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.

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