Tales for Coaching: Using Stories and Metaphors with Individuals and Small Groups

Ian Wycherley (Oxford Brookes University)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Wycherley, I. (2004), "Tales for Coaching: Using Stories and Metaphors with Individuals and Small Groups", Personnel Review, Vol. 33 No. 5, pp. 607-608. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483480410550198



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“Are you a storyteller?” This is the opening sentence of Margaret Parkin's book, Tales for Coaching. If you are a coach, mentor, manager, lecturer or trainer it is very likely that you are already using stories. This is because most people find stories an engaging, memorable and enjoyable way of passing the time. This book highlights the potential of storytelling, and advises coaches on picking the right story at the right time.

The book begins by recalling that societies have used stories to transmit knowledge for centuries. It is a tried and tested method, with storytellers having high status in many traditional societies, for example, the griots in West Africa. Parkin summarises some of the psychological research evidence that demonstrates how stories work. They are much more engaging and memorable than the usual list of bullet points that we are accustomed to in power‐point presentations. Listeners co‐create a story via an interactive process with the teller. Better learning and memory come from a holistic understanding of the story, the novelty and interest it provides, and the involvement that stems from an emotional response. Research seems to suggest that stories create a receptive frame of mind in the listener, which can be accompanied by chemical changes in the brain. We can see this when we notice reduced stress levels and a feeling of well‐being when listening to a well‐told story.

Having established the key arguments and evidence that support the use of storytelling generally, the author turns to the area of coaching. She reviews the latest trends in the practice of coaching and illustrates how stories may be used to tackle some of the common issues. This section draws on the author's experience and contacts with other coaches. There is a tantalising glimpse of what may be happening in the world of coaching at the end of this chapter: Parkin offers the results of a small questionnaire survey of UK coaches. She summarises the responses of around 30 respondents (15 per cent of 200 questionnaires sent out) to show how coaches use stories. This summary supports her overall message that stories can be used a lot, and in many different ways. We should be rather careful of the validity of this finding, since 85 per cent of her sample did not respond. Whilst this may mean that 85 per cent of UK coaches are not interested in stories, I would argue that the results show that this is a fertile area for researchers to explore.

The third chapter is perhaps the cornerstone of the book. Here we find helpful advice on finding stories. The author claims that her life is just as ordinary as everyone else's, and that she does not meet that many trolls, princes and sleeping princesses. However, many stories can be drawn from sources such as personal experience, friends, family, films, TV and the Internet. Good coaches are also open to gathering tales from their coachees. She makes a practical suggestion that the Kolb learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) can be used to assess the learning potential of a story. The goal is to reflect on the underlying lessons and principles, so that you can decide if the story has transferable knowledge. The author's experience comes out when the book covers storytelling in coaching situations. There are many suggestions here. Coachees can read a tale before a session. They can create their own stories as a warm‐up activity, either as personal favourites, or as examples of how their organisation works. Metaphor cards, meditating on a story, re‐framing and case study discussion are all presented as options with particular purposes and outcomes. Finally, Parkin demonstrates how stories can round off a session or help coaches set plans for the future.

Chapter four is a primer on how to be a good storyteller. Part of this is being able to choose the right story for the listeners and the purpose at hand. The power of a story is very dependent on the storyteller establishing a good rapport with the listeners, and really being in the story as they tell it. This chapter deals with the key aspects of this process. It emphasises the importance of the listeners' point of view and makes links to NLP theory on this point. The author notes some good tips on how to maintain the involvement and co‐creation of the listeners. She discusses the importance of having a good start to a story such as “everyone knows that”, and considers the pitch, tone, pace, volume and emphasis of the teller's voice. Finally, she gives guidance on non‐verbal behaviour and having a good closing line such as “and now the story is yours”. This chapter is just a start on the road to being a good storyteller. Many professional storytellers would say that it takes seven years to get to a good standard. If you do find yourself fired up with enthusiasm by this book, you can turn to the list of references and Web sites at the end.

The second part of the book provides ten tales in each of five sections. These sections are “envisioning and goal‐setting”, “problem‐solving”, “re‐framing and creativity”, “empowerment”, and “success and self‐esteem”. The tales are a mixture of fables, personal experiences, myths and real examples from organisations. Many tales may be used for more than one purpose. Some work better with groups, others in one‐to‐one coaching. Each tale has an introduction that gives the source and context. It also has a moral and a reflection. These commentaries are very useful in helping to decide which tale would suit which situation.

As for the tales themselves, I had a mixture of reactions. On first reading, I found some enjoyable, others thought‐provoking, while some just seemed to miss the point. This is probably a typical reader's response. A disadvantage we have when reading this book on stories is that we are unable to hear the author tell the tales herself. Also, some of the tales will only match certain readers in certain situations. Yet, there is enough variety here to get anyone started on using stories. My advice would be to browse through until you find something that catches your interest. Or even to get a friend to read a few out to you. After all, stories are meant to be shared.

Overall, Parkin has done a good job on reviewing the relevant arguments for using storytelling more in coaching, and has offered some useful practical recommendations on how to get the most out of it. Whilst this book is not long enough to cover much detail, it is a worthy sequel to her earlier work, Tales for Trainers (Parkin, 1998). Once you have read Tales for Coaching, you may find yourself using storytelling for much wider purposes than you originally intended. But that's another story.


Kolb, D.A. (1984), Experiential Learning Experiences as the Source of Learning and Development, Prentice‐Hall, New York, NY.

Parkin, M. (1998), Tales for Trainers, Kogan Page, London.

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