Starting with your story

Before we can work on how to get to where you want to be with your goals, we need to know where you currently are and how you got here. To do this, most coaching engagements I do start with articulating and reflecting upon your story.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner remarks how human beings are storytellers by nature. Part of the way we make sense of our lives is by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Dan McAdams names this when he says that stories help us integrate our lives. The crafting of our stories helps us draw connections between disparate parts of our lives so that they reveal broader themes.
The way we go about this exercise depends on your preference. At the very least, I will ask you to reflect on some questions to bring to our first session. After sharing your reflections to the questions, we will spend time looking at themes and connections to your goals. Though coaching does not spend large amounts of time on family and the past, we do look back to your story to gather information on how to best move forward. Furthermore, the impact of this exercise is in the reflection process itself. It is rare that we spend time reflecting on our personal and professional journeys.
Here is a list of questions adapted from Jenny Rogers (2012). This is long and few clients work through every question, but these are representative of the kinds of questions you may reflect upon during this exercise:
  • What effect has your birth order had on you?
  • What were you rewarded for as a child? What were you punished for?
  • How did you get on with your siblings?
  • What effects have marriage/partner relationships had on your life?
  • (For clients with children) What has the experience of being a parent done for you?
  • If you have been in leadership or management, what has this experience done for you?
  • How did you make your career choices?
  • What helped you decide to move on from earlier jobs?
  • What have been the highs and lows of these jobs?
  • What themes and patterns do you see emerging in the story as you have told it?
  • What are any connections to the coaching we will be doing?
  • Who are the impactful people on your life – positive and negative?
  • When have you felt completely in your flow either in life or in work?
  • When was a moment when you felt like you failed?
  • Do you have any turning points in your life or career and if so, what are they?
  • Of what communities are you a part?
One version of this exercise is to visualize your story. A common visualization is a timeline as seen below.
On this timeline you identify:
  • Significant moments and phases of your life.
  • Important people
  • High and low points – high are above the line with lows below the line.
The timeline version is only one way to visualize your story. I have led this exercise many times with individuals and teams, and I am always amazed at the different ways people represent their stories:
  • One person drew a river with rocks that split the stream and different sources that fed into it.
  • Another person drew a forest with a meandering path to showcase how they have felt their professional journey had taken unconventional routes.
  • One team developed each of their own super hero origin stories to emphasize their strengths and how they complement each other.
One time I went through this exercise for myself, I was inspired by the image of a tree because of its growing capacity, root system, and overall sturdiness. I took significant moments and represented them on the tree in ways that I felt characterized the quality of that experience. I “carved” the name of an important person in my life onto the trunk. The roots represented values, people, and experiences that grounded me in my life. The branches were different directions my life was headed. From there, I drew a dilapidated treehouse on one side of the tree to represent a past career I had been building but then left. I even drew more leaves on some branches that characterized parts of my journey that felt more “alive” than others.
This is what I love about this exercise – it taps into our own unique creative and reflective styles. If drawing is not for you, that is not a problem. This is not an art contest, and you will not be judged on how pretty the end product is. Many clients choose to write their stories out in linear fashion in a word document. The most important aspects are identifying significant moments and people, time placement, highs and lows, themes, and connections to your goals. The point here is that you can make this exercise what you want in order to showcase key aspects of the journey that brought you to where you are at right now.
Because this exercise can be relevant at any point in your life, you can use it many times. Each time you may focus on different moments or use different images. In fact, its important to reflect on our stories multiple times because it helps us gain new perspective and identify what’s resonating with where we are currently at in our journey.
The following is a list of images that past clients have used that may help prompt an inspiring way to go about this exercise.
  • Staircase
  • Mountain
  • Tree
  • Forest path
  • River
  • Road
  • Bridge
  • Diver swimming through an ocean
  • Super hero origin story
  • House
  • Record album
  • Book with chapters

Rogers, Jenny (2012). Coaching Skills: A Handbook (3rd ed.) Berkshire, England: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill.

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