A Coach and a Professional Psychologist talking…. On the topic of childhood story work

I have recently been involved in many conversations about the place of coaching and therapy in the context of childhood story work. Most often it has been from a concern about risk and ethical boundaries that many coaches fear straying into. And from others who sit outside both professions, coaching and therapy, some assumptions being made about childhood story work being ‘therapeutic’ and judgement about whether it is ‘right’ for coaches to be operating in this area.

Let me say right at the start that as an executive coach and behavioural interventionist, I use and name childhood story work with my clients as being integral to my practice. And I have no difficulty in explaining why. But it was only recently, following a conversation with a colleague and peer who is a professional psychologist, that I really felt the ground was firm beneath us both.

So we wanted to share our thoughts more widely, to prompt conversations, to delve further into our practice and ultimately to bring more thinking into a space that seems important to so many.

Here goes…

A view from a professional psychologist about their work:

I don’t refer to my work as therapy. It’s hard psychological work that has no magic solution and I’m clear and upfront about that with my clients. I don’t think the language of ‘therapy’ helps to communicate how difficult the work really is. At the same time, I appreciate that this is a preference I hold.

Once I’ve made that clear, it’s important to contract with the needs of the client. I hold a view that people are not broken in need of a cure, instead I seek to understand an individual and what they want to be different. It could range from requiring support around financial challenges to any type of life experiences that are impacting. I often ask the question ‘what do you want to be different’? as we work towards identifying hoped for outcomes. It is also a key opportunity for people to decide whether they wish to work with me. All the clinical work I undertake is based on informed consent.

A view from an executive coach about their work:

It’s interesting as I too want to be clear with clients that the work isn’t easy, but it is worth the journey. Coaching isn’t a ‘pep talk’. Individuals often contact me when there has been a change in their circumstances. It could be a different role, maybe that’s promotion and suddenly they are feeling isolated and are questioning themselves and their ability. It may also be part of leadership development and a realisation that what has helped them to this point in their leadership experience won’t be enough anymore. There may also be some sort of crisis occurring.

Similarly, I contract with clients. Contracting is never a one-off thing, but it starts with understanding more of the person, their needs, and mine too as a coach. It would likely include how often we will meet and for how long (I have a view about what works which I share), and it would also be about the type of work that we will do as well as enquiring to understand what the person is ready for and hoping to achieve. This often isn’t clear at the start, but we build a relationship that enables more exploration so that we can get closer to what’s really going on that the client themselves may not be able to name right at the beginning.

I can see from the outside that our professional work looks very similar. And to anyone looking in, they’d understandably think that they are almost the same. But I think there are differences, which make them complimentary rather than in competition with each other. This is especially important when so much of the arena of health and wellbeing, particularly mental health, which is much of my clinical experience, seems one of competition.

When I give a broad overview to describe my work, I refer to it as a ‘scaffold’. I help people understand that our work is grounded in theory and there is a psychological framework that contains and boundaries the work. I work alongside the person for a defined period, akin to becoming a temporary supportive structure to help someone get to a point when they can live life again. Then our work ends, the ‘scaffold’ is removed, and the person continues with living their life as best as they are able to. I, and by default the work, am not a permanent extension to someone’s life. If a person believes that their capacities to function in life are solely contingent on continuing to meet with me, I am not doing my job effectively.

Again there are so many connections because we contract too. We’re bound by ethical standards and we use a variety of theoretical underpinnings. But there’s a difference too. I’d describe coaching as walking alongside someone. Yes, sometimes there is a crisis, and that can be impacting all of life, but this is about being shoulder to shoulder and knowing that you have a space to work things through confidentially, where you’ll be listened to and not judged.

I agree that there are many points of connection and simultaneously there are, as you say, differences. I know we would both welcome this as we have talked before about the richness in conversations, thinking and ideas that come from diversity.

And so, in thinking about how we use childhood story in our work, I should first say that my experience in attending the Dialogix, Coaching the Childhood Story programme was illuminating and rewarding both personally and professionally. It confirmed the value of the differing approaches and how they support a wider set of needs and occasionally different client groups too.

In the psychological work that I undertake with others, the presence of childhood story can vary. For some the influence of their old internal narratives can be perceived very strongly; whilst for others they may be more muted and subtle. Depending on the work foci that is contracted for, the shapes and effects of the old internal narratives will influence our work together. This could, for example, involve sustained and detailed attention to those effects or it could be that we note those effects whilst attending to a different aspect of the work. A recurring feature of the work is that the outcomes are those that are determined by the person themselves. Necessarily, this also means that those outcomes are ones that are feasible. Psychological work is not magic!

The childhood story methodology was instrumental for me in evolving some of my own personal relationships; work that will be life-long, and that’s ok too. Given my own breadth and depth of clinical knowledge and experience, this work uniquely assisted me with implementing and maintaining different ways of being in relationship to others in my own life.

I love hearing your story and how you embrace and work with the model of childhood story as a frame in your clinical practice as well as the personal impact it has had. Childhood story work is an integral part of my model and practice. I can’t help but include it in my offer as a coach, because it has had such an impact in my own life and professionally in leadership roles too. To be honest, if someone said you can’t work with childhood story, I’d have to stop coaching people! When you understand it and are equipped to work with it safely and within a framework, you can’t help but be constantly aware that it’s there and having impact.

In doing this work, I’m reminded that a person is a whole – they don’t just exist for the time we’re together, nor did they only exist from the time their working life began. Their experiences started much earlier. So, anything that’s happening now, can’t help but be a part of that whole experience. In recognising that, I can explore with the client the way that some of those formative experiences may be impacting upon what’s happening for them right now.

It’s important to say though that I don’t stay with the story itself, the story takes me to a structure and as I begin to work with the Story and Structure* simultaneously, it starts to paint a picture. Let me give an example. Let’s say a client comes to me to say that in their leadership role they really need to be able to voice their view at meetings and yet their recent experience in one of those big meetings resulted in them not saying a word. They had things to say, but they could not find their voice. They came away feeling like they hadn’t done the work they should have, decisions have now been made which they hold a different view about, but they’re now stuck. And the longer it goes on the more their voice is silent. Through some careful enquiries I start to explore about times when they’ve found their voice in other settings or at other times, and I begin to see a picture emerging. This isn’t about not being able to speak, it’s about speaking when there’s hierarchy present and especially when the person holds a view that may not be popular, and they need to challenge others.

So, in Structural Dynamics terms, Opposing in the presence of Closed Operating System causes the stakes to rise and as a result the person silences themselves. Then I enquire about early experiences, family, schooling and what those systems were like. The Story starts to unfold but what I hear is ‘it’s not ok to challenge those in authority, there are always consequences’ and there we go, there’s an old internal narrative about the Self, and we’re off!

The person’s early experiences have created an old internal narrative (and it will take time to illicit more of these) and it is holding them back. Ultimately, if this continues it will likely result in the leader being ineffective, faulty decisions, missing correction and maybe even a poor personal appraisal and some kind of individual consequences. The work to do is to continue to surface old internal narratives in all their punitive and profound nature and over time to write a set of new internal narratives, ones that confront the old and create new possibilities that the person can begin to live. It’s hard work because new internal narratives will battle with the old internal narratives every step of the way.

I’m focussed on the whole person, and I’m confident as a coach that the framework and theory I use will get us to work with the underlying issues as we focus from the Story to the Structure and back to the Story. We begin to see with greater clarity the themes and triggers, we now have a place to start. This can be of huge relief, because we start seeing things differently and structurally that were once totally perplexing or hidden from view. Equally, it’s a challenge because at this stage of the work we catch sight of the breadth, complexity, and tangled threads of the work still to do. It’s a bit like looking at the back of a tapestry, it looks chaotic, and we can’t yet see the clarity of the picture on the other side. But we will get there.

There’s so much that resonates here. It reminds me of the occasions when we have talked together about when we might signpost to our coaching or psychology colleagues.

Yes, that’s so true. I know we were both asked recently are there any times when we’d refer our clients to one another as professionals, and we both answered with an emphatic ‘yes’. I think that comes from a deep knowing of ourselves and our practice. And then understanding that an aligned profession that would be best suited to support specific needs is crucial. And importantly we both have supervision, the work that we do would not be safe without that essential (and ethical) professional support in place.

What I’m also struck by in the conversations that we’ve had is that we know our boundaries well and we take real care around them. But we have also both known and worked with childhood stories for ourselves and in differing but complementary ways we take that into our fields with expertise and confidence around what we do and why we do it.

Boundaries……absolutely. I’m reminded of being in training and a supervisor offering a skilled explanation of boundaries being about the ways in which we demonstrate care – for ourselves and others. This was just so helpful, and I often return to remembering this, particularly when boundary management challenges arise. For many of the people I have worked with boundaries have been violated. Consequently, their capacities to manage boundaries can be disrupted or limited. It behoves us as professionals therefore to attend even more closely to how we embody working in boundaried ways in our work.

In closing…Our conversations and sharing of our practice continues, but one thing that excites us both is the openness with which we can explore our models in a way that is expansive rather than defending our positions. We are so lucky, not just to be able to work together as professional colleagues but as people who have been given the amazing gift of working with our own childhood stories and are able offer that to those we support. Our work with childhood story continues within a boundaried, supported and clear framework alongside the clarity and appreciation for the differences we professionally bring to the work and the benefits that our clients have experienced.

*The references to the childhood story methodology in this article come directly from the work of Dr Sarah Hill and Dialogix. This methodology has three main components: the immutable childhood story, old internal narratives, and new internal narratives. For more information and a detailed explanation, please refer to Sarah’s book ‘Where did you learn to behave like that’? 2nd edition. The childhood story model carefully builds upon David Kantor’s theory of Structural Dynamics, where human interactions can be viewed and even coded from a simple, accessible framework. This lends structure (rather than merely content) giving us a simple, yet profound, way of engaging with human dynamics differently. For more on Structural Dynamics, please refer to David’s book ‘Reading the Room’.

By J and S