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The Storied Approach: A Postmodern Perspective for Career Counseling. (Effective Techniques).

The author discusses the storied approach as a constructivist perspective on career counseling. The storied approach explores the client's world through story development as the client and counselor collaboratively co-construct, deconstruct, and construct life stories. Story development encompasses the client's past, present, and future life experiences that are related to life roles (i.e., family, student, worker, leisure, community). Assessment consists of both quantitative and qualitative data that are woven into the client's story as the symbols or meanings that call for further exploration.

The theory and practice of career counseling have been based on the logical positivist worldview as a trait-and-factor (i.e., matching) approach that today is referred to as person-environment fit (Patton & McMahon, 1999). The positivist approach gives information and matches the individual to the job (Brown & Brooks, 1996). It is predominantly a problem-solving approach that emphasizes assessment and diagnosis, and it reflects a process that is counselor directed (i.e., counselor as expert). The rational process of decision making is a narrow focus on matching interests, abilities, and knowledge about the world of work. Counseling consists of diagnosis, psychometric information, and occupational classification and information with little attention paid to the systems in which the individual interacts. This model leads to the perception that career counseling is nothing more than a quick and simple matching process, which Crites (1981) characterized as "three interviews and a cloud of dust" (p. 49). One of th e most common criticisms of this approach has been the oversimplification of helping people with career concerns (Patton & McMahon, 1999).

However, the growing complexity of the world has resulted in changes in the composition of the workforce and in changes in work values. The "fourth wave" (Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Morgan, 1997; O'Hanlon, 1993) in counseling appeared as a response to these changes. What evolved was a contextual perspective in counseling that challenged the Eurocentric models, which lacked relevance for women and different cultural groups.

Career counseling also reflects a movement toward the fourth wave with logical positivism giving way to subjective perspectivism (e.g., Collin, 1996; Richardson, 1996; Savickas, 1993). The initial shift began with counselors incorporating a view that development occurs over the life span: adolescents making a first, tentative career choice; middle-aged individuals contemplating a career change; and older workers preparing for retirement. This was followed by a recognition that individuals may "recycle" through developmental stages given various life experiences (see Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). For some counselors, there was recognition that career counseling was more than matching an individual to a job. It has been this changing nature of career counseling that has fueled the debate over what is career counseling and what is personal counseling (e.g., Hackett, 1993; Krumboltz, 1993). The view that career issues can be treated separately from personal issues has become too simplistic. As Savickas stated, "career is personal" (p. 212).

The twentieth century began with a logical positivism view of career counseling. This approach was based on matching workers to jobs by using rational decision-making strategies. The century closed with a movement toward a subjective perspectivism view of career counseling. This approach is based on recognizing both continuity and change throughout an individual's life by incorporating constructivist strategies in career counseling.

A Postmodern Approach to Career Counseling

As a postmodern, information-age millennium dawns, a postmodern approach to career counseling has taken shape. This view embraces contextual conditions from a systemic perspective in which individuals relate to, interact with, and find meaning through social experiences. The counselor is involved with the client in a collaborative process that relies on linguistic dialogue between the client and the counselor. The client's narration during the counseling process of past experiences, current meanings, and future actions is the story that reveals self-knowledge (e.g., interests, abilities, achievements, motivation) and self-realization).

There has been a move recently toward constructivist approaches to career counseling (Collin, 1996; Richardson, 1996). The move challenges traditional views of career and career development, necessitating new ways of thinking about and of practicing career counseling. Career counseling is no longer a singular process that is focused on making a job choice; it is, instead, a range of interventions to deal with psychological issues that accompany the client's career concerns (Herr, 1997). Furthermore, the individual is viewed as a part of social and environmental- societal systems and is involved in lifelong career development (Patton & McMahon, 1999).

The assumptions underlying the constructivist career development model are that people cannot be separated from their environments, there are no absolutes, human behavior can only be understood in the context in which it occurs, and individuals define themselves and their environments (Brown & Brooks, 1996). If individuals actively participate in the creation of their own reality, then it follows that individuals create their own personal story in relation to their experiences. The use of language and dialogue is fundamental to the creation of meaning and knowledge for the personal story. The personal story is uncovered, and a new reality is constructed through dialogue between the client and the counselor; this process is referred to as co-construction.

Drawing on the aforementioned constructivist theories and narrative therapy (e.g., Freedman & Combs, 1996), the storied approach is presented as a postmodern perspective for career counseling. The storied approach includes the following tenets: (a) an individual's change process is constant, (b) the change process is punctuated by conflict and contradiction followed by periods of integration and resolution, (c) the individual comes to know reality through a process of construing, (d) the construction of knowledge is an integration of new social information and experiences into what has been previously understood, and (e) the individual's stories are co-constructed through a dialogue between the client and the counselor. This approach views the person as a holistic self-organizing maker-of-meaning and moves away from a psychometric self toward a storied self (Peavy, 1995).

I discuss the storied approach as a process for career counseling, focusing on an overview of the process, the counseling relationship, the use of language, the nature of appraisal, and career counseling through a storied approach. I also present a case to illustrate the storied approach.

The Storied Approach to Career Counseling

An Overview of the Process

The storied approach is the guiding metaphor. It is a shift from gathering information to generating experience through one's life stories. Life stories serve as filters that screen one's past and present experiences. Life stories can also be used by an individual in re-authoring new stories that emphasize preferred ways of relating to one's self and to the larger culture. This is addressed through story development: co-constructing one's life stories; deconstructing unproductive stories; and constructing new, more productive stories that are built on dignity and competence.

The storied approach explores the client's world through story development as a process of co-construction (i.e., to reveal), deconstruction (i.e., to unpack), and construction (i.e., to re-author). Throughout the process, counselors are involved in active listening, in using facilitating questions, and in using clarifying questions. Co-construction is an opportunity for the client and counselor to collaboratively reveal the client's life stories from past and present experiences. Deconstruction "unpacks" the stories so that they can be seen from different perspectives. Construction is the part of the process during which the client re-authors stories in a future orientation. As the process develops, counselors notice how stories are constructed, note the limits, and facilitate the exploration of other possible stories. The stories are named (i.e., story title), and relative influence questions are posed to look for effects and relationships between the person and the stories. These relative influence questi ons are used to map the stories, to map the influence of one's life on the stories, and to recognize other people who have a relationship with the stories (i.e., peopled). Questions used during the process explore the following: defining moments (e.g., "What do you remember about high school"?), sparkling moments (e.g., "What was a high point from that first job experience"?), opening space (e.g., "How would your grandmother view your decision to go back to school"?), one's preferences (e.g., "If you had to choose between these two, which would you choose"?), and peopled stories (e.g., "What are the names of your current best friends"?).

The Counseling Relationship

The quality of the relationship is essential (Granvold, 1996). Characteristics of the relationship include accepting, understanding, trusting, and caring. Counselors are not seen as authorities (i.e., experts) to solve the client's problems, to explain through assessment, or to provide advice. Rather, it is a collaborative relationship wherein stories are revealed through a dialogue between the client and the counselor. Typically, the counseling relationship becomes a therapeutic conversation in which the client and the counselor join as collaborators for co-construction, for deconstruction, and for construction.

The Use of Language

Language communicates reality and the meaning that is made of the reality (Berg & de Shazer, 1993). Language is important because it forms the basis of counseling interactions with a client (Herr, 1997). The counselor can never know with certainty what another person means; meaning is arrived at within a specific context (i.e., counseling context). Language and dialogue are used to ascribe meaning and to arrive at new meanings that enable the client to view him- or herself differently and, in turn, to act differently.

The Nature of Appraisal

Appraisal consists of both quantitative (i.e., standardized) and qualitative (i.e., nonstandardized) data. Objective data provided through quantitative assessment instruments are not used as discrete pieces of information but rather are woven into the client's story as the symbols or meanings that indicate the need for further exploration. Subjective data provided through qualitative assessment are meant to identify patterns and themes of a client's life and to make connections between previously unconnected events. Qualitative methods of appraisal that are particularly appropriate in the storied approach to career counseling are autobiographies, early recollections, genograms, lifelines, structured interviews, constellation of influences, and card sorts (Patton & McMahon, 1999).

Career Counseling Through a Storied Approach

The heart of the storied approach is story development: co-construction, deconstruction, and construction. Story development encompasses past, present, and future life experiences. Life experiences are related to life roles: family (e.g., son or daughter, husband or wife, parent), student (i.e., various forms of education or training), worker (i.e., job, occupation), leisure (e.g., hobbies, activities), and community (e.g., church, organizations). Through a collaborative counseling relationship, the client and counselor co-construct chapters in the client's life story through past and present life experiences that encompass a variety of life roles. As each chapter in the story is revealed, the chapter is peopled, defining moments are identified, sparkling moments are highlighted, preference questions are asked, and the chapters are tided.

For example, a counselor using the lifeline to explore a client's past life experiences would suggest co-constructing a chapter that represents memories of life experiences before the client began his or her formal education. Facilitating questions and prompts might include these: "What is your earliest memory before you began school?" and "Tell me about where you lived and the people you remember." As defining moments (i.e., distinctive memories) and sparkling moments (i.e., high points) come to light, these are explored through co-construction to learn about the client's beliefs, practices, feelings, and attitudes. Chapter "moments" are expanded in space and time (i.e., when or where else this moment has occurred), are peopled, and are experienced in a detailed way. Life roles experienced directly (i.e., family role as son or daughter) and indirectly (i.e., parents' roles in work, leisure, community) are explored from the client's perspective. The client may be asked to share "family rules" or a story abou t a family event. Reflective questions are used to develop client consciousness about the meanings in the stories. Questions may include "What does that experience say about what's important to you?" or "What is the significance of that moment in your life?" or "What have you learned from that experience?" Once the chapter has been expanded, peopled, and detailed, the client gives a tide to the chapter.

To unpack stories through deconstruction, the chapters in a lifeline are explored as larger systems (i.e., chapters that represent one's past experiences) and through time (i.e., earliest memories to present). The client reviews the chapters as a history within the context of one's life experiences. The people that are significant to the client's stories are identified. "Opening space" is used to find exceptions, to imagine different experiences, to identify different points of view, and to introduce a future orientation. Various life roles are unpacked from dominant discourses in society to reveal the client's preferred way of being.

The construction of a new life story may begin with preference questions. Such questions may include the following: "Are you moving in your preferred direction?" or "Pick between two possibilities," or asking "why" to invite the client to describe his or her motivation. The lifeline can be extended into the future as the client is invited to expand the life story in time through a variety of life roles. Client meaning (i.e., significance, importance, difference) is explored, and the peopled aspects (i.e., people that have been named by the client) of the story are identified. To expand the life story, the counselor may ask, "What would your grandmother say about this chapter in your future life story?"

Appraisal is used as a source of information that is woven into the client's story. Qualitative data generated through lifelines, a genogram, and card sorts (e.g., values, interests) are methods to uncover the meaning the client ascribes to a variety of life roles (i.e., family, student, worker, leisure, community). Quantitative data gathered through standardized assessments (e.g., abilities, interests, personality) are explored as confirming or disputing, or both, one's self-knowledge about life roles. A composite case example follows and demonstrates various aspects of the storied approach.

A Case Example

Raynelle is a 48-year-old divorced, Hispanic mother of three daughters (age range, 18-27 years). She is currently employed as a nurse's aide in a residential care facility (i.e., nursing home). Raynelle's middle daughter, who has lived with her and shared expenses for the past 5 years, has plans to move to another city to take a better paying job in the computer industry. Raynelle's economic situation will become critical (i.e., she will not be able to meet monthly bills) without someone to share expenses. Raynelle has come for career counseling "to figure what I am going to do to make ends meet.... I need a better paying job, and I want you to help me find one."

After a brief screening and collection of intake information, the counselor introduced the lifeline as "an activity we can do so I can get to know a little more about your life story, which may help us look at your future life story with that better paying job." As newsprint paper was placed in front of the client, the counselor continued, "The lifeline may help you to tell the past and present chapters in your story, your perceptions of your life to this point, and yourself in a variety of life roles." Raynelle's face lit up with a broad smile when the counselor opened a container containing colored pencils. "What color should I use?" was Raynelle's first question. "Any color that suits you" was the counselor's response. "Where should I start?" was Raynelle's next question. The counselor suggested that a horizontal line be drawn through the middle of the paper and asked Raynelle to mark an "X" on the left side with her birth date and then mark an "X" on the right side with the current date. Raynelle selecte d a purple pencil, "My favorite color," she said, and drew a line across the paper, marked an "X" with her birth date, and an "X" with the current date. The counselor then asked Raynelle to consider how much of her lifeline would represent the time she has spent from birth until her graduation from high school. Raynelle scrutinized the paper and finally drew a vertical line across the horizontal line approximately one quarter of the distance from the birth date "X" to the current date "X" and wrote the year of her graduation. The counselor prompted, "Raynelle, tell me how you decided where to put that line." Raynelle responded, "Well, it seems that with almost being 50 years old, about a quarter of my life was spent in school."

The counselor chose to begin the co-construction process with the years spent in school by asking Raynelle questions about what she remembered at various grade levels (i.e., elementary, junior high, high school) and to write notations on the newsprint about these memories. Raynelle let out a long sigh, then picked up the purple pencil, drew a star over her graduation date, and began to talk about how proud she was when she received her high school diploma. Once she began her story with the graduation, she easily moved back and forth across the lifeline, noting several events: failing a history test in high school; Mrs. Hansen, "who was the best teacher you could ever have"; Kelvin, her first boyfriend; and being teased by her classmates in third grade because she could not answer a teacher's question in class. Raynelle changed colored pencils as she made her notations and explained to the counselor, "I think the colors look like what I remember." The colors included Raynelle's favorite color, purple, as well as orange, black, brown, red, and green. As Raynelle told her story, the counselor asked about people she remembered and asked the client to write the names on the newsprint. As the dialogue developed, the counselor and client agreed on the words "high points" to indicate sparkling moments and "low points" to indicate defining moments. When Raynelle did not pick up another colored pencil, the counselor suggested, "We have been looking at the chapter of your life story that led to your graduation from high school.... What title would you give to this chapter of your lifeline?" Raynelle's brow became furrowed, and the counselor remained silent. After a long pause, Raynelle said, "Gee, I don't know any good titles . . . but looking at this paper it looks like me, myself, and I... Isn't that what they teach in English class?" The counselor asked, "Why did you choose 'me, myself, and I'?" "Well, I mainly talked about what I did.... I don't know.... It's the only thing I can think of," was Raynelle's reply. The co unselor continued, "Why don't you write that title above the part of the lifeline leading to your graduation and, if you want to change it later, that's okay." Raynelle picked up the purple pencil and wrote "Me, Myself, and I" over the lifeline notations she had completed.

The process of co-construction was continued with the lifeline as Raynelle added her chapter from graduation to the current day. Together the counselor and client discussed her high points, low points, and peopled story; and Raynelle titled this part of the lifeline "Raynelle's Highs and Lows." As the counselor scanned across the lifeline, she began to wonder about client themes and asked her client if she saw any themes in her lifeline. Raynelle identified missed opportunities, doing what's right, and family first; these were discussed (e.g., what, why, how questions) and then noted each at the bottom of the newsprint.

Another sheet of newsprint was placed on the table, and the counselor introduced the concept of life roles by giving a description of each: family, student, worker, leisure, and community. Raynelle was asked to give examples of each role from her lifeline, and these examples were noted on one half of the second newsprint. The counselor asked the client to draw circles on the second half of the newsprint to represent the amount of time she was currently spending in each life role. Her largest circle was worker; a circle approximately half the size of worker role was drawn to represent family role; and two interlocking circles that were about half the size of the family role were identified as community and leisure roles with the comment, "I see my involvement with church as both leisure and community." There was no circle drawn for student role, so the counselor queried, "No student role for you?" Raynelle responded, "Heavens no. I'm not a student anymore.... I have to work." The counselor then asked Raynelle to identify any themes she saw in her life roles. These included making ends meet in her worker role, meeting family needs in her family role, and participating actively in the church for her joined community and leisure roles. The themes were noted at the bottom of the newsprint.

At the end of the session, the counselor asked her client, "Looking at your life story so far, are you moving in your preferred direction?" Raynelle was puzzled and responded, "What do you mean by that? Gosh, I've done what I have to do to get by." The counselor tied this comment back to Raynelle's original presenting problem: "When you came in today, you said you wanted to figure what you were going to do to make ends meet. We've taken a look at your life story so far, and I'm beginning to wonder if you would be interested in constructing the future chapter to your life story." A bright smile came across Raynelle's face, and she stated, "Yes, I would like to do that." The counselor asked, "What do you mean by 'that'?" Raynelle quickly replied, "Like you said, move in my preferred direction."

In future sessions, the counselor used the identified themes to begin the process of deconstruction with the client. For example, one of Raynelle's missed opportunities was not becoming a nurse as she had planned to do because she was pregnant when she graduated from high school; she chose not to pursue her training at the community college. Raynelle began to construct her future life story chapter as her preferred direction. She "peopled" her future chapter, "What Mrs. Hansen Would Think About Me Finally Becoming a Nurse."

A variety of additional appraisal techniques were used with Raynelle. A card sort, based on Raynelle's values, was made by the counselor on index cards, and Raynelle was asked to talk through the values of her top 10 list in rank-order; the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers & Myers, 1993) was administered to identify Raynelle's personality type and its effect on her life roles; and the Self-Directed Search (Holland, 1974) was administered to expand occupational titles that Raynelle associated with nurse.

Before concluding counseling services with Raynelle, the counselor introduced a goal map. Together, Raynelle and the counselor looked at the plan (i.e., better paying job), obstacles (e.g., daughter moving, training costs), and bridges (e.g., nursing home sponsorship for her training, taking in a boarder) as she began constructing the future chapter to her life story. Through the storied approach, Raynelle was able to review her life story from her past, through the present, and into the future in her preferred direction.


At the turn of the twentieth century, vocational guidance emerged in response to societal needs. Throughout the century, various economic, political, and social events shaped the delivery of services for what has become known as career counseling. As we embark on the twenty-first century, a postmodern perspective has taken shape. The recognition that development occurs across the life span, that context from a systemic perspective is a counseling factor, and that a collaborative dialogue between client and counselor can give meaning and develop action have been instrumental to the shaping of a postmodern perspective to career counseling.

The storied approach to career counseling overviewed in this article is a strategy for our new millennium. Life roles are explored as stories that are co-constructed, deconstructed, and constructed through a collaborative dialogue between the client and the counselor. Appraisal methods and a variety of techniques have been suggested as opportunities for client stories to illuminate meaning, to "open space" in one's stories, and to script new stories. The storied approach has been presented as the guiding metaphor for the dawn of a new century.

The effectiveness of the storied approach as a constructivist model for career counseling depends on several factors. First, counselors and counselors-in-training need to learn how to use the storied approach. Second, counselors need to implement the storied approach. Third, researchers need to investigate the application and effects of the storied approach. For instance, how do adolescents respond to the approach? Do unemployed clients find the counseling approach applicable to their situations? What adaptations can be made for individuals with vision or hearing impairments? Do clients follow through on the future chapters to their stories? The theory of subjective perspectivism in career counseling will continue to evolve if counselor educators teach a constructivist perspective, counselors use these techniques, and researchers investigate the effectiveness of techniques such as the storied approach.

Pamelia E. Brott is an assistant professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Northern Virginia Center, Falls Church.


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Author:Brott, Pamelia E.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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