Sharing our Stories: A How To

This post is also available in: Spanish Portuguese (Brazil)

This talk was originally given at the 2017 Affirmation Conference in London, UK, July 7-9, 2017.


By Francesa Fotheringham

I come from a psychology background and as such, even though I am not a counsellor, I have had a little training in listening and creating open channels for individuals and groups. Having been raised in the Mormon faith, I have also sat through my fair share of ‘lessons’ which could more aptly be described as hour long talks. Lessons where we are all sat squarely in rows whilst a voice coming from behind a manual reads that week’s assigned topic. No questions are asked, no discussions are had and as the bell rings, next to no spiritual learning has really happened.

Often this stems from fear and uncertainty. As a participant in lessons it’s scary to ask questions and not know where it will lead, for fear of seeming stupid or unworthy to one’s peers; for a teacher, it’s scary to feel that you will not know the answers to people’s questions; it’s scary to go into a lesson not knowing the journey and where it will pan out. However, once this is overcome, I feel at least, this is where the learning happens.

Yes – presentations, talks and 1-person-led meetings are important and have their place, however, when learning or teaching about a belief or a personal experience, these formats are not where these topics belong. We cannot tell people how to believe, what to think, and how to change their life. We are all on our own individual journey. In reflection, I conducted lessons in this manner out of fear when I started. I have been blessed with many religious teaching opportunities at a very young age and often being the youngest in the room, I recognise that when I teach I do not have the life experience or knowledge that everyone else has.   

Within Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families and Friends, I have given a workshop titled “The Gift of YOU” for the past couple of years. In this we discuss topics such as happiness, well-being and emotional competency. I could stand at the front and run through a PowerPoint outlining the latest psychological research on these topics, yet I doubt this would have the same learning experience and the group would not be able to lean on each other and create that bond that comes through sharing. I feel very humbled by all the thank-yous that come at the end of my workshop and are often asked how I facilitate such a session. This is what I aim to answer through this article.

A religious instructor whom I admire once told me that his lesson plans are just a back-up plan for if the class doesn’t have any questions. This resonated with me and as such I feel this is an important idea to keep in mind. When preparing a discussion led session, this does not mean no planning. It does not mean you can sit back and not do anything. In fact, it means the opposite. In preparation, I still plan a whole lesson in which if no one feels comfortable sharing, I still have something to say and use the time productively. As well as this, when doing a dry run through, I try and think up possible questions people will ask, and find resources that may assist in helping answer their questions. Of course, you will not be able to prepare for every question. I do not know the difficulties and struggles people are going though, and will not know how to answer their burning life question. This is where (as mentioned previously) many volunteer teachers freeze with panic and skim over the answer. I feel that this comes from the idea that as the leader/facilitator of the discussion, that it is your responsibility to have all the answers. However, this is simply not true. We need to move away from this idea that when facilitating a discussion, you are a teacher, but instead remind ourselves that we are all equal, we are all learning and we are all going through this journey together.

For me I feel the best way to facilitate this is by sitting in a circle. I understand this is not always possible or suitable. I once was called as YSA Gospel Doctrine teacher in the ward I was living in at the time. I cannot remember what the lesson was on, yet I do remember I wanted to draw out and discuss the testimonies the YSA had on this gospel principle. So counting up the few attendees in the chapel cultural hall, where the lesson was held, I set out the corresponding chairs in a circle and started the lesson. True to YSA form, more and more joined the class just after I had started and as such the circle ended up being a square around the very edge of the room to fit everyone in. People could not see each other, they did not feel close or intimate, and it was difficult to hear people sharing their experiences. I left that class feeling disappointed and that I had not given the lesson in the way that I had wanted. However, this led me to consider different seating arrangements which still facilitate vulnerability-story sharing in large groups (such as semi-circles or small cluster groupings), and to more recently looking at how Quakers conduct their worship sharing.   

Once everyone is seated and settled, I usually give a short welcoming statement in which I invite people to share. I warn them that this is not me speaking, but that they will be sharing and writing notes, and writing personal answers to questions or activities planned in the workshop. Not only does this set the tone, but also allows people to get prepared and come with the intended mindset.

Ok so we’ve laid the preparations down, now to the question of how to navigate the next hour. And yes, if you were given an hour you need to stick to the hour. Often when people start sharing, there is the tendency to continue and for the lesson/workshop to remain stagnant. However, this is not an open-mic/testimony meeting. There still needs to be a point of learning and progression within the allotted time. We all know of that person who decides now is the time to spend the next 20 minutes telling everyone their life story – and this is where I struggle. Often it is because this individual feels they do not have the opportunities where they are listened to, what they feel they are currently struggling with is boiling over and they need to share. Sometimes you do need to give people a cut-off point or say that there is not enough time for them to share. This needs to be done with love. I have squirmed in my chair as other teachers have talked above a fellow learner, told them that’s enough, or when they put their hand up simply said “no”. This leaves that individual leaving unloved, and that there is not a space for them here. This is where as the discussion facilitator you need to be aware of everyone. There is no set rule that I can advise, but some things which I have found to work well for me is to remind them of a brief time frame when inviting them to speak. This makes them feel that you are interested in what they have to say but understand that you are limited by time. If later you need to interrupt them due to time constraints, it has been pre-warned. I will usually do this by summarising their points and then inviting someone else into the discussion. Remind participants that they are respected as an individual and that their contributions are valid. Some people may be comforted by the offer of holding an intimate conversation after the lesson time. This is not a burden that you as a teacher need to take on your shoulders alone. Whilst I acknowledge some do not feel comfortable sharing in a formal group, others have thoughts they want to share but are uncertain when or how to join the discussion.   

A point I want to emphasise and highlight is to say thank you and be respectful. You always need to remember that when people share, this is them opening-up and feeling vulnerable. Often in my “The Gift of YOU” workshop, people share some of their dark moments. It is vitally important this is recognised and respected. This can be achieved quite simply by saying “thank you for sharing” (or words to that effect) and allowing a slight pause before moving to the next topic.

In closing, here are the take-home points:

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence and pauses. People need time to think and process what is being said.
  2. Questions should be open, and with no ‘correct’ answer that you have in your mind
  3. You will never get through everything you planned and that’s ok. If the lesson/workshop heads in a certain direction, that’s clearly where the participants need it to go.
  4. Listen with your heart, without trying to formulate an answer whilst someone is speaking.
  5. Thank people for opening up and sharing

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