How should coaches understand their clients?

There is a way of understanding literature that could be called a ‘through the window’ approach. The idea is that reading a novel is like standing in front of a window looking at a scene taking place on the other side of the pane. The characters over there are not aware of your presence and you have no way to communicate with them or influence their behaviour. You stand and watch their stories unfold and your job is to work out what those stories mean.

Listening to stories

As coaches, we listen to people’s stories. We are connected to our clients by the sound of their voices. Mostly, we see very little of their behaviour (although what we do see can reveal much about the person). And this type of connection introduces a whole level of complexity.

Language introduces complexity

It is tempting to see language as a useful tool that helps us understand our clients – a means for them to inform us of what’s been happening in their life. In other words, it’s easy to assume that language is a nice, clear window pane that doesn’t obstruct or distort our view and lets us know truth about the person.

Are they the expert of their own life?

It’s also tempting to see the client as the expert of their own life. If they are an honest and open person we may believe they will tell us the truth about themselves – and who would know that truth better than they? Surely, they are the expert of their own life!

But is this a helpful way to think? How sure can we be that even the most honest client tells us objective truth about themselves?

Getting to the meaning

The central issue here is not a moral one – this is not about whether the person is honest and trustworthy. It is more a philosophical and psychological issue. It is philosophical because it raises the question of how words get their meaning, and it is psychological because it deals with how we create personal meaning through the words we choose and the stories we tell.

I want to introduce you to two academic writers who can help us out here. But first, let me say something about words and meaning. We assume we understand the meaning of many words in our language. It seems simple enough to understand what words like ‘dog’ and ‘bottle’ mean. But these assumptions may not be correct. I don’t have time to go into this now, but if you are curious about this idea, check out the topic of semiotics and people like de Saussure and Derrida.

McAdams and Wortham

The two academic writers I want to introduce to you are Dan McAdams and Stanton Wortham. McAdams talks about the ‘personal myth’. The key idea here is that when people tell you their story they may think they are relating objective facts, but they are really telling a kind of myth about their life. This myth is based on what they believe to be the truth. Check it out for yourself – it’s worth reading McAdams if you can get hold of his work.

Wortham tells us another important idea. His idea focuses more on the situation. Why is the person telling you this information and how are they trying to position you? What do they want from you? Maybe they want you to agree with them, or feel sorry for them, or to be angry about how another person has treated them. The point is, when people tell their stories to other people, they have an agenda. They seek to achieve this agenda by what they say, what they leave out, and how they position the listener and other characters.


In many ways, there is a lot going on in coaching. The coach is absorbing a story and we need to be careful about how we approach these stories. As coaches, we are involved in our own meaning making, but we also need critical judgement to understand what the stories mean. The idea that people generate personal myths suggests that they are not necessarily experts of their own lives. They are myth-makers and those myths may be very different from ‘objective truth’.

I’d like to hear some of your experiences with stories clients have told you. Can you think of times when clients have purposely tried to position you in some way? How have you challenged the personal myth of some of your clients? How did that go?

Written by Dr Steve Barlow

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at