Skip to main content

Nicholas Allen | July 14, 2020

On Friday, July 10, 2020, I had the opportunity to speak for a few minutes with Dr. Darla Deardorff about her publication, the Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles, and its applications, both past and future, to the challenges facing our society today.

Our interview was an inauspicious one. We met over Zoom late in the afternoon and kicked off our meeting with internet connectivity issues. She graciously did not assign blame and began immediately working to find a good connection for Zoom before resorting to a phone call and I, likely the one whose signal was to blame, began panicking in short order, holding my laptop up around the house looking for even one more bar to light up the pie slice icon on my Windows navigation bar. Rocky beginnings, however, made for unaffected conversation and we began to dig into some of my curiosities about her newest work.


Allen: So, as I understand it, Story Circles is a methodology that is framed by this concept of intercultural competency. Is that a good way of putting it?
Deardorff: Yes, it is. The Story Circles method utilizes existing circle processes for the purpose of developing and practicing intercultural competence. So, for example, circle processes have existed for a long time in indigenous cultures and are used for many different purposes in mainstream culture now, including in schools for restorative justice. This is the first time that story circles are specifically being used for the purpose of developing and practicing intercultural competence. It’s important to make that distinction.
Allen: I hadn’t heard of circles being conceived of in that way before. That’s definitely good background information. As we’re thinking about “intercultural,” can you tell me about how you think about that term existing beyond the crossing of international borders?
Deardorff: Absolutely. I would say early on in the intercultural field, there was that idea that it’s “cross border,” it’s “national cultures.” A lot of the work of [Geert] Hofstede in the ‘80s and the research around what he did very much focused on those national level cultures, but as the discussions and research have evolved since then and in more recent times, and in the last few years, “intercultural” has really evolved to include pretty much any difference and looking at how we connect across difference, whatever that difference might be. So it could be those national cultural identities, but increasingly there’s a recognition that there are a lot of nuances within a national culture, there are a lot of different cultures within a culture, so to speak, so we’re no longer even talking about that as much as looking at the differences between generations, between genders, between religions, socio-economic differences, even differences in approaches of ways of thinking and being and so on. Of course, some of that is also culturally influenced by the culture or cultures within which one was raised, but it’s really becoming a much more inclusive definition and way of looking at culture.
Allen: That makes a lot of sense, and excuse my ignorance, but is that sort of conception of intercultural limited to scholarly work or has it entered into the lay persons’ use of intercultural?
Deardorff: That’s a great question. It has been traditionally more at the academic or scholarly level, but we’re hoping it is entering more of the mainstream discussion now. You may know I was one of the four experts involved with the OECD’s—the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s—PISA test on global competence. The PISA test is a Programme on International Student Assessment that’s given to 15-year-olds around the world. Schools were using this this PISA test of global competence in 2018. It was based on this broader kind of definition; and as the experts working with OECD, we really pushed that broader conceptualization around intercultural global competence. So it’s getting out there around the world.
Allen: I’m trying to think of ways that in my own day-to-day life, as I go about encountering difference, that I can work that word in and start to broaden my conception of it. Because certainly in my own mind right now, it is more limited than what we’ve been discussing.
Deardorff: One of the things that’s in the Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles, is an activity that we’ve actually done there at World View and I continue to use when introducing Story Circles to groups. I usually don’t even start by using the term “intercultural competence,” but rather, start with the activity called “Think of Someone Who…” I ask participants to think of someone they know personally, or someone known to them, who they feel does a really good job of connecting with lots of different kinds of people across a wide variety of differences and I even list those out when I’m given these instructions in terms of gender, generation, religion, etc. And while they don’t need to tell us who they’re thinking of, I do ask them to come up with at least three words or phrases to describe what allows this person to be so successful in connecting with so many different types of people. We do that exercise in different ways. One, if it’s face-to-face, they write down the words or phrases on Post-It notes, and then group up in groups of three, in triads, and compare what they came up with. Oftentimes it’s pretty similar. When we’re doing it virtually we have them type the words into chat so they can see the results. And then in either case, the words that emerge actually become words that that then describe “intercultural competence.”
Allen: What are some of the traits that pop up most often?
Deardorff: There’s a lot of openness, open-mindedness, listening, empathy, respect. And of course that’s what came out of my research on intercultural competence. Then usually I can take that and turn it around say, “Okay, now you get a chance to practice listening, you get a chance to practice developing empathy, you get a chance to demonstrate respect for each other through Story Circles.” And so that’s kind of how we get into it, as opposed to some sort of academic lecture on “let me share with you my model.”
Allen: I like that like the hands-on approach. How have you seen this activity develop differently between, say, a group of adults versus a group of 15-year-olds?
Deardorff: We’ve used it with lots of different groups of people around the world, actually—anywhere from over 300 teachers in Beijing to at-risk young people in Harare [the capital of Zimbabwe] to school children in Vienna. With the younger groups, even with the middle school children we worked with in Vienna, it was better to use more visuals to make it even more concrete for them. So while there were slight adaptations to the activity when we work with young people or with adults, it’s fascinating that regardless of kind of the age group, the same types of characteristics of intercultural competence emerge.
Allen: Like a universal language developing.
Deardorff: And consistently, across the world, because they’re not all referencing the same people. I should count up how many different countries we’ve done this in now, but it’s amazing how the same types of characteristics still emerge, regardless of age or the country context.
Allen: I would be so interested to see that in action. As I learn more about Story Circles, and as I as saw it happening [at World View’s 2019 K-12 Global Education Symposium], I’m tempted to buy into the idea that it’s a kind of “magic solution,” which gives me pause. Where might there be pushback or where is the scholarly research honing this technique?
Deardorff: Instead of saying it’s a sort of “magic solution,” it’s an adaptable methodology. It’s really important to understand that Story Circles is a methodology that is structured, yet adaptable. UNESCO and the UN really wanted to find a methodology or tool that could work with any group of people, anywhere in the world, using little to no resources, and that could be facilitated by someone who may not have a formal background or training in intercultural communication. And Story Circles works. It ticks all those boxes. It works because stories are part of the human experience. I would think of it more as a methodology as opposed to a magic solution because it’s adaptable to the context. And that is really the key, because it’s not that we’re prescribing some sort of fancy training from the United States that goes everywhere in the world. It’s a methodology that emerged out of the human experience, that has been used since ancient times, especially by indigenous cultures. The adaptability part is in contextualizing Story Circles and tailoring it to the group you’re working with, wherever that might be. They’re not going to all use the same prompts, they’re not going to all be talking about the same things.
In terms of the pushback that we’ve received, it has been more cultural in that the structured part of the process—and it is a process, it’s a methodology process—the structured part in the manual recommends limiting the sharing time to two and three minutes per person. And the pushback that’s been received has been it from cultures where that time element has felt too limiting, they wanted more time. And that response is fine: you can give it as much time as you want. Again, it’s very adaptable. The point is that everybody needs to have the same amount of time for the purpose of equity. So just because there’s an elder in the group or let’s say, a school principal in the group, that person doesn’t get more time than everybody else. Everybody has to have the same amount of time. So you could give everybody 30 minutes instead of three minutes, but then everybody needs to have that same amount of time and you’re going to be there a while. So as long as that’s okay, go for it. It’s very adaptable in that way, not just in the prompts, but also in the process.
Allen: That makes a lot of sense. So we want to make sure everybody has the same maximum amount of time to speak, but is there a difference in the result or the process if someone doesn’t want to use all that time or isn’t sharing at that length?
Deardorff: Absolutely. That’s another reason why we’ve gone with the two- and three-minute times, because for some people it feels too short and for others, it’s like, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to fill three minutes!” And they don’t have to. They don’t have to talk the whole time. The question you’re asking is a really good one because, again, it’s really up to each person as to how much they want to share about themselves. So, for example, one of the prompts—the first prompt—is more of an introductory prompt and one of the ones we’ve used most often, says to share three words or phrases about yourself and why those are important. So if I didn’t want to share very much in my group, I could say, “Well, I’m, I’m a woman, I’m white, and I’m from the United States.” That doesn’t tell you a lot more than what you can actually see right now. But maybe that’s all I feel comfortable sharing. I don’t want to share any more about who I am. And that’s my choice. It’s each person’s choice to decide how deeply they want to share. Now what we found is that in most cases, people are really, really ready to go. Amazingly deep, really quickly and they are willing to share a lot more deeply than when we could have even imagined. And a lot has to do with how it’s set up in creating a safe environment for them to share and so on. So there’s a lot to how it is all facilitated that allows for that rich sharing to happen, but each person can decide for themselves how deeply they want to share.
Allen: So facilitation in the context of the circle is an important piece. Now, I’m coming from oral history methodologies, where developing rapport in an interview is an important way to encourage more in-depth answers, but have you seen rapport play a role in responses and how people take to sharing in the circle?
Deardorff: One thing that’s really interesting about the Story Circles approach from UNESCO is that confidentiality is really important. Which means that I as a facilitator cannot be in in circles, unless I’m invited in. So I actually haven’t been part of those discussions. But I hear when they report back and I can see it. It has just been amazing. People say, “You know, I came together with these strangers and now feel like they’re my best friends.” And that happens in about one hour.
Allen: We’re just ready for that connection.
Deardorff: Yes, connection is so key—even before COVID, but especially now. That that has been the case so many times. Or people coming together saying, “I really thought we had too many differences, and now I realize we have so much more in common than what I realized.” That’s the beauty of that methodology and of just sharing of ourselves through personal stories.
Allen: For the teachers out there, what is the learning curve like from reading the manual to applying it in their classroom? Is it a turnkey methodology that’s ready to go?
Deardorff: So I think for those teachers who are familiar with circle processes, it would be a really quick read-through and then just go ahead with it because they’re just adapting what they already know about circle processes. There are some slight differences with circle processes. For example, they may be used to having circle keepers. It’s typical have a circle keeper in circles. And this methodology is really intentional about not having anyone as a circle keeper because of the equality piece—and not having one person being viewed as having more power than someone else in the group. So there are some slight differences for those who are familiar with it, but otherwise it would be really easy for those teachers to pick it up. But even if they’re not familiar with circle processes, pages 71-72 in the manual outline the whole process in one handout. It would be really easy to look at that—it is meant for participants—but to take it and say, “Yep, that’s the purpose, there the guidelines, here are the instructions…go.”
So it could e pretty easy. The manual goes into a lot more detail about things to think about, the ideal way in which to run Story Circles, but lots of adaptations can be made along the way and using just that one handout on those two pages and then the following two pages, 73-74, which list some example prompts, you could easily get started. You could read through those like menus options: “This one we use, this one we use, I’ve got this handout. Story Circles is a go.” So it can be easy, especially for teachers or those who are used to facilitating. If someone’s not used to facilitating groups and being up in front of a group, then the learning curve might be a little bit steeper. But I don’t worry about that with teachers at all.
Allen: I’m wondering, in sequence to that, how you are thinking about Story Circles as a digital application in the Zoom classroom or in a virtual symposium?
Deardorff: Yes, so in fact, just this week I trained UN staff in Brazil. It’s incredible how well it can work on the virtual platform. I’ve mostly been using Zoom for Story Circles and we put participants into breakouts for the actual circles. And in fact, one of the Brazilians said that was the most amazing experience she’s had in three months of being in lockdown. So it’s nice that we have been able to pivot to virtual Story Circles, which is what UNESCO/UN is doing now. We’re going to be doing another Story Circles experience in Brazil next month and then we’re going to be doing several more in a few African countries in the early part of this fall. It’s obviously not ideal to be virtual but it is the next best thing when we can’t be together face-to-face.
Allen: I was reading that not being face-to-face circumvents a part of the brain that’s essential for trust. A Canadian group did some research on that regarding Zoom and how that’s bad for businesses. But I’m thinking in Story Circles, when we have this intentional connection and this time to share, maybe we are reconnecting that piece through the trust and vulnerability there.
Deardorff: And the key is—and this is challenging when we’re looking at different parts of the world or even different parts in the United States or in the state of North Carolina—is having the bandwidth for the video connection. A few of the folks who are part of the training in Brazil this week didn’t have the bandwidth for the video. And it’s really challenging when you’re only listening to someone’s voice and you can’t see them. One of the limitations through zoom, and we received some of this feedback early on, is that you’re limited to body language in that screen, in that window. Whereas when you’re face to face, you get to experience all of the non-verbals, the whole body language. Here, you can only have this much [gestures] in terms of body language. That is a bit limiting and there’s also the issue of eye contact- for cultures where eye contact is important, since that doesn’t quite work as well online. If I’m looking at you here [looks down at screen], it doesn’t look like I’m making eye contact and yet if I’m looking at the camera it might look like I’m making eye contact, but now I’m not seeing you. So that’s definitely the conundrum with this whole screen thing. For cultures used to having eye contact, that’s a really key part of the communication and creating trust. For other cultures that lack of eye contact may not be a big deal because that’s not part of their main nonverbal ways of communicating. So those are just some of the issues that come up in virtual Story Circles, especially in building trust. But in general, virtual Story Circles can work. We are concerned about equity, though, with bandwidth and access when we are taking it to so many different countries and even within our own state.
Allen: It’s a struggle that we had today with my internet connection, so it’s very salient. I’m really grateful for your time. Before we go, I’m wondering if there’s any last thoughts you want to share?
Deardorff: Sure. This started way before our current world situation, a couple years back, and even then, with the increasing divides in society, it was really becoming apparent that there was a key role that something like Story Circles could play in bringing people together. And certainly UNESCO is really invested in it and they saw that this is really important in building relationships and setting a foundation for dialogue so that we can really move forward in trying to make this world a better place. And I think it’s becoming even clearer now, with all that’s going on, not just COVID and the health pandemic, but with what’s happening in this country and around the world related to racism: there is such a needed role for all educators who are trying to bridge these divides to bring people together across differences, whatever those differences might be. I remain so inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked on a lot of this too, when he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers (as family) or perish together as fools.” We haven’t learned how to live together yet. We still have a lot we need to learn. This is just one small part in trying to help us do that. It’s exciting to try to see how we can increase the number of people involved in bringing people together across these divides, so that’s why I’m so excited that World View is embracing this from UNESCO and I’m excited to work with World View all on this as well.


Dr. Deardorff will be facilitating intercultural competency training at World View’s upcoming program, “Global Health: Changing Prognosis.” The Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles is an open access book available in five languages. Access it here.