In mythic storytelling, the event that catapults the hero out of their normal world and into the story is called the inciting incident. It disrupts the hero’s life, throws them into the unknown, and “incites” action. It occurs early in the story and begins the hero’s journey. Some examples include young lovers falling in love at first sight (“Romeo and Juliet”); a young boy learning he’s a wizard and will go to a school for magic (“Harry Potter”); and a new king facing a challenge to the throne from a rival (“Black Panther”).

COVID-19 is the biggest collective inciting incident of our lifetime. It has upended life as we know it and pulled us into the unknown. Scrambling to define our future, even the most optimistic of us have doubts. What are we being called to do? Are we up to the task? Will we survive the journey?

It’s no surprise that patterns resemble the patterns of our lives. Our stories arise out of our human experiences. Each of us is a protagonist in our own life. The stories we tell about ourselves reflect our struggles, build our identities and help us make sense of our world. As coaches, becoming alert to the dynamics of a story and its parallels to life opens up new avenues for helping our clients.

In storytelling, there’s a moment of hesitation known as “the refusal of the call.” In the face of unknown risk, the hero first says, “No way, not me. I’m not up to the task.” But they eventually overcome fear, embrace hope and choose the adventure despite its dangers. In times of crisis, we survive by taking action, not by dithering.

This is exactly what our clients are doing. They are responding heroically to meet the moment. However, if clients skip that moment of hesitation and reflection, their actions may be overshadowed by anxiety and a narrative of no choice. They miss opportunities of intentionally choosing the journey triggered by the inciting incident.

Spurred by the narrative-shifting COVID-19 crisis, we decided to meet story with story. The ancient framework of the hero’s journey provides deep wisdom and support for clients by giving them permission to pause. Identifying hesitations they may have—any desires to “refuse the call”—empowers them to choose rather than resist the journey before them.

Inspired by our clients’ journeys, we created a workshop and invited fellow coaches and peers to explore this new terrain. We facilitated an exchange to acknowledge our hesitations and fears, access our inner strengths and set an intention to embrace a journey of hope. We came away with several key findings:


A promotion, a new conflict or a shift in strategy are all forms of inciting incidents. Such events may trigger a coaching engagement, or they may occur during the engagement as clients seek to overcome obstacles and clarify their options. By pointing out an inciting incident, we can help our clients become alert to its dynamics, which can ultimately lead to opportunities for growth and transformation that they may otherwise miss.


We all experience sessions where we have an intuition to go in a direction that feels a little risky, and then we hesitate. Recognize this as a small inciting incident on your own hero’s journey that brings you face to face with a choice: Will you move forward in the hope of contributing to your client’s growth despite the fear of derailing the session?


Creating a reflective space—moments of silence—helps clients reflect more deeply on their experience in the moment, enabling them to connect to their inner wisdom and strengths that they may otherwise miss. Our workshop participants were surprised to discover how little they had reflected on their experiences and how beneficial it is to do so.


Dare to ask questions about clients’ hopes and fears when your intuition nudges you in that direction. The lens of the hero’s journey gives clients an opening to explore fears they are not aware of having. Invite the client to reflect on how both emotional poles may contain wisdom to guide them toward their goals.


Inviting clients to reframe their relationship with fear is empowering and transformative, as it can open new realms of possibility. In the age of COVID-19, clients are now feeling more open and willing to rethink how they relate to fear. As one webinar participant said, “I realized fear could be my ally and my friend. It can help me build the future I want to see.”

© Alexis Niki and Andrew Shaffer, 2020