon,

“…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information that might consume it.”

No truer words have been said, in my opinion. The interesting thing is that Simon said this in 1971!!! What would his views be now when we are constantly bombarded with “a wealth of information”? Gives thought to just really who is the poverty class, perhaps its us given that out attention is constantly distracted via technology (email, twitter, the blogosphere, online marketing, etc), via social interactions, via professional pressures and via societal expectations.

For many of us it is simply too easy to get distracted so we simply give into it. We are then left with a poverty of attention and an inability to effectively listen to anything or anyone. And on many occasions the one thing we should be listening to the most is ourselves and we’re the ones to suffer the most. But this is another topic that is best covered in our Health and Wellbeing section.

When we do listen to another’s story, and we are focused and giving our time and attention, what is it that these stories will reveal, firstly about the teller / seller of the story and, secondly, about the listener / buyer of the story?

We will discuss this in Part 3: Hearing His Story as History

Coaching and Mentoring: The Buying and Selling of Stories. Part 1 – The Fridge, The Coachee and The Mentor

Posted by Simon 02 June 2011
Filed under Coaching, Mentoring, Personal Empowerment, Professional Impact, Story Work.

The Buying & Selling of Stories (Photo © Simon Bruce, 2011)

The Buying & Selling of Stories (Photo © Simon Bruce, 2011)

This series of posts are based on the session I presented at the American Society of Training and Development 2011 International Conference and Exposition in Orlando, Florida.

In a previous post I highlighted the significance stories have in our lives and how they help shape the future for us.

This is primarily due to a story’s ability to help define and explain the past.

So in many ways, stories are the bridge from the past to the future.

This pivotal role of stories is clearly demonstrated in the context of Coaching and Mentoring.

Stories form an integral, but often, overlooked aspect of all coaching and mentoring relationships. But on many occasions, the power and significance of these stories is overlooked and their use is never fully explored and harnessed. Often its because the teller of the story isn’t aware that they are in fact seeking to “sell” their story.

Before I explain, I first need to tell you about the fridge.

Several years ago I needed to purchase a new fridge. Nothing too fancy, in fact the simpler the better. Size did matter, but fancy features weren’t too important. However I did want the fridge to have a reasonably high energy efficiency rating.

So after venturing into the department store and finding my way to the whitegoods section I apprehensively started my buying experience.

The salesman, let’s call him Dave, was a nice enough guy, and he seemed to listen as I explained my needs and the required features that I was after. I say “seemed” to listen as after I’d finished telling my story of how it was that I came to be buying a new fridge in the first place, he immediately showed me fridges that were the total opposite of what I was after! They had the latest state-of-the art features, stainless steel finishes and huge freezer compartments. One model even had internet access!!

After politely explaining that I’d try elsewhere I reflected on the conversation and thought that Dave didn’t listen to “my story” so why should I buy his fridge?

Later that day, I was coaching one of my clients through some particularly sticky issues he was experiencing with his team. I was having a bit of trouble pinning him down on the true issue and then I started to unearth a few inconsistencies in his story. The more I probed with questions, the less certain he was with aspects of the issue. I felt he was hiding something.

Our conversation continued and eventually he started to get some insights and I gained a sense that “his story” was starting to make sense.

The next day, I happened to meet with a mentor of mine and I sought his input as to whether I should attend an upcoming networking event being held by a particular organisation. He started by saying it would be a great opportunity to get some useful contacts and exposure to some interesting people and that I should go.

However, sometime later in our conversation, he mentioned that this particular organisation was misdirected and he never gained much value from their events and even suggested that I devote more focus elsewhere.

I questioned him on what I saw as an inconsistency in his advice and he immediately tried to soften his views, which had the effect of further raising doubts in my mind as to what I should do. But the seed had been planted; I wasn’t buying his story.

That night, I reflected on the three conversations and realised there was a common theme: Your story sucks, and I ain’t buying it.

The fridge seller obviously hadn’t listen to my story (so the consequences for him was I wasn’t going to buy his fridge). As a coach, I had a hard time buying my coachee’s story until I probed and challenged him. And my mentor was initially troubled when he was seeking to sell me his story relating to the merits of attending a particular event.

So stories are alive and well in all coaching and mentoring encounters.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the telling of stories is pivotal in both coaching and mentoring.

Whilst coaching and mentoring are somewhat the same, they are considerably different.

However, the telling of stories is the common aspect that unites them.

This is clearly depicted on the following diagram.

Coaching & Mentoring: Somewhat the Same But Definitely Different

(I don’t have any credits for this diagram but it is not my original work and is something I came across several years ago. Feel free to send me details about the author if you do know and I’ll happily give due credit).

Now, this isn’t the time or place to question or discuss all the aspects of what constitutes coaching and mentoring. But it’s fair to say that we all have been, at some point in our lives and careers, a coach, a coachee, a mentor and a mentee.

If you don’t believe me, then reflect on the relationships you have had with the many hundreds of individuals you have encountered in your life. For many of us, these coaching and mentoring relationships have been informal, temporary, just-in-time and even unrecognised, interactions.

But what was taking place would have certainly been a degree of coaching or mentoring or a combination of both.

For some of us, these interactions have been formal, structured and even paid interactions.

In each of these interactions, whether formal or informal, I am certain that stories played a central role in the conversations.

Now the key point is, the success of that conversation in a large part was dependant on whether the storyteller was able to “sell” their story. So, in effect the storyteller becomes a story “seller”.

But what is a story?

That’s a fair question and one that we will look at in Part 2.

Story Work: Letting Stories Do the Work For You

Throughout history societies, communities and groups have relied on stories as a way of bonding, sharing traditions, expressing beliefs and customs and to simply learn. Much of our culture can be found expressed in our stories. And, just as our stories come from culture, they can also change our culture.

In the societies, communities and groups in which we’re a part of today, stories can take on a whole new level of richness and purpose. This is particularly evident in the stories that arise in our organisations, our businesses and our institutions of learning.

Basically stories can serve to:

  • Establish, reinforce and guide strategic direction
  • Allow us to make better decisions
  • Influence outcomes
  • Be a beacon for the future

So stories, when used in these ways, become far more than just storytelling. They become story work and they can do so many things for us as we seek to mobilise, engage and inspire the people with whom we come in contact.

Stories make it possible for a group of people to make sense of something that is fluid and changing.

Stories also allow information from an organisation (whether its a business institution or a learning institution) to guide and influence the learning within that organisation.

Furthermore, the simple art of sharing stories supports team building and strengthens common understanding in the participants.

How to make a start? Simply tell a story. Quite often you will get a story in return.

So embrace the power of stories and become enfolded in the work they can do for you.