Doug: What have the benefits been to you of organizing coaching workshops?
Gail: We used to try to organize story swaps at my house, once a month for whoever wanted to come. We needed places to try out stories before telling them in front of an audience. And what I found was, sometimes, in trying to be helpful, the comments that were made shut down stories I was working on. I wouldn't feel like I wanted to do them any more.
So I started using your workshops as gatekeeper for a working story group. If I required people to first take a workshop from you before coming to a sharing group, I was guaranteed that the people who came to monthly meetings were people who understood this particular model of coaching—so that it was a safe place to work on stories. And everyone who came to work was assured of a supportive atmosphere where the story and the teller received the respect and attention they deserved.
That is the major part. The other part is sharing that time and space of emotional safety with people. It increases the bonds of friendship. So there's a comfortable, friendly intimacy. That feeling spills out of the workshop, and the friendships then continue.
What prompted you to set up the very first workshop?
I was working on a story and I needed you.
How did you know you needed me?
Because at a conference you coached the story I was working on. In just a fifteen minute coaching session, you helped me approach that story in a whole new way. Actually, you helped me realize how I was approaching that story and that I could look at it and choose how I wanted to approach it. Rather than be locked into something that was on "automatic pilot."
And so I knew that I wanted more of that kind of help. In order to get it, I had to find ways to work with you. So first I dragged a friend up to New York for a one-day workshop before a festival. All the way from Baltimore in the car, I kept telling her about your coaching. Until at last she turned to me and said, "You said that already!" But once the workshop began, after about twenty minutes, she turned to me and said, "Oh. I see. Thank you for bringing me here!"
So then, together, we tried to figure how to bring you down to Baltimore and share you with people we cared about.
Also, the growth and the changes that I see in people's telling, through the coaching that you do, has created a community of performers that I'm proud to work with.
Let's go back to when you decided to arrange the first workshop. How did you get people?
I badgered them to death! I told them whatever I thought they wanted to hear, to get them there. I knew you would take care of them from there!
Some people I even lent money, some I worked out deals with to use their houses—every which way.
What would you say the net effect is, after all these years, on your storytelling community?
I have one! I have a reliable, core working group of people where there is mutual respect for each other's work, and affection for the content of each other's work. Appreciation of the work, the person, and the combination of the two. So there's an artistic appreciation and a personal appreciation.
When we get together, we have to meet for dinner so we can socialize first. Otherwise, it's hard to get to work. Then we usually end up calling each other the next day to kvell [gush] about what an amazing gift it is to spend an evening in the company of such delightful folks, everybody doing such fine work.
So you folks get together every month? And it's just people who've been in my weekend workshops, right?
Only those people who've been to a multi-day workshop are invited to come. And of those, not every one wants that kind of working group. But almost every workshop adds one or two people who will continue.
The core group shifts over time. A few are consistent through the years; others come and go. And some come back again after a time away.
Is there more that you can say about the effect on you as an artist, of having this community?
Confidence that I have something worthwhile to offer. Confidence that I can trust the story and my own instincts enough not to be obsessed with how I'm appearing, or whether I'm clever enough, or talented enough, or impressive enough for a given audience—but just to trust the process of telling a story. Knowing that if I genuinely put my focus where it belongs—which is on the story and its relationship to the audience and to what I love about the story and what's important to me in the story—that will communicate. And it mostly does!
Did you have any initial reluctance to organizing a workshop?
Yes. I still don't love that part. It's a hassle to make it happen.
But once everybody's in the room, it's sweet. It's a joy to watch people "get it." To watch their initial awareness of what this has to offer them. It's different for different people. But I get to watch that over and over: people saying, "Oh, I see what this is about!" It's wonderful—great fun—to sit back and just watch that. To watch people's surprise as their own creativity is coaxed forward—and their delight in that.
And the feeling of emotional safety that lets all the guards and the masks fall away, so that people can really access the finest parts of themselves, and use it creatively in stories they are telling.
If you were going to give advice to someone who was thinking of organizing one of these workshops, what would you say to them?
He's expensive, but he's worth it!
Have your criteria for who to invite changed over the years?
Now that there is a core group and a lot of people have done it, it's wonderful to have people in that core group, people who have done it before. The coaching and the work that people do keeps deepening.
But newcomers are interesting, too, and fun in a different way. Some people are such a delight to discover and have them see how they fit into our community—even people from out of town who are only able to come in for an occasional workshop.
And then there are those other people. Maybe I shouldn't talk about those?
I think it's useful for people to know that not everything works perfectly. And what to do about it. And that you'll survive it.
I think of people like J-, who came once and didn't come back. She constantly tells me how wonderful she thinks I am. And since I give you so much credit, she says, "Okay, he must be grand—for you." But she just was not comfortable with that kind of work, especially when some people worked on feelings. That's just not where she wants to be or how she wants to work. But she says, "I have to acknowledge that it must be great, because you say it helps you and you are fantastic." There are people who can see that this style of working may not be for them, but can still see how helpful it is for others. And even when people are clearly not going to be coming back, there are still changes. There is still some shift that happens in their telling.
I'm thinking of a woman some years ago. You wanted her to access what was keeping her from telling stories. And she just would not go there. You tried way after way until you found what worked for her. Clearly, you have an ego; you promote yourself, there's not a problem that you don't have an ego. But sometimes I don't know where you've put it when you're working! When something isn't working for the teller, you don't stay attached to it. You seem to be able to pretty consistently toss it over your shoulder and be open again to what could be helpful. And if the next thing you try doesn't work, you just toss that, too. It's not a matter of you being proven right or you winning, it's in service to the teller's goals: to find something that will work for that person.
I love to say "no" to you sometimes, to watch what you'll do next.
Talk about that!
I come from a theater background where you didn't say "no" to a director. If they say, "try this," you try that. It wouldn't have occurred to me to say “no,” no matter how uncomfortable the direction might have made me feel, no matter how intrusive or invasive it might have been, no matter how exposed I might have felt—it didn't matter. The director is in charge, and that's what one does.
And so the model of me being in charge was completely new to me. When I finally figured out that you could make a suggestion and I could say, "I don't think so," I had to try it out a few times, to know if that was really true.
So after doing that, then I figured out that it wasn't only about who was in charge, you or me. It was truly about finding not just the answer—finding the particular technique or line or particular way to tell a story—but that the process of getting there had to feel right for me as well.
You could help me find the process that felt right for me as well as the end product. And you could only help me do that if I said when it didn't feel right. If I withheld that information from you, how would you know that? So it wasn't about a power play or a game, it was actually useful for me to say "no" when it didn't feel right.
What would you say to someone who's trying to figure out if they're the kind of person that can pull this off, to organize one of these workshops. They're saying, "Okay. Sounds good. I get some idea that it will help me in several ways—including by having people around me who are educated in this approach and doing better because of it. But am I the kind of person who can pull this off?"
It's a limited number. You don't need 25 people, you only need 8!
There are some people who are lucky enough to work for an employer who will subsidize their coming. Because money is an obstacle for a lot of folks. And that's often the hardest one to overcome, although time is an issue for people, too.
Another thing you can do is to start smaller and build up. Like do two one-days in a row with different groups of people. In some ways that's more of a hassle because you have to get more people, but then everybody's paying less. That's what we did the first time we tried to do two weekends in a row.
Just put it out to everybody. I ask everybody I talk to, if it feels like it would be fun to have them—whatever state they live in. And you never know who's going to say yes. This year we have someone from California coming to Baltimore for your workshop!
I realize that I can't stop promoting a workshop after it fills—because sometimes people drop out.
How do you handle that? If you have a full workshop, how do you keep promoting it?
I tell people it's full, but I have a waiting list and sometimes it opens up.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I want people to know that when you do it more than once, it does get easier.
Talk about that.
This is the first year I didn't even make up a flier. And there are some people who were on my list of folks (who might be interested in this year's Storytelling Coaching workshop) who I didn't even call. It just filled up.
(Gail Rosen, based in Baltimore, MD, travels the U.S. helping people use stories for healing from loss and other wounds. She has recorded two tapes of storytelling. She is also the Chair of the "Healing Story Alliance" special interest group within the National Storytelling Network. Her email address is email@example.com.)
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I have learned from your workshops that, under the right learning conditions, people's excellence will be expressed. There are learning conditions that encourage human excellence.
I understand that I can create particular learning conditions in which my students' creativity will bloom. Feeling safe enough to take risks (really make mistakes and learn from them) is one condition that fosters real learning.
The coaching theory and practice have changed the way I teach and, to some degree, the way I interact with my family and friends and colleagues.—Lynne Burns, educational consultant, Ilion, NY