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Constructing Stories, Telling Tales: A Guide to Formulation in Applied Psychology

Sarah Corrie & David Lane

London: Karnac Books Ltd. (2010)
ISBN: 978-1-85575-642-7 402 pp; Paperback; £29.99.

Reviewed by Carmel O’Neill

Coaching and coaching psychology’s future, to a certain extent, is related to other disciplines. Historically, it might be said that coaching has been an interdisciplinary eclectic field. It has been built from theory, research and practice in adult education, social psychology, sports psychology, therapy, clinical and other fields. The concept of formulation has a long history in clinical and therapeutic contexts. Corrie and Lane’s premise here is that formulation has a significant role to play across all forms of psychological practice including coaching. For practitioners who work with client’s stories, they position formulation as a coconstructed narrative between the client and the practitioner. Clients’ stories are created as a way of exploring and managing issues. Stories have a beginning (the situation), a middle (decisions; options) and an end (actions; outcomes). Formulation is understood here as a way of generating possible solutions through creative and challenging thinking and rich and powerful questioning.

The challenge for the practitioner lies in honouring the client’s stories while supporting and facilitating change through psychological insights. The shared framework for the client’s narrative and learning journey is centred around establishing the purpose (of the work) the perspectives (which informs it) and the process (used to ensure effective outcomes).

Corrie and Lane’s book, Constructing Stories, Telling Tales: A Guide to Formulation in Applied Psychology, is a comprehensive overview of the concept of formulation in all its complexities. The purpose of their book is to serve as a guide to understanding the systematic and appropriate use of formulation to applied psychological practices. To facilitate this purpose, the authors have built a formulation framework within which practitioners can consider tailoring to a particular context.

The book is divided into four parts: (1) Formulation; An introduction to key debates and a framework for developing a systematic approach; (2) Working with purpose, perspective and process: elaborating the framework to enhance your approach; (3) The many facets of formulation: an interdisciplinary perspective; and (4) Implications for the future.

Throughout the book there are discussion questions which could be used in a variety of contexts or just treated as important questions to reflect on. There are exercises, at the end of the Introduction and the first five chapters, which are designed to help practitioners to reflect on the relevant issues and concepts in both theoretical and practical circumstances. Exercises seven and eight follow later chapters (Chapter 15 and the Conclusion). These graded and thoughtprovoking questions may require practitioners to go beyond what is explicitly described in the text to being able to generate, for themselves, new purposes, perspectives and processes.

In Part 3 a number of professionals have contributed to the discussion and exploration of formulation and what it has meant to each guest contributor to work with purpose, perspective and process in their own disciplines.

Chapter 1 is a chapter of Introductions - to the concept of formulation; to its historical context and to some of the issues, debates and challenges inherent in this complex task of formulation.

Chapter 2 provides a rationale for using formulation as a means for building a shared framework within which rich, coherent, collaborative and accurate thinking provides possible solutions. The uniqueness of the client’s narrative begins with the authors’ distinction between a ‘story’ and ‘a tale’. For their purposes here, a ‘story’ is described as a compilation of a number of tales interlaced to produce a central theme. In contrast, a ‘tale’ is defined as a single explanatory account (for example, a particular theory or a single morality tale that directs us to action).

The first step in the co-construction of the client’s story begins with identifying the purpose. According to Corrie and Lane (2010) there are four essential elements underpinning the purpose of the work: (1) Understanding the question you wish to explore; (2) The expectations of stakeholders; (3) Clarifying stakeholders’s roles; and (4) Appreciating the wider context. By closely examining these elements, the reader is told that formulation thus becomes a ‘particular type of story’ (p.21) with its own specific features qualified by the particular context from which it takes its meaning. Taken together, these elements are said to create the boundaries for the practitioner’s work. Consideration of such questions (Who owns the formulation? Which formulation will be more effective for the client?) underpins the importance of recognising that the story belongs to the client. The coconstructed journey begins by articulating and recognising choices made. Although this is not a ‘how-to’ book, Corrie and Lane have provided pathways to effective formulations by illustrating how the Purpose, Perspectives, and Process model (Corrie & Lane, 2010) may be one useful framework for this task.

Part 2 elaborates the framework (purpose, perspective and process) in greater detail. Chapter 3 highlights the importance of acknowledging dominant prevailing levels of influence that affect the practitioner’s definition of purpose. These local, national and global contexts are said to have far-reaching implications for the professional practitioner and for the client’s needs (Corrie & Lane, 2010). The chapter concludes with a useful exercise that may orientate the reader to critically reflect on defining the professional purpose of one’s work.

Perspectives (beliefs, models, meaning, values and ethics) and their role in the construction of the client’s stories are described in considerable detail in Chapter 4. The five perspectives in this chapter are classed as ‘tales’ since it is asserted here that their inherent assumptions will have both positive and negative implications for the client. Practitioners’ perspectives, their professional backgrounds, and tacit knowledge and beliefs on human nature, all influence the approach to the enquiry (Corrie & Lane, 2010). Clients too, bring their own perspectives. Finally, some perspectives are prescribed by the context itself. Taken together these perspectives will inform the journey undertaken. What is important is recognising ‘which’ perspective and ‘why’ and acknowledging the consequences and implications of using one particular perspective. These five perspectives: (1) formulation derived from diagnostic classification; (2) the formulation of the scientist-practitioner; (3) formulation as a theoretically-driven account; (4) strategic formulation; and (5) formulation and its role as a means of social control, and some of the dilemmas and implications attributed to them, are laid out concisely in this chapter.

Having identified the purpose and perspective, the process structures (How will we get there?) are put in place. In Chapter 5, and following the formulation framework, the authors lay out three approaches which they assert will facilitate the process of enquiry: Story Motif (conversational frame); DEFINE (scientist-practitioner frame); and Canonical story structure (narrative frame). The assertion is also made that client facilitation begins with the practitioner’s understanding of the very nature of stories. While coaching from a narrative perspective is clearly described here (Drake, chapter 11) it would have been useful to have read how the practitioner might facilitate the client’s understanding of stories and their meaningmaking. Notwithstanding the assumption that ‘human beings have an innate tendency for story schema’ (p133) some stories may be difficult to share or articulate. A reference here to potential pitfalls associated with developmental coaching, from the perspectives of both the client and the practitioner (for example, Bachkirova, 2007; Laske, 1999b) would also have been beneficial. Chapter 5 concludes with questions designed to help the reader conduct a personal audit across all three different story processes.

Part 3: For the purpose of growing our vocabulary of (and our perspectives on) formulation the authors invited guest contributions from different professions and perspectives. In Chapter 6, the authors not only introduce these different approaches to formulation but identify a number of recurring themes which they ask the reader to consider in their own reading of the chapters. These are said to underpin ‘a coherent "thread" between the different approaches to formulation’ (p148). These (themes) are: (1) the theme that the story and the context are inseparable; (2) the theme that the responsibility lies with the practitioner in undertaking formulation with the client; and questions of; (3) what makes a good story; (4) who owns the story; (5) what function does the story serve; and (6) being able and willing to accept the uncertainty that human endeavours bring. These themes are discussed at length in Chapter 15 and provide a useful review to the complexities surrounding formulation.

Michael Sheath (Chapter 7) highlights the dilemmas facing the practitioner when working with ‘individuals who may be difficult to like’ (p.172). In his work with child sex offenders, Sheath argues that formulation, if it has to have any value, must be grounded in scientific rigour but coupled with humanistic engagement. In the case of children at risk of exclusion, Peggy Gosling (Chapter 8) explores formulation in the light of her work and describes how formulation and the Common Assessment Framework have succeeded in highlighting the analytic process where evidence was linked to both purpose and perspective.

Formulation is explored from a cognitive- behaviour therapy perspective by David Leigh-Smith (Chapter 9). Here, Leigh-Smith draws attention to the apparent elusiveness of the concept of formulation within a cognitive-behaviour therapy approach. Some of these reasons already resonate with Corrie and Lane’s (2010) treatment of this issue (for example, see Chapter 1). Leigh-Smith describes the role supervisors might play by using formulation as a monitor of progress.

Existential formulations are discussed in Chapter 10 by Michael Worrell. The approach to formulation here is one which is removed from descriptive and explanatory accounts to one of ‘nuanced descriptive understanding’ (p.223) (existential therapeutic approach). This approach places formulation as an aspect of the total clienttherapist relationship. Worrell offers a number of possibilities for existential formulations.

From a coaching perspective, David Drake (Chapter 11) stresses the importance engaging with coachees from a narrative approach to formulation. Working from this narrative base and with ‘a mindful way of being’ (p.243) the coaching engagement becomes a dynamic and co-created discovery process. The coachee discovers new possibilities and new stories.

In Chapter 12, and as a writer, Bryan Rostron focuses on the scope of fiction - and the importance of acknowledging that there is ‘no one way to tell a story’ (p.262). The story’s perspective will have implications for the story’s characters, the kind of information provided, the very nature of the story and the story’s readers. Formulation, in this context, should not be defined by the precision, the formality or methodological constraints of the professional practitioners.

Simon Callow (Chapter 13) describes the task facing actors when formulating character (s) for their performances. The actor looks through the available evidence for logic and meaning and a sense of coherence related to the character to be portrayed. It is from this formulation that the story of the character is constructed and played out on the stage.

The subject of successful character interpretation is one of several topics discussed in Chapter 14. The authors, in conversation with the actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West, discuss the issues which allow the actor to act with confidence, belief, integrity and in service to the writer and the audience. Callow (Chapter 13), Scales and West, as actors, describe how issues such as formal and informal research, textual and contextual boundaries and audience perceptions require considerable navigational skills if the story’s integrity is to be maintained. Corrie and Lane (2010) have pointed to similar dilemmas in the practitioner’s work with the client’s stories.

Creating stories for complex times (Chapter 15) highlights the importance of being able to balance the professional needs of the practitioner while allowing for the emergent and transformative story of the client to develop. Formulation is also an iterative process in which the practitioner’s own story can be created through learning greater reflective skills (Alan Durrant, Epilogue).

There is a limited amount of literature available dealing with the concept of formulation. This book covering formulation and its practical application is, therefore, very welcome.

For this reader a single ‘tale’ emerges: ‘to mindfully and artfully work with what emerges - within the practitioner, the client and the field - as the client’s stories are narrated’ (Drake, 2008b, in Corrie & Lane, 2010, p.342).

This book will be a valuable addition to a reflective thinking tool kit.

Correspondence
Carmel O’Neill
Registered Work & Organisation Psychologist,
Executive and Business Coach.
Email: Carmel@coachingforcoherence.com

References
Bachkirova, T. (2007). Role of coaching psychology in defining boundaries between counselling and coaching. In S. Palmer & A. Whybrow (Eds.), Handbook of coaching psychology. A guide for practitioners. London: Routledge.

Drake, D.B. (2008b). Thrice upon a time: Narrative structure and psychology as a platform for coaching. In S. Corrie & D.A. Lane (Eds.), Constructing stories, telling tales: A guide to formulation in applied psychology. London: Karnac.

Laske, O. (1999b). An integrated model of developmental coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal 51(3), 139-159.

  

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