Creating Personal Storytelling Workshops for Vulnerable Tellers

By Lani Peterson, Psy.D.

Brenda’s Story

Brenda is a tall, strong woman whose smile lights up the circle where eight of us are seated in a storytelling workshop for women whose lives have been touched by homelessness. Brenda’s hair is pulled back into a tight bun; her dress is simple and unassuming.  She speaks in a quiet tone, often deferring politely to others.

Over the course of our eight week storytelling workshop, I gradually learn that Brenda moved precipitously to Boston from Alabama four years previously to support her college daughter whose unplanned pregnancy threatened her finishing school. For a long while, Brenda did not share the story of how she became homeless. Each week she focused instead on the story of how she was trying to move her life forward.  But, slowly, she built enough trust and connection with her story-sharing peers that her deeper story emerged.  

New to Boston from Alabama, Brenda was shocked to experience deep prejudice and verbal abuse in her workplace in a northern city. Over the course of a year of being called names and chastised by a hostile manager, Brenda’s health began to deteriorate with the stress.

“It led me to feel that something was wrong with me; that I was crazy.  And then my hair began to fall out. My blood pressure elevated. I felt trapped. I went to the bathroom frequently for nervous stomach.”

Brenda finally quit her job when her manager called her a lazy “N-word”.  

“That one ‘n-word’ had a devastating effect on my life. I became afraid to be who I am. It created a downward spiral that led me to lose everything. I lost my job.  I lost my apartment.  I lost my dignity.”

Brenda attended the storytelling workshop to find her voice again; to gain the confidence and skills to speak up in job interviews but also in situations where social justice was threatened.

As a storyteller and psychologist, I have been privileged to hear personal stories from people whose voices have been silenced or stories previously disregarded.  Through leading workshops focused on story exploration, I have supported others in remembering, working through and telling stories of being in prison, being homeless, of dealing with poverty, violence, and racism. I have witnessed storytellers grapple with the painful meaning they extrapolate from their stories and the power and strength that emerges when they step into new perspectives about themselves or their world. I have seen the positive transformation that can occur when someone is truly heard.

Courageous storytellers like Brenda have become my teachers.  They have helped me to expand my identity from storyteller to story listener, and realize the depth of healing, transformation and change that can occur when wounded stories are shared, heard, and valued.

Although many of the elements of this kind of storytelling workshop will resemble any kind of workshop, personal story sharing with vulnerable populations requires a special sensitivity and focus. It demands creating an environment where storytellers who do not usually experience trust or value, feel safe enough to tell and valued through how they are heard. Much of what follows here, I learned the hard way, i.e. I did it wrong first and learned from my participants what might have worked better. For those who are interested in doing the fulfilling work of midwifing vulnerable stories, I am delighted to share some of what I have learned.

The Vetting Process:

The first step is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to accomplish through your story workshop with vulnerable storytellers. Clarify your own goals and expectations for the story work you plan to do, as well as the skills you can bring to the challenges you will face. Ultimately this will help you to determine when you are ready to begin and what you are ready to offer. It will also help you to clearly convey the process and expectations to those who will be participating in your group. Groups get off to the best start when everyone knows what to expect, are invested in the process and motivated to see it through. It is helpful, therefore, to have a vetting process for participants. This can be done in either a personal interview or paper application. The goal is to determine whether potential participants are “ready, willing, able and stable” to be part of the workshop. I encourage facilitators to answer the questions themselves first.

  • Ready: Clarity of personal mission and purpose.
    • Why do you want to participate in this storytelling workshop?
    • What are you most interested to learn, explore or do in this group?
    • What do you hope to gain from your involvement?
    • What can you contribute?
    • In what ways is this the right time in your professional and/or personal life to do this work?
  • Willing: Awareness of process and preparedness to fully participate.
    • Are you willing to explore your personal history through your stories and deal with any emotions that might surface through this process?
    • Can you be thoroughly present for both yourself and others through this process of self-discovery, vulnerability, and disclosure?
    • What would inhibit you from fully opening to the content of this course or the people in this group? What are you most anxious/reluctant/resistant to in this group?
    • Have you ever been in a situation where you were required to stretch beyond your comfort zone in order to achieve something you cared about? Tell us about this experience. How successful were you? What was positive about this experience for you? What was difficult?”
    • What more do you need to know to make a commitment to be fully engaged?
  • Able: Ability and means to engage in the workshop
    • What do you predict will be hard for you in this workshop? How do you plan to work through any difficulties you may encounter?
    • Will you be able to follow through on this commitment?
    • Can you physically commit to this process, including the time and resources to get to meetings?
    • Does this workshop conflict with other responsibilities in your life right now or can it take priority for the duration of the program?
  • Stable: Ability to manage challenges and emotions that may arise.
    • Tell about a time you have been challenged in the past. What happened? How did you get through it? What did you learn from it?
    • What resources do you have to support you through difficult times?
      • Outer resources of family, friends, mentors, therapist, clergy, and
      •  Inner resources of self-discipline, resiliency, conflict resolution skills, etc.
    • What is your experience of working with or befriending people who are different from you? Tell us about your experience. How did you feel? What did you do to make it work?
    • Have you ever had an experience where you were upset and wanted to bolt, but ended up staying and things worked out all right? Tell us about that time. What or whom did you rely on to help you through this experience? What would need to have in place to be comfortable in this workshop experience?

Creating a Contract

After the interview/application process is complete, ask participants who have been accepted into the workshop and choose to participate to sign a contract/agreement that includes program expectations. An example follows:

“In order for this workshop to be successful for each individual and the group as a whole, it is essential that each participant make a commitment to FULL participation, which includes:

  • Come (and be on time) to all the sessions
    • (Write out all meeting dates, times and meeting place so that it is clearly established in advance.)
  • Contribute to discussions
  • Follow the group safety agreement which will be generated in the first session
  • Be willing to stretch out of your comfort zone
  • Do the homework, come prepared.

It can also be helpful to include a place in the contract for the participant to write a summary statement about their personal goals for the workshop.

Creating a Safety Agreement

In addition to the Contract above which outlines expectations for group membership, it is also important to have an understanding of how participants will come together within the group.  Early on in the first session, I introduce the idea of creating a Safety Agreement:

“When people who know and care for each other come together there is often an unspoken understanding of how each will engage in order to maintain trust and safety between them. When people who know each other less well come together for the intentional and shared purpose of exploration, learning and growth, it can be helpful to establish a written agreement between them. Together we will create a Safety Agreement for this group. The goal is to clarify and communicate our personal and group needs, and ultimately build the kind of trusting and safe environment that will allow each of us to take the risk of sharing ourselves through our stories. What safety agreements do you need to have in place to feel comfortable enough to fully participate in this program?”

After capturing all of the brainstormed responses on newsprint, I invite each member to sign the large sheet before posting it on the wall where it can be referred back to at each session. Group members are invited to add to the agreement in following sessions if they become clear that more is needed. Over the years, I have found that most people’s safety concerns revolve around respect and communication. Some examples from previous groups’ Safety Agreements include:

  • Speak only for yourself
  • One person talks at a time
  • What’s said in the room stays in the room.
  • Speak with honesty
  • Step up and participate, step back and let others have a chance to share as well.
  • Respect one another
  • No criticizing others
  • Judgment-own it and convey it respectfully
  • Tolerate all ideas and all feelings (your own and others)
    • It’s okay to cry
  • No violence of any kind—physical, verbal, emotional
  • Bring a sense of humor, have fun
  • Keep a focus on gratitude

Challenge Participants to Be “Safely Uncomfortable”

Once the Safety Agreement is in place, I add one more idea. I challenge everyone to be “safely uncomfortable”.  We all have “comfort zones” where we feel safe, know what’s expected of us, and feel in control of both our internal and external environment. In fact the roots of the word “comfort” mean “with strength”. When we step outside of that comfort zone, we anticipate danger and feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or afraid. There is, however, an intermediate zone; the SAFELY UNCOMFORTABLE ZONE, which lies between comfort and danger. In this middle ground, we may not know what’s expected of us or what is going to happen, but we are not in actual danger. This is a place where we may feel anxious but do not need to be afraid. This is the place where learning and growth happen; where we can take positive risks that lead us to see ourselves, our situations and others in new ways.  Together, we explore ideas behind what it means to be “safely uncomfortable”.

  • Being uncomfortable is more about anxiety than actual danger
  • We feel unsafe or afraid in the presence of real danger
  • Everyone’s boundaries between the zones of comfortable, uncomfortable and unsafe are different! Everyone is responsible to monitor his or her own boundaries between being safe, being safely uncomfortable and being in danger.
  • What to do if you are triggered in a group or start to feel unsafe:
    • Use mindfulness skills to try to reground and center yourself
      • Return to a focus on your breath. Breathe deeply from your belly.
      • Shake out or stretch to re-ground yourself in your body.
      • See if you can identify what part of the story is creating anxiety or anger for you. Journal about what is coming up for you to get it out and write it down on paper.
      • If you feel you can’t recover on your own, let a facilitator know that you are struggling.
      • Know that it is okay to pass if you feel that you need to.
      • Challenge yourself to come back to the conversation when you are ready or in a stronger internal place.

Session format

Safety arises out of structure, clarity and consistency that eventually elicits trust. Safety and trust are necessary to create a holding environment where participants feel secure enough to take risks, be vulnerable, and share parts of themselves through stories that they may have never shared before. The more you have done your own homework of creating a solid design, clarifying expectations and goals for the workshop and helping participants to do the same, the easier it will be to work through whatever challenges or difficulties inevitably arise. Managing time and equal participation, containing inappropriate displays of emotion and responding with compassion to painful stories, will enable an evolution of trust that will eventually lead to a deepening of experience for everyone. Following a consistent structure each week with familiar rituals that participants can anticipate will contribute to the participants’ experience of safety.

 Common structural elements may include: opening each session with check-ins, “centering” time (meditation or quiet reflection), storytelling exercises which build in complexity and depth over time, clear structures for feedback and debriefing, and closing circle.

  1. Opening the group with a check in

The opening check-in is just what it says; a chance for participants to enter the group each week by checking in with themselves and each other. The weekly ritual establishes the habit of connecting with oneself to be aware of and reflect on one’s emotional temperature before and during the group. The discipline helps to build the skills of self-reflection, emotional self-awareness and listening to others. Additionally, the opening check in gives participants who are less vocal a chance to share their thoughts while giving the message that the group is not started until every voice is heard. Lastly, the check in gives facilitators as well as group members a pulse on what kind of energy is entering the room and a heads up if anything needs to be tended to immediately.

There are numerous ways to check-in. Generally you are trying to achieve a snapshot of what group members are carrying in their minds, hearts, spirits or bodies as they enter the workshop space each week. One of my favorite check- ins is a version of “highs and lows” using the metaphor of a rose:

  • What is a rose (high) that you have experienced since we were last together?
  • What is a thorn (low) that you have experienced since we were last together?
  • What is a bud you are holding? (something you look forward to ahead.)

For those who do not connect to the flower metaphor, the same can be accomplished with an outdoor metaphor:

  • What is a peak you have experienced since we were last together?
  • What is a peak (high) you have experienced since we were last together?
  • What is a valley (low) you have experienced since we were last together?
  • What is a vista (future event you look forward to) you see out ahead?

The “bud” and “vista” portions of the check in provide a helpful shift of focus away from the highs and lows of the past towards something positive that might be out ahead. It conveys the message that the future is always changing and new stories are waiting to be made.

Past participants have reported that the discipline of check-ins became life changing for them. As they became aware of their emotional weather patterns, they could actively shift their mood or control their responses by using their centering skills (see below) and thereby change the experience both for themselves and for others with whom they were interacting. It led them to feel more in control of their responses and ultimately of their environment.

  • Centering Time:

 Another way to build safety within a group is to integrate exercises that lead to skill building in attuning to and managing emotions. Depending on your orientation and comfort level as a facilitator, these can include meditation, mindfulness exercises, breathing exercises, movement, journaling or gentle relaxation and warm-up exercises. The goal is for participants to increase awareness of their mind and body states as well as their habitual responses to them. As participants gain insight into their internal processes, they increase their ability to manage them. In the process of building self-management skills, they are also increasing resilience, gaining self-confidence, and challenging their own self-sabotaging tendencies.  Self-calming skills can be practiced before each story sharing exercise as a means of managing anxiety while also building centering and focusing disciplines.

  • Story Sharing Exercises

As a story teller/story teacher, you will most likely already have your own repertoire of prompts and exercises to help participants find and explore their personal stories. If not, there are many other places in this book that can help you get started. When working with vulnerable storytellers, the secret is to start slow and simple. In the first few sessions, lead with prompts that evoke “feel good” stories and allow tellers to control how deeply they share. Examples might include: “Tell the story of your name”, or “Tell a story about a great day that you remember fondly”.  It can be overwhelming for new or anxious tellers to find a story, so give some added cues to help them get started. For example: “Tell me a story about your favorite shoes.”

  • Do you remember when or how you got them?
    • What did you like about them?
    • Where would you wear them?
    • Can you remember the most interesting place they travelled with you?
    • Where are they now?
    • What might your shoes say about you, who you are and what’s important to you?

Be aware, however, that even the simplest prompts may elicit a trigger. If a participant moves from the safely uncomfortable zone into the danger (trigger) zone, remind them of the self-centering skills that can anchor them and connect them back to themselves. Participants should always have the option to pass or stop if they are triggered by their own or another’s story.  They should also have the option to leave the room with a partner or co-leader until they have calmed or the triggering story in the room is completed.

Participants with vulnerable stories tend to start storytelling from a protected place, feeling out what they can tolerate bringing to the surface and what others can tolerate hearing. Each exercise involves a process of going within, coming out and sharing, checking in with self, re-committing to what should be kept, letting go of what was not needed, appropriate or comfortable, then going back within to reach for more.

After a few sessions of storytelling, most participants have built a level of trust and comfort with each other that their stories go to deeper levels. It is not unusual to have anger, deep grief, frustration or shame permeate their stories. As a facilitator, you can guide participants to find their personal balance between self-challenge to explore deeper meaning within their stories while also monitoring personal boundaries, comfort level and appropriate sharing for any given audience. With each telling, encourage the storytellers to explore: What is the most important message within your story? What do you want to accomplish in telling this? What are the risks for you in sharing this? What do you want your listeners to know, feel or do in response to hearing your story?

By the final session, most tellers have formed their stories around their most important message that incorporates a level of safety for themselves and their listener, with the right amount of detail to maximize impact and fulfill their intention. When they have reached that level of understanding themselves and their story, they usually feel confident enough to bring their telling to the public domain, encouraged to think that their stories might make a difference in others’ lives while continuing to heal their own.

  • Feedback and Debrief

Like newborn babies, all new stories are vulnerable and need to be treated gently. Storytellers deserve the full attention of listeners as well as feedback afterwards about what their stories elicited. Story Coach Doug Lipman has termed this part of the process as giving “appreciations”. Everyone would benefit from reading his ideas on this subject.  In addition to appreciations, I’ll sometimes invite all the listeners to give a “word shower” to the storyteller as a first response. Listeners shout out single words about either the teller or the story that come to mind in response to hearing the story. This can be especially powerful for storytellers who have told to a large audience. After opening themselves to strangers with a personal story, it is beautifully bolstering to hear a shower of positive affirmations coming back from the audience in return.

When storytellers are working on a story with a partner or in small groups, I encourage listeners to be aware of their most important takeaways from the story as well as any emotions that arise for them. For many participants, the process of active listening to each other’s stories is as powerful and healing as exploring their own. It is not unusual for either tears or cheers to be present as listeners connect through common experiences and respond with a full array of emotions. It can be helpful for facilitators to raise questions like: “How did this story impact you? How did this story shape your thoughts and/or questions? What surprised you about what you heard? What did you want more of? Less of?”   Stories touch both heads and hearts and it’s helpful for the teller to know how it is landing in both.

Concurrently, I alert both listeners and tellers that story listening is both personal and subjective. We hear things according to the stories we already know and/or the experiences we have already had. As a story listener, own your lens. We are all biased in some way. By owning your perspective, the storyteller can keep your feedback and appreciations in perspective.

Before bringing any exercise to a close, it is helpful to offer time to debrief the experience. What was it like for you to do this exercise? What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about others? Repeat the process with new exercises for as many times as the session allows.

  • Closing circle:

How you bring the session to a close is as important as how you open it. Having a common ritual can help participants to close back up and be better able to reenter their everyday lives. In many ways, the “check-out” is another form of checking-in, encouraging participants to take a moment to acknowledge the experience that has just been shared. It can be done with a song, words or even a moment of silence together. I usually invite participants to take a quiet moment to think back on the session and find a word or phrase that reflects a thought or feeling that arises for them. Similar to the opening, it leaves a positive message that the group is not closed until every voice has been heard.

Brenda’s Story continued

A few months after our workshop at the homeless shelter ended, I received a request for storytellers to speak to a group of 120 high school students studying social justice issues.  I invited Brenda to tell her story to them. She hesitated and said she needed to think about it. Shortly before the event, Brenda called to let me know that she would participate. I was not able to be present that day, so I was eager to hear how it went for her. The following week I arrived early at the shelter to meet with Brenda. While waiting for her to arrive, a beautiful woman with an elaborate hair weave, makeup and flattering dress approached me and said hello.  I began to introduce myself to the stranger until I heard Brenda’s laugh. “It’s me!”   I hadn’t even recognized her. This is the story she told me about what happened at the storytelling event:

 “I wanted to cancel the speaking engagement all the way up until I got there.  I spoke with my therapist and said I don’t think I’m ready. She said, ‘You may be scared, but do it anyway. As long as you are afraid of your story, your story is controlling you.’  I was afraid that they would all judge me. I felt like I was reliving it in that moment. But when I spoke to those students, it was like I was in the audience myself. I began to hear my own words. Oh wow, I did that? Listening to my own story, I felt proud of myself. It felt so different to put it out there. When I said it out loud, that’s when my healing began to take place.

Then hearing the teenagers’ response to my story; they were encouraging!  One young man spoke up and said that no one is above or beneath anyone else. Everybody deserves the same human rights. Listening to him gave me power. I thought they would be judgmental, but when they did talk, I felt proud of what I had said. Afterwards, the kids were coming up and saying thank you to me for sharing my story. They didn’t know the courage it took for me to tell what had happened to me.  I am still in a lot of pain about it. There are still parts of that story that are impacting my life. 

I realize now that telling my story was the first step in gaining back the things that I had lost. I didn’t know that I could do it. The second step was that I heard myself validated by people who listened to me. That gave me my dignity back. Maybe now I can change someone else’s mindset. Maybe my story can help someone else. That will make what I went through not be in vain; give some meaning and purpose to what happened to me.”

NOTE: OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD FOR STORY FACILITATORS: Transformation can also occur for the facilitator through the process of listening to participants’ stories. Once you have open-heartedly taken in another’s story, it becomes part of you. It changes the configuration of stories you carry within, all of which shape the lens through which you will see the world. You will never see things the same again.

 I hope this structure gives you the confidence to do this work. The world needs to hear these vulnerable stories now more than ever.

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