6) In any group, I teach the art of peercoaching. I invite students to accept the stance of “coach” because it will develop the witness within. Storytelling artfully and coaching someone else are both about noticing. Evaluating what works or doesn’t is an aspect of coaching, but I want peercoaches to expand their thinking about how a story might be told, not narrow it to a way they think it should be told.
When coaching is for the sake of the teller it accomplishes the most. The coach’s job becomes freeing the teller’s best thinking both at the moment and in the future. It’s never simply a matter of polishing the tale into the coach thinks is goodt. Like believing in the teller’s success, listening with the teller’s goals and creativity in mind is a stance the coach takes again and again. I encourage peercoaches to take an observing, not a judging posture. They want to ask themselves what is the teller doing or trying to achieve? Then their responses will come from a place of curiosity rather than direction.
Inexperienced coaches get distracted from deep listening by the tale they want to tell or by some incident or emotion a tale brings up. As audience members, this is exactly what a listener does. Storytelling’s job is to take listeners into themselves. But, as coaches, while we may be moved or entertained, we make the decision to listen primarily for the teller’s sake. Then we ask what will help the teller discover his or her unique way to tell this tale?
7) I teach tellers of every age to find a balance between listening to themselves and to others. The world’s voices, often harsh and critical, can lure us away from our best thinking and our original goals as both artists and coaches.
I introduce metacognition to both tellers and peer coaches. Metacognition involves talking or writing about one’s thinking. I ask tellers to think: What has been rewarding or difficult as I’ve told or as I’ve accepted and given feedback? Why did I pick this tale? How did I work on it? How has my thinking changed in process? What do I love about this tale? What do I want listeners to take away? I require both tellers and peercoaches to be reflective, to listen to themselves.
8) I always begin feedback by offering unadulterated appreciations purposeful, specific positives unmixed with suggestions or questions. Not just to be nice. I want a teller to recognize what is skillful in storytelling. Often we are unconscious of our skillfulness, our unique talents as artists. I want tellers to know their strengths and build on them.
I keep appreciations “clean” or separate from other feedback because I want the teller to really let them in. Not be braced for the “but” to follow. I want the teller to hear what works well, what is fresh, what is worth keeping, before making changes. I name what moves me and what strikes me as unique. “Your little girl voice sounds authentic. I can see the character of the fiveyearold you.” “Your sound effect helped me imagine that bird.” “You have a unique way of sliding an image our way then leaning on a word or phrase so the image sticks in our minds.”
Appreciations can influence a teller adversely, make her want to please, more than follow her own creative instincts. I name that problem for my students. Yet, I know few tellers see their strengths or accept them as pluses. What takes no effort seems trivial or as something to avoid. Doug Lipman says we often call our
strengths “That old thing? Why I’ve always been able to do that.” or“That has gotten me into trouble!” Confidence results in claiming our strengths as artists and taking the risk to try new skills.
Sometimes it seems as if criticizing ourselves and each other is the job. I’ve seen far too many children and adults unwilling to accept appreciations. Yet they are easily disillusioned when “suggestions” fly. “Constructive criticisms” aren’t constructive when they shut a teller down. Appreciations are only one aspect of coaching, but they are important because they illuminate what is skillfull. I encourage tellers to let appreciations all the way in, to ride their energy. After every good appreciation my brain works better. I feel safe and relax into the thrilling, often terrifying work, of creating. Any kind of feedback should leave the teller excited to make changes or to move forward in some way. A successful coaching session stirs the artist’s creative juices. A dejected teller rarely improves.
9) Questions are the most valuable form of suggestion. I ask what I am truly curious about, what I want to understand more fully or see more clearly. I rarely ask a question to be silly (although I’ve done this to loosen up a stiff teller). I’m never sarcastic. I limit the focus and number of questions so the teller leaves with key things to think about as he revises. A laundry list of things to change is rarely helpful unless I am with advanced storytellers who ask for directorlike “notes.” A few good questions help a teller imagine possibilities for a story’s growth. My questions help young tellers learn how to ask themselves questions or ask questions of the tale.
10) Lastly, suggestions. We are all raised to think of feedback as direction. In my career suggestion and direction have been the LEAST helpful kinds of feedback. I am creative. I trust I will find my own best way to solve any problem. I do need help recognizing problems, but mostly what I need is true listening. A good listener or room full of storylovers makes my creative juices flow. Then I need to know “so what worked, what lived?” and “Were you bugged by anything or uncertain of my meaning at any point?” When I do offer anyone suggestions, they often come in the form of “Want to try something?” If the teller says no, I let go. If the teller is willing, I offer a posture change or voice variation or word emphasis – something that helps the teller experiment Then I trust the nudge will help her find her own way