We ended our previous story class with 5 of the 6 characters (one was away) ready to embark on the search for Duke Tamuz. One, Fair Lilly, would stay behind as contact to this side of the gate, Bluh would stay as guardian of the gate and three would desend to the Underworld in search of the Duke.
I arrived at the class this week, knowing that lollie the dancer would not be present and I have made room for her absence in the planning. Just then 2 more participants excused themselves. So we started our journey to the Underworld with only 3 people, one of whom was not present last week.
How does a facilitator respond to absenteeism? This question is crucial because life happens and you need to be adaptable. This does not mean there is no cost to all involved. I thought it may be useful for myself as well as for the participants and everyone else in similar circumstances to see why we miss absent people so much. What is the cost of absenteeism for all sides and what the responsibility of each agent is to minimize this cost.
Let me clarify the context in which these costs are applicable: Learning situations that
- are collaborative and rely on team work
- seek to ignite creative thinking and problem solving
- are designed over a period of time to build one on top the other towards a particular desired outcome (not stand alone lessons)
- employs experiential interactive methods where the learning is not found in notes and reading material.
For a soft ware company such a process could be a 2 day sprint for designing a particular piece of software. For a theatre company it could be rehearsing a play, for a business it could be strategic planning for the coming year.
People who excuse themselves from the process typically think they are the only ones paying a price and they weigh that cost and decide that they are willing to pay it. They are yusually unaware of other costs they are paying and the costs for the other agents:
Absent participants silence their own voices which means they lose the chance to make choices that wilol impact them and may therefore lead to frustration when having to deal with others’ choices on your behalf. This means you also lose a sense of freedom and control.
Present participants lose the chance to learn how to integrate a large variety of different ideas (because some voices are silent). This means that one of the main objectives of the process i.e. learning to listen to diverse ideas and collaborating is lost.
Yet, no one feels the high price of silenced voices as much as the facilitator to whom the inclusion of voices and the importance of the collaborative effort carries the most value. The facilitator has probably spent years in training learning how to be a true facilitator that does not provide answers and does not influence the out come of the project with their own agenda. Facilitators typically have to unlearn the urge to be the saviour of the group and provide the answers and learn the ultimate value of only creating the space for participants to find their own voices and hear their own answers. Absenteeism therefore asks the facilitator a very hing price.
Absent participants lose a certain amount of trust from the present participants. Often this loss is very big and frustration can be very high. Other times, as in our case, participants are very forgiving and flow with what happens and still a small amount of trust is always sacrificed.
The facilitator therefore need to make provision for this loss of trust and find ways to mend the schism on top of having to rework the plan and make other adjustments.
When next a participant who was absent rejoins a group, it will take 15 to 20 minutes to reintegrate the participant into the group. This usually is not a problem, because everyone takes that amount of time to get back into it and they enjoy the chance to share where they are with the member who was absent.
However, when half your group was not there, it will take 15-20 minutes for every absent member. In our case that amounts to 45-50 min i.e. more than half the class time. The reason for it taking so long is that for every extra participant the amount of relationships that need to be re-established after absence increases exponentially.
For the facilitator this creates more frustration than for the participants because she carries the responsibility of keeping the big picture and overall learning process in mind. Somehow, somewhere this lost time will have to be found.
Prescription instead of diversity
All the lost input impoverishes the final product making it less enriching, less inclusive and far less aesthetic. Overall, when voices are kept silent and group decisions are left to a few, the process becomes scripted by the present participants. And script leads to prescription and this in turn leads to a loss of diversity, colour and depth. The whole process looses levels of meaning and of beauty.
In our case this is especially true because one of the participants is working with an existing story in mind. This is not a problem so long as there are enough voices that force her to stretch the boundaries of her story. But with 3 people absent and only one friend who was also present the previous class, the story suddenly became the dominant voice and this raises red flags for me as the facilitator.
On one hand the facilitator is grateful for a participant with a strong idea of where they want the process to go. At the same time it creates a dominant culture that is hard to penetrate once the absent voices as back again.
Loss of transformational power
All the lost time accumulates toward the end of the programme and shortens the time for applying and integrating the outcome into the real life situation it was designed for. This is probably the most important reason why you are missed when you are absent. Yet, only the facilitator is fully aware of this cost.
How many times have you attended a course or a workshop that left you with the question: So what? How do I use this in my everyday life?
Most processes are well designed around the climactic moment of insight and learning. Many processes fall short on the responsibility to help participants apply that insight and build it into a customised plan for their real life contexts. But if a process have that planned into it, absenteeism can greatly impact on the time set out for it towards the end.
In our case, we would feel the impact most on the second to last day when we are supposed to reflect on the journey and shape it into a tellable story. If there are too many loose ends this will create anxiety, frustration and possibly loss of closure and satisfaction. This means that the transformational power of the process is watered down because it is left unfinished.
IT also means that the transition back into one’s real life context is not cushioned with no buffer. This leaves the participant vulnerable to the very problems they came to the workshop to solve. I recently added 3 hours to my Personal Success Story workshop because the cushioning or return phase of the process was just not enough. Too many people left feeling vulnerable and without clarity as to the path ahead.
My solution for the story class:
Can everyone who was absent please come an hour earlier (6:30) tomorrow so that we can all be closer to the same page when the rest arrive?
This way the only cost is to the absent participants in terms of time and inconvenience and myself as facilitator. But this cost is minimal since I score in contact time and in regaining the momentum of the story.