Getting started - Guidelines

getting started pictureWhen beginning life story work with someone new it can be useful to jointly agree on guidelines for your sessions. 

Here are some broad areas that we have found useful to think about and discuss in advance:

Broad areas for guidelines to agree

There are a couple of ways that this has been tried:

One approach is to have a large sheet of paper and ask the person to write down ideas under some of the above headings. Ask them what issues might arise and how they would wish to address these.

It is important that, as much as possible, these discussions are led by the person undertaking the life story work. They can be guided by you, the helper, and although it can be useful to make additional suggestions (some ideas below) let the other person guide the discussions.

Some things to think about under each of these headings :

 Ground rules 

The sessions can feel safer and clearer, if you decide some ground rules between you. Below are some ideas you could suggest. Ask the person you are working with to suggest some themselves before you make your own.

•  It's okay to take breaks.

•  It's okay to decide you don't want to discuss a particular subject and you don't need to give a reason.

•  What's discussed in the session, stays in the session. This might mean that the person you are working with does not want to discuss their story with you outside of the sessions, say on a ward or in a residential home. It can be useful for some people to keep these reflections on their life within the time of the sessions and not to spill over into their day-to-day activities.

•  It might be necessary to discuss issues of confidentiality - it's an important thing to discuss. You could need to explain that you will be able to keep information between you confidential, but explain any reasons that you might have to break this, they should arise. This will vary depending on the setting you are working in. 

If it's a group session, you might want to include some of the following:

•  Give everyone an opportunity to speak; don't talk over others or interrupt.

•  Be on time, so you can start the session together. Phone text if running later.

•  Phones off or on vibrate.

•  Be mindful of language (use recovery language).

•  Be respectful and sensitive towards other group members (not critical or dismissive).

• No 'isms' (sexism, racism, ageism).

•  If someone shares something, it is not okay to ask intrusive questions, either during the session or afterwards.

• There is no pressure to share information or discuss details with the group.

(In summary, people don’t have to do stuff they don’t want to do. Listen to each other, respect each other's opinions, all ideas are valid.  It's okay to be quiet. If you feel upset, its okay to have a break or speak out. Supportive atmosphere. The discussion is confidential. Afterwards, it's okay to talk about the day but don’t use people’s names or discuss particulars.)

 Environment and Setting

Once you have set some ground rules, think about other things that might make the sessions feel safe. Considerations such as creating a safe confidential space with pleasant surroundings and planning seperate story sharing time aside might aid the process. Agreeing to keep to a time limit and going over boundaries each session might also be helpful.

 Vulnerabilities, boundaries

Discussing a person's individual vulnerabilities can be useful at a time when they are feeling strong and able to discuss them. This might mean talking about their personal boundaries, particular vulnerabilities or issues that might trigger a difficult emotional response, and what support and coping strategies they have in place.

Asking if there are particular issues a person is not comfortable sharing can be a helpful approach. It can be useful, for you to make a mental note of any difficult issues the person is clear that they do not wish to discuss so you can re-remind them if they begin to wander into that territory.  (It is often the case that when we feel safe in a situation with someone we begin to expand on something we originally decided against talking about - it can be okay to change one's mind - but a gentle reminder from the helper can be a useful, just to double check.)


It might be worth discussing more generally if there are any potential vulnerabilities or triggers that could arise. Discuss what support there is for the person, if needed in order to share some of the feelings that arise. Some people may need support, and this might be something that needs to be put in place before beginning.

Discuss where support might come from in terms of friends, family and workers, and what this might mean practically as well as thinking through any conflicts/implications that might arise?

At the beginning of sessions, be sensitive and check out how a person is doing before launching straight into life story work. For example, where a person has had a difficult week, they might wish to focus on something light, rather than launch into a heavy discussions about a particular bit of their past.

 Coping Strategies

Think about any coping strategies that might need to be planned in advance. How does the person you are working with like to relax, unwind and switch off? What activities help or which friends or family members do they enjoy spending time with?

Use these to plan for what happens immediately after spending time sharing. 

Agree how regularly you might meet, how long for and the length of sessions. Be clear what you are able to offer and what level of support you are able to give. Ensure the person knows that this is their project and that they own what they produce. You are helping them in the process, not controlling what they do or how they do it. 


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