Exploring the value of storytelling in social care
Georgie Steele shares her experience of being a parent carer and how story telling has helped her to gain perspective on her situation, including what has happened and how she copes in her caring role.
Katy Shorten, Research and Development Manager at Research in Practice talks to Georgie Steele about the power of storytelling.
Georgie shares her experience of being a parent carer and how storytelling has helped her to gain perspective on her situation, including what has happened and how she copes in her caring role. She describes how stories can help remind us of the ‘main character’ in the story, and to keep the person receiving care and support at the centre of things. This is reinforced when Georgie shares the experiences of other parent carers who took part in ‘Lockdown Cinderella’, a project which used the familiar format of fairytales to make sense of their carer experiences – resulting in carers feeling ‘heard’ and able to process experiences, and even finding solutions to situations they were experiencing at the time.
Georgie also talks about the value and importance of storytelling when working with social care practitioners – whether that is practitioners sharing a bit about themselves to build trust and rapport, and rebalance the relationship. Or the opportunity for practitioners to listen in conversations, and use the stories people are telling to shape how support can be developed.
This podcast looks at:
- How storytelling can help people to process their experiences and to place people at the centre of social care.
- How storytelling can soften the boundaries between people with lived experience and professionals.
- What practitioners might look at for in the anecdotes and stories that people share.
This is a Research in Practice podcast, supporting evidence-informed practice with children and families, young people and adults.
Katy: Hello everyone. Welcome to this Research in Practice podcast. I'm Katy Shorten, I'm a Research and Development Manager here at Research in Practice. I'm delighted to introduce Georgie today, who's going to talk about her experience as a parent carer and how storytelling has helped her experiences. So, Georgie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you have used stories, in relation to social care?
[How storytelling can help people to process their experiences and to place people at the centre of social care]
Georgie: Hi, yes, I'd love to. I suppose I've, sort of, got two hats really. And one is as a theatre maker and a storyteller. And that's what I was doing for many years, before I became a carer. So, both my sons were diagnosed with a degenerative muscle-wasting condition, when they were quite small. And for the last thirteen years, I've been, mostly, a carer for them. It's quite a complex condition, so we've got lots of social care professionals and health and education professionals involved. And I know those two things might sound really different, the theatre stuff and the carer stuff, but what I've found is, that telling stories and even making theatre about my experiences as a carer has really helped me to process all the experiences that I've had. And especially to step back from them and feel better about them, or at least see what they are. And it's given me really good perspective and it's definitely helped me to cope better. I think, especially telling stories about our own experience because as carers, we often feel like our identity, sort of, disappears a bit. And so, it's a chance to get back into yourself a bit and remember all the things about your life and all the things that you want and aspire to. I think I've also found it, specifically in relation to social care, it's been really useful as a tool for being able to tell social care professionals, and also tell other carers in a, kind of, sharing experience sort of way, about specific difficulties that there are.
There's a story that I tell, in a show that I've made, which I call 'Glass of Water'. And basically, what happened was, our social worker said… it wasn't her fault, she's as much inside a system that she's got to adhere to the rules of as anyone else. But she said… and this was 4:00, she said, 'I need you to give some more evidence, written evidence, of why your family need to go on this particular holiday because then, maybe, I can talk to my line manager, she can talk to panel and maybe they can give you some funding. But I need you to write this evidence by 4:30.' So, I had half an hour to do it. And so I started typing away, trying to throw something together. And then my son asked for a glass of water, which he can't get for himself. And I found myself really reluctant to get him a glass of water, just such a simple thing, because I was so focused on doing this, writing this application. And he said, he just said, 'Mum, I'm, I'm just really thirsty.' And I just realised that, if there was a plan or a map of how his care and how our lives should be, then he should really be at the centre of it. I mean, they call that… you know, it's person-centred care, isn't it? He should be at the centre of it. And he'd somehow got spun out to the edges of it, like a map I'd been holding the wrong way up. And I just… I think that's a really, for me anyway, and other people have said they feel the same, it's a good illustration of how rules and, and policies and deadlines can spin us away from what's meant to be at the centre of things. And I think we all need to be reminded of that, not just social care professionals, you know?
So I suppose those are some of the ways that I've used stories, in relation to social care. I did want to say something about the connection between the storytelling and being a carer, that there's been, sort of, from the beginning. Because I decided I wanted to be a storyteller and I spent about a year preparing to do my first public storytelling, which was, as it happened, The Three Little Pigs. And I was planning on doing the first public performance at my friend's son's 4th birthday party and that was going to be on Sunday the 15th of February, 2009. And as it happened, two days before that, on Friday February the 13th, it would be a Friday the 13th, our older son was diagnosed with the condition that he has. And, obviously, that was a huge shock and everybody said, 'Oh, you know, don't tell this story at this party, you know, you really don't have to do it.' And I don't really know why I did it and I don't know how I managed it but I somehow managed to go to this party and tell this story. A friend said that I turned up, sort of, looking like some kind of ghoul. And then, she said it was really striking that I just, sort of, stepped into this different frame. And I remember just the liberation of being able to just step out of what was happening to me and tell a different story. And then, obviously, afterwards I stepped back in and went into… back into my ghoul state. But I think that experience of even for a moment, being able to feel completely different because of a story and being able to stand back from what's happening to you, it was… it was really striking.
And I didn't realise it at the time but I think that's at the heart of what I'm really interesting in doing, which is using story to process what happens to us and step away and be able to see it in a bigger picture. And sometimes, have some relief of what… from what's happening to us. And, you know, I'd really like to help other people to do the same thing. And I've actually made… I, so, feel so strongly about this that I've made a whole show based around the Three Little Pigs and my family's experiences over the last thirteen years. So, yeah, I think it's a wonderful world, the world of stories and telling about our experiences.
Katy: Thanks, Georgie. When you were speaking, I was thinking, 'What will I say?' In response to what Georgie's just said. And I wrote down, 'Helping to get a different perspective. A release from the immediacy of the situation and intensity of the situation that you might be in. And a relief in being able to see things differently, which enables you and supports you to make sense of what might be happening.' And it's funny because then, when you summarised what you were saying, you used those exact words. So, I suppose, does that sound familiar? In terms of the work you've done with other parent carers, with storytelling, that as well as this… you having had this experience yourself, other parent carers, other carers, have had a similar experience, when you've done storytelling with them?
Georgie: Yes, yeah. No, definitely. I think… I guess, the main project that I've done was… it was called Lockdown Cinderella and it was a storytelling project that I did with other carers, in my community. And it was funded by Arts at the Old Fire Station, in Oxford, as part of their… they had this project called Lights Up. And they… so, they funded me to run these workshops with other carers and we told each other our stories about lockdown number one. This was, kind of, between, in that, sort of, period of time between lockdown number one and lockdown number two, when we were allowed to get together a little bit. And some people turned those stories, their own stories about what happened to them in lockdown, into fairy tales. And I, I really got this idea from Roi Gal-Or, who is, is the storytelling teacher that I've studied with most. And what you do is, you use the frame of a fairy tale, which we all know fairy tales, so it's instantly, you know, familiar with all of us. So, for example, you know, often in a fairy tale, a hero or a heroine goes off on a quest for something and on the way, they meet various obstacles or adversaries and they also find friends and allies, who help them overcome those obstacles. And then, hopefully, usually, at the end, they fulfil their quest. And if you just take that frame and put it on, almost, any experience, even if it's a very small one, you find that it does, somehow, sort of, fit into that, anything that we do. And then, if you also use, sort of, substitutes in your story, so your boss, if it's a story about your horrible boss or difficult line manager perhaps, you could turn them into a dragon, in the story.
And they could be hoarding some gold, which is some, I don't know, some information that needs to be given out to everyone. And you use, you know, objects as, like, you know, treasure, giants, princes, princesses. Again, all characters that we all recognise. And this… I, I was, kind of, amazed because it was the first time I'd really done it, I was amazed how well it worked. And there was one participant, in particular, who had a, you know, a different experience in the first lockdown, of… that was quite isolating and very intense. And she told a story about Little Bear who, with the stone rolled in front of the cave entrance because of the killer bees outside, was inside with all the other bears. And one night, unfortunately, got into the cupboard where the honey was and then smeared honey all over everywhere, so Mummy Bear woke up to find the entire cave covered in honey. And this participant said that just telling the story, knowing that it was going to be heard by people watching the video and just having the opportunity to, to put her story in a different context and put a difficult experience in a different context, made her… made it… it gave her a sense of that, that perspective on what had happened to her. And she was able to, sort of, stand back and, and really see what had happened and feel that she had processed that experience. And there was another participant in that project, Lockdown Cinderella, who actually found that the difficulty that she was telling the story about, the difficulty itself was, actually, resolved in the act of her telling a story about it. Because it gave her and the other person, who the story was about, some perspective on it.
And they understood, kind of, what the problem was and it solved it. So, I'm not saying that could happen all the time, in every circumstance but it was amazing how it did happen. And it, it was really the, the fairy tales that did it, I think. Kind of magical, as you might expect.
[How storytelling can soften the boundaries between people with lived experience and professionals]
Katy: Amazing. Thanks, Georgie. I think that section of this podcast has really articulated why it's important for carers to tell their story, for their own experience and to support them through what's happening to them. But also, to help other people explore and understand what might be happening as well. So, one of the things that we've talked about before, that I'm really interested to talk about and hear about again, is about how practitioners can use their stories to build relationships with people that they're working with and to… of course, professional boundaries are in play and there's a sense of, 'How do we maintain those boundaries, within the conversations that we have?' But what I've heard from you, is that stories, sharing a bit of yourself, within a conversation, as a practitioner, can be really helpful. So, what do you have to say about that?
Georgie: Yes, one of my favourite interactions that I've had with any of the professionals that my sons, you know, have been, and I have been, working with, over the last years, is… it sounds really ridiculous and it's a tiny thing. But I think it shows that just even the tiniest personal anecdote, and it doesn't have to, you know-, as you say, it's all within, respectful boundaries and sensible boundaries but just the tiniest thing, can just soften the hierarchy that there can be, in relationships between us, our families, and professionals or practitioners. So, we have a housing OT called Michael, who's really nice. And he came round one day and he was… I think he was measuring my son's bed because he, possibly, needed a, a bigger profiling bed because he'd grown. And he reached into his hand, sorry, he reached into his bag for a tape measure. And he brought out a toothbrush and he said, 'Oh, that probably does seem a bit weird, that I've got a toothbrush in my bag.' And then he explained about how… that he was having to get up really early in the morning for, for work and he wasn't really having time to clean his teeth. And also, he was going to the gym before work. And so, he had to clean his teeth after he'd been to the gym because there wasn't time at home. And I know, you know, it's not War and Peace, it's not a huge story but just that opening of a personal door just made me feel completely differently about how I could relate to him. I was much more open with him and I felt that I could… I wasn't untrusting before but I just felt much more trusting and more inclined to, to tell him, sort of, more effectively how things were.
And I think we… service users or patients or people who use social care services, often, are repeatedly asked to, spill the emotional beans and tell the story and say how it is. And I think, if just occasionally, one of the social care professionals or other professionals can just give a tiny bit of themselves, then it just makes it much easier not to be this, kind of, constant spiller-outer of, of stuff. And it, sort of, rebalances that relationship. Because sometimes it feels a bit, like, professionals and practitioners are, like angels who come down out of the sky and they have no context and they're just these glorious, perfect beings who have need of nothing. And you're just this grovelling, needy being who must have things all the time. It's not necessarily that there's something that people do that make you feel like that, it's just the context. And so, that just rebalances the relationship. Because any relationship's about trust and, obviously, trust is really is not going to happen if the hierarchy is too rigid because the other person just feels too far away.
Katy: Thank you, Georgie. That's… what a wonderful story and… really reflecting on how bringing a little bit of yourself, as a practitioner, can support the, the rapport/relationship, the openness of conversations and interactions that they might be having. And just in terms of your anecdote about social care practitioners, potentially being angels coming down from the sky, I would invite any practitioners listening to this to wonder whether or not that is how you feel. Is that how you feel when you're going into a conversation with someone that you're supporting and working with? And reflecting on how you might be seen. Because if you're not feeling like that but you might be being seen like that, just have a think about what, what can you bring? What are you comfortable bringing into a conversation, about yourself? And maybe do a bit of prep work around those, kind of, conversations that you're having with people.
Georgie: And that's interesting because just as you were talking, I was thinking about how, also, sometimes telling stories about yourself or about things that have happened, it helps you to think about who you think you are, who you think of yourself as being, in that story. You know, do you think of yourself as being the hero? And how does the other person, who you're relating to, do they actually see you as the villain? Or do they think you're the hero? And I think, just, telling those stories, just helps us, again, to, sort of, step back and just think about who I am, in this scenario, and who the other person might see me as. And that there might be a difference between those two things.
[What practitioners might look at for in the anecdotes and stories that people share]
Katy: Great. Thank you, Georgie. So, we've talked a bit about why it's important for carers to tell their stories and the value of doing that. And we've also talked about how practitioners can think about what stories they tell about themselves, to develop that real humanness and human connection, within their relationships. I wonder whether we can finish off that circle with, in practice, is there anything that practitioners could be looking for, in conversations that they're having with people? People might be coming out for a purpose, practitioners might be there to do an assessment or to do a review. But in effect, what we're wanting people to have conversations… and so, is there anything you think practitioners could be alert to, or be looking out for? Thinking about, in their stories, the anecdotes that people are, are talking to them about when they're doing this social care interaction?
Georgie: I think every single thing that people say, even casually, in conversation, anything that someone tells you about their day is like a little chip off a diamond. It's a complete diamond in itself and it can tell you a lot about all sorts of aspects of a person. And if I think about Michael, back to Michael and his toothbrush, he was telling me a lot of things in just telling me that. You know, he was, maybe, telling me that he was having to get up really early in the morning, that was maybe making him tired. That it was, sometimes, difficult to remember everything and remember where everything was, which is completely natural. And also, maybe, that fitness, physical fitness, was something that he was really trying to work on, or that was really important to him. So I think, just really good listening, which we could all, you know, develop, probably. Intelligent listening to what the person is saying, because they're probably telling you lots of things about what's important to them and how they're feeling and what they might need. And I think that can be really useful, I mean, with practical things like, say, you know, you're trying to get some respite funding for that person because they're a carer. And if you just say, 'What do you want to do with your funding?' They might not be able to think because we're all… sometimes, find it difficult with direct questions about what we want.
We don't know. But if you've done some good listening around whatever the person's conversation was, you might, you know, have picked up on some things that were actually really important to them. And then you can, sort of, offer that back to… things back to the person and they can, maybe, you know, it will be just the thing that they wouldn't have thought of. I think it's about really good listening. The more people are listened to well, the more they will open up and say, you know, what they really need and want to say. And then, you know, your relationships are more effective and then, you know, you can do your work even better.
Katy: Amazing. Thank you, Georgie. I think you have done a fantastic job of bringing together storytelling and social care. I'm not sure that they're two things that, ordinarily, will have been put together, in our experiences but I'm really looking forward to what people think about this podcast. I'm also, looking forward to hearing how we can develop this into a workshop, going forward. If people are interested in learning more about storytelling and social care, please keep on an eye on the Research in Practice website.
So, we've talked about the value of storytelling in social care and how important that is for carers, in understanding what's happening to them and supporting them to achieve a different perspective. We've talked about how important it is for practitioners to show a bit of themselves, tell a bit of a story about yourself, in the growth and development of those relationships. And in conversation, look out for and listen carefully to the stories that people are telling you, in those conversations. Is there anything else that you want to say, Georgie? As we finish off this podcast.
Georgie: I think it's just that, you know, everybody's the main character in the story of their life, aren't they? And the more that we tell each other stories and anecdotes, the more we talk to each other, the more we're involving other people in our stories and making connections with each other. And I just think it's, sort of, like leaving a door a little bit open, you know? And if, if we all told each other more stories and shared more about each other, who knows what would happen? Who knows how the world might open up and change?
Katy: Brilliant. It has been brilliant to talk to you and hear about your experiences and I'm looking forward to hear how the story unfolds. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Georgie: Thanks very much, Katy.
Thanks for listening to this Research in Practice podcast. We hope you've enjoyed it. Why not share with your colleagues? And let us know your thoughts on Twitter. Tweet us at @ResearchIP.
Resources that are mentioned in this podcast
- What ‘story’ could you tell about yourself to help build trusting relationships with the people you work with?
- When in conversation, how can you be alert to the deeper story people may be telling you?
- When thinking about work with people from different backgrounds and cultures, how can you use storytelling to understand what might be happening?
PQS:KSS - Person-centred practice | Direct work with individuals and families
CQC - Effective | Caring | Responsive
PCF - Critical reflection and analysis | Intervention and skills
RCOT - Understanding relationship | Service users | Develop intervention