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

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