Professional Storyteller

Share a Story - Change the World

One perennial decision a coach must make is how much to serve as a midwife for the storyteller's creativity, on the one hand, and how much to serve as a supplement to the storyteller's creativity, on the other.

Traditionally, coaching and critiqueing in the arts emphasize the "supplement" approach, focussing on adding ideas, observations, and evaluation to what the storyteller offers. In reaction, many of us emphasize the root of "educate," which means to "draw out."

Either extreme, taken to excess, can be less than optimal. What experiences have you had, either as a coach or as one coached, of being aided by either approach? Of being hindered by it?

Tags: coaching, storytelling, support

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I love the idea about the coach needing to articulate what may be tacit knowledge!

As a coach, I think of it this way:

1. I have a reaction to something the teller did.
2. I need to turn that reaction into something useful for the teller.
3. I have multiple options for how to transform that reaction to make it useful.

Sometimes, I can jump immediately from noticing my reaction to saying something helpful (in the form of a positive suggestion, a question, or a statement of my own experience as a listener). If not, then I need to work further before saying anything.

How to I "work further"? Sometimes, it helps for me to say to myself, "What is my reaction exactly?" Or "How could I imagine making this better?" It's not that I would usually share my internal answers with the person I'm coaching. Rather, my answers sometimes give me more insight into what I think you'd call my tacit knowledge - and how it relates to the needs of the teller.

For example, suppose I my general reaction was, "Boy, that ending leaves me unsatisfied." Then I might answer my question about the specifics of my reaction by thinking, "Well, I was expecting a resolution of the narrator's dilemma about completing her college education."

In that case, I'd be able to ask the teller some questions about the teller's goals for the story and the role of the college education dilemma - and then learn, in the process, what the teller really intended. Maybe the college education dilemma WAS, in fact, the key issue and needed to come to the fore at the end. Or maybe it was just a sidetrack and needed to be made smaller or eliminated, as part of putting the emphasis where the teller intended.

Or suppose I couldn't answer "What was my reaction exactly," but could answer "How could I imagine making this better?" with "I'd bring back the image from earlier in the story about the fantasy of being a college graduate - but with a twist to show that the goal was met." Then I'd ask myself, "What assumption have I made that would make my idea be an appropriate ending?" If my answer to was "I'm assuming that the college education is the key issue of the story," then I'd proceed to ask questions about the key issue of the story and the role of the college education issue in it. This leads to a result similar to that of the first question, but gets there through a different route. In other words, this is a slightly different way to notice my "tacit knowledge" and then compare it with the intentions of the teller.

Why be so thorough in tracking down my reactions and their relationship to the teller's intentions? Because my job is to help the teller achieve her or his intentions. My "tacit" reactions are more about me than about the teller. But they may be helpful clues to what is off or needs to be improved - if I can follow them back to the teller's intentions and then use them as rough guides for questioning and possibly for suggestions based on the results of my questions.

Maybe we need to add a second dimension to your idea of "tacit" vs. "explicit" knowledge? I need to make my tacit knowlege explicit enough to communicate it to the teller, or at least to know what questions to ask to move things forward. But equally, perhaps I need to distinguish whether my tacit knowledge is about what I would do with a story or whether it's what actually makes sense for the teller to do?

Back to the example of your frustrating experience being coached: If your coach could have distinguished between her goals and your goals, she might have been able to notice that your asides were helping you achieve your goals - even though they would be destructive to her goals as a teller.

To me, this seems similar to problems that arise commonly in cross-cultural interactions. In the absence of understanding that we have different assumptions and tacit rules, we tend to interpret a behavior in the light of our own assumptions and rules. Thus, the Anglo-American takes the African-American's averted eyes as a sign of fear or lack of confidence (rather than respect). Or the African-American takes the Anglo-American's prolonged eye contact as a challenge (rather than an attempt to connect).

If I had to guess, in fact, I'd say that most unhelpful coaching comes from this issue of "point of view" - of the nearly universal human tendency to assume that other people operate from the same assumptions that I do.

Maybe what the coach needs to make explicit is not knowledge, but assumptions, goals and point of view? And maybe it isn't always important to make those assumptions explicit to the teller, but only to help the teller make her assumptions and goals explicit? Perhaps, once they are explicit, the coach can profitably use tacit as well as explicit knowledge in their pursuit.
>> Maybe what the coach needs to make explicit is not knowledge, but assumptions, goals and point of view? And maybe it isn't always important to make those assumptions explicit to the teller, but only to help the teller make her assumptions and goals explicit? Perhaps, once they are explicit, the coach can profitably use tacit as well as explicit knowledge in their pursuit.

Doug, you are right on target with that observation.

As Rebbe Zusye lay dying, he expressed his worry regarding the fate that might await him in the World to Come. His disciples tried to reassure him by pointing out that not everyone can be a Moses. Zusye replied: "When I account for my life before the Heavenly Tribunal, my Judge won't ask 'Why weren't you Moses?'. He will ask 'Why weren't you Zusye?'.

Ideally the coach, like the tzaddik, helps the learner discover his or her own path to mastery. The result of this process is two masters, each of whom is uniquely him or herself. As different as Zusye was from his teacher the Maggid of Mezerich.

So much of that process of discovery lies beyond the reach of direct verbalization. But it's possible to absorb it by working alongside a master craftsman and learning the rhythm of his/her practice: the silences and the listening as well as the stories and instructions. As one hassid remarked of his journey to a distant tzaddik: "I didn't come to hear him expound Torah. I came to study how he ties his shoes."
Thanks. I love those 2 Hasidic stories, too!

When I tell those (and similar) stories to one of my friends, he always looks at me quizzically and says, "Is that the end?" I guess some people find such stories puzzling.

But this very friend has come back to me at least twice, saying, "I told that story at a meeting yesterday." I guess such stories get under peoples' skins!

Sometimes, a good story (or a good contribution from a coach) is like a burrowing seed, having its effect over time and suddenly blossoming into a change of consciousness or of behavior.

But that's for a different coaching discussion!


P.S., Do you know my Hasidic Stories Home Page? Do you have a Hasidic story you'd like to contribute that isn't already up there? You can view it at
Albeit late to this discussion again, I hear what you are saying Marc and can understand your frustration with the coach who condemned you for telling the story "your way". It seems to me that as tellers - indeed as human beings we have the personal right to tell our stories in whatever way seems most comfortable to ourselves. Throughout all the training that I underwent at Emerson college last year, the most helpful point that was made by Roi and Liz was that you can "learn" all the tricks and tips for making your story more receivable to the audience, but in the end everything just drops away and the story comes out from you in the moment, in whatever way is most right at the time. In a funny way, even prepared stories are spontaneous stories, for they are affected by our lives, experiences, moods, and even the weather!

To coach others to tell stories is a process of love and empathy, not a process of "wearing my coat". In teaching we need to be self aware and empathic as well. I believe that is the greatest gift we can pass on to others.





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