THE EXPERIENCE OF A FIRST TIME STORY-TELLING FACILITATOR
This section was written by Paul Hogan with Debbie Marsden, practising youth and community workers.
My experience of taking part as a first-time participant in a storytelling workshop was extremely thought-provoking, empowering and challenging. I ended the session with refreshed motivation and a greater awareness of the potential in my work to impact on both my colleagues and the young people. I felt I had found a tool with multi-dimensions that could be accessed by a wide audience and used for reflection and evaluation in ways which sit within the ethos of youth work.
The strengths of this form of story-telling lie in its participatory process which enables the storyteller to explore their own practice in a safe, informal situation, supported by critical interaction with their peers. Storytelling as such is not a new concept but it is a skill as is the facilitation of such workshops. Having taken part as a participant I was keen to utilise this tool to increase the impact of the organisation for which I work, improve the skill and knowledge base of the staff and volunteer team and develop our understanding of how young people feel about our youth work practice. What follows are some of my initial thoughts from my early attempts at facilitating the storytelling process.
Creating the right environment
Storytellers are being asked to open up their working practices and often their own values for analysis by others. As this can be an intimidating scenario, it is up to the facilitator to create an environment that is safe and supportive. Ensuring storytellers have taken on the role out of choice is therefore a vital first step which again holds to a youth work ethos. Setting group agreements, based around mutual respect, confidentiality, positive feedback and constructive criticism, no matter how familiar group members are with each other, is a good place to start with most obviously confidentiality being of the utmost importance. Creating and encouraging a vocabulary that enables the group to scrutinise positively while providing the storyteller the safe space to search and explain their own understanding is a balancing act that is much more natural in the more informal environments which are characteristic of youth work.
To speak or to let it flow?
Key to the facilitation is the understanding of when to intervene and when to let the story flow. Allowing the individual to own their story is crucial as they search themselves for answers. It is also important however to ensure that the full group feel some responsibility for unpicking the story if they are to benefit from this interactive learning experience. As a facilitator the key here is to identify areas that can be explored in more depth, asking the question and then stepping back to allow the storyteller and the group to take the questioning strand on. This may sound simple but is perhaps the most difficult skill to accomplish. It is all too easy to lead the group from the front when actually it will benefit much more if the lead is from the side with the facilitator only getting in front when group members steer off course or lose impetus.
Choosing the right question
A facilitator’s role is to ensure the shared objective of the group remains central to the workshops focus – that is, to explore an example of practice which represents the story-teller practising as a youth worker. The stories that result are usually/often multi- layered; the facilitator’s role is to enable the group to break through those layers by judging when to intervene with a prompt – ‘Why did that happen?’; ‘What did you do to make that happen?’ – which can take the story a layer deeper. It’s about understanding when the larger group have reached a barrier and what question to choose that would break through this barrier to release more detailed information and insights. The object of the facilitator should be to identify the key areas within the story where this could happen and support the group to dig for as much detail as possible.
Story-telling can be a therapeutic process. Key to its success is positive feedback which acknowledges the positive work done while also creating a comfortable environment to critically discuss and enhance performance in areas beyond this particular example. Praise is key to reinforcing good practice and story-telling is a great opportunity to develop an individual’s and a team’s confidence in ways which can impact on performance and motivation. Example of this motivation came from two participants in story-telling workshops, one in which I was also involved and one facilitated by a colleague:
…just to let u know that yesterday during my meeting with my group I had another RESULT! I immediately thought of you! After 5 years I started seeing RESULTS!
(Youth Worker, 2013)
The best training I’ve done in all the years I’ve been coming to the project.
(Young volunteer, 2013)
Recording of Story
Detailed recording of the stories as they are told can provide a vital opportunity for further learning. Getting an accurate recording at the time can prevent the loss of any information and analysis which may be useful in the future. Having accurate recordings give greater opportunity to return to the material at a later date to ensure continued learning and development. These stories are also important qualitative evidence of the work an organisation/project which can be very useful in the promotion of practice to funders, partners and others.
The story-telling process has enhanced my own organisation’s ability to meet the needs of the community we serve. We have for example used it both as a professional development tool with staff and to evaluate our services by engaging young people in story-telling workshops which have given us a narrative and evidence to help explain the role we play in the lives of our members. (See Story-telling with young volunteers and Story-telling in project evaluation).