Story circles are one of the main tools used in the People's State of the Union!  From January 23-30, 2015, Citizen Artists across the country hosted story circles, inviting communities to come together and share their own perspective on the current state of our union.  Below is a general guideline for how story circles may be used in any setting.

Story Circles: Tool for Community dialogue

General principles and guidelines:

  • Listening is as important as speaking; each person receives full attention while telling his or her story. A story isn’t a performance: listen for the essence of what is being shared, rather than mentally critiquing the person’s delivery.

  • Each participant has equal time to share a story on a generative theme identified beforehand.

  • Attention passes around the circle in either direction. Individuals can pass, and will be given the opportunity to tell a story at the end of the circle. If someone declines, that’s fine. Don’t insist.

  • There are no questions, criticisms, cross-talk, or comments on any story while sharing is going on.

  • People do not speak from notes, and are discouraged from preparing their own stories rather than giving others full attention. Spontaneity is important.

  • Stories may be recorded. If participants prefer that their names not be used if their stories are recorded, they should say so, and the recorder should note it.

How it works:

  1. Eight or so is an optimal size for a story circle (though they can be a little larger or a little smaller). Guesstimate the number of participants, divide by 8, and find a facilitator for each circle. If you plan to capture the stories on a recorder or through notes, find a recorder for each circle too.

  2. Choose your generative theme, picking something that requires no special expertise. For instance: “A time you understood something through a work of art—a movie, song, image, dance, play, or other such experience.” Or “One of the best art-related experiences I’ve ever had.”

  3. Train your facilitators and recorders by sharing this material and doing a trial run with yourselves as participants.

  4. At the story circle, the large group counts off into groups of approximately 8 (or you number nametags to correspond to the number of story circles you anticipate, and then people just need to look at their nametags, not count off)

For facilitators:

  1. Briefly introduce yourself and recap the guidelines and time allocations. Answer any questions about these guidelines.

  2. Remind people of the generative theme you have chosen.

  3. Remind people that stories can be about any experience, any situation. All stories have value, and there is no right answer.

  4. Explain that each person has a time limit (3 minutes is typical), and you will signal to wrap up when there are 30 seconds left. Let people finish their sentences when time’s up, but don’t let them eat too much into others’ time. Please bring some type of timer!

  5. If someone wants to pass on the first go-round, that’s fine. Come back at the end to give those who passed another opportunity, but don’t insist.

  6. Tell the first story to set the tone and demonstrate the practice.

  7. Thank each person at the end of his or her story, then call on the next person.

  8. Allow a moment of silence between stories.

  9. At the end, engage the group in reflecting on the stories. Were there common themes? Notable differences? What stood out for you, if anything? What touched you, if anything? What feelings and ideas were sparked? Ask people to raise their hands and call on them in turn.

  10. End on time, thank everyone, and return to the large group.

For recorders:

  1. Record stories one of two ways: make good notes and/or use some type of audio recorder, preferably one that may be passed from person-to-person as stories are shared. Be sure to capture each person’s name and email.

  2. Take your turn telling a story.

  3. Type up written notes and/or transcribe audio recordings. If it is not possible to do both typed notes and an audio transcript, do one and submit the other in raw form.

  4. Notes and transcripts should be sent to a designated person by email or snail-mail.

Timing (this is a sample schedule for a 1.5 hours story circle experience):

:00: Exercise leader introduces process to everyone

:10: 5 minutes to get into small groups

:15: 3 minutes apiece for stories (with a brief introduction and a group of 8, this will equal about 30 minutes)

:45: 15 minutes to reflect together on the stories shared

1:00: Reassemble into the large group

1:05 15 minutes to share and discuss

1:20 End