What’s the story? How do you change the unhelpful (and often unconscious) stories that hold people back?

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What’s the story?



How do you change the unhelpful (and often unconscious) stories that hold people back?


Did you know that you have several (often contradictory) accounts of the same reality in your mind? To demonstrate that, consider your story about yourself when you are at your lowest ebb; when things have gone disastrously, and show no signs of improving. (To give you a clue as to the kind of thing I’m thinking of here, mine is ‘One day they’ll see right through me…’).  Now, consider your story that you tell yourself about yourself when things are going brilliantly, both at work and in your life outside work.


Most people I talk to are quickly able to identify two very different accounts of themselves; and further, they recognise that both have some ‘evidence to support them; and further still, that engaging with the more negative story (which I characterise as unhelpful) for a sustained period of time is likely to lead to worse outcomes than engaging with the more positive (or helpful) story.


And if that is true of our stories about ourselves, it is also true about our stories about other aspects of our lives, about our relationships, and about other people.  And of course, our coaching clients are likewise living their lives through stories. We can’t help doing it: we are meaning-making creatures!


Because the stories are based on evidence, they seem like reality. Unless we attend very closely to our thinking, we are unlikely to notice that they are meanings that we have constructed.  And once we have adopted a story, confirmation bias cuts in. Confirmation bias is that tendency that we all have to notice what fits well with what we already think, and to interpret new data in ways that fit, and also not to notice, or to discount as atypical, things that don’t fit.  Which convinces us that our story is, in fact, true.


Further, the phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling prophecy may also arise.  If I believe that my boss is out to get me, I will start to withdraw trust; my boss is likely to notice that, and start to trust me less, as a result. And that feedback loop can bring about the very thing that I feared: a hostile boss…


But as Victor Frankl points out in his astonishing book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the last of the freedoms, which even the concentration camp guards could not take from the inmates of Auschwitz, is the freedom to choose our response to our experiences  So we can choose to step back from unhelpful stories, and consider what other possible accounts of reality might make sense – and might be more helpful.


This is a difficult process, but if we can do this for ourselves and help our coaching clients to do it, it has significant benefits.


So that is the challenge: how do we identify our own unhelpful stories, and how do we help our coaching clients to identify theirs? And then, how do we discover the more helpful stories that offer a richer and more positive account of reality, and offer more hope for the future?


In my book, Shifting Stories, I suggest that there are three phases to this process, when coaching someone. The first is to help the person to loosen their grip on the unhelpful story. If we attack the story, they are likely to grip it more tightly: people get very attached to their stories. So instead, we listen to it without judgement, and then invite them to name it (which is a powerful way of creating some distance between them and the story) and then to take a stand with regard to it: is that ok? (which encourages their agency).


The second phase is to discover more helpful stories. To do that, it can be helpful to ask about exceptions: times when things did not unfold as the unhelpful story would have predicted. Also, invite them to discuss values and aspirations: how they would like things to be. Then challenge them to construct a more helpful story from these ingredients: a richer and more hopeful account, that does not deny the evidence that feeds the unhelpful story, but also takes into account things that were previously ignored.  And again, ask them to name the more helpful story, and take a stand on it.


The third phase is to enrich the plot of the more helpful story: to strengthen it so that when the unhelpful story rears its ugly head again, the more helpful story is strong enough to survive! Some useful things to consider here include asking who would not be surprised by the more helpful story.  Such witnesses demonstrate that it is not a mere fantasy. Also invite the client to consider what actions they can take to strengthen the new story, and how they will notice, record and celebrate successes.


But you will have many ideas of your own about this, and so I invite you to consider these questions.





1          What stories do you tell yourself (about yourself or others) that are unhelpful?


2          What strategies have you used to shift your own unhelpful stories?


3          What stories do your coaching clients tell themselves (about themselves or others) that are unhelpful?


4          What strategies have you helped coaching clients to develop to shift their unhelpful stories?





1          Shifting Stories Website at ShiftingStories.uk

2          What old story about yourself are you still believing: Article by Mary Halton here

3          Change your story: transform your life: TEDx talk by Dr John Sharp here

4          Shifting Stories, the book by Andrew Scott, available (signed) from the author

5          Shifting Stories blog, a collection of related articles




Blog author: Andrew Scott, author of Shifting Stories: How changing their stories can transform people.  Andrew has been running his consultancy for more than 30 years, and has worked for many blue chip organisations, ranging from P&G and CSFB to Nationwide Building Society and Akzo Nobel. He currently works mainly in HE, where he works with senior academics and professional services staff in 16 different universities across the country. He is a qualified Time to Think Coach, a qualified coaching supervisor, and is this year studying with David Clutterbuck and Peter Hawkins to qualify as a Team Coach.