Guidelines For Telling Stories And Being Good Listeners

Many of these Guidelines have been adapted from Taking It Up: Leading for Educational Equity by Ana M. Becerra and Julian Weissglass.

BEFORE YOU BEGIN: Many people have been deeply harmed by their experiences of harassment and assault and would benefit from first working through their stories with the help of a trained professional: a counselor, social worker, therapist, or pastoral counselor. Please consider taking this step if you either seem to have no feelings about what happened to you or have such strong feelings that leave you unable to think or talk about the past without feeling overwhelmed by grief or rage. The guidelines that follow are for people who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feeling nothing (dissociation) and feeling too much (emotionally overwhelmed). Although the guidelines may seem artificial, they have been developed by professionals with long experience in helping others share their stories of inequity and oppression.

Context and Form

  • We are not recommending broadcasting our stories to the world.  Instead we recommend telling our stories to people with whom we already have relationships – friends, family members, neighbors and work colleagues. If we all do just that much we will begin to change the culture and our world. 
  • Such story telling can take different forms:
    • one on one conversations in which either one person shares and one listens or both share and both listen.
    • a second option is for a group of people to decide to share stories together in the circle format described below.

The guidelines are the same in either case.

Story Telling

  • Telling your story about painful events should only be done within supportive relationships. Such relationships do not happen automatically; they take work. A key attribute is the ability to speak and be heard without fear of judgment, criticism, or ridicule for revealing your feelings.
  • We recommend sharing your story first with those you trust most and when you feel comfortable, expanding the circle of those to whom you want give this gift of your personal experience.
  • Only share as much as you are comfortable sharing. You and you alone should determine the depth and level of details of your story.
  • We are all able to think more clearly when we are listened to well.  Such listening and caring allow us to better recognize unproductive assumptions and also to construct new understanding of our own experience.  Exploring our experiences on this personal level creates the conditions for gaining new insights into what needs to happen in the larger world.
  • No one - neither speakers nor listeners - should be alarmed by tears or trembling.  These are forms of emotional release that often accompany speaking and listening to painful, personal stories. Allow these emotions to surface and move through you.
  • If you are sharing your story with one or more other people who are also sharing theirs, it is helpful to have a structure that protects each speaker from interruption.
  • Here are two options you might consider:
    • use a timer to ensure that each speaker has an equal amount of time
    • use a talking piece that signifies that only the person holding the object is allowed to speak. Note: Talking pieces were and sometimes still are a component of circle rituals of many indigenous communities.  The idea of using some special object (whose history is shared with the group) to help structure conversations has been adapted from these traditions.
  • Do not use these recommendations as a way to share stories about the listener or another mutual acquaintance. Such a conversation presents additional complications and requires a different set of considerations and guidelines.


  • Confidentiality is crucial so that the speaker feels safe to be authentic and willing to go deep. That means that the listener(s) does not share the story with anyone else and it also means that the listener(s) does not bring it up again to the speaker. Only the storyteller can reintroduce the topic.
  • When you are listening to a story, just listen. Give the speaker the gift of your full attention and listen from your heart. Be content to be a witness.
  • Asking for clarification may interrupt the speaker’s train of thought. If the speaker runs out of things to say, the listener can ask an open ended question such as, “did you want to say more?”, “how are you feeling?” or “what were you thinking or feeling at that point?”
  • The listener does not need to interpret, paraphrase, analyze, give advice or break in with a personal story. Let the story stand on its own. People are capable of solving their own problems when listened to well.

Circle Guidelines for Multiple Speakers

  • Invite someone to be the facilitator of the circle.
  • The facilitator should remind participants of the ground rules:
    • Listen and speak with respect.
    • Speak your own truth with a story from your life
    • Respect people's privacy; only tell your own story and don’t repeat anyone else’s.
  • Use of the talking piece
    • Whoever brings the talking piece should say a little about its meaning and history.
    • Speak only when you have the talking piece
      • No cross talk of any kind, verbal or nonverbal
      • Facilitator may speak to move the process along or prompt with an open ended question
    • Share the time fairly
    • Participants may pass and the group will come back to those who have.  It is OK to not speak at all.
  • The facilitator closes the circle with appreciation to everyone and a reminder about confidentiality in the moment – only a speaker can bring up his or her story again.