Thursday, January 26, 2012

Telling Your Story: Teaching Volunteers How to Talk About Their Experiences

By Julie Lupien, Director, From Mission to Mission

Every volunteer is faced with the same question (over and over) when they complete their term of service: “How was it?”  Some start to tell about their experience with great enthusiasm only to see a glazed look in the eyes of their listener.  Others are overwhelmed with the task of how to explain something so personal and powerful to someone who was not part of the experience.  Eventually, many volunteers, when asked how their experience was, end up by simply answering, “Good.”

Maryknoll Lay Missioners
At our From Mission to Mission Re-entry Workshops we not only invite participants to share the “unedited” story of their experience but we also talk about sharing the story with others.  This article includes the collective wisdom from our workshops.

These experiences call forth the best from volunteers.  Their feelings about the experience are sacred.  Because of this, sharing the story of their experience after it is over is very important.   Telling the story helps volunteers to claim it, to celebrate what was good, to heal from what was painful and to integrate what they learned from it.  The response they receive as they tell the story has a big influence on how volunteers feel during their transition.  Unfortunately, many volunteers feel that people aren’t interested.  Some even feel pressured to stop talking about their experience over time, even though it’s natural to talk about what we know and love.  

In helping volunteers prepare to tell their story it’s important to recognize that there are two types of stories, one that satisfies the listener and one that that helps volunteers to own and honor their experience. 
It’s helpful for volunteers to understand their listeners.  Most listeners are interested, but don’t want all the details.  It’s important not to judge them or to assume that they don’t care or do not think what the volunteer has done is important.  Most listeners can’t relate to the volunteer’s experience.  How could they?  One former volunteer put this in perspective by saying, “If I met an astrophysicist, I wouldn’t know what to ask them either.” Like it or not, volunteers challenge people to think about their life and lifestyle.   This may influence what the listener hears and how they might respond.

Most listeners just want something brief.  Rather than saying the first thing that comes to mind, encourage volunteers to come up with a short answer that has 2-3 things they want people to know.  This satisfies the listener and the volunteer actually feels better about saying something meaningful.  An example from my experience would be:

I loved Zimbabwe.   I taught high school and adult education in a rural area.  Our students were dedicated even though the school didn’t have many resources or books.  Life was difficult for people, but I will never forget their generosity. The people were so good to me.  I’m happy to be here but I really miss them. 

It helps to adjust your expectations as well.  What we think is important and what the listener may want to hear can be two different things.  After sharing something important about Zimbabwe, my listeners often said, “But did you see any elephants?”  I learned two things from this.  First, I should reserve the most precious stories for trusted listeners.  Second, if people want to know about elephants, tell them about elephants!  Once I changed my expectations I was not as frustrated.

Many people do want to hear more.  It would be good to find out what they’d like to know before you begin.  A good place to start is an overview of the experience.  From there, talk about significant moments, events and people.  Everyone loves stories, so have a few prepared.  For longer sharing you may want to bring along photos or short video clips. 

Finally, volunteers need to tell the real story, the story that is helpful and meaningful for them.  Some volunteers are blessed with family or friends who want to hear it all --the amazing, the tragic and the ordinary.  For most, the best listeners are others who have had a similar experience.  This could be former volunteers, people who work with similar populations, or those committed to peace and justice.    Finding these supporters is crucial.

A sensitive issue concerns the difficult parts of the experience.  It’s perfectly normal for the difficult aspects to fill the thoughts and memories of volunteers.  This will be true until they deal with what happened.  It’s not necessary or appropriate to share this part of the story with everyone.  However, it is important to find trusted listeners who they can share the hard parts with.  Some might need the help of a counselor or therapist to really address whatever happened during the experience.

You, as program directors, can have a huge impact on helping your volunteers to bring closure to their experience and be prepared for what to expect after they leave.  One of the greatest gifts you can offer is to encourage your volunteers to record the story of their experience throughout their term of service.  This is what volunteers go back to when they are finished.  Lastly, it’s important at the end of the year for your volunteers to share their stories with each other and with you, whether they do this in their communities or at a larger gathering of all your volunteers.  Their individual stories combine to become one sacred story.

In the end, no one else will ever truly understand the volunteer’s experience.  It’s important that they remember it and what it means to them.  No one can ever take it away from them.  No one else can define what it means.  The story lives on when they remain faithful to who they have become through the experience.

From Mission to Mission was formed to help volunteers and missioners, both domestic and international, especially after their experience is over.  Whether you provide a final retreat or not, your volunteers may want to attend our workshop.  Our publications are written to help volunteers prepare to leave their site and go through their transition.  We are in the process of updating all of our publications.  See our website at www.missiontomission.org.