Shifting Stories compared to the Thinking Partnership approach to coaching
I wrote this essay as part of the qualifying process to be a Thinking Partnership Coach, and thought that it might be of interest to readers of this blog.
In this essay, I compare a Thinking Partnership approach to coaching, as developed by Nancy Kline (Kline, 1999) with the ManyStory approach described in my book Shifting Stories (Scott, 2016). There is much that is congruent between the two approaches, but also much that is different. In this essay, I examine both approaches, highlighting both commonalities and differences; I then reflect on some of the underlying assumptions of each approach, and conclude by summarising what I see as the relative strengths of each approach when compared to the other.
By way of context, it is worth remembering the research (cited eg by de Haan, 2008) that in terms of efficacy, the approach taken by a coach or counsellor is less important than the quality of the relationship established between the two. It is also noteworthy that consistency of approach is also important. Given those two considerations, client-centred approaches that have a clear model or structure are likely to be beneficial, as they provide the opportunities to build a strong and positive relationship, and they offer consistency of approach.
Both the Thinking Partnership and the Shifting Stories approach draw to a large extent on the groundwork of client-centred work laid by Carl Rogers (2003) and Gerry Egan (1994). Perhaps the Thinking Partnership approach leans more towards Rogers’ work (giving a premium to being client-led) and the Shifting Stories approach more towards Egan’s work (giving a premium to helping the client to structure his or her understanding). To understand that better, it will be helpful to look at each approach in a bit more detail.
The Thinking Partnership approach consists of helping the client by:
Creating the space and support for the client to think about whatever he or she wants to think about; and in particular to follow that thinking further than he or she usually does;
Inviting the client to set a clear and specific goal for their thinking, if he or she is not satisfied after the initial work has been done;
Helping the client to identify and remove any assumptions that are limiting his or her thinking, with regard to goal-achievement and replace them with new liberating assumptions;
Encouraging the client to explore as many new possibilities as he or she wishes to, given the new liberating assumptions, via the Incisive Question;
Affirming the client, by appreciating a quality that the coach has noticed in the client during the session.
The ManyStory Approach consists of helping the client by:
Exploring the unhelpful story that is holding him or her back from a goal;
Naming that story;
Taking a stand with regard to that story;
Identifying one (or more) more helpful stories;
Exploring the more helpful story;
Naming the more helpful story;
Taking a stand on the more helpful story;
Enriching the plot of the more helpful story;
Identifying support available from others and from processes, behaviours etc;
Celebrating and documenting successes.
The principle similarities between the two approaches are:
the use of questioning and listening to help the client to explore his or her concerns;
the non-directive (in terms of content) approach taken by the coach;
the directive (in terms of process) approach taken by the coach (ie following the structure of the model);
the identification of a problem story/assumption and a more helpful or liberating alternative
The principle differences between the two approaches are:
The framing of the problem and potential preferred options as ‘stories’ in the ManyStory approach, as way of encouraging and supporting agency (‘authorship’) and a shift of perceptual position;
The intervention-intensity: the thinking partnership coach intervenes far less frequently than the ManyStory coach, particularly in Part One of the process, encouraging and modelling the belief that the individual can normally sort his or her own issues out (with good TE support);
The underlying assumptions of the two approaches.
The Thinking Partnership approach assumes:
coachees will almost always be able to resolve or make progress on their own issues;
a minimal structure and the Thinking Environment are all that is needed;
thinking aloud, in the presence of someone who embodies the Thinking Environment components is frequently sufficient;
if not the skilled removal of limiting false assumptions will release further ideas that will enable the individual to find the ideas they need;
thinking is sufficient...
Informing the approach, particularly in assessing the validity of assumptions, is the Positive Philosophical Choice.
The ManyStory Approach assumes that:
helping people to explore and structure their thinking (and feelings) as stories is a powerful and helpful intervention, particularly in situations of distress and long-running problems;
examining and re-examining different possible understandings (stories) helps the individual to move towards a more accurate understanding of the truth;
removing habits of thinking and behaviour requires some structured support.
Having described and compared the two approaches, I will now consider their relative strengths, as approaches to coaching. The Thinking Partnership approach has many strengths when compared with the ManyStory approach. In the first instance, the process affirms the autonomy and the agency of the individual more clearly, modelling that in the process. The qualities of the Thinking Environment are very powerful, and the coachee will benefit from exposure to them, and may well be able to learn and use at least some of them in the future. The Thinking Partnership approach is applicable in a very wide range of situations: literally any situation in which high quality thinking will be beneficial. The approach is also easy for the coach, which frees the coach to be able to give the highest quality of attention to the client.
However, it is also the case that the ManyStory approach has strengths relative to the Thinking Partnership approach. One is that it provides a structure for people to think about messy and complex issues. The naming of unhelpful stories in particular has many benefits: it enables a complex issue to be easily referred back to by an agreed shorthand label; it encourages coachees to recognise their agency – their ability to re-author their stories; and it provides some psychological distance, particularly when coaches have over-identified with the problem. Likewise, the development and naming of a more helpful story, and the consequent reinterpretation of experience and relationships, is often very valuable in bringing new hope into difficult situations, as well as providing a useful shorthand handle for referring back to the complex new story in a quick and powerful way. The invitation to the coachee to take a stand with regard to each story is also a powerful way to reassert the individual’s agency. But perhaps the major strength of the ManyStory approach, when compared to the Thinking Partnership approach is the final part of the model: Thickening the Plot. This addresses a whole area not covered by the Thinking Partnership approach: how to embed the new learning generated; and how to sustain the associated behaviour and thinking pattern changes, and strengthen them, beyond the session.
Of course, these things may be addressed in a Thinking Partnership coaching session, if they are raised by the person being coached, but otherwise they are not; and I believe that to be a potential weakness of the approach. Change (in both thinking and behaviours) is notoriously hard to sustain, so the ManyStory approach to addressing that seems a significant part of the model, and is a strength when compared to the Thinking Partnership approach.
In conclusion, I consider both approaches to be very valuable; the Thinking Partnership approach is particularly useful when the coachee wishes to think something through to a deep level, or when the coachee is making assumptions that are blocking his or her thinking in addressing an issue. The ManyStory approach is appropriate when the coachee has (often inadvertently) constructed a false, partial or limiting account of a situation, or of himself or herself, which could usefully be re-written.
De Haan, Erik, 2008, Relational Coaching, John Wiley & Sons
Egan, Gerard, 1994, The Skilled Helper, Brooks/Cole Publishing
Kline, Nancy, 1999, Time to Think, Ward Lock
Rogers, Carl, 2003, Client-Centred Therapy, Constable & Robinson Ltd
Scott, Andrew, 2016, Shifting Stories, Matador