Story class 1.5 Why we miss you when you are not there

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

  1. are collaborative and rely on team work
  2. seek to ignite creative thinking and problem solving
  3. are designed over a period of time to build one on top the other towards a  particular desired outcome (not stand alone lessons)
  4. 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:

Silenced voices

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.

Lost time

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.

Personal Success Story Notes

Designing a Personal Success Story for your life

One of the most powerful means for designing journeys of transformation lies in the structure of myth and story. Every story is designed so that the central character undergoes positive life change. Every other character and every event in the story works together for this purpose. In response to the transformation of the hero, his/her community and even the landscape undergo their own transformation also. It all starts with one person and his/her story.

With this in mind it becomes possible to use story structure as a way to look at your own life and see how it can help you to work with your own personal success.  Take a look at the diagram and table below as a starting point. Be mindful of the twighlight zones.

If you want to understand this better take a look at our 8 week face to face story course.

Classic story structure: diagram:

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, or Act one, Act Two and Act Three. Yet it is the transition between the acts that are the most interesting and fruitful for change and successful transformation of the main character.

Journey diagram
Journey diagram

Classic story structure:  table (to help you with your homework)

  • The five stages of classic story structure
  • The 6 steps for developing your personal success story.

Two of the stages are italicised. This indicates what I call a “twilight zone”. They are also indicated in the diagram. A twilight zone is a crucial stage for transformation and often is neglected or fumbled because of its complex and paradoxical nature. It is in handling these stages with care and confidence that will make your story successful and stand the test of time.The table shows:

Stages of a journey Steps of personal success story
1. Call to Adventure: Who is the protagonist and in what way is he stuck in his ordinary world with no way of changing it?What opportunity arises for him to change? 1. Get a Great GoalIn what way are you feeling stuck and frustrated? What opportunity do you have to change this?Set a goal that is realistic and actionable and helps you with knowing what to do now.
Preparation for the Journey:What fears do the hero need to overcome/ doubts does he need to settle?Who (mentor) helps him with this and with what (magic tool/weapon)?How does he show his commitment to the journey? 2. Manifest your Main MotivationWhat values drives your choices and which of these support your goal? Can you link it to your identity i.e. what you believe is true of you. What other desires clash with these values?
The journey:What tests and trials does he need to face and how does he plan to overcome them?Who are his friends and who are his enemies in facing his challenges? 3. Put together a Personalised PlanWhat are the most important obstacles in the way of your reaching your goal?What plan can you put in place to help you overcome them?  E.g. restructure your space and resources and identify small habits to replace old unwanted habits.
4. Set up Social Support systemsHow can you get your friends and family to support your goal?How can you eliminate or minimise contact with people who do not support you?
Ordeal and reward:What drives him to his near downfall? How does he face and overcome his nemesis?How does he become aware of the big picture? What immediate reward does he receive for his victory? 5. Achieve Authentic AwarenessThis step is almost impossible to design. It does not always hit when you expect it and it seldom works out how you planned. When you come to a very low uncertain place, you are close to it. Yet often you can dip far lower than that first low. Most importantly, when you are there, in anger or sadness and despair, listen for the still small voice of truth inside you that reminds you of the big picture.Reap the rewards of your perseverance, of reaching your goal even if it turns out so very different from the one you set in the first place What sacrifice do you need to make so that you can focus on what really matters?.
Return home:How does he cross back into his ordinary world? (usually some ritual involved or a chase)How does he prove his sacrifice/death regarding his old ways?What new response to old problems does he model?How does this embody an elixir that heals his community and his land? 6. Turn over and travel with the tide Ritualise your new behaviour so that it can become automatic. Now go through the actions as you have planned them, draw on your support system and keep behaving yourself to success simply following the current you have created. Beware of streams that pull you off course and fight back but let yourself settle in to a new normal.

You can join our 8 week face to face story course for a fun personal success story adventure!

For those of you who had joined one of our Personal Success Story workshops, here is a question to engage with in comments to this blog:

Share with one another what sacrifice you may have to make to reach success? In what way does this relate to the sacrifice your character had to make in the story?

Your success depends on your willingness to go on a journey and make sacrifices for what is truly important to you.

Are you losing control, or losing power?

Is there a difference between control and power? Many people confuse the one with the other. You see, it is not true that you will have power when you have control and if you lose control, it does not mean you have to lose your power.

We make a promise in our Personal Success Story workshop that it will help you figure out what parts of your story you have control over and what parts you don’t. This does not mean we promise that you will regain control. We do, however promise to create a space where you can regain power.

Control is the illusion of power. Real power, is being strong inspite of a sense of being out of control.

Here is an example of what I mean.

In the movie UP, Mr. Frederickson feels out of control from the moment he discovers the boy scout has joined him on his voyage. From that moment on he responds to challenges with resistance. He wants to get to  Paradise Falls and he strives towards it with all his might. Around every turn he meets with characters that slows him down, takes him on detours and confuses the goal.

Finally he chases them all away and forces himself to the Fall. There he sits down to enjoy the rewards of reaching his goal – he was successful at last. Yet, it is not what he expected. With the help of his late beloved wife Elli’s Adventure book, he rediscovers the true value of an adventure: not reaching the destination (paradise Falls) but enjoying the journey with your companions.

There and then he makes a choice to embrace the new companions he had met and support them in their quest. He reunites with the talking dog and sacrifices all his resources to help the boy and the exotic bird Kevin.

Personal success is dependent on the choices you make in the darkest moments of your journey.

These choices, stories teach us, either produce success or they lead to ultimate downfall. Either you receive reward beyond your wildest imagination, or you regress to a point worse than where you started.

In UP Mr. Frederickson makes a choice for relationship vs reaching his destination – he chooses power over control.  This motivates him through the worst ordeal of the entire story and causes him to lose all that he used to hold dear. But he gains a new life and a new set of companions to share the adventure with.

Mr. Frederickson was able to give up control and regain his power. This is my hope for all of us:

To allow our darkest moments to manifest our main motivation: the thing that matters more than staying in control. There lies true power.

The Mr. Frederickson response is therefore to let go of the ideals you were holding on to in favour of new growth and change.

But stories teach us two other responses

The Brave Heart response comes when you discover in that moment that you cannot let go of the thing you are holding on to. This may be because it really is your true ;power and you have been chosen to manifest it in a world that resists your truth. In that case holding on would also access your true power. Still, you would need to let go of everything else and give up control in that way. You may even have to be willing to give your life like Brave Heart.

In the Oedipus response the main character is also brought to his darkest moment and confronted with his own truth and the greater good, but is unable to let go the obsession that is driving him (his version of Paradise Falls).  The consequences of such a choice, stories teach us, is devastating. Characters like Oedipus, Othello, Macbeth and Clever Elsie all end up worse than where they started, these are not success stories.

May you know when to let go and when to hold on so you can access your power.

Go out and be a Mr. Frederickson or a Brave Heart

For more on you and your life story, join our story class in Stellenbosch

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Click on the links below for more info about our Personal Success Story workshops in your area.
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