November 30, 2021

Why collecting stories should be a part of every trauma informed worker’s job

Why collecting stories should be a part of every trauma informed worker’s job

Stories create meaning

They are as key to being human as is sleeping or eating. They remind us that we are not alone and help us walk in another’s shoes, and, importantly, they are vital for helping us understand Trauma informed Practice.

Our experience in teaching and sharing good practice through storytelling, which is core to our training and presentations, has taught us that stories are what people remember.They do the important job of carrying the theory and making it meaningful to our day to day lives. A good story is instantly memorable, it's also something people share with others.

For instance, teaching people about Trauma triggers, and the theory behind this is important, but what is memorable is the story of a HomelessService. In this story, the Homeless Service staff need to stay the night, and they are allowed to sleep on a small bed in the reception area. This is good for staff who are on a sleeping shift but who still want to be available to the service users they try hard to support, even at 3:30am.

This story sounds normal and appropriate to most people who hear it, it’s easy enough to imagine.

Until the next act in the story

This is when we introduce Aileen, 26-year-old homeless woman who is on a detox but has struggled for several years with opiate and crack addictions. Aileen needs to pay a small stipend for her accommodation and sometimes does so with cash. She is trying to be regular in this and has been on time the last few weeks. To pay the rent she comes into the reception room to give it to Tom, the new night worker, who is sitting on his cot, pleased to see her come in the door. She hands him the money. Now pause. Stop. A thinking exercise for you.

Think over this story from the point of view of teaching son potential triggers. Look at the experience from the lens of Aileen and think about the power structures at play. Does this story read any differently to you?When the story, which was true a few years ago, is told well, this is a real lightbulb moment for people. Oh. My. Goodness. And if it’s a trauma informed light bulb, it is not easily turned off.

This light can hopefully shine on other innocent situations in our work and help us see the hidden power dynamics at play. (Clue here, if you are wondering what the twist is - then the written story didn’t work very well. It’s that this could be a triggering experience for someone who has potentially been involved in sex work, and late at night must walk into a room with a man on a bed she doesn’t know).

So, what makes a good story?

We spend an afternoon with each of our trainers practicing their stories and we can confirm that it’s not as easy as a good storyteller makes it look.Stories that really stick with us are collected, curated, and carefully crafted. It possibly more akin to a good wedding speech or a comedy skit, it’s as much about what’s left in as what’s out, it’s about the flow and the beats, and getting this all right – takes time.  Here is what we have learned, over the last six years of telling stories that teach, we hope these tips will help you share your learning, and values with your team:

  • Make the story real, however it can be one you have heard or borrowed. Collect these, if you hear a story which teaches something important – ask the teller if you can share it –change some details to protect organisational and personal anonymity.
  • Strip it back to its core, ideally a good story is told in 1.5 – 2 mins. Once you have its bones, put in enough information to help us identify with the main characters.
  • Tell it and watch people’s reactions, if you don’t get the reaction you are aiming for, try telling it differently.
  • You can try to use a catch or twist to provide a sense or surprise or shock, this can help the key lesson be more apparent. Also use open questions to get people to think about the story differently.
  • Practice and practice again, a good story doesn’t just happen it requires crafting.

The thread connecting Caroline's 20+ year's experience in Not for Profit management and consultancy, is helping frontline services be as accessible and effective as possible. 'TIP is the most impactful means I’ve ever seen of improving culture and connecting people to a communal and concrete idea of what good is’'. Caroline, CEO of Quality Matters, has qualifications in sociology and community development and SROI, her role in TIP is Programme Management and Implementation.
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