Towards a Narrative Approach to Careers Interviewing


From talking to other careers practitioners I often get the impression that practitioners feel stuck in a matching model of careers work without really having a viable alternative. I see this in myself I can wax lyrically about the limits of a matching paradigm and how it is bad tool to exclusively use with clients but yet I find my practice drifts towards this for lack of an alternative. Often I find practitioners are interested in happenstance models, in constructivist approaches or in approaches based around motivational interviewing or some other form of positive psychology but they lack a road map to do things differently. Particularly with constructivist paradigms you could well accuse them of being a theory in want of an application, people often agree with the ideas but struggle to see how to implement them.

This is my attempt to lay out what I see as an alternative to a matching model of careers interviewing/ guidance/ coaching. I don’t think it’s perfect or completely resolves all the issues, it is just my attempt to do things different which I am currently trying out in practice.

I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for a narrative approach to careers guidance as I’ve covered them before, you may be interested to read some things I’ve written before here, here, here and here.

I see the following as a set of stages that would be worked through in a one-to-one meeting.

  1. Clarifying Concepts

The point of this stage is to help clients understand what is going to happen and why they should buy into it. The basic discussion is how thinking about their narrative may help them. This will not have an exact formula but links to notions of development, the past informing the present and future, storytelling as a way to encapsulate employability may be cited. The key is to get the client to buy in to discussing their story as a productive way of resolving their developmental needs.

  1. Discussing The Present

This stage focuses on creating a starting point for discussing the clients narrative. Though it doesn’t occur first chronologically the present is the moment that clients have the most access to, clients normally present with a present focussed question, “can you tell me about…”, “can you help me apply for…”, “I don’t know what to do…”, “I am really struggling with…”. Clarifying the present situation gives you a foundation to discussing the past, it helps you and your client to work through where to start.

  1. Linking With The Past

This stage is where themes and key moments for the individual are uncovered. The past can be a labyrinth which is easy to get lost in, your discussion around the present should help you find a focus. This may be looking for a theme of trying to work out when something started. The main ways to discuss the past is through asking about turning points and key moment or themes and continuities. Questions may include “Can you remember when things changed?” “Was their a particular moment that clarified that, has that been a theme?” “Can you give examples of this?” Other useful perspectives can be created around prompts from various perspectives on careers development by asking about a clients social environment, chance events, the skills they enjoyed using, how they learnt about the world of work, who their role models have been etc. The point of looking at this is to see why things are the way they are in terms of a cause and effect train. But more than this their is a need to discuss how the client sees and understands these events and themes. This discussion should be supported by asking the client to draw some conclusions? What do you think the most important events are?

  1. Clarifying The Present

This stage is about understanding where a clients currently is. After initially exploring you start asking the client to make links about their present. Why are things the way they are? Why do they feel this way? Why has this occurred? It may be worth looking for what affect the discussion of the past has had on their view of the present. One of the main concepts at use here is that our lives have a sense of momentum of trajectory to them, they move themselves forward on the basis of a set of forces so understanding and appreciating these forces from our past helps us clarify our present. The counterpoint to this is that the present is text that could be read in different ways. What ways could their be of seeing things differently? Looking for multiple readings of the present can be helpful to open up possibilities and creative or divergent ways of seeing the problems the client faces.

  1. Projecting Into The Future

The next task is to draw links between the construct of the past/ present they have created and how they see their future. This links in with the idea of trajectory we discussed above and asks the client to consider what direction their life is going and how do they feel about this. Most of the time clients coming looking for help because their is a gap between their preferred and expected future narratives, understanding this narrative gap is vital for understanding what is motivating the client. This can also be vital for buying in to changing their future and taking action. The job at this point is to gain a conception of what their future could look like and to what they think it will look like if things are left “as is”. Here the focus should be on developing and understanding themes and patterns someone would want in their future, digging down to core concepts rather than describing exact situations. It is more helpful to say “I want a future where I could express my creativity” rather than “I want a career as a graphics designer.”

  1. Acting Into The Future

The final job is to discuss strategies that could be used to move towards the future they want and away from their “as is” situation. As with any story there is a sense of uncertainty when confronting the future, this should be acknowledged and used as a key tool rather than ignored. It is used as a key tool by considering what strategies they can use to develop themselves in the face of uncertainty rather than planning around it. The focus is on changing a trajectory, taking significant and fateful actions that open up a set of different (but still emergent) possibilities. The focus is more around changing their character and how they are developing themselves rather than imagining them moving off one train track and onto another. To give an example train tracks are moved between by “understanding what they need to know” while character is changed by becoming more curious and having means to develop their curiosity. Ultimately we are helping them to change and develop the character they are in their narrative rather than choose a different destination.

So this is my attempt at summarising a new approach I am looking to try out in practice. Please do comment away bellow, I would love to have people’s feedback. I hope to have a go at this with some clients in the field and may report back in a bit on how that goes.

8 thoughts on “Towards a Narrative Approach to Careers Interviewing

  1. Hi Tom
    This is really useful – I think you’re right that the practical application of many of the more recent theoretical perspectives has yet to be fully addressed, and I think the framework you outline here makes sense. I will be interested to hear how you find this works in practice.

  2. Hi Tom, great article. I’ve often found that allowing clients to reflect on the past can help them gain a better perspective of where they are and it can also be quite motivational in allowing them to talk about something they are most familiar with! This is an approach I would definitely like to incorporate more often into one to one work and it will be interesting to read about how you apply this also. Good luck!

  3. I did some reading recently on interview models for an assignment. For example, there are models out there incorporating the work of Savickas into Egan’s 3 stage interview approach (which I use and like). Perhaps agreement on your purpose could help? For example, identification of values and how this is shared and interpreted between you and the client. The movement from and process of enabling storytelling, making sense and then taking action is a lot for one interview so allowances have to be made for often we may or may not see the client. You need to let me know how this goes!

    • Sounds interesting do you remember the reference for the Savickas into Egan article? Appreciate what you say about time, I guess that comes back to buying into the process and them believing they need the time to work through everything and so being happy to stop mid-process, go away, think, come back. I feel you can make significant progress in a 1 hour appointment and maybe support it with some pre/ post activities covering some of the sections. You should check out Bright’s Chaos based model for contrast in terms of complexity (

  4. Absolutely. I get more out of stories than any other method. I work with young people and culture decision making identifies patterns of solutions.

  5. Tom, thanks for sharing your approach. I like your approach to past, present, and future. Indeed, discussing the past, present, and imagined futures draws attention to time and space/place in a person’s narrative (i.e., the whens and wheres). In my dialogical approach to narrative career counselling with the assessment tool My Career Chapter (McIlveen, 2006), a client writes an autobiography about all of the influences on his/her career. Having written the bulk of the autobiography’s manuscript, the client engages in a discussion with himself/herself in a different time and place, usually a younger version. In this activity the client and then reads it aloud to the younger self. Then the client imaginatively takes on the role of the younger self and writes feedback to the older self (e.g., “I never thought you would end up…”). The current self writes then writes a short reply to the younger self. This process facilitates a dialogue between the client and himself/herself, as a complex form of reflectivity. When the client returns to the next session, I read the manuscript aloud to the client and we engage in a similar process, as if author and editor are talking with one another. What is significant about this process is that the client hears, possibly for the first time, his or her own words in his/her ears. This can have quite a psychological impact.


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