Storytelling and Implicit Bias in Coaching - International Coaching Federation

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Storytelling and Implicit Bias in Coaching

Posted by Julie Elledge, Ph.D., PCC | September 1, 2021 | Comments (1)

In a world where diverse groups come together to work and play, implicit bias inevitably infiltrates many aspects of our society. Diversity creates an exciting atmosphere for an exchange of ideas and perspectives from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and experiences. However, when unconscious thoughts and feelings reflect a preference for, or an aversion to, a person or group, implicit bias may be the culprit.  

Prior experiences imbued with meaning, perception and feeling are stored as “Shadow Stories” (outside of conscious awareness) that we use to understand and interpret human activity and behavior. Without permission or intent, these unconscious attitudes can activate, influencing thoughts, feeling, decisions and actions, even when they conflict with our conscious desires. But because implicit bias is learned, it can be unlearned. 

Uncovering and Unlearning Implicit Bias 

Storytelling arose with our ability to communicate as a way to easily and efficiently transport information and values from one person to the next. Ancient raconteurs (master storytellers) became powerful individuals entrusted to convey historical and meaningful information from one community to the next. Raconteurs thus connect disparate peoples through their stories, expanding and creating community. Raconteur Coaching uses the same powerful conduit to create connection that has existed since the explosion of the human race. 

When effectively coaching through storytelling, clients are challenged by the story, not the storyteller, reducing or dissolving resistance and implicit bias. The story provides clients with distance from their own Shadow Stories so that they may slip into the shoes of the character and examine their perceptions, beliefs, values and even their environment without feeling the psychological nutrients of relatedness, autonomy and competence are being threatened. Without fearing the loss of reputation or being ostracized from the group, clients can explore new ways of thinking, feeling and doing before they integrate what they have learned into their worldview and behavior. Storytelling can develop both the client’s and coach’s ability to actively listen and facilitate insight because it provides us with powerful metaphors that help clients to systematically explore specific concerns and opportunities and deepen learning that is central to the agreed-upon coaching goals. 

 The Two Faces of Implicit Bias 

The human brain from a young age is exposed to stories filled with cultural images and ideological perspectives that support survival.  These myths serve as a kind of road map of how to fit in and relate to other members within society. German anthropologist Adolf Bastian described these cultural stories as folk ideas that express historical and geographical views in myth.1 The implicit bias of a society or community promotes a sense of relatedness 

one of three psychological nutrients needed for individual adjustment, integrity and growth according to The Basic Psychological Needs Theory. The shadow side of implicit bias arises when unconscious attitudes become destructive or ostracize an individual from opportunity, loved ones or healing. It can even close off individuals from their own spirit. Joseph Campbell suggests that folk ideas emphasize the differences between groups and should be secondary to Adolf Bastian’s other source within myth, the elemental ideas that unite us in our humanity. 

Joseph Campbell points out in “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion,” that “Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” He describes elemental ideas expressed in myth as biological, ancient archetypal energies arising out of the unconscious. He used the word manga from India as an analogy. The root word means to follow animal footprints back to its den. Elemental ideas are like footprints that you follow back to yourself.  

Focusing a client’s attention on folk ideas, how they belong to one group and not another, stimulates relatedness and implicit bias. When the focal point centers on elemental ideas, how we are united in our humanness, relatedness emerges without bias, building trust and safety within the group. The Alchemy Method we recently spotlighted on Coaching World  uses myth to emphasize these elemental ideas with discrete coaching skills to systematically explore specific concerns and opportunities. This is an example of how storytelling forms a partnership between clients and coach that supports clients’ expression of their feelings, perceptions, concerns and beliefs in a way that invites them to explore what factors influence their current thinking, emotions, decision-making and behavior. 

Once the minds of the group feel bonded in their human story, an eagerness to listen to unique voices of the group express their solutions to the challenges the characters encounter promotes the next two psychological nutrients, autonomy and competence – solving problems and overcoming barriers stretch their intellectual and creative capacities.  In this safe environment, individual group members are able to unearth their implicit bias for examination. Through story, the group unearths unconscious thoughts and feelings for examination. Because the group members are bonded in their humanness, and individuals have the distance from their own Shadow Stories, they have the opportunity to systematically investigate and unlearn implicit bias. 

Stories are crucial for orienting us to what we perceive as true, possible and ideal. Joseph Campbell recognized the biological basis for the brain’s superpower to infer themes through storytelling. The neuroscience catching up to this idea reveals the human mind constantly adapting and adjusting its own narrative with the social purpose of connecting us to each other as a community.

© Mentor Agility 2021

Headshot of Coaching World contributor Julie Elledge

Julie Elledge, Ph.D., PCC

Julie Elledge, Ph.D., PCC is the founder of Mentor Agility and Raconteur Coaching. Because of her passion for using storytelling in transformative coaching, Mentor Agility has brought together an impressive roster of recognized and award winning master storytellers to enrich the profession of coaching. She has three board certifications in professional coaching: PCC, BCC, and NB-HWC. She is also a licensed family therapist, an educator with her Ph.D. in Education, author and a recognized expert in creativity and organizational dynamics. She has coached in multiple disciplines for over 25 years and worked on education initiatives with Apple Education, Twentieth Century Fox, NOAA, BP and INEEL. To learn more about the Alchemy Method certification, visit the Mentor Agility website.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (1)

  1. This is a compelling discussion of how implicit bias can interfere with both everyday communications between individuals, and the communications within groups, like those encountered in group coaching sessions, typically without conscious intent or even awareness. As such, it is an important element for coaches to understand and address, especially within a group environment; a pernicious element in the discussion of many individual and social patterns that are important to deal with through coaching.

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