The return from a hero’s/heroine’s journey.
In this article I will quickly detail the power of story telling structure to support growth out of challenge, along with an outline for your team (a 65-minute workshop).
I will present this around working beyond COVID, although any team challenge can be used. COVID impact is a current shared experience, globally, making this version globally relevant as an example.
The Hero’s Journey
It is witnessed that story telling is a long used and powerful device created by humans to both pass on history / tradition and also to aid our processing of experience into memory. So prevalent in fact that it is seen in all human societies, human history as far back as we have language and with surprisingly common structures. Frequently we see the story of a hero/heroine leaving their home, facing challenge, failing and winning the tests within this challenge, returning home changed and delivering the rewards on their return.
We are drawn to these stories as they feed our desire to witness growth through challenge.
The mythologist ‘Joseph Campbell’ spent his life documenting and observing a common journey and its elements, across cultures and history in dominant stories. This is often referred to as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and is often cited as the roadmap for authors writing fiction stories, but is also a device for supporting us all to process life difficulties / traumas into a recognisable story that activates reflection that supports growth and change.
When stories get stuck
Humans are linear in their processing. We think of things as having a start, a middle and an end… also a future. This processing forms the basis of how we make sense of the world. We have stories about ourselves and others, and we reflect and communicate often through these.
We see these stories fragment and even get stuck when we experience significant distress, stress and/or trauma.
People often talk about not wanting to think about a particular time or being glad it is over, moving forwards without a desire to retell or re-experience their past.
At its worst, this is the foundation of disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, which is really an avoidance disorder. Avoiding the past and so missing the opportunity to process it beyond emotional raw experience, into a memory like any other.
People with PTSD often find it difficult to remember the order of their past, a symptom of this narrative structure falling apart.
PTSD is an extreme example, but I witness much more subtle yet disruptive versions in staff I work with. Team members who don’t want to reflect on the COVID period (most recently) and leaders who feel great relief that the worst is over, refusing to reflect on the period that was so stressful. Many of these teams have new great divides in them, as individual stories are pushed away and there is a collective pretending that normal has returned and the past is over.
The power of storytelling
Storytelling sounds like something we do with children, but at its most base form it is the main ingredient of therapy, coaching and personal reflection. It is, after all, a well established and universal tool humans rely on across the world and through history. We are in many ways, biologically designed to make sense of life through stories.
Structure can be put around storytelling to activate reflective styles of thinking that actively transform what feels like a child like activity into a powerful form of person growth. I will offer some of this structure to you, below.
In the past 2 months alone I’ve taken over 350 senior staff through a ‘Hero/Heroine’s journey’ as a light hearted and high impact method of creating rapid transition from a stressful path to an intentional future. Feedback is typically positive and the impact tends to be much more than expected.
A storytelling framework for your team (65 minute workshop)
I’ve mapped out a short 65 minute workshop you can use to take your own team (and yourself) through a basic hero’s journey. This is not too dissimilar to approaches I have used with staff. There are 5 basic components:
CHECK-IN (5 mins)
Start with a check-in to ensure staff are onboard (read our very popular check-in guide here).
REFLECTIONS ON AN ORDINARY WORLD (5 mins)
Invite all staff to spend 5 minutes in silence writing / thinking about what their worklife and life was like pre-COVID. Questions for them to ask themselves:
What was your reality (in your role / team) before COVID?
What was your response to the arrival of COVID (emotions, thoughts, actions etc)?
What were you feeling as the world started to change?
FACING THE CHALLENGE (15 mins)
Ask staff to think about the challenge of living and working during COVID, but ask them to think about this as if watching it on a cinema. Watch themselves and note what is most striking. What tests were faced, how are they seeing themselves react? Observe what emotions are felt now, as they watch this movie of that time. (This is based on a form of thinking / reflection called object, rather than subjective).
Ask them to pick what 3 words summarise the experience of the last 2 years?
After 10 minutes, ask staff to pull themselves back to the present for a few minutes — but noticing the room they are in, what noises are around etc. Reminding themselves that these memories were the past and now is the present.
Write the 3 words on sticky notes and put all in view. Take a couple of minutes to all look at them, no discussion is needed. We are just observing the collective experience and the differences within that.
NEW STRENGTHS (20 minutes)
Noticing how we grow and being proud is a core part of storytelling, but we are often poor at this skill.
Ask staff to pair up and to take turns:
Speaker 1 talks for 8 minutes about something they are proud of in that period.
Listener then talks for 2 minutes — sharing what strengths they heard. Aiming to make the speaker proud of themselves.
Switch roles and repeat.
The acts of hearing compliments and noticing strengths in others are core to great team functioning and aid a narrative switch from the pains of the past, to the benefits of surviving.
RETURNING WITH THE ELIXIR (15 minutes)
Discuss as a team what collective new wisdom you brought back from the challenging time (15 minutes)
Identify 3 behaviours the team will commit to, to increase the strengths/experience of the team based on this experience. Very simple acts you can review later, e.g.:
compliment each other more
ban blaming conversations
take breaks together
always use check-ins
Recognise that stories promote change and avoid simply pushing the experience away and moving on.
Also take time to celebrate how well you have all done in getting through this challenge, a cheer is a great visceral way of celebrating. Here is one I ignited in over 150 GPs recently:
Don’t shy away from an idea that sounds fluffy, take a risk on a playful approach that is high impact!
(OPTIONAL) Individual non-team approach
We have created a simple version for individuals to use in reflective time, represented as a graphic… below:
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