Matthias Ehrhardt's picture Submitted by Matthias Ehrhardt April 12, 2017 - 8:19pm

How important are stories for coaching? Most coaches will no doubt say that the importance of stories for coaching can hardly be overestimated. But, why? And, if they play such a central role in coaching, how can we optimally work with the stories our clients tell us? Here’s a suggestion: use the ABCDE of narrative. 

What is the ABCDE of narrative? It is a model that helps us discern elements of stories and to frame powerful questions around these stories. There are four elements of stories: 

  1. Events There must be at least one Event or State A that leads to another Event or State B. 
  2. Connections are central elements of narrative. These connections can sometimes be the very core or the “moral” of a narrative. 
  3. Directions Narratives typically have a narrator directing the story to his/her audience. 
  4. Effects of the narrative describe how stories affect their audiences.










Here’s an example: After her mother died, Cinderella is treated poorly by her stepmother and stepsisters, but continues to live a good and pious life while enduring hardships. Then, by the wondrous help of a pigeon, or other miraculous incidents, she meets and marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.

In this narrative, the Event (State) A is Cinderella’s mother’s death harsh life. Event (State) B is the Prince “happily ever after” part. The Connection (or core of the story) is the fact that Cinderella lived a good and pious life in spite of er hardships and is helped by a pigeon (or an angel, depending on the many versions of the tale). 

Who are the narrators and audiences of Cinderella? Most probably, parents that read the story to their kids. And, what’s the effect of the story? To put it poignantly, it might be as easy as: behave well and truthfully and you will live happily ever after. (On a side note, it’s interesting to know that there are hundreds of versions of Cinderella that have emerged in different cultures around the globe).

How can we as coaches use the ABCDE of narrative in our daily work with clients? Here’s a suggestion: ask specific questions around the elements of the narratives they tell us.

Let’s imagine one of your clients, Peter, tends to micro-manage. The narrative he tells you might sound like this: “Last time I gave my coworkers a job and room to do it by themselves, the results were extremely poor. That has happened to me many times. And this is why I have to control my folks tightly.” 

Let’s look at the narrative through the lens of the ABCDE of narrative. We can do that in two steps:

What are the elements?

  1. Event (State) A: a job with some leeway to fulfill it. Event (State) B: poor performance (client Peter’s perspective.)
  2. Connection: “Without my control, this is what happens regularly.”
  3. Direction (a tricky one in this case): we don’t really know Peter's audience. However, experience shows that in similar cases, the narrator and the audience are one and the same. Peter doesn’t share the story, but keeps telling it exclusively to himself.
  4. Effect: Peter himself states, “This is why I have to control my folks tightly.”

What questions could we ask around the elements of the story Peter told us? Here are some ideas:

  • Around the Events (States A and B):

When asking for the events A and B, we want to understand if the story we hear is actually true, what other events occurred, or which elements the narrator emphasizes in particular. One very effective question in this regard can simply be to ask Peter “Really?” Or, “What else happened?” What events would someone else focus on if they told me what happened? What other events may have played a role? 

  • Around the Connection:

We all have a narrative set in mind which is based on our past experiences, our knowledge or our beliefs. These sets also include assumptions about specific connections between events (“A always leads to B”). When inquiring about the connection, we want to help uncover these narrative sets and think about how stories can unfold differently. Questions could be: “How could that story end in another way?”, “Under what circumstances?”, “What stories (e.g.: of other people) do you know where similar stories unfolded differently?”, “What have been exceptions to that story in your experience?”

  • Around the Direction:

The types of narrators and audiences can vary significantly. We can tell stories to another person, to teams, to organizations, or simply to ourselves, in which case the narrator and the audience are identical. “Playing” with the connection can often yield very interesting insights. One good way of helping our clients “re-story” their narratives is to invite them to tell their narratives to another audience. For instance, we could encourage them to tell their narratives of their past experiences or future steps to children. These could be their own children, or nieces or nephews, who can create an emotional bond between narrators and audience. The rationale of this is that by telling a story to ourselves or to an audience we are very familiar with, we assume that they have specific knowledge or an identical understanding of terms we use. Changing the audience, however, forces us to simplify stories and to most probably use a different vocabulary. 

Questions in this regard can be: “How would the story look if you told it to another person? To a child?” Similarly, we might also invite Peter to think about questions another audience might have concerning his story. How would another person (probably one of his employees) tell the story?

  • Around the Effect:

As American psychologist Jerome Bruner succinctly puts it: “Narrative imitates life, life imitates narrative.” Narratives can influence attitudes, instill hope, serve as examples, motivate, change perspectives, or serve as behavioral guidelines. Questions around the effect can be: What was the effect of the story on you? What is its effect on other people (on person X)? What is it about that story that has this effect on you (on others)? What’s the intended effect? What would be the ideal effect of the story? How could we “re-story” it to achieve that effect? 

In summation, there is reason to believe that the importance of narratives in coaching cannot be overestimated. Hence, it can be extremely valuable for coaches to be familiar with basic structures of narratives and to have an easy-to-use tool to apply insights from narratives in their daily coaching practice. To that end, the “ABCDE of narrative” can be an effective model. Next time your clients tell you a story, try to discern its elements and frame your questions around them. 

Do you use a similar tool in your own practice? Comment below. We'd love to hear about your own narratives!

You can also watch our accompanying CoachX video with Matthias Ehrhardt on Narrative-Based Coaching here: