Narrative techniques, such as storytelling, help clients facing difficult situations identify their strengths and gain a firm foundation to achieve their career and life goals
By David William McKay
The City of Oshawa was one of 29 communities chosen by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (Ontario) to implement the Targeted Initiative for Older Workers (TIOW) project more than five years ago. Our core demographic is unemployed and underemployed jobseekers age 55 through 64 but we can also serve participants in the 50-64 demographic. Communities were chosen on the basis of size; all were towns and cities small enough to be seriously impacted by a single plant layoff. TIOW is a project designed to address issues of community resiliency.
Each participating centre was given considerable latitude within the framework to develop programming that fits both the needs of the community and of individual participants. Here in Oshawa the model consists of group workshops to build job search skills and labour market knowledge. This is followed by ongoing individual assistance in the job search and as-needed referrals to outside training to enhance job-specific and/or essential skills.
We have gradually added material to our program related to building individual resiliency in the face of the ups and downs of the job search. When we launched the program, we expected our clients to be long-tenured workers who were suddenly confronted with the modern job search after a layoff or plant closure. While that did represent a large portion of our clients, it did not represent them all. Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in long-term unemployed workers and people in precarious employment. Some have been unsuccessful in meeting entry requirements for re-training programs; whereas others may be looking for more stable employment following a change in marital status. As a result, building hope and strengthening internal supports has become an important part of the program.
Benefits of storytelling exercises
One of the ways we build resilience in the program is through an activity that we call My Success Story. We rebranded the activity with the aim to make it more hopeful and encourage participants to claim ownership of the strengths they identified through storytelling. The approach is not a new one, borrowed from the works of such career professionals as Richard Nelson Bolles, Bernard Haldane and Vance Peavy. Peavy (1998), in Socio-Dynamic Counselling: A Constructivist Perspective, calls these “good experiences” and explains them as being a time in your life when you did something well, you enjoyed it and it made you feel proud. To this I add, “and when you look back at it you still feel glad you did it.” This addition is based on the assumption that if you can look back with fondness, then it must still be important to you.
Participants begin the exercise by writing a brief account of a personal achievement in point form, then they get into small groups to share these stories with one another. Their listeners provide feedback on the skills, strengths and personal values demonstrated in these stories, which allows the storyteller to jot down any strengths they had not previously acknowledged. Participants in our program will tell five such stories over the course of two weeks, interspersed between other assessments, group building and job search-related activities.
We began by using this approach as an informal assessment, to use alongside and supplement formal assessments, but it has grown into an exercise that teaches participants specific skills which they can use during the course of their job search and beyond. We use it to:
- Affirm that our personal stories are important and true for us: The amazing thing is that this message doesn’t come from us directly, it comes from other participants living through the same kinds of issues.
- Teach the C-A-R (challenge-action-result) storytelling format: CAR is used to “drive” successful responses to behavioural questions in job interviews. Our storytelling activities are a chance to practice this important interview skill in a relatively safe and affirming environment.
- Link stories of their accomplishments to other job search practices: This prepares clients when they are practising an elevator pitch or composing a resume or letter.
We get push-back from some clients when we first begin the storytelling activity. Most often they express writers block: “I don’t have any stories” or “I don’t have any successes.” We encourage and invite participation but ultimately this is a free activity. While in the moment this is one of the most resisted activities we run, by the end of our program it is often the activity that people remember as most helpful.
Over the five years of this program my sense that storytelling is an important part of an effective job search has only grown. It builds psychological resilience through peer affirmation, helps build group cohesion and it helps participants identify their strengths, which is both a resilience builder and a job search skill. Finally, it prepares them for job interviews, the most stressful and most crucial part of their job search. I would encourage you to explore similar activities with your client population as a strategy for identifying strengths, reminding clients of the problem-solving skills they already have, and building their resiliency as they face obstacles in their present circumstances.
David McKay is a Program Facilitator with the Targeted Initiative for Older Workers (TIOW) project at the Durham Region Unemployed Help Centre in Oshawa, ON. He has been delivering employment services in the form of workshops, employment counselling and case management with the Help Centre for more than 10 years. This agency has been helping jobseekers in the Durham Region since 1983.