Darla Deardorff: Grassroots peacemaking can begin with sharing stories

Diverse group of five people sit in a circle, talking

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How we tell our stories and how we listen to others can help us see beyond differences, according to an expert in international education and intercultural competencies.

Darla Deardorff does not hesitate to identify herself as a PK -- a preacher’s kid.

Deardorff grew up in the Church of the Brethren, one of three historic peace churches, and that tradition has played a significant role in shaping her, she said.

“All of that greatly influenced who I am today and the values that I hold, particularly Jesus’ call to peacemaking and what that means in daily life,” she said.

Darla DeardorffDeardorff’s extensive career in education includes her current role as executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators.

In addition, through work with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), she has produced a manual for the Story Circles intercultural awareness and competence tool -- a conversational practice for bringing people together across differences.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about how she came to the work and how the use of Story Circles helps build better listeners.The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could you tell us about your work? You have an impressive resume.

Darla Deardorff: As a young adult, I struggled with what does [peacemaking] mean in terms of vocation. At one point, I thought that means working at the highest levels in the world in peacemaking -- the U.N. level of peace negotiations. But then I came to realize that’s not where I felt called. It was more at the grassroots level, and seeing international education as really a way to make those person-to-person connections.

My doctoral research was around intercultural competence, which I see as very much aligned with my faith values, because what I research and work on comes down to looking at what’s necessary for us to get along together as humans sharing this planet. To me, that’s what intercultural competence is all about.

Ironically, my work on intercultural competence over the last decade-plus has indeed led me to work with the United Nations, so it’s kind of come full circle. That’s where this work, this intercultural methodology I’ve been working on with UNESCO, kind of changed how that all fits in and is connected.

F&L: Could you explain intercultural competence a bit?

DD: The short definition of intercultural competence is communication and behavior that is both effective and appropriate in interactions across difference. But there’s a lot more to that in terms of what knowledge looks like within that, which attitudes are really essential to intercultural competence, and which skills are really essential.

Some of the key attitudes have to do with respect, with valuing others regardless of whether we agree or disagree. Open-mindedness is an important attribute, and also curiosity, which includes seeking discomfort or going outside our comfort zone, seeking out diverse spaces.

One important skill that comes about through intercultural competence is listening for understanding. That’s something that is really practiced within this intercultural methodology.

F&L: Can you tell us about the Story Circles tool?

DD: I had been working on some other projects with UNESCO around intercultural competence, looking at different perspectives on intercultural competence around the world. And based on that initial work, member countries came to UNESCO and said, “We really need to have a concrete methodology or tool for actually developing intercultural competence.”

UNESCO had me work with them, and they set out certain parameters, including that it needs to be an intercultural methodology that could work with anyone in the world using little to no resources and that could be facilitated by someone who may not have formal training or degrees in intercultural communication.

After a lot of research, what was developed was a tool that UNESCO called Story Circles. Stories have been around as long as humans, and circle processes have existed in a number of different indigenous traditions and cultures around the world for centuries.

There are lots of different kinds of circles. This is kind of inspired by and adapted from some of those different purposes, but what’s really important to understand about the Story Circles methodology is the purpose -- developing and practicing intercultural competence, and the key skills around intercultural competence, especially listening for understanding.

As humans, it’s just natural that we tend to listen for response or listen for judgment. And in both cases -- how will I respond to you or what do I think of what you’re saying -- I’m actually focusing more on myself than really on what you’re saying.

For the purposes of Story Circles, we talk about listening for understanding as really focusing 100% on the person speaking, what they’re sharing, and particularly the gift that they are sharing in their own personal experiences.

What then evolved through this continued work with lots of different groups and colleagues around the world was a very structured protocol that is also at the same time adaptable to the context and to the participants. UNESCO wanted to see if this indeed works with any group of people anywhere in the world, and so they proceeded to engage in pilots in all five UNESCO regions -- specifically in this case, in Thailand, in Zimbabwe, in Costa Rica, in Austria and in Tunisia.

Beyond this pilot, UNESCO has been using Story Circles in other contexts as well, and in my own work, I’ve been using Story Circles in many different contexts and locations, including with over 200 teachers in Beijing, with groups of educators in South Africa and right here in Durham, [North Carolina], as well as at Duke.

F&L: Do you provide ground rules for the conversations?

DD: How this works always comes back to the purpose of the Story Circles model -- to develop and practice intercultural competence skills. It can be total strangers; we’ve done this within conferences both in person and, within the last year, online.

Now UNESCO is using Story Circles to train United Nations staff. We’ve been using Story Circles virtually with U.N. staff in Brazil and in Cameroon, and with U.N. staff who work with refugees around the world.

It can connect people deeply even virtually, and we were really glad to see how well it can work virtually. I was just in a conversation with some of my UNESCO colleagues, and they said it’s still not the same as the in-person impact, and some of the group don’t have even electricity, let alone high-speed internet and devices to connect virtually, so it’s still really important to see how we can do this in person as well and not just rely on virtual.

We bring people together. It can be strangers, or it can be, let’s say, in classes, where at least they see each other on a regular basis, and even in churches.

It’s ideal if the groups can be as diverse as possible, but we recognize that there are lots of ways in which diversity manifests itself. It can be race but also genders, generations, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, even the diversity between rural and urban backgrounds.

Ideally, it should be by invitation, not mandated, and persons are there because they want to be. What we found worked best was to put persons in groups of four to six. We do some activities to make sure people understand why we’re doing this -- for practicing these key skills of getting along together and building deeper relationships with each other.

Then we go through some key guidelines or commitments that are important to uphold, seeking out any others that participants would like to add to those. One of the main ones is to maintain confidentiality, so that what’s said in that small group stays in that small group.

We go over the protocol: there are three rounds, and there are prompts for each round, with a time element involved. The recommendation is that the first prompt is two minutes or less, and that’s an introductory icebreaker, especially for groups who don’t know each other, but even if they do, it’s a new way to discover and learn more about each other.

The second round is more a deeper intercultural prompt, and that’s usually been three minutes or less. And then the last round is a fairly quick lightning round. In 15 seconds or less, persons go around and complete a sentence.

If you were the first person in our small group who told your second story, we would all go around -- and that’s your time to listen -- each of us would go around and say, “The most memorable part of your story for me was …” And then the next person would say that to you, and the next person and the next. 

After we’d all given you our “flashbacks” to your story, we’d go to the second person in our circle, and we would all provide that same affirmation to that person. It’s always, “The most memorable part of your story for me was …”

That has been a real aha moment for participants. We were doing this in Vienna, Austria, in a middle school that was about 90% migrant or immigrant background. One young man said that it was the first time in his life that he’d ever felt heard.

The listening for understanding means no comments, no questions, no interruptions during any of those three rounds. When one person finishes speaking, then the next person speaks. For some, including myself, that’s really hard to do. “Oh, then what happened? That’s so interesting; then what?”  We can’t do that.

We just listen deeply for understanding -- really paying attention and focusing 100% on the person speaking and what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, as much of the nonverbal as we can see in a tiny square on a screen, if it’s virtual, or when we are truly sitting in a circle, paying attention to all of that.

After the groups have gone through these three rounds, they can have a time of debriefing among themselves. That’s when they can talk more and say, “I love the story you told!” or, “The most memorable part of your story for me was this, because I had the same experience.”

They can then talk and engage more with each other around the stories and also begin to debrief with each other about what surprised us, what did we hear in our stories that we shared.

Many participants come out of this with an overwhelming feeling of we have a lot more in common than what divides us. And particularly those who come together for the first time often feel like they have lifelong best friends now.

I think persons are amazed at how deeply they can connect with each other in such a short amount of time. The entire process takes about an hour and a half, but when they’re actually in their small groups, it’s about 45 minutes, and then we come back together as a whole group and talk at a broader level about what were the lessons learned and what did we hear and where do we go from here.

It’s been incredibly transformative, I think in part because a lot of the intercultural trainings that are done mostly connect with head knowledge. But there’s a lot of power in going beyond just head knowledge to really connecting deeply with the heart. That’s what Story Circles sessions do.

In terms of bridging divides, I’ve seen Story Circles used in conferences with young adults both in Istanbul and in Cairo connecting across cultures and across religions in quite deep ways that even surprise them. It’s been used in bringing Muslims and Christians together. It’s amazing to see what comes at the end, where they feel like they’re family.

They’ve been using Story Circles to connect south Durham residents across racial divides, and that’s been really powerful. They’ve been doing this virtually, but they also were able to do a few in person -- outside, socially distanced, masked and just listening to each other’s stories. Seeing each other in the other stories despite what seemed to be differences and affirming their common humanity is incredibly powerful.

This tool has also been used in indigenous populations in Costa Rica, different indigenous populations with their own cultures, languages and histories, and yet the Story Circles process has been used to bring those from the different indigenous traditions together.

So lots of different examples of how this is being used in bridging those divides.

F&L: Once someone has participated in this process, there is potential to affect how they hear people in other settings. This is something they will carry with them.

DD: Absolutely. Oftentimes they’ll say, “Well, I thought I listened to people, but I realized there’s a lot more I need to do with that, and I need to hear. I’m going to hear persons and their stories, and I’m going to seek out their stories now. I want to understand more about others.”

They see people in a different way as a result of this experience.