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Story Therapy: Why It Works And How To Do It With Your Clients

Setting a client free with the power of metaphor

Stories are naturally hypnotic

The right story at the right time can facilitate psychological and even physical healing.

It’s possible that the ancient traditions of storytelling so rich and rife in all cultures may have been the earliest form of psychotherapy as well as vehicles for passing on patterns of wisdom. (1)

Using story therapy isn’t new, but it’s becoming more popular again. Dr Milton Erickson used to tell his patients stories from his own and other people’s lives, as would the late great family therapist Virginia Satir.

So why does story therapy work?

Stories bypass the shredding effects of over-analysis and conscious reasoning. Stories are inherently hypnotic in that they fixate attention and appeal to the imagination. This makes story therapy the perfect device for delivering fresh patterns of hope as well as more specific suggestions for change.

Prefer to watch instead?

How story therapy got rid of a boy’s warts

The unconscious mind deals in patterns. My father (also a therapist) used the pattern of ‘blocking the food supply of an invading army’ in a story he told to a boy with warts. This ‘mirrored’ the pattern of ‘blocking the blood supply to the warts’. Neither warts nor blood were mentioned in the story, but the boy’s warts began to disappear soon after he heard this story.

Stories are not meant to be consciously picked apart. You don’t have to know exactly how a medication works in order for it to take effect and heal you from within.

And if a story doesn’t immediately ‘work’ for someone, no harm is done. They have simply heard an entertaining story!

But how do you create stories for change that fit your client’s situation?

1. Read, listen and learn stories

Plunder the world’s rich treasure trove of stories.

They say there are only seven plots, and all the differences between stories are in the details. This is also true of human problems. There aren’t that many different problem patterns, and many of the apparent differences are just matters of detail.

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Read, listen to and memorise stories. Lots of them. Think about the different ‘problem patterns’ different stories address. Practice telling them and make them part of who you are. (You’ll always find a willing audience in children!) I have a built up a library of stories in my mind to fit the pattern of just about every human problem from addiction and depression to divorce and grief.

There are plenty of great books on stories and storytelling. Among them I recommend therapist Rob Parkinson’s Transforming Tales (1) and world famous story teller Idries Shah’s great corpus of traditional stories World Tales. (2) Then there’s our own (frankly fantastic) Storytelling Trainer. 

A great story seldom has just one ‘point’ or ‘punch line’ – it will contain many layers of meaning. Reading and listening to stories develops creativity and is a fun way to improve your therapy skills. After all, what do we therapists do but deal directly in human ‘stories’?

2. Learn the story pattern, not just the content

To match a story to the needs of an individual you have to look at the wider pattern of their life and seek a story that fits that pattern. Clients often deluge you with so much detail that, if you don’t make a conscious effort, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. When sitting with clients I’ll often ask myself repeatedly: “What is really going on here?”

Many traditional ‘fairy tales’ match common life patterns such as:

  • Disadvantaged childhoods
  • Appearance of benign help from outside later in the ‘story’
  • Overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles
  • Personal qualities flourishing because of rather than despite disadvantages.

For survivors of abuse I might tell a tale such as ‘The Algonquin Cinderella’ (3) to powerful effect.

3. Make your stories hypnotic

A great storyteller is a natural hypnotist. He or she will transport you to other times and places, you’ll forget about time passing, your surroundings will gently fade from awareness and you’ll submerge into a world of difficulties, betrayal, hardships, adventures, wisdom and hope. All the things that call forth the best from people, such as courage, persistence, daring and true friendship in hard times.

Hypnotic language communicates to all the senses, so when you tell a story, describe the sounds, sensations, smells, tastes and sights as fully and vividly as you can. For example, compare “The sun shone on the lake” and “A bright golden sun blazed in the deep blue sky, drawing a shimmering haze like an exotic gauzy veil up out of the deep dark waters of the lake.” Vivid descriptions fully engage your listener and make the story an experience, almost like a dream.

If you have not yet used story therapy in your practice it can feel a bit strange at first, but it won’t be long before it will start to feel like the most natural thing in the world. Which it is!

If you’re interested in taking your abilities in story therapy further, click here to read about our Powerful Stories training program.

Photo from Phil Wood

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FREE Reframing Book! Just subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter below.

Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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  1. Rob Parkinson: Transforming Tales: How Stories Can Change People. Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009. ISBN-10: 1843109743; ISBN-13: 978-1843109747
  2. Idries Shah: World Tales. Octagon Press 1991. ISBN-10: 0863040365; ISBN-13: 978-0863040368
  3. World Tales. Pg 242

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