Stories, Narratives and the Ontological Approach in Career Coaching
By Jenni Paradowski
Careers occur within the greater stories and narratives of our lives in which we find meaning.
My coachee, “Keira”, is a woman in her mid-thirties who was working as a team leader in a large government department. She was a high performer who was clearly capable of moving into middle management within the next few years – if she chose to do so. Keira wanted coaching to support her gain clarity about her career goals and what to include in her development plan for the coming 12 months. Unfortunately, she had some very unhelpful stories that were blocking her way forward.
Stories and narratives
Like all of us, Keira was living within personal stories that helped her to make sense of her world, providing a sense of meaning and predictability for making day-to-day decisions about priorities and actions. These existed within broader narratives around expectations of her as a wife, mother and employee. Yet somehow these stories and narratives were “out of sync”, creating a sense of dissonance that was holding her back. The coaching session provided Keira with an opportunity to begin to explore and reduce that dissonance.
An old movie
Keira described one story she was living in as if it was an old, noir movie (“noir” is French for the colour "black”). The lead role in the movie was a domineering woman: a strong-willed family matriarch. The secondary character was the woman’s strong and capable son, who was a loving husband and good provider for his large family. Also prominent were the son’s three young daughters, who were bright and talented. The film – a multigenerational epic – involved the lead role’s struggle to overcome a difficult childhood and subsequent migration to Australia, where she subsequently faced many battles in marrying and raising her brood.
The character of the son, though beloved, had a complex relationship with his mother, with many tensions arising from their differences of opinion about how various challenges along the way should be faced. When we got to the character representing Keira, we were in the territory of a cinematic “extra”: a somewhat peripheral character known as “the son’s wife”. Her existence was defined by the relationship between the characters of the mother and the son and their combined role was to highlight the tensions and struggles between them.
When Keira explored the experience of “the son’s wife” in the movie she found that the fact that this was the only character not given an actual name and that her primary role was restricted to someone who supported the telling of the other characters’ stories. In effect, the backstory of this character was rendered insignificant. In order to get into the role of this character, Keira took on a slumped and haggard look and talked about all of the things that she “must” get done each day: cooking, cleaning, shopping, enrichment activities for the children, caring for the children when they are sick, entertaining her husband’s friends and colleagues, etc., all while attending to a demanding part-time job.
In character, Keira said that her mother-in-law lectured her about cooking more traditional meals and keeping her home more organised. Her mother-in-law would talk proudly about how she was always available for her son (who never went into childcare, by the way) and how her family and her church were always her priority. Keira described the son’s wife as being resigned to being a “bit player”; proud of her husband and children, nostalgic for the time when she first met the son, yet sad that she was largely invisible within the family.
An adventure film
Keira was invited to consider a new film in which the son’s wife was the lead character. She decided that this would be a modern, colour, adventure film. In this film, the lead character was named ‘Bria’, which means noble, strong and virtuous. The film started when Bria was at university, where she felt her intellect challenged and her mind expanded until she graduated with honours.
The mid-point of the film had Bria wanting to reach her full potential, but uncertain what this potential would actually be. In order to get into the role of the character, Keira stood up in a classic wonder woman stance: upright with her hands on her hips and her head held high.
I asked, “What stories does Bria have about herself and about women in general?” Keira indicated that the film would have Bria standing at her kitchen bench, a glass of wine in hand (she acted this out), sorting through three piles of brochures: one of ‘volunteer overseas’, one of ‘African safaris’ and one of ‘PhD scholarships’. A voiceover could be heard of her university lecturers telling her about all of the gains made by the feminist movement over time and that her generation owed it to them to make the most of opportunities available to them. Keira told me that Bria knows that women can do anything and that she knew Bria would “change the world” but was not sure how she was going to do it.
It was clear that Keira was reflecting an excited and eager character, one ready to embrace the world of opportunities before her. I asked how this film was going to develop from this point. Keira took a seat and said that she was not sure, but that it is going to be a fantastic film when it is done.
Way of being and the reduction of dissonance
I invited Keira to reflect on the two films, the characters that she had developed to represent herself and how they related to her current dilemma.
In considering the son’s wife, Keira identified that at times she tended to uncritically accept others’ stories about her role as a wife, mother and daughter-in-law, treating their assessments of what she should do and how she should do it as “truth”. She recognised that she then assessed herself as “not up to standard” and herself as “not worthy”, even though the standards were neither clear nor necessarily those that she personally placed value on. Unfortunately, in doing this Keira was continually granting more authority to the statements of others instead of to her own views.
She observed how readily she embodied a mood of resignation when she was acting out the son’s wife; that there was a genuine familiarity to the tiredness and flat emotions that she had portrayed. Despite all this, Keira said that as the son’s wife she felt secure in the love of her husband and daughters – and even her mother-in-law – and recognised that family and community are very important to her. She wanted to ensure that this continued to be a very important focus in working out her career goals.
When reflecting on Bria’s, character Keira indicated that this character felt more authentic. Although still influenced by stories and values espoused by significant others – in this case admired university lecturers and tutors – the values around independence and self-determination felt like a more natural fit with her aspirations. Keira had been very excited when she finished university about what kind of life she would have. Soon after, she had joined a public service graduate program (which at the time seemed to hold great promise of involving her in significant social change), met her now husband, started a family and settled into a “normal” life. Although she felt like she still had an inner Bria, Keira felt that she was on a somewhat more mundane path than she had anticipated. Nevertheless, this character was also readily embodied: when she stood up she had felt optimistic and enthusiastic, ready for a challenge and open to possibilities.
Through exploring and discussing the different characters in each movie that she identified with it became evident to Keira that a separation had opened up between her home self and work self. This dissonance was making decision making about her career difficult.
Keira identified that she wanted to develop a way of being that felt more enduring; one that would carry her more confidently between the different spheres of her life. She also wanted to develop more discernment about the stories and narratives that she allowed to influence her assessments of herself.
Using stories to design the future
To bring together the learning from the session, we returned to Keira’s dilemma around career goals and professional development. We agreed that between sessions she would use her journal to focus on:
One or two family stories or social narratives that would support her to occupy an emotional space conducive to making career decisions that fit with her sense of authenticity (e.g. of women successfully integrating personal and work aspects of their lives).
Some actions she would take to embody those emotions as she did when talking about the son’s wife and Bria.
A time/place/strategy to remember to focus on the stories and embody the actions each day.
Standards that emerge from the stories/narratives discussed in the coaching session and the others she identifies that are important in bringing her personal life and career into harmony (e.g. being a good mother; having a meaningful job).
Measures that she would apply against those standards (e.g. working no more than x days per week until the youngest is y years of age; working on a specific topic / as a team leader / in a specific type of role).
A big career goal that might be, say, 5 years away (e.g. working overseas / as a manager / in a specific organisation).
At next session, Keira had clarified her personal sources of meaning and developed a greater awareness of her own ways of being. This provided a solid basis on which to identify shorter and long-term her career goals and to draw up an initial development plan.
Jenni Paradowski supports and inspires professionals to be resilient and ethical in meeting the complex challenges of organisational life. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on 0402 094 446. Her website, Parakeet Coaching & Consulting, is at www.parakeet.net.au.