Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Be a Creative Listener: Ceremonies of Engaged Witness

The deepest emotional need for any human being is to feel valued – to feel seen and heard, and to have their experience acknowledged by others. In other words, to be visible.

Increasingly, in spite of our ever-expanding communications technology, many people (especially those most in need of outer support) feel invisible. This is because fewer and fewer people know how to tell their story, and even fewer people know how to listen. By listening, I mean being fully receptive to what they hear, without interrupting, contradicting, trying to fix, analyze, interpret, diagnose, or judge. In other words, to bear witness.

One of the smartest, most healing and transformational things we can do in our families, healthcare settings, mental health clinics, classrooms, communities, and workplaces is to create story sanctuaries where small groups of people can engage with one another outside their normal roles. Where they free to speak their truth: who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. Where quantum change happens through communal creative process and empathic relationship.

I’m going to briefly share with you a process for teaching people how to be creative and generative listeners. But first, a little background:

In the 1970s, cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff observed a community of elderly Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. Many of these people had migrated to the US from the shtetls of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and had lost their extended families in the Holocaust; a number had outlived their own children. The result was a sense of isolation from the rest of the community, a sense of invisibility, which manifested in depression, deeper isolation, loneliness, and frail health.

With help from a community organizer, these elderly citizens created a community in which they could recuperate, be re-energized, and regain their sense of existence. The way they did this was to tell and retell, perform and re-perform the stories of their lives. It was in these small story sanctuaries that these old people had the opportunity to become visible on their own terms. Meyerhoff called these experiences definitional ceremonies – the storytellers got to define themselves and be witnessed for it.

In the 1980s and 90s, Australian family therapists Michael White and David Epston, who had been using narratives with families, began to experiment with Myerhoff’s definitional ceremonies. In their practice, the therapist maintained their central role and elicited the stories through interviewing the clients and their outsider witnesses.

In the process described below, the therapist or facilitator steps back from their central role as interpreter and expert. After explaining the process to storyteller and witnesses, the facilitator does not intervene except to gently keep the process on track and focused on the central storyteller’s sharing. I call these storytelling and story listening experiences ceremonies of engaged witness.

Going Further:
Catalyzing Change through the Telling and Retelling of Stories

1. Tell a story, recite, a poem, or use the “Five Elements” storytelling exercise to build a safe container and create a theme for participants in this experience. I often use myths and fairy tales, as they release people from “reality” into connection with their imagination, intuition, and inner lives. Also, these old stories are metaphors for present experience and as such, are not invasive. I’ve never seen it fail. People universally respond to fairy tales and classic hero myths.

2. Invite a collective response to it – Ask the group what sensory images, phrases, or dramatic moments stand out for them. Not why. Just what. Anyone can share. No one has to.

3. Invite private writing time – Ask each person to find their own private “studio” space, then to write down five words that come immediately to mind. Ask them to choose the word that most captures their imagination, and to make that the first word of an improvisational piece of writing. Give them 5-15 minutes for this exercise, telling them at the outset how much time they’ll have, and that everything they need to say will come out in this time. I often play meditative music during this period to create safety and privacy within the group.

4. Invite reading for whoever wants to share with the group. Again, everyone is invited. No one has to.

5. Invite each witness to retell what they heard, without analyzing, interpreting, giving advice, or judging in any way. This is the critical and catalytic part of the process.
Instruct listeners to focus their feedback on four areas without being rigid or judgmental if they fail to address all the feedback questions in the way you want:
-- The values expressed in this writing, drawing, or performance (what matters to the storyteller);
-- Images that stand out for you and the felt sense, atmosphere, or mood you get from their story;
-- Go further with inner resonance. What areas or memories in your personal life that you may have forgotten are lit up by hearing this. (These last two steps are catalytic because they merge storyteller and witness stories, move the storyteller forward into a bigger story, and create a communal story.)
-- Share a personal shift or change in perspective gained as a result. This lets the teller know how valuable their story is to others.

6. Invite the teller to retell the retelling: What do they take away with them from this experience? WHAT POSITIVE STEPS CAN THEY NOW TAKE IN THEIR LIVES?

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment