What is Narrative Assessment? Well...how much time do you have? The answer is nuanced and layered, vital to the future of career development and important for your day to day work as a helping professional.
In this 3-part signature series, we tackle this meaningful question. You’ll learn about common challenges and how narrative addresses them, why narrative is effective and how you can apply it in your own work with clients.
This series is written with the audience of career professionals in mind, but it applies to anyone who engages in listening, talking and relating as part of their work in helping people. Narrative techniques can help each of us stimulate more meaningful and productive conversations.
To begin the series, we explain why narrative approaches are the key to solving seven common challenges faced by helping professionals in career development settings.
Challenges No.1 & No. 2
The Boring Broccoli Trap
Let’s start with our first two challenges. Just as dietitians often hear “I know I should eat healthy food, but I hate broccoli,” career professionals encounter clients that know they could benefit from career help, but it’s simply not interesting enough for them to pursue. Clients attend a first appointment and never return. Clients commit to activities, workshops and take-home work but don’t follow through. Sound familiar?
Second, there is a gap between what clients need and the results from traditional career interventions. From a form filled out in triplicate with a No.2 pencil to an online multiple choice test, clients often feel disengaged while doing these activities because they are impersonal and often boring and repetitive to complete.
These two challenges - client engagement and the career intervention gap - are addressed by using narrative assessment.
A Storied Engagement
With client engagement, using a story-based narrative approach allows us to create and hold space for clients to focus on themselves and their experiences. We shift from external outputs, like their list of past jobs on a resume, to what’s internal, by richly exploring and learning from each experience on that resume, in a guided, structured manner. We encourage the client to focus on themselves and mine their stories for strengths, desires, personality traits, etc.
Instead of “list your top 3 strengths,” we ask “what strengths did you draw upon during that experience?” Clients identify with these strengths because they can remember actually using them. They believe in the data produced by narrative interventions, because it comes from their lived experience and not from a report generated from a multiple choice test.
Mind the Gap
With the career intervention gap, using narrative approaches increases client follow-up because it generates meaningful career possibilities from the beginning, and therefore increases optimism, through a very personal, hyper-focused lens.
Instead of showing them a job board or labour market stats (external), we talk about their internal resources and desires. Using narrative interventions proves to clients that who they are matters. They continue with career services because it’s much more engaging to explore themselves, and then look externally afterwards, than it is to research which careers are forecast to be lucrative in the next 5 years, without first seeing themselves in that future picture.
The Tell Me What To Do Trap
A third, related challenge is the inherent limitation of test-and-tell. We spend most of the time we have with clients providing assessments, interpretations, advice and resources. Especially when using traditional assessments, practitioners take on the expert role, testing then telling clients what it all means. Why? Because that’s what we’ve been taught to do or that’s what the funder wants or that’s what the policy states, and sometimes, frankly, that’s all we know. However, this equates to a lot of talking by the helping professional, and little time left for listening. It further positions the practitioner as expert, emphasizing a power imbalance, while a narrative approach is inherently collaborative and co-creative.
The Power of Storylistening
In his TedTalk, Avi Kluger, an organizational behaviour researcher who studies listening, shared results of his research, which prove that storytelling quality increases with the quality of the listening.For example, let’s say you have a client in front of you that has “a terrible, awful job, that I need to quit”. Fair enough. You could immediately move into possibilities for other jobs available in the area, or take a glance at their resume, or get them signed up for your job searching workshop.
If you’re using the power of narrative assessment, the power of storylistening, you’ll do something different. Through asking a series of clarifying and probing questions, you will draw out pieces of this client’s experience of working this awful job. You will help them identify powerful, useful and tangible things like their desires, strengths, assets, and even the influences of other people in their life.
You may have been trained to provide a quick “what are your career values?” checklist to clients in transition. Using a narrative approach, you will instead ask “what is important to you in this story?” and then wait. That’s the key: to wait and hold space for the story to unfold, for the client to understand that they have time to explain, to expand and to be heard. They are the expert. Patterns emerge. They eventually tell themselves what to do.
Challenges No. 4 & No. 5
Just One Thing in Just This One Place
Our next challenges are that traditional assessments are context insensitive, and they have a narrow or single element focus.
Context insensitivity is an inherent drawback in traditional assessment. The world, and therefore our clients, are diverse and global. One size does not fit all. Framing experiences within context - such as sexual orientation, gender identity, country of origin culture, family of origin values, and lived experience - is vital to discerning next steps or career options that are nuanced and fit. Impersonal assessments cannot take into account these contexts; narrative assessment can.
Related to this, the next challenge of narrow scope is another inherent drawback. The Strong Interest Inventory addresses interests but not strengths or personality. MBTI looks at personality but not values or strengths. Strengthsfinder gives names to skills but misses on personality and interests, and so on.
All of the Things!
In contrast, a narrative approach allows for a holistic perspective that explicitly reflects strengths, values or desires, personality, and interests. Within our OneLifeTools framework, we add to these typical four elements, the influence of other people, arguably more directly correlated with career choice than interests, assets and thoughts & feelings. What’s more, narrative assessment allows practitioners to integrate traditional results such as SII, MBTI, Strengthfinder, and results from newer tools such as the natural and stable aptitudes from Youscience. It’s a both/and approach, not either/or.
Challenge No. 6
Highlight Reel Versus Extended Director’s Cut
A sixth challenge: people just don't spend time reflecting on the past. They say they do, but don’t. We live in a fast-paced, tech-driven world with ever-shortening news cycles and attention spans. How often have you had a great conversation with a client, only to file it away in a cabinet and lose track of the nuggets you unearthed? How often do people say a job just landed in their lap -- because they have not reflected on all of the steps and serendipity it took to get that job? A career professional skilled in storylistening supports the kind of reflection that slows down the action just enough to discern the real story behind the highlight reel. Clients learn it’s not one thing after another, it’s one thing because of another.
Challenge No. 7
Drowning in Top Down Theory
Our last challenge is that helping professionals are overloaded with theories but have no clear way to implement them. Scholarly articles faithfully explain their experiment, science, and statistics, but only give lip service to application with a short section often titled ‘implications for practitioners.’
Practice to Theory
In contrast, we created our OneLifeTools framework by integrating many theories and practices practitioners have come to appreciate and weaving them into a narrative method of practice (Canadian S&Gs, 2017). We drew from Bright & Pryor’s chaos theory of careers, Mitchell, Levin & Krumbotz’s planned happenstance, Gelatt’s positive uncertainty, White’s narrative therapy, Savickas’s life design, Rogers’s client centered therapy, Fredrickson's strengths-based positive psychology and broaden-and-build theory, and many more. Let’s call it practice-to-theory instead of theory-to-practice. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see articles wrap up with a short section, ‘implications for theorists’? It’s disruptive, because this field has to change since the world has changed.
Start with Why
These 7 challenges are our “why”. We created a method of practice to address them and to empower career and helping professionals. But what about your “why”? Why is narrative something you should explore and integrate into your day-to-day?
Let’s check back in with your client. Through the power of storylistening and taking a narrative approach, what started as a hopeless, negative statement of “I hate my job” has turned into a rich, goldmine of a story in which you can find clues about who this client is, what they really want and how they can start to move toward it.
OneLifeTools has conducted a published, peer-reviewed outcome study that measured the impact of storylistening, and which nudges this narrative assessment approach toward evidence-based practice; the study showed client increases in hope, optimism, confidence and resilience, correlated with career satisfaction and person-job fit. It’s our goldmine, that we are sharing with thousands of career professionals worldwide.
Stay tuned for the next installments in this 3-part signature series, in which we’ll take a deep dive into the What & How of Narrative Assessment.
Are you using Narrative with your clients? Reach out to us to tell us how on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or by email. If you’re not using narrative approaches, and your curiosity is piqued, we offer free monthly online learning sessions about the What, Why & How of Narrative Assessment in Career Development. Click here to register for an upcoming webinar.