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Narrative career counselling

Within career counselling, career construction theory (Savickas, 2005) is concerned with how individuals understand and develop career behaviour through personal meaning, which is highly influenced, if not determined, by social values. The meaning that individuals bring to career behaviour and decision making is constructed through their view of reality; in other words what is important to them in their personal and social situation. In that sense ‘reality’ is a construction based on personal values and a view of the world that is sited within a social context. In this way career choice becomes an interactive and interpretive process, based on what is meaningful for the individual in their relationships with others. Career construction involves people making choices for transitions, based on their personality traits, the development of their self concept and the influences of the social context they inhabit.

Foregrounding personal meaning, giving it central importance in the process of vocational decision making, is the key to understanding narrative career counselling. In other words, an objective approach (e.g. trait/factor matching) will have its place, once the individual has had the opportunity to be involved in an active process of exploring their ‘story’. This exploration will be subjective, but life as lived is subjective (Savickas, 2006). What is produced is not a factual truth but a narrative or biographical truth, meaningful to the individual in terms of their experience and understanding of the world. The career goal or vocational behaviour that is taken as a result of that narrative exploration is more likely, it is argued, to be motivational (Valach and Young, 2002), meaningful and sustainable as based on wider life themes and interests.

Clearly if the ‘story’, past, present and future is central to this process of meaning-making, then practitioners need to pay due attention to listening and attending skills. This is more than empathic questioning: it is a listening that values the person’s understanding of the meaning of events, and how they understand the impact of them on the action they take or are able to take. It requires the practitioner to be respectful, open and anti-oppressive. When an individual is encouraged to ‘tell their story’, they do not progress through a sequence of facts; they talk about events. These events are related; they are episodes that form patterns which represent the individual’s socially constructed view of themselves in the world.

So, how does a practitioner move from assisting the person to ‘tell their story’, to the point of identifying the patterns and interpreting the life themes within the story? And then how is this translated into career action? McLeod (1997) notes in relation to narrative counselling that there is no comprehensive handbook on how to do this – this would be contrary to post-modern or poststructuralist thinking. However, within career counselling there are writers who offer practical suggestions that can help practitioners to incorporate narrative methods within their work. There is always the risk of a partial understanding of the underpinning theory when methods are mined selectively from approaches and used eclectically: therefore readers are encouraged to explore the original sources named in this piece.

Savickas (e.g. 1997), Cochran (e.g. 1997) and Peavy (e.g. 2000) have explored the use of narrative approaches for career counselling. Some authors suggest techniques on how to implement constructivist and narrative approaches. For instance, Brott (2005) suggests life space maps, life lines, life-space genograms, life roles circles, life roles assessment, life role analysis, and goal map. Peterson and Stebleton (2007) explore strategies for authoring positive life stories. Toporek and Flamer (2009) explore the role of résumés as a narrative tool. Other writers have explored the possibilities for career counselling that both constructivist (for example, Systems Theory; Motivational Interviewing; Solution Focused Brief Therapy) and narrative approaches offer for the diverse contexts within which career guidance and counselling takes place (see McMahon and Patton, 2006). Within the limits of this piece, an introduction to narrative career counselling, via the approach of Mark Savickas (2006), is offered next.

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A possible framework

Savickas uses a systematic approach which follows a pattern of narrative exploration as outlined below (1997, 2006). He also makes reference to the steps identified in Cochran’s model (1997). (A word will be said later about flexibility and the use of models in narrative approaches). For practitioners working within a 3 stage approach (Egan, 2002) this could be structured as follows:

Beginnings – negotiating a contract

A number of steps work towards a contract and agreeing an agenda in a 1-1 session. The relationship is one of respectful curiosity where techniques are explained and permission to use them is sought. The language used is careful, in order to achieve a sense of working collaboratively. So the first question is not ‘how can I help you?’, as in the context of poststructuralist work words like ‘help’ and ‘client’ can be viewed as positioning the practitioner’s knowledge as more valuable than the client’s (‘person’ or ‘individual’ would be the preferred term). Such issues related to power are thought through by a self-aware and politically aware practitioner when working within narrative approaches. So, during the opening sequence, the following might happen:

  • Questioning: How can I be useful?
  • Asking: Tell me why is this important now?
  • Explaining: Format, number of meetings, note taking etc
  • Agreeing: Aspects of confidentiality, how to proceed
  • Identifying: Topics and related issues

Middles - exploring the story

There is a sense at this stage of creating a space where the person is given the opportunity to ‘play’: to move beyond their expectations of what ‘an interview’ should be about. This can be both surprising and challenging for the individul and the practitioner will need to be persistent and not ‘give up’ too quickly. Practise using the techniques will be required before the practitioner is comfortable and confident, but the results appear to be worth the effort (see Savickas, 2006). As always, genuineness and honesty will help; e.g. ‘The reason I asked that question is …’ or ‘What I’d like to try here is… it may help us to think about... how would you feel about trying that?’. It is in this second stage that Savickas employs what he refers to as the six favourite questions, which ask about:

  • Role model when young (this can be a ‘real’ person or a character from a book, TV show, cartoon, video game)
  • Magazines / TV shows (favourites, ones that are looked at regularly)
  • Hobbies / free time interests (‘What do you like to do in your free time?’ is a better question than ‘Tell me about your hobbies’)
  • Books – all time favourites (could be films or other entertainment media)
  • Favourite saying or motto (best describes the person’s approach to life)
  • Favourite school subjects / and those disliked

The questions help the individual to tell their story and help the practitioner to know the person better - in a way that appears enjoyable, rather than judgemental or stuck in the problem.
The exploration continues by visiting stories from childhood. The remembering will be selective, but Savickas suggests that the stories selected reflect the current dilemma that brings a person to career counselling at this transition or ‘turning point’ – it reflects their pre-occupations in both senses of the word (Savickas, 2006). These are the telling stories meaningful (rather than factual) at the present time. The stories told rehearse the problem and can lead to insight and potential solutions. Questions focus on:

  • Identifying the 1st significant story – what happened next (getting the detail)?
  • Asking for two more stories - it’s what they recall and the meaning for them that is important. It is essential not to rush this, but if the person is really stuck it may be helpful to prompt, e.g. ‘How about when you were in first grade school… when you moved up into secondary school?’. It is also important that they know the story is not being judged in order to avoid the person thinking they must recount a story to impress the listener. If the previous work is good and the opening stage of the conversation has not been rushed, the relationship will be collaborative and the occurrence of this can be minimised.
  • Summarising the essence of the stories by turning them into headlines for a newspaper – finding out what is the core of the story
  • Listening for the first verb – the first things they say (when note taking, using the person’s actual words).

Moving on - identifying the themes and relating these to potential interests

  • Summarising the stories – working with the person to identify potential themes
  • Relating these to the presenting issue at the start of the conversation
  • Working at joint interpretation of the life interests and working to re-author the story (it is important here that the individual has ownership and is ‘writing the story’, not the practitioner!)
  • Relating these to future education, training and/or career goals.

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Endings – having identified the goals, agreeing what action is required

  • Identifying potential action
  • Evaluating potential action
  • Clarifying the action steps
  • Checking /asking – ‘So, what has been achieved today?’ (related to the initial question of ‘How can I be useful?’)

Savickas states that there needs to be a period of reflection after the meeting where the client has an opportunity to ‘test’ the ideas. It is in the follow up meeting (which may be short and does not have to be face-to-face) that reality checking takes place - resulting from the reflection and action taken. The follow up questions the practitioner asks, could include:

  • What did I get wrong?
  • What are your reflections on the discussion and the initial action?
  • What are the goals now – are these the same or different?
  • What further action is required?
  • How will that be reviewed?
  • What else needs to happen?

The Savickas approach ‘in practice’ can be viewed through a DVD available from the American Psychological Association (Savickas, 2006). The DVD outlines the approach, demonstrates this through a recorded interview and evaluates the interview through an analysis that uses exerts from the interview to illustrate the concepts used.


As the reader will appreciate asking an individual to talk about the past may lead to revelations that the practitioner is not qualified to address. Awareness of the ethical boundaries of one’s expertise and when to make a referral is essential within any guidance and counselling activity. Part of the approach would look for the strengths in any story, even negative stories, to see how these can be used in the present and the future. The style of questioning and exploration in narrative career counselling pays attention to the past, but is hopeful, positive and likely to be more engaging than one that moves rapidly to solutions that are not really ‘owned’ by the individual.

The Savickas approach does not set out to create a singular approach for helping people with their career transitions. It draws on and advocates the use of established theory, alongside exploring how individuals construct meaning in their lives. The concept of career is much wider than ‘job choice’ – the aim is to fit career into a life, not the other way round. For practitioners new to this way of working it can be too challenging perhaps to embrace ‘wholesale’ the systematic approach described above. A piecemeal approach rooted in the desire for narrative thinking (Reid, 2006) could be a starting point – in other words try some of the techniques and see what works. In SFBT (Solution Focused Brief Therapy) terms, if it works keep doing it, if it doesn’t do something else! Flexibility not rigidity is required: paying time and attention to the story and providing a creative space for interpretation should drive this process, not the model.

For many career practitioners the role may also include work best described as school or youth counselling (for the latter, see Besley, 2002). Although this piece has focused on career counselling, where the role incorporates other work a useful text is provided by Winslade and Monk (2007). Talking about a possible future through exploring ‘career’, working alongside a person through exploring the story can be both motivating and positive for an individual with a number of ‘problems’ that have been ascribed to them. To enhance that forward looking process and to build the essential rapport, Winslade and Monk’s book is very readable and may prove insightful. In it they combine narrative counselling and solution focused techniques.

In terms of research, authors have proposed analytical frameworks to make sense of the career stories. Pryor and Bright (2008) propose the role of narrative plots. Cohen (2006) applies cultural theorist Raymond Williams' analysis of cultural processes as dominant, residual and emergent (1977) to narratives generated in a study into the careers of research scientists. Sinisalo and Komulainen (2008) analyze the career narrative produced by a woman working as a small-scale entrepreneur using William Labov’s structural analysis of personal stories and career management competencies as creating coherence in the career narrative. As well, for those interested, there is a growing amount of research following this approach. Some examples include a discourse analysis of graduate trainees' accounts of career (Coupland, 2004), voluntary sector chief executives' career accounts (Harrow and Mole, 2005), career-changing scientists’ identity (Ritchie, Kidman and Vaughan, 2007), and the experience of voluntary career change in 30-somethings (Wise and Millward, 2005).

Recent developments

Stories of careers, learning and identity across the lifespan: Considering the future narrative of career theory (McMahon, Watson & Bimrose, 2010)

This paper is aimed at those interested in understanding how we can integrate the various theories with practice within the careers profession and to make sense of what may seem to be competing perspectives. It is located within the context of the present debate about modern and post-modern career research, theory and practice. It considers the construction of career stories of individuals across the lifespan.

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