Throughout human history, cultures have used the power of myths, legends, folklore and sharing circles to help them understand who they are, their place in the world and their role in their community. There is ample research available that confirms humans are hard-wired to engage in storytelling and relate to messages on a mental, emotional and physical level (M. Buitelaar & H. Zock). This is why storytelling and the use of narrative practice is an excellent tool that fosters the connection and working relationship between client and career practitioner through shared experience and engaging communication.
As a career development practitioner who believes in the creative problem-solving abilities of my clients, I have seen the benefits of storytelling as a primary tool to assist with identifying work and career choices that are meaningful and impactful. The beauty of the storytelling process is that it enables reflection, analysis, investigation and interpretation that validates the significance of the client’s experience, and fosters a deeper understanding of self in relation to skills, strengths, attributes, values and drivers (Richard Nelson Bolles, Bernard Haldane and Vance Peavy). As a practitioner who is dedicated to helping people find work that expresses their purpose, passion and potential, I love sharing in my client’s stories to find clues that point to next steps.
According to the Career Development Model, the first ingredient required for a client’s healthy career or job choice is sound self-knowledge. I believe that this means knowing what kind of work they are interested in, why they want to do it, where they want to make an impact and how they want to work in terms of skills and strengths utilized, interests and work environment. Through storytelling, clients can reflect on their experiences, taking a personal inventory of these things, in addition to values, needs and beliefs that all support personal and professional insight and meaningful career possibilities.
Furthermore, I believe that as a right-brained and creative process, storytelling stimulates imagining, dreaming, creative thinking and innovative problem solving – all things essential for successful career development. In fact, according to the research of neuroeconomist Paul Zak, narrative exercises release cortisol and oxytocin in the brain, chemicals that trigger connection, engagement, conceptualization and decision making. In addition, dopamine and adrenaline are also released, boosting alertness, decisiveness, motivation and action. This means that the process of storytelling increases the client’s ability to make decisions and move forward.
Using tools to facilitate storytelling with clients
One effective online storytelling tool that we use extensively in Career Services at Saint Mary’s University is Mark Franklin’s CareerCycles. This tool enables students to reflect on a variety of experiences in their lives, putting them into story form and then using the storyteller template to extract key information that supports identifying job possibilities in an engaging, quick and effective way. Furthermore, this tool ensures that information can be built upon and shared fluidly between client and practitioner, and between career counsellors and career coaches, enabling a team approach in supporting clients.
Another storytelling option that I have used is the following narrative exercise adapted from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This process combines the creative use of storytelling with deep questioning and active listening to help the client build awareness and broaden their scope of possible career options.
- The Challenge:Identify the client’s career challenge, transition or situation.
- The Mission:Help the client frame their challenge as a metaphor such as reaching the summit of a tall mountain, rescuing a loved one, finding a lost treasure or saving the planet. How do they plan to complete their mission and what do they need?
- The Protagonist: Encourage your client to develop their hero(ine) qualities. Do they have any special strengths or attributes? What would they like to have as ideal qualities?
- Obstacles: Who are the villains, naysayers or “dragons” they may face on their mission? Are there other obstacles, such as limiting beliefs or economic limitations?
- Resources: Does the client have any fellow travellers (think Robin Hood and his Merry Men) or a mentor? Is there a map or any clues to help them on their mission?
- Reflect: Reflect on the story and how the client reached their mission. What steps did they take to accomplish their goal? Which skills, strengths, interests and personal attributes did they rely on?
- Analyze: Examine previously considered next steps and identify any new insights. Are there any potential work opportunities or career possibilities not previously considered?
- Focus: Which of the considered options are the most viable? Considering labour market trends and personal needs, values and drivers, narrow down options to make a sound career decision.
- Act: Create action steps to move your client forward.
It is important to note that this is only a general template and that to be effective, terminology and questions should be played with to reflect each individual client. For example, a client who is a soccer coach may write a story as if developing a winning play for his team, or a client who loves fantasy novels may create a story where they are the hero(ine) in a fantasy land, fighting dragons or spells on their mission to uncover a lost treasure.
Regardless of approach, the power of the storytelling lies in the creative process of narration, reflection and deduction as an experiential exercise, giving validation and meaning to the client’s experience, building connection with their practitioner, fostering a deeper awareness of self and offering a starting point for the expansion of new possibilities. Storytelling puts the client in the driver’s seat of their career journey, empowering them in their own lives and solidifying the awareness that they are creative, resourceful and whole, and already possess the answer to the next step in their career.
M. Buitelaar & H. Zock. Religious Voices in Self-Narratives: Making sense of lives in times of transition). Boston: DeGruyter.
McMahon and Watson). Systemic Influences on Career Development: Assisting Clients to Tell Their Career Stories.