The purpose of this phase of the process, Loosen the Grip, is both to loosen the grip that an unhelpful story has on an individual (or group), and also to loosen the individual’s grip on the story. To understand what I mean by this, we need to explore this idea of story further.
Consider the example of coaching. People approach a coach because they are facing a problem, whether it is a difficulty to overcome, or an aspiration to improve themselves. That problem, whatever it is, forms part of their story about their current reality. We can refer to that as an unhelpful story. If they have lived with the unhelpful story for a while, it may have a strong grip on them. This story will have informed their interpretation of reality on many occasions: they will have noticed, time and again, that it is ‘true.’ We all have a tendency to notice things that confirm our understanding of reality, and also not to notice, or to attach less significance to, anything which does not confirm it. That is known as Confirmation Bias, and it is one of the reasons why our stories are so self-evidently true: the evidence supports them (because that is the evidence to which we lend weight and meaning - and counter-evidence is ignored). The result is that our stories have a very strong grip on our minds, once we have believed them for a while.
I once coached an academic, who we will call Julia. Julia’s unhelpful story (see the video case study) was that she was Not Very Assertive. This is an example of a story that exerted a strong grip on someone. Because she believed that story, she had noticed several occasions on which she had not been as assertive as she would have liked to be. So the story was clearly true. And of course, because she believed it was true she was more likely to continue to be Not Very Assertive. She had also, as we discovered later, ignored (or discounted as atypical) those occasions when she had been assertive.
As well as the unhelpful story having a grip on the individual, the individual may hold on to the unhelpful story tightly, too. After all, if it were easy to leave the unhelpful story behind, she would have done so. Unhelpful stories often serve a positive purpose in someone’s life: they may help her to feel less responsibility for things that have gone wrong, or maintain her sense of worth in difficult circumstances.
So what we mean by Loosening the Grip, is both to loosen the grip that an unhelpful story has on an individual, and also to loosen the individual’s grip on the story. To do that, we do not to start by challenging the unhelpful story, but rather by honouring it; not least because it may serve a valuable purpose in the person’s life and if we attack it, she may grip it all the more tightly.
Inviting an individual to name an unhelpful story, and take a stand in relation to it, can help her to feel more powerful and resolute in addressing it. It reinforces her position as outside the story, and therefore her ability to assume authorship. For more detail on this phase, read the book…
For an exercise to help you experience this, see here.
Phase 2 is Discover More Helpful Stories.