Story about storytelling in career counselling


When five people were to tell you the same story, it would never be the same. Each person has his or her own version how and why the events occurred. This is the reason why we really like working with stories of clients in counselling. What is the advantage? Stories can be retold and clients’ perspectives can be changed. Once a client tells a different story, he or she sees a new perspective not just in the story itself, but also in his or her own life situation. And that is our goal.   

An Encounter

„Beware of the stories you tell yourself, for you will surely be lived by them.“ Shakespeare 

Sipping his third Foster´s lager, Story Dontknowwhatsgoingonwithme is sitting at the Shahrazad’s Tavern. At that time, his old friend Story Knowhow enters the pub. After ordering a Guiness, two shots rum and salted peanuts, he takes a place next to D. 

“Long time no see, buddy. What’s up with you? Do you ever go out to meet people?”

“Not much. Getting old.”

“Come on! You, the once called Trustmyselfandliketotalkaboutit?”

“That’s long time gone. I don’t resemble the one they used to tell at parties anymore. They adored me. I kept shaping up really well since I was born. Five people at my birth and five different versions. Can you get it? And imagine when the storytellers sent me further I changed again. I looked totally different in front of their wives or in front of friends or customers. And when the wives, friends and customers were telling their customers, friends and wives, I didn’t even recognize myself. I was stunning, every day in a new coat. But now I’m getting lost in it. I’m afraid I look more like awkward and pathetic.”

“Look, buddy, you are very pessimistic about it. The storytellers share us but we have the last word. People behave according to their stories. Do you remember how Story Headfullofideas transformed into Troublemaker? What happened to the human of his? Or when Nothingcomesalong let his suite altered to Knowwhatwentreallywell? And haven’t you forgotten about that girl Notlikemysister? She had her hair cut to Beunique. Hottie, she is. I go out with her tonight. And you pull yourself together. Go and have a little word cosmetics, it will do you good.”

A story as the agent of change

Do you like stories? I do, a lot. Just a few words and here comes the plot, emotions, wisdom or inspiration. People and their lives are hidden in the stories. 

I am lucky that I make my life by listening to stories. The client comes; I sit down and listen to the narration. Sometimes, it is full of hope: “…we are expecting a baby so I’ll have to organize my life so I don’t have to give up my beloved job…”. Uncertainty, sometimes: “… my parents never supported me in anything so I was just hanging around and now I´m not good at anything…” or irritation: “…I don’t get along with anybody at work, they are spiteful and the boss pretends he doesn’t see anything …” People coming to our office often put an imaginary label on their forehead right at the beginning of our consultation (I am competitive, lazy, hesitant …) and they elaborate it into a story. To confirm their statements, they illustrate them by real situations from their lives. 

All of us have plenty of experiences. In our memories, we can find moments of joy, disappointment, success, injustice, adventure, loneliness or harmony. Events are like stars in the sky. As well as a long time ago the astrologists decided to put stars into combinations that we call constellations, we also (mostly not deliberately) connect separate events and thus confirm our mainline story. 

If we notice the examples of failures more (and I bet every one of us can remember some) and start presenting ourselves as losers, people start automatically perceive us that way too. Same as us, our friends will start talking about our failures and the story we constructed will confirm itself retroactively. It’s hard to step outside this circle sometimes. Good news is that nobody has to stay a loser forever. If we focus in our skies of events on the positive things and look for patterns “what went well” it is possible to overwrite our story and experience success as well. 

My work is based on the idea of social constructivism which works with the theory that the meanings of separate events aren’t clearly set beforehand. Each person involved can add to the process of creation (construct) by means of language. In different words - it depends a lot on how we label our idea about “the reality” (or on the contrary whose version of the story we embrace). The world is not just black and white, our experiences aren’t random and isolated but they are interrelated parts of an entire system. It is a never-ending process and that serves us, the counsellors, very well if we want to support positive change. 

How to make it work?

It is often enough to repeat literally what the client said during the consultation. When hearing it from somebody else the client usually needs to clarify the meaning or soften what he or she said (… it’s not really that bad, I’m not in permanent stress … I just don’t like when ….). 

It´s definitely worth spending the beginning of a consultation by so called clarifying. In this part, I focus on key words - what the client puts stress on or what he or she repeats. Further on, I make sure how they understand their meaning (What does “Doing a meaningful job” mean for you? Have you ever done a meaningful job? How can you recognize it? and so on). I also don´t forget that nothing is happening in vacuum and understanding the context often helps to understand the meaning of the whole story. 

And if you like playing games you can try the following activity: Ask the client to describe something that happened to them. Then ask them to narrate it as if it was a script for a thriller movie. There is obviously a condition that nothing in the new version of the story can be made up. Next, you can try to change the story into a romance, horror, comedy, travel documentary or a detective story. You may learn more facts about what happened and understand the story better. And the client can experience the variability of stories personally. It is always mainly about the point of view you are looking from.

Autor: Helena Kostalova, career counsellor in EKS, Czech Republic

The project was supported by the European Union.