Building peace in the minds of men and women

Frequently Asked Questions

What is unique about this methodology? Story Circles is a structured yet adaptable tool that allows participants to actually practice (or learn?) intercultural competences and allows for emotional connections that may not occur through more traditional intercultural training. Because of participants’ emotional connection, this methodology tends to be more transformative than traditional training.

What is the difference between Story Circles and storytelling? Story Circles is a thoughtful process that involves a group of people sharing personal experiences in a circle often for purposes of mediation, restorative justice, and in the case of the UNESCO methodology, for developing intercultural competences. Storytelling is a cultural and social activity usually involving a broader audience for the purposes of entertainment, education, moral formation or cultural preservation.

Who can be a facilitator of Story Circles? Facilitators of Story Circles should be experienced teachers or trainers, who relate well to people from many different kinds of backgrounds. Facilitators should be able to model some of the targeted intercultural competences such as listening for understanding and be knowledgeable about and appropriate for the context of the Story Circles.

How many participants are in a small group and what’s the minimum and maximum number of participants? Ideally 5 in a small group, no fewer than 4 and no more than 6. There’s really no maximum number of participants as long as the space can accommodate the number and the facilitators are able to organize the participants into diverse groups of 5. The minimum number would be around 8-10 so there can be 2 small groups.

What ages is this for? Story Circles has been successfully piloted with participants ages 12-70+ so it is designed to work with a wide range of ages.

How long does it take to run Story Circles? Story Circles usually takes a minimum of 90 minutes, although 120 minutes is preferred so there is enough time to debrief the experience, (and more time if Story Circles is part of a larger event)

Can we skip the debriefing/discussion time at the end? The debriefing/discussion time as a whole group at the end is a very important part of the methodology and involves reflection time as well as discussion on lessons learned during the experience and next steps on continuing to develop one’s intercultural competences. It is crucial to allow sufficient time for this debriefing time. This debriefing time can include small groups sharing back with the larger group, possibly through a visual presentation (poster) or a song, dance, or poetry.

Why are there strict time parameters to the sharing of personal stories? So everyone is ensured of having equal time in the group and that no one person dominates. It is important that the small group agree on a nonverbal sign to show that time is finished and that each person commit to adhering to the time limitations. It is also important to rotate the time keeper role so one person is not viewed as controlling the time. It is also important not to fixate on the time but instead continue practicing listening for understanding.

Can there be mandatory participation? Ideally no – participation should not be mandatory since this really needs to involve willing participants who understand the purpose of the Story Circles experience as developing intercultural competences and who are interested and motivated to participate because of that purpose.

Can there be observers? Ideally it is best not to have observers since observers will not be part of the small groups and cannot listen in due to the confidentiality of what is shared in each small group.

What if there’s not much diversity in the group? Depending on the context, the group can decide the diversity criteria for dividing into small groups. Or facilitators can assign members to small groups based on gender, generation, religion, urban/rural factors or any other relevant factors that would ensure that small groups have a diversity of perspectives.

Can participants take notes to help remember the flashbacks? If participants don’t think they can remember the memorable part of each story for the others in their group, they can briefly make a note. However, participants should not engage in full note taking since that could be seen as not fully listening for understanding as well as a violation of confidentiality

What does “listening for understanding” mean? It means focusing 100% on the speaker – to what is being said, how it is said, nonverbals that may be present, to what is not said. It is NOT interrupting, asking questions, making comments, and so on since that would mean the focus is more on the listener.

Why can’t we just have a discussion? Why do we have to follow this process? A discussion involves a very different process from a circle process and will not achieve the same goals for developing intercultural competences. It is very important to follow the process as outlined in this Manual for the intercultural goals to be achieved. Further, this process has been successfully piloted in all five UNESCO regions around the world and the Story Circles process works well in achieving the stated goals around intercultural competences.

Is this just a one-time experience or can it be repeated? If the same group of participants will be together again, then this Story Circles experience can be repeated again (in fact, in some school classes, teacher use this once a week with different prompts.)

Can someone “pass” in a small group and not share a personal story? Someone could “pass” initially but everyone needs to share a personal story, even if someone shares a more surface-level story – this is about mutual sharing of all participants.

What if someone doesn’t want to be vulnerable enough to share? Participants can decide the degree to which they are vulnerable by choosing the depth to which they wish to share their own experiences. For example, the personal experience they choose to share can be a more meaningful one or a more surface-level experience, the latter which would not require as much vulnerability.

What if someone seems to dominate or lead in the small group? The structured nature of this process should help curtail the tendency for someone to dominate the small group. It is important for all group members to commit initially to upholding the guidelines and holding each other accountable in a respectful manner. If there is concern about someone dominating the group, a talking piece becomes very useful which means only the person who is holding the talking piece can speak.

Is there potential for (emotional) harm? While there is always potential for deeper sharing that could be quite emotional, it is important for facilitators to choose appropriate prompts that will elicit the level of sharing desired. It is also important for group members to commit to respecting each other and upholding the guidelines. If there is concern that someone may not share as appropriately as needed in the small group, then there may need to be a trained facilitator (also called a “circle keeper”) in each group (this could also possibly be done as a larger facilitated group if there are concerns regarding the degree of sharing).

Does Story Circles develop intercultural competences? Intercultural competences is a lifelong process so participating in this experience is one step in that journey. Story Circles provides an opportunity for participants to practice some key intercultural skills (such as listening for understanding) and hone some aspects of intercultural competences.

How can the outcomes be assessed from the Story Circles experience? Depending on the context, an evaluation form may be distributed at the end of the experience and if possible, there can be a follow up with participants 6-8 weeks out from the experience. In either case, the emphasis should be on what changes they will make in their interactions with others who are different from them. There can also be follow up on Action Plans, if completed. Guided reflection can also be a way of gauging the impact, including through group “presentations” to the whole group on what they learned (this can be presented visually as a poster, through a poem, etc.). In assessing outcomes, it is important to have clearly stated outcomes in the beginning of the experience and then collect evidence that those outcomes were met by participants.

What are the next steps after a Story Circles experience? Ideally, there would be time to have participants develop an Action Plan and pending the context, it would be recommended to have follow up sessions if possible so this goes beyond a one-time experience.

How can participants use the skills they practice in Story Circles? Participants will hopefully be able to immediately use some of the skills they practiced in Story Circles in their daily lives – for example, by committing to take more time to listen and to using listening for understanding in their conversations and interactions with others in their daily lives since such deep listening is an important tool in bridging divides. Following a Story Circles experience, participants will be more open-minded when connecting to others, to be more aware of their own stereotypes and biases, to be curious about different perspectives, and be slower to form snap judgments about others; they will take time to more intentionally develop intercultural competences in themselves every day; they will see that everyone they encounter each day has a story to share and that there are many ways we are similar to others, even when it seems like there are so many differences that divide us.

How can participants use the skills they practice in Story Circles? UNESCO Story Circles can be used virtually and here are some tips and lessons learned. Be sure to read through the online Manual first, especially pages 71-74. The online process is quite similar to the face-to-face process.