Ericksonian Story-Telling for
by Zainal Abidin Rahman
Night after night, your children wait for you to tell
them a story. Even though they are sleepy; even though
they are almost in their teens. You sense their
anticipation and enjoyment of your company and the
strong bond that still binds them to you.
When you make your entrance into their room you cannot
miss the excitement in their eyes and voices. “What
story is daddy going to tell us tonight?” they whisper
to each other. You know they look forward to this moment
- story-telling time! When you read or tell them your
story, they fall silent taking every word and gesture
you make. They feel with the characters in the story –
feelings of surprise, dismay, anguish, anger, resolve,
anticipation and finally triumph and joy. They feel with
the good guy in his journey in the story and get angry
with the bad guys and anything that stand in his way.
When you are done with the story, you see the sense of
completion in your children’s eyes. They have learnt the
lessons. Justice has been served. The good guys always
win. Good always prevail over bad. Success is a given if
people are willing to use their minds and will. You
decide what values they should grow up with.
That’s the power of stories - subtly teaching morals to
your children without moralising. Especially when you
compose your own stories and deliver them as well. That
was how Dr Milton Erickson, the most accomplished
psychotherapist, was able to influence people and help
them changed to improve their lives. Simply by telling
Why tell stories?
Stories have been used for thousand of years by all the
great teachers from Socrates to Buddha to Jesus to
Mohammad in their teachings. So stories have been proven
over the ages to be effective, as can be seen where
religion has such a hold on many people’s mind. Stories
in short are used to:
• teach values
• inculcate discipline
• facilitate problem-solving
• help people change and heal.
When parents read or tell stories to their young
children, the children tend to:
• love reading and learning
• possess superior general knowledge
• master a larger vocabulary
• have heightened self-mastery
• focus on tasks for a longer duration
• have better discipline
• generally do better at school.
• become a life long book reader
All that, on top of a healthy and cordial relationship
between parents and children. Aren’t they worth the 10
or 15 minutes spent together just before tucking them
into bed? You bet. But why are so few parents reading or
telling stories to their children? The usual excuse of
busyness and tiredness and just pure mindlessness, I
suppose. This article serves as a reminder for parents
to start or to continue reading stories to their
What stories can parents tell?
Sources of stories are all around us. They are found in
our national libraries, in newspapers, in the daily
affairs of people around us - your office colleagues,
parents, siblings, friends and even crowds in the bus on
your way home. We are never short of stories when we
know where to look out for them.
Traditionally it is usual to borrow stories from the
ancient Greek fables, ancient Chinese, Malay Indian
sources as well as religious texts - the bible, torah,
Koran or the bagavad gita. They are fabulous sources of
very good stories that can be used to inculcate positive
values in our children. However, learning to spin and
tell your own stories in the Ericksonian tradition is
what I want to elaborate here.
Write your own stories
“How do I write my own stories?” many parents have asked
me. The task is not as daunting as one might imagine.
But it does require a bit of imagination. Parents can
use the 7-step process below as the structure to compose
any story. In fact, if you had stayed rooted watching
Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the Harry Potter movie
series on TV you can easily recognise the same structure
in those and other movies.
The Seven - Step Story Structure
1 Set the scene
This is where the story begins. It could be at a school,
a jungle clearing, or a beach setting. Or anywhere.
2 Introduce the characters
Paint some qualities, both physical and behavioural, of
the main protagonist and the supporting cast. Make them
human and believable. Use descriptive words of sight,
sounds, feel, taste and even smell.
3 Begin the journey
Let the adventure unfold. What is the protagonist up to
or where is he going? He could be heading for a
vacation, or on his way up Mt Everest or working to pay
for his higher education.
4 Encounter the obstacle
Describe the problems he has to overcome in order to get
or complete his journey. The problem could be in the
form of a bad guy or a physical one e.g. a steep hill
where tigers roam freely that the protagonist has to
5 Overcome the obstacle
Explain how the protagonist overcomes the problems.
Describe the effort he has to put in and the strength of
character that enables him to win the day.
6 Resolve the story
This is where you begin the process of ending the story.
In the end, what does he get when he completes the
journey? It could be winning the hands of a princess or
getting a special commendation from the Commissioner of
Police for saving a person’s life.
7 Make the point
For children under eight, it is fruitful for parents to
drive home the point or morale of the story. “This story
teaches us that it’s important for us to …”. It could be
the importance of honesty in their dealings with friends
at school or putting in the necessary effort to achieve
anything they want to achieve.
For children above eight, it is better to engage them in
a question and answer dialogue after the story, asking
them open-ended questions to prompt their understanding
as well as their opinion on some aspects of the story.
“What other things could the hero have done to overcome
the problems in helping the family in distress?” “What
could have prompted the bad guy to turn to his wayward
ways?” Asking questions and patiently waiting for their
answers, and in turn allowing them to pose questions to
you and answering them. This interaction encourages
children to open up and flex their imagination.
Having said so much about creating your own story I hope
it is not a dampener to now add that the story line
isn’t as important as the emotions you create out of the
story. There are two types of emotions you want to
elicit in children - the positive emotions and the
negative emotions. You want children to feel negative
emotions because that’s the reality - they will feel
such emotions with their school work, with their
teachers and with friends. We cannot shield our children
from them. Better still is to inoculate them so that
when they experience these negative emotions they know
how to move on to a more resourceful emotion. And the
way to make them feel the emotions is to describe the
emotions and feelings that the protagonist and other
characters in the story go though. They feel the
emotions through empathy. So when you describe the
negative emotions move on to feelings of hope,
anticipation, triumph and joy.
You can easily weave in these emotions by adding the
element of drama, suspense, mystery and surprise in the
story line. You get to become the director of your own
movie that plays (often repeatedly) in your children’s
Telling the stories
Telling or reading your stories is perhaps the most
challenging and interesting part of the whole venture.
You get to interact face to face with your children. You
are “on the air” so to speak. Your mental presence in
the moment is crucial. The children can always detect
the lack of it.
Should I read my story or tell my story? you my ask.
Telling is better than reading, but reading is better
than nothing at all. My advice to parents is get the
story in print and when you deliver the story do it the
story-telling way, so that your eye contact is always on
the children rather than on the book. Later, give the
story to them for their reading pleasure.
It is important to get into rapport with them. Be
sincere and make it plain you are also enjoying the
moment of story telling or reading. Use a wider range of
your voice and gestures than you would otherwise use in
your normal conversations.
You can also use several subtle techniques from Erickson
that you can learn at Ericksonian workshops. There is
use of quotations to insert in a teaching if you choose
not to make it too obvious. For example, if you want
your child to practice some self-management in his room
you could tell a story that goes something like this:
“Now Terence was a good boy because he remembered what
his mother said. “Please clean up your room in the
morning”. Terence did as his mother said and he felt
great in his tidy room.”
Another technique is the embedded command in which you
lay more emphasis when you say certain action words
which you may want your children to start doing. In the
above example, you pause after ”…his mother said…”, look
at the child in the eye, bend forward as if sharing a
secret and say “Please clean up your room…” in either a
whisper or a slightly enhanced voice.
Story telling requires artistry and creativity. It’s fun
for both you, your spouse and your children. Start doing
it. That story telling time - the 15 minutes you spend
with them - before going to bed can be the defining
moment in moulding your children’s personality, values
and future life.
Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in
personal and organizational change. He has worked with
thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and
brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian
hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The
Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective
modalities that create change at the personal and
corporate levels. Contact:
Zainal is a
business trainer and coach specializing in
personal and organizational change. He has
worked with thousands of clients, individuals
and corporate, and brings with him expertise in
OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions
Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram,
energy psychology and various other effective
modalities that create change at the personal
and corporate levels. Contact:
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