Collective Visioning Exercise 4

Published on July 13, 2020.

Dear Friends,

Below please find Collective Visioning Exercise 4 from my book Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future.  I have updated the exercises to make them friendlier for online use.  I will be sharing them over the course of the next few weeks.

If you would like to receive a free copy of my book Collective Visioning, email Spirit in Action with your full name and postal address and we will send one to you, one per person or organization, while supplies last.  We are only able to send them to addresses in the United States.  Thank you.

Peace, Power and Love

Linda Stout

How do we get people to listen to each other?  We tell our stories. I call them “stepping stones.”

Some of the most moving stories are being told now, stories of how the color of our skins determines so much of our lives. We can build trust and create community through storytelling and active listening, and use Zoom, Skype or Google Hangout to tell those stories.

I have used this exercise for many years as it has been powerful and life changing for many people, although it’s probably the simplest exercise I have ever used.

Collective Visioning: Exercise 4 – Stepping Stones

To begin, ask people to get centered, and explain to them the guidelines for being an active listener. If you are using Zoom, be sure to use “Gallery View” so everyone can be seen.  It is critical to allow enough time – at least two minutes per stepping stone – for people to tell their stories.  Each person needs six to ten minutes, so if you have a group of twenty, for instance, this exercise would take about three and a half hours! That is why if you are doing this at a distance, you want to keep your group small. 

Active listening to other’s stories is as important as telling our own stories.  Being heard is critical to building trust.  When one person is telling a story, the job of others is to listen actively, to try to understand, and to reflect on what they’re hearing.  It is usually not ok to interrupt.

  • Listen with your ears, of course, but also with your eyes and your hearts.
  • Give all of your attention to the person speaking, showing you are listening with eye contact and body language (e.g. nodding when appropriate).
  • Do not interrupt, but listen for understanding.  If you have a question, wait until the person is done with the story.  Sometimes, in the context of the story, your question will get answered.
  • Don’t make judgements or jump to conclusions.  Listen with acceptance and openness.
  • Use silence effectively.  It is easy to jump in or ask a question when someone stops talking.  Unless the speaker has indicated that they are finished, let the silence be there.  Give the person telling the story time to pull their thoughts together.  The person may be struggling with words or feelings of telling something painful or difficult.  In interrupt can stop the story from revealing itself. 

Ask people to tell a story about three to five (depending on time) of the stepping-stones of their lives that brought them to where they are today.  This exercise almost always requires ten minutes per person, and some people take longer.  Each story is such a powerful expression of self that it’s hard to cut people short.  I suggest dividing the group into smaller circles (or breakout rooms on Zoom) if you have more people than can speak for ten minutes each within the time available.  You can ring a gentle bell at the end of nine minutes to signal each person to finish up, or ask people to re-enter the room (on Zoom, send a message to the breakout rooms to signal a minute left for each person speaking and then at ten minutes when it is time to switch to the next person.  Remind people before the breakout rooms to watch for these messages.)

This exercise should be done in a very open-ended way, allowing people to take their stories where they want. If the group is focused on a particular issue, the stories can relate to that issue.  In that case, you could ask, “What are the five stepping-stones in your life that brought you into the current work you do for education (or whatever issue you are focusing on)?”

Even with a small group, people can get tired of listening and lose focus, but if you have an agenda, you might not be able to get to everything else.  However, you can ask for fewer stepping-stones.  You can even ask, “What one life experience brought you to the work you do for change today?”

The other option, which I prefer, it to get folks into smaller groups.  Although not everyone gets to hear each other’s stories, there is so much power in allowing everyone to tell their story in depth and be heard that it’s a more empowering experience overall.

On my blog, “Breaking the Logjam,” I relate where the idea for “stepping stones” came from, and how I used my stories to break impasses, to explain concepts that are difficult to understand and even to help with fund-raising.  You can read and apply more exercises in my book, Collective Visioning.

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