truth vs story

16th November 2018

“The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear;
I’ve seen that road before,
It always leads me here,
Leads me to your door”

– ‘The Long and Winding Road’, by Paul McCartney & John Lennon

Almost every experience we encounter is woven into the fabric of our life history, our personal narrative, our story – call it what you will.

We build a sense of a journey that makes sense of our own personal history, and of the world around us. And whether it’s the behaviour of others, our own responses, the results we get in life, the obstacles we face, or something else, we often find that “the long and winding road … always leads me here”.

Clients (in fact, people the world over!) often get caught up in describing an experience as though it were a fixed truth of which any observer could say, “Yes, she’s right, that’s exactly how it happened in every detail!”

Yet we’ve all experienced hearing something described by someone else that we too have witnessed and thought to ourselves, “What?! It was nothing like that… Were we watching the same thing?”

In other words, our stories are just that: stories that make sense of things but that are not in themselves true.

I recall many years ago working with a client who was very well-known in the personal development world. She had just gone through a bitter divorce and was fuming about her husband.

“He’s a horrible man!” she said. “He has no redeeming features and I don’t know how I put up with him for so long! He’s a truly terrible man!”

I asked her gently whether, if I described him like that to him, he would recognise himself and say, “Yes, she’s got me dead right.”

“Of course not!” she spat.

“So how do you know you’re right in this situation?” I asked. “How can you be so sure you see him right?”

The stories we tell ourselves shape our experience of the past, colour our present and scatter their meanings across our expectations of the future.

But what about the truth? Is it something we can reach? Is truth the Holy Grail of knowing? Is it the opposite of a story?

Well, I suspect that, if truth exists at all, it does so outside our reachable experience. No amount of coaching will reveal a final truth. Rather, like a Platonic form, truth’s proposed existence simply reminds us that what we’re experiencing falls short – that it isn’t the truth! In other words, our story is never true in and of itself.

So, to confess, we’re not facing a choice between two possibilities but rather between an inevitability and an impossibility!

There is no choice between story and truth. There are simply choices between one story and another, the unreachable truth reminding us that whatever we tell ourselves is only ever interpretation.

For me as a coach, I am less interested in the story itself and more in what it reveals about the mental paradigms the client is working from that are leading to the existence of their particular, unique story.

This, in essence, is what the emerging field of collaborative-narrative coaching is all about. It’s about recognising that we are always constructing and co-constructing meaning in a certain context, and that changes happen when we shift the meaning-making mechanism that sits behind a story.

I started with ‘The Long and Winding Road’ because the road we are travelling often feels so long and winding that we forget where it started. We lose track of the twists and turns that we undertook. It is so long and winding that it doesn’t occur to us that there were many points along the way that we could have got off the road! It’s interesting to note that the road “always leads me here, leads me to your door”. No wonder our clients are so frustrated with repeating patterns when their story keeps leading them to the same place!

For me, coaching is not about options, action planning and accountability. It’s about supporting the client to see the stories they’re creating for what they are, and about opening up new stories for them to create.

In doing so, we unpick the meanings, the assumptions, the value attributions, the beliefs, the cause-and-effect detection and so much more that underlie the existing story. Only then does change emerge organically as the client starts to surface from the existing narrative. Not to a truth, but to a new, more useful narrative.

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