Are We Really Listening? Helping Career Practitioners Develop Narrative Skills

by Mike Stebleton

Paradigm Shift: Scores to Stories

Narrative approaches of career development diverge from a rich history grounded in positivistic tradition, including Parsons' rational career-decision making (Parsons, 1909; Pope, 2000). Career counseling in the postmodern world has shifted from an emphasis on scores (i.e., objectivity) to an emphasis on stories (i.e., perspectivity) (Blustein, 2006; Savickas, 1993). Likewise, the shift to a focus on story is consistent with what Daniel Pink (2005) calls a movement from the information age to the conceptual age. An emphasis on left-brained capabilities (objective, rational thinking) will be replaced by an emphasis on right-brained skills (abstract, creative thinking). The understanding and meaning of stories falls under this right-brained paradigm shift, and holds direct implications for career counseling. For career counselors to create ideal environments where client stories unfold, they must possess strong counseling skills AND be competent in narrative skills.

A Lesson from the Medical Field

The medical profession serves as an insightful example of narrative in practice. Several years ago, a group of physicians went under the stopwatch using the following research question: How long will physicians wait before interrupting their patients upon entering the room? The average response was only 21 seconds (as cited in Pink, 2005). In response to this issue, a new "Program in Narrative Medicine" was begun at Columbia University, where all medical students are required to complete training on narrative-based medicine. The objective is to learn to interpret patient stories of illness (Charon, 2004). In other words, physicians in training learn the skills needed to listen and understand patient narratives - a core of skills titled narrative competence. A parallel narrative movement is taking shape in the career development field. The life-career stories that we hear from our own clients are often dynamic and complex, perhaps even more so than stories of physical illness.

Role of Narrative Competence

According to Rita Charon (2004), narrative competence is "the set of skills required to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories one hears or reads." (p. 862)
She discussed three main sets of skills that are needed for health care professionals. They include the following:

  1. Textual skills: incorporates identifying the story's structure, adopting various multiple perspectives, and recognizing the role of metaphors and allusions.
  2. Creative skills: includes imagining many variations of a story, building intrigue, and inventing multiple conclusions.
  3. Affective skills: includes tolerating and embracing ambiguity as a story unfolds and the ability to enter the story's mood.

I include two additional sets of narrative competencies that are relevant to career development:

Strategies to Help Develop Narrative Competencies

There are strategies that both experienced and beginning career development practitioners can use to help hone narrative competencies.

  1. Practice listening for themes and transitions in clients' stories. All clients possess stories; some narratives will take longer to reveal themselves.
  2. Learn more about narrative structure. There are key acts that comprise all stories; stories have a natural flow yet it is useful to be familiar with structure (McKee, 1997).
  3. Read journal articles on the emerging field of narrative approaches to career development. There is an emphasis on post-modern, constructivist approaches in the literature (Richardson, 2004; Young & Collin, 2004).
  4. Use qualitative methods of assessment (Brott, 2004; Gibson, 2005). Examples include card sorts, genograms, circle of life, lifelines, and others.
  5. Reflect through writing: Charon requires her medical students to write narrative summaries after they meet with patients. Writing serves as a tool is way to hone listening and recall skills for practitioners and clients. Journal writing is an example.
  6. Attend theater productions and read fiction. All good stories are filled with emotion. The Guthrie Theater re-opened in Minneapolis-St. Paul, my home town. Each production this season has a story theme: The Great Gatsby is a story of longing, The Glass Menagerie is a story of escape, and The Merchant of Venice is a story of injustice. Literature and theater can serve as avenues to understand and appreciate story.
  7. Use film as a teaching technique in career courses and workshops, including documentaries. Movies possess valuable life-career lessons. Examples include: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (planned happenstance); The Lost Boys of Sudan (contextual factors impacting career development; In Good Company (generational differences in the workplace); and North Country (discrimination in the workplace).
  8. Add art appreciation and narrative skill-building components to the counseling curriculum. Several medical schools, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine, require students to attend museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to enhance observational abilities and narrative competencies (Kennedy, 2006). I challenge counseling educators to match these standards. I plan to take my graduate-level career development class to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in attempt to hone narrative skill building. Take advantage of cultural and historic resources; assign projects designed to stretch students in innovative ways.
  9. Practice articulating your own story. We serve as role models for our students and clients. It is important for us to be comfortable articulating our own life-career stories. A good story possesses a tight coherence and that involves the telling and re-telling of our narratives (Ibarra & Lineback, 2005).

In conclusion, we hang on the cusp of an emerging shift in the career development field - a profound change from an emphasis on the old (scores and objective measures) to the new (stories and narrative approaches). In order to prepare ourselves for this paradigm shift, the need to hone narrative competencies will be vital.


Blustein, D. L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brott, P. (2004). Constructivist assessment in career counseling. Journal of Career Development, 30, 189-200.

Charon, R. (2004). Narrative and medicine. New England Journal of Medicine, 350, 862-864.

Gibson, D. M. (2005). The use of genograms in career counseling with elementary, middle, and high school students. The Career Development Quarterly, 53 (4), 353-362.

Ibarra, H. (2003). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Ibarra, H., & Lineback, K. (2005). What's your story? Harvard Business Review, 83, 64-71.

Kennedy, R. (2006). Using art to train doctors' eyes. The New York Times, p. E.1.

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins.

Parsons, F. (1989). Choosing a vocation. Garrett Press, MD: Garrett Park Press.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York: Riverhead Books.

Pope, M. (2000). A brief history of career counseling in the United States. The Career Development Quarterly, 48, 194-211.

Richardson, M. S. (2004). The emergence of new intentions in subjective experience: A social/personal constructionist and relational understanding. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64, 485-498.

Savickas, M. L. (1993). Career counseling in the postmodern era. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 7, 205-215.

Young, R. A., & Collin, A. (2004). Introduction: Constructivism and social constructivism in the career field. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64, 377-388.

Mike Stebleton, Ph.D., is a counseling faculty member at Inver Hills Community College, located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN metro area. Additionally, he holds adjunct positions at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota counseling graduate program and Metropolitan State University. Stebleton is the lead author of a recent publication by Prentice Hall titled, HIRED!: The job-hunting/career-planning guide. (3rd ed.) with Henle and Harris (2006). His current work focuses on narrative career development and the role of story, including the impact of media messages on life-career decision-making. This article is based on the session, "Do You Have a Story to Tell?" presented at the NCDA Conference, Chicago 2006. Correspondence regarding this article can be sent to: msteble@inverhills.edu.

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