Story Circle Exercise

 This was one of my fave exercises from the ELI:

At the beginning of our ELI session, our facilitators, Theresa Holden and Rosalba Rolon, immediately asked us to complete the Story Circle exercise.  It was a simple and effective way of immediately getting to know  each other and think about leadership and values, from our own perspective and experience.  We got into groups of 5 and were each asked to talk for a few minutes about a person or an experience that stands out as a great example of leadership.  Theresa Holden created the story circle guidelines and here’s how it works (Taken from here with my own notes added):

Everyone sits in an even circle with no physical obstructions.

The facilitator introduces him/herself and the story circle method. Everyone introduces themselves in turn.

The facilitator or the group can choose a theme at the beginning to guide the stories.

The facilitator can use a primer story or other memory prompts to can be used to stimulate the group. Theresa and Rosalba asked us to talk about to talk for a few minutes about a person or an experience that stands out as a great example of leadership to us. 

The facilitator and the group agree on a period of time for each person to tell his/her story. Depending on the size of the group this can be 3 – 5 minutes. It is important that everyone has equal time to ensure inclusion and equality. A person who has taken more time should not end their story abruptly, but be allowed to finish. One way to keep time is for the person sitting next to the story teller to gently tap that person one minute before the designated time has lapsed.

Each person tells their story in turn. If a person is not ready, they can ‘pass’ and tell their story once the circle has been completed.

Stories can come from anywhere – one’s day, personal experience, an encounter, a phase in one’s life, or from someone else. But it is important that they remain stories – not rhetoric, opinions or analytical thoughts. Recently i had written a blog post about our department’s accomplishments and teamwork over the last year, so this subject was fresh in my mind.  I immediately thought about Keri, who is my supervisor, and the Unicorner she had created in her office.   Although it is a physical space, it is also a representation of our values and reflects the way we approach our work with creativity and joy.  She loves the idea that our office is a place where we make magic happen every single day, for our donors and for each other. That’s the big idea that inspires all the other incredible things we do as team.

After all stories are told, participants may engage in cross-talk or open discussion to ask clarifying questions or generate themes. Upon sharing this, others ELI members seemed to really value the idea of a supervisor encouraging and emphasizing creativity and valuing each team member’s contributions and creating a space where everyone’s contributions are realized and recognized.  At the end of the two-day session, this was a value that really stood out as something we wanted to receive from our management, and in turn, foster ourselves within our own leadership styles going forward. 

The Reason Behind  the Story Circle:

Story circles bring people together in an equitable, collective experience to share their stories. In facilitating reflective convenings among professional practitioners we have found it to be a profound way of generating insight from personal and professional experience while creating a democratic atmosphere and a safe space for expression. Theresa Holden uses the analogy of a gumbo to describe the story circle- Imagine the space in the middle of the circle as a potential holder of all the stories. Before stories are recounted, that space is empty. In going around the circle each participant puts his/her story in that space. In the end, it is filled with potent memories, emotions, and importantly connections. Out of this central space and in combining all the stories, a new story emerges that belongs to everyone and is like a rich and textured stew.

When to use Story Circle

Leaders of social change efforts have used story circle to stimulate memory, share experiences, and/or to build community solidarity through remembering events, people, or repertoires. Junebug Productions refers to this as ‘creating a tapestry of community’ and has used stories to share experiences of the Civil Rights movement.

At the Research Center for Leadership in Action, we have tapped the dialogical and reflective elements of story circle in facilitating convenings of practitioners belonging to the same professional sphere or sharing similar interests. Using story circle we have brought practitioners together to:

Identify and explore patterns relating to an experience, problem, or issue.

Find common threads of experience and build relationships among practitioners by illuminating connections.

In addition to its potential to explore patterns and find commonalities, we have found story circle to be effective in:

Encouraging practitioners to shed technical jargon and overly processed communications by focusing on direct experience.

Empowering individuals by sharing their memories and experiences, which are precious sources of knowledge.

Creating a deep space fairly quickly among people who may have never met before.

Ground Rules

The equal spirit of the ‘circle’ should be enacted through the story circle method:

Everyone sits in an equal circle with no physical barriers like tables or chairs in the middle.

Listening is more important than talking.

A storyteller and his/her story should be respected, not judged.

Too much information processing in the mind should be discouraged. The story that needs to be told will emerge from the heart.

What to Keep in Mind

Sharing stories on a personal level can summon deep human emotions that require empathy and emotional intelligence.

Silence in between stories is, in fact, good. It gives the latest story teller, and the circle, time to reflect on the story they just heard, and it gives the next person time to land on his/her story.

If the story circle is going to be recorded, group permission needs to be obtained. It should be disclosed that the designated note-taker will compromise full participation in the story circle. There is a trade-off between deep listening and taking notes.

For more information, please see:

Junebug Productions Leadership Story – Leadership for a Changing World

Junebug Productions The Color Line Project

Making Connections – Denver


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