Telling tales

I would like to thank Lorna Dargan from Newcastle University for contributing this guest posting. — David.

Whats the story behind this match?

Now that it’s April and work has tipped in favour of “thinking” on the doing/thinking axis, I thought I would get back to my interest in words.

I’ve been reading Reid and West’s (2011) article on narrative in career guidance, and their argument that narrative is underused as a guidance tool.

The short version of this blog post is: I disagree. Isn’t career decision-making simply the hunt for a theme in the complex narrative of the client’s life?

Now for the long version.

I found the article both interesting and problematic from the very first page: interesting for the focus on narrative, and problematic because I don’t really recognise the careers guidance practices described in their opening arguments. Now, this could be symptomatic of what seems to be an endemic failure to distinguish between HE and other forms of guidance (don’t even get me started on the number of negative news articles about poor quality guidance that are actually about schools), but it is a shame that the authors don’t draw any distinction between HE and 14-19 services. I could be wrong – I’ve only worked in HE, so perhaps there is no distinction – but there seems to be little understanding of how HE advisers are trained and how we practice.

This is made clear to me in the second paragraph, which states that “trait and factor (or scientific matching) approaches are still the most common technique used in guidance interviews in the UK” (p.174). Trait-and-factor is not really a feature of “guidance” as I have been taught to understand the term; it is far too directive. Matching tools such as Prospects Planner or TARGETjobs reports are something that we ask the client to use before or after guidance, not during, and the results are principally a platform for discussing the client’s occupational and self-awareness.

To me, guidance is not concerned with “matching”, but is about helping the client to understand themselves. This process is inherently narrative, as we can see from the Ali-Graham model, which opens with the clarifying phase in which you “hear the client’s story” (the word “story” suggests to me that narrative has got to be involved somewhere). The adviser is encouraged to explore questions such as: what has led the client to this point? What does this tell us about their desires, motivations, and interests? What does their story reveal about how they see their world and their place within it?

So, to me, the Ali-Graham approach already encompasses the authors’ view that “attention needs to be paid to biography, ‘private logic’ and life goals, not just occupational choice. An approach is needed that is interactive, has a focus on the holistic and meaning, and considers context, past, present and future.”

Perhaps we just understand narrative differently. The authors take a more literal view of ‘story’, based on Savickas’ work, asking clients to think creatively about questions such as “If the family motto were written above the fireplace, what would it say?”, or “What is the first story that you can think of?” I think this sounds fascinating, particularly the use of newspaper headlines to summarise the discussion, though it’s perhaps not accessible to all of our students (I can’t imagine too many of our Marine Tech students getting excited about this approach).

However, I think that, by focusing on stories in such a literal sense, the authors are missing out all of the narrative work that already happens in guidance, which naturally focuses on biography, language and the key players in the tale. To me guidance is narrative. I could be wrong (I’m still fairly new to this careers advising lark after all) so I’m interested to know what you think. What does ‘guidance’ mean for you?

Further reading

  • Reid, H. & West, L. (2011). “Telling tales”: Using narrative in career guidance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 78(2), 174-183. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2010.10.001
  • Savickas, M.L. (2009) Career-style counseling. In Adlerian counselling and psychotherapy: A practitioner’s approach (5th edn), ed. T.J. Sweeney. Routledge, New York, pp. 183–207.
  • Using Narrative


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