Creative Reflective Support for Storytellers Working with Different Groups of People

Janet Dowling
“Guidance notes for storytellers’ work in health and social care settings.”

In 2004, I was chairing the SfS Storytelling in Health and Social Care Settings special interest group and - along with a number of health and social care practitioners who also used storytelling in their work with clients – we drew up “Guidance notes for storytellers’ work in health and social care settings.”

This is a slightly edited version of the notes:

“Storytellers are using stories in varied health and therapy settings with different kinds of experience and training. It is important that someone using stories in a health and therapy setting understands their role and accountability in that setting, the outcomes that they are trying to achieve and the impact on the audience.

As importantly storytellers need to have an understanding of how they themselves may need to be supported in that role. The SfS has been approached [in 2004] by several storytellers who want to work in health and therapy settings and are unsure how they should approach it.

Others have told of bad experiences. One was asked to work collaboratively in a health and therapy setting to encourage and support a child dealing with the after effects of abuse. Several years later the storyteller was still distressed because they had not been offered an opportunity to talk about their own reactions to what they had heard during the child’s therapy.
Another storyteller had been engaged to tell stories to a group of inpatients in a hospital. During the course of the telling, one of the patients became visibly distressed and the storyteller was unsure how to deal with the situation and has since declined to work in this field.
The SfS developed these guidance notes to enable people who use stories in health and therapy setting, AND the people who employ them, to have a better understanding of the different roles and responsibilities.”

The guidance notes went on to explain the roles and responsibilities of both the storyteller and the organization taking into account the storyteller’s experience and training. For example, if the storyteller is a trained therapist, working within the organization, using storytelling, the support should already be offered to them by the organization. However, if the storyteller is contracted to do a specific job as a freelance storyteller, and not as a trained therapist, then additional arrangements would be needed to ensure that the support was available.

Within health and care settings, this support is often referred to as “supervision”. While there has to be some level of workload and clinical management by the organization, which some people may see feel threatens autonomy of the artist, “supervision” should also be a time for the practitioner to reflect on their work: to be able to consider what they did well, and how they could do things better the next time. It should be a space in which to ask for advice, explore issues which arise and reflect on their own responses to incidents that happen or confidential information that comes to light and examine how they are reacting to clients, and how clients are reacting to them. This opportunity to reflect on the work is essential to one’s continuous professional development.

The aim of the guidance notes was to enable storytellers and organizations to identify and take on some of these issues, so that storytellers and other arts practitioners would feel safe and supported in doing the work, and developing their skills. They even found their way into the reference catalogue of NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).

However, ten years later, I still get phone calls from storytellers and other arts practitioners who have been employed by an organization but not offered any support or supervision. As an experienced psychiatric social worker and health, social care manager and storyteller, I have often offered unpaid reflective supervision and assistance in developing their strategies.

Three years ago I came across “Creative Supervision,” a course run by Sue Jennings of the Rowan Centre in Somerset. Although it was primarily aimed at Dramatherapists, I realized that art practitioners in general could benefit. In essence, the creative supervision / reflective practice enables one to understand the process of interaction with one’s client, the organisation that one is working within, and the work’s impact on oneself. It uses right brain creative techniques and metaphors to enable one to develop clearer lines of thought and action to achieve a safe and healthy outcome for both clients and practitioner.

A variety of creative arts and action techniques are used. For example, incidents that occur during a storytelling activity can be explored by drawing pictures, making patterns in sand, using dance or movement to express mood, or using objects like plastic animals, buttons, or puppets to represent some of the issues. Essentially trying to gain further insights through working with different sensory metaphors which can include movement, story, puppetry, clay, objects, sculpting, percussion instruments, drawing and role-play.

One storyteller who was feeling stuck in expressing how he felt about the project, realised by using different animals to represent different aspects of himself that while most of the time he felt himself to be a strong character - a wolf - he found with the project coordinator he was feeling like a mouse. However, by using an elephant to represent his sense of being grounded and secure about his role as a storyteller, he was able to “invite the elephant and mouse to work together”, so that he felt able to confront the project coordinator.

In another example, a storyteller found that there was one client whom she found difficult to engage. By using drawings and dance movements to explore her own feelings, she realised that this client evoked in her the feelings she‘d had towards her grandmother who had beaten her as a child. Recognising that her feelings were completely unrelated to the client enabled the storyteller to be more effective in their work together.
I also use a Communicube (developed by John Casson). It looks a bit like a Star Trek 3-D chess board, and allows people to place objects at different levels, move them around to explore relationships, and gain for themselves a better understanding of the situation they are in.
In using all these methods the metaphors are chosen by the storyteller. The facilitator takes the role of holding the space so that the storyteller feels safe to explore them and have their attention drawn to inconsistencies or curiosities in the situation that could be further explored. As each person responds in a different way, there needs to be a variety of creative options to call on. This is best done “in the room”, but is possible over the phone or by Skype, and as the work is done through metaphor, confidentially can be maintained.

People who have experienced this form of creative reflective supervision have said:
“Provides the space and emotional climate to work through the scenario presented.”
“I always feel relaxed following the session.”
“I look forward to having my scenario worked through, especially by means of varied methods (cubes, towers, cards!).”

I would encourage storytellers working in health and social care settings, who want to feel safe and supported, to consider

~the need for and benefits of reflecting on your work if you are regularly working in health and social care settings, and want to further develop your skills
~ the responsibility of the employing organisation to ensure that you are given appropriate support, and to make provision for it if it isn’t already available within the organisation (so consider making this part of your contract with them)
~ organising your own creative reflective supervision if it is not provided by the organisation employing you (it should be an allowable professional services tax expense).

Janet Dowling
Storyteller, Writer and Creative Reflective Supervisor.

N.B. I and at least two other storytellers have done the training with Sue Jennings and I completed the Diploma in Creative Reflective Supervision earlier this year. There will be others who have also completed the training aimed at dramatherapists but also applicable to storytellers.