Metaphor, Story, and Narrative in Counselling

Pat Williams introduced us to the subject of using story and metaphor in our practice. Pat has worked both as an author and a psychotherapist, and has combined her passions to teach about the use of storytelling to further our progress with clients. Her training event with Brighton Therapy Partnership brought some fascinating and novel (excuse the pun!) insights to us all. Here’s a brief summary of some of the key takeaways…

The Importance of Story

Stories are basic and natural to us. Human beings have been telling stories to help each other since language developed. Our auditory sense develops in the womb (from approximately the 45th day of pregnancy), which shows us why babies and children respond so strongly to hearing stories. Storytelling is humankind’s main educative tool with our children, and this spans across societies and cultures.

Stories are natural to us: from birth, we are attuned to listening to stories.

Like hypnosis, story telling can produce a trance-like state in the listener. Imagine a child, who is being told a story. They might stare at the teller, looking completely absorbed, in an almost dreamlike state. This is what story can do in therapy: it taps into a primitive state and gives the client an experience in their internal theatre. Thus, story can be used in therapy to give the client an internal experience of something that they are struggling to comprehend.

How to Use Story in Therapeutic Work

One use is a simple 5 step process that we can run through to enable to client to interpret the issue.

  1. Find the essence of the problem – summarise it in one or two sentences. Through the work we have done with the client thus far, what do we understand to be the issue?
  2. Think of the essence of the solution. How, using the skills that we have developed, would we approach this problem and aid the client with it?
  3. Develop a metaphor for this.
  4. Find a story, which illuminates this metaphor. This is perhaps an allegory you’ve already heard, or it may require you to be creative in order to find a way to develop the metaphor and story.
  5. Tell the story to the client. We should find the right time to relay the story to the client. A point when it feels intuitive to do so.

For example, perhaps we are working with a client with anger issues. Once we can understand where these issues stem from, we can craft a story that demonstrates how this in an adequate way for the client.

Once the story is told, leave it with the client. Do not encourage too much analysis or discussion of the story. When a person hears a story, their right side of the brain is engaged, and we want to allow them to stay in this right-brained state. Too much analysis might make the left-brain start analysing. We want to avoid this. The key is to let the story do the work, and to let it sink in.

What Makes Metaphor and Story So Powerful?

  • It engages the right side of the brain – the creative side of our mind. As Pat said, “the mind cannot fly without metaphor and imagery!”
  • There are hundreds of ways to perceive and interpret a story, leaving the client free to feel the meaning in the story from their own perspective
  • Hearing a metaphor or story about a character might be easier for the client to digest than something directly related to their life.
  • It enables clarity on a problem that a client is struggling to understand

We can find stories everywhere, and they can help clients perceive problems in a new way.

Top Tips for storytelling

Collect stories

Record the stories you come across. You never know when they may be useful. Keep a notebook of stories that you hear, read, or invent, ready for when the need arises.

Find stories everywhere

Folk stories, history, films, fables, proverbs, children’s books, religious texts, your next door neighbour or best friend. The sources are endless, and the potential for the stories is powerful.

Engage all senses

When telling the story, emphasise the sensory detail: touch, taste, images, smell, and sound. This will help to make the story more vivid, and engage the client. It makes the story almost tangible.

Be creative

Many situations will require you to invent the story. Alternatively, you may be able to re-clothe an old story in order to suit the client and the situation. As long as you keep the pattern of the story, it will retain its richness.

When to tell it

If it feels right, tell it! The point to relay the story should feel intuitive in your practice, and it should not be forced.

About the workshop

Here’s what some people said about the day:

[I learnt] that metaphor is as powerful a way of working as I had always suspected, and that I should use it even more and in new ways
I feel it is the beginning of a new way of working
[I learnt] that anything is possible! The power of storytelling and metaphor can promote change

For more information, visit Pat Williams’s speaker’s page

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