Narrative Coaching: Marcia Reynolds on Stories & Identity

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What is narrative coaching? Why is it important to disrupt the narrative in coaching?

In Coach the Person, Not the Problem, Marcia Reynolds claims that lasting change only will come when people confront the narrative that’s living inside them. According to her, narrative coaching helps to disrupt misguided beliefs and personal values.

Keep reading to learn more about narrative coaching, according to Reynolds.

Disrupting the Narrative in Coaching

According to transformational coach Marcia Reynolds, narrative coaching is important because humans are meaning-making machines and each of us constructs narratives to a) understand the world and ourselves and b) justify our circumstances. She says that we mistake these narratives for objective “reality,” when in fact they’re based on our personal experiences, social needs, and values. 

Social needs are what each person requires to connect with others and have a sense of well-being, like wanting to feel safe, accepted, valued, and in control. Reynolds says that unmet social needs are often at the heart of problems that clients present.  

Personal values are a person’s most strongly held, often inflexible, beliefs about what’s important in life—for example, family, power, religion or freedom.

Reynolds says that social needs and personal values shape our biases, beliefs, and assumptions, which serve as the glue that holds our narratives together. These needs and values also compose and form our identities, which harden over time, making change difficult.

(Shortform note: Whereas Reynolds sees rigid values as an obstacle to change, in Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins offers a different view. He proposes that there are two types of values: ends and means. Ends are emotional states you hope to experience that make life fulfilling, such as happiness, love, and security. Means are how you expect to achieve those ends. For example, one of your values might be “family,” which is the vehicle through which you expect to find happiness and love. For Robbins, the trouble comes when you pursue your means while forgetting about your ends. One of a coach’s tasks, therefore, might be to remind clients of their ends and help them find more effective means.)

Reynolds argues that coaches’ job is to disrupt and unpack clients’ thinking by helping them identify and deconstruct the biases, beliefs, and assumptions that hold their narratives together. This allows clients to question their narratives, see the situations they’re in differently, and move forward in new, more productive ways.

In narrative coaching, you can help clients dismantle long-held narratives by positively reinforcing your client for working to improve their situation. This encourages them to continue sharing openly. For example, you can say: “You’ve worked incredibly hard and done everything you can to improve your relationship with your brother,” or “You’ve identified and tapped into as many key resources as are available to you. What’s left in your control to do at this point?” Encouraging clients to continue to make their own decisions empowers them by making them see they’re not trapped in their situation. 

Another Reason It’s So Hard to Unpack Narratives 

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari supports Reynolds’s argument that people typically see their narratives as a fixed truth and explains why they’re so entrenched: Rituals cultivate people’s belief in the stories they create

Harari asserts that people develop “meaning-of-life” stories—which give you a sense of purpose and put your existence into a broader context—when they’re young, in order to forge their identities. He says that most people combine components of multiple meaning-of-life stories and, as a result, end up with multiple, inaccurate identities. Because people are good at compartmentalizing, they often don’t notice or acknowledge that these identities contradict one another. For example, someone who doesn’t believe in the death penalty might nonetheless be comfortable with vigilante justice that leads to the murder of a person who’s committed a heinous crime against a child.

Harari says that most people’s meaning-of-life stories would fall apart if they truly examined them, which they often don’t because they’re supported and reinforced in rituals found in religion, politics, laws, social norms, and institutions. Our stories are cemented through the lighting of candles in religious ceremonies, the enforcement of hierarchies and standardized thought in the military, and the carrying on of political traditions through the transfer of crowns and power.
Narrative Coaching: Marcia Reynolds on Stories & Identity

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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