An activity to form deeper relationships between participants.
One storytelling tool we have found to be particularly effective is called “True Stories,” adapted from a practice used by Dorothy Stoneman, the founder of YouthBuild. We’ve led this exercise hundreds of times in a wide variety of contexts, from Montgomery, Alabama to Nairobi, Kenya to Shanghai, China. Every single time it dramatically shifts the dynamics in the room.
Any size. We’ve used true stories in groups as small as 3 and as big as 1000.
25-60m depending on size of groups and length of time allowed per story. Includes 5m for framing/setup, 4-7m per story (in groups of 3-5 people), 1-2m of reflection per story, and 5-10m of full group reflections.
In this exercise, participants are evenly distributed into groups of three to five people. They are then asked to sit facing each other, and invited to recount a life experience that made them who they are. In a physical space, we’ll prepare the room ahead of time by moving tables to the side and creating small circles of chairs facing each other.
The particular framing question can be adapted to fit the context. For example, people might be asked to share the story of a particular period of their life, the story of a mentor who had a big influence on them, or the story of how they came to do the work they’re doing today. We’ve listed a few of our favorite topics for stories on the next page. We encourage you to adapt the script to the topic, context, and participants—make it your own.
Each person will have a specific amount of time to tell their story, during which they will be the only one speaking (we usually provide four to seven minutes per story, depending on how much time available for the exercise). We challenge participants to go as deep as they can without feeling like they’re oversharing. Then, for the next two minutes, listeners offer their reflections on that story—what resonated with them, what surprised them, and what stood out. Once the first person has finished telling their story and received feedback from their group, the next person tells their story, and the process continues. Keep time so that each group progresses through the exercise simultaneously, ringing a chime when it’s time to shift to reflections or to switch to the next storyteller.
At the end, we ask participants to thank the other members of their group for what they shared. Then we create space for people to share reflections, asking the debrief questions listed below.
What follows is a script, written in the first-person, to introduce the True Stories exercise for the group. As you deliver the framing for the activity, be conscious of the tone you are setting for the group. Remember to pause, breathe, and allow for silence.
Usually, we only see the attributes that make up someone’s external context—what they say or do, their title and organization,and physical characteristics. To build deep trust, however, and to understand other people in an authentic way, we need to understand their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up in the morning, the things that have made them who they are. As poet Muriel Rukeyser says, “The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of stories.”
So now in your groups, you’re going to share the true story of your life, and how it led you to where you are today. Most people never actually have the opportunity to share the story of their life with others in an uninterrupted way. At best, we only share snippets. But your life is precious, and if we’re going to work together, even through disagreements and hard times, it’s critical to know where each of us is coming from. When you know someone’s story, you’re less likely to assume negative intent, and more likely to assume positive intent.
When I say “share your story”, I don’t mean the sanitized version of your life. I mean the true story of your life. The tragedies that shaped you, the mentors who believed in you, the random events that shaped your future, the family dynamics that were hard or important for you, the personal beliefs or epiphanies that shaped your journey, all the things that brought you to this moment. You’ll each have  minutes.
When you’re listening to someone else’s story, don’t think about how you’re going to tell your own story. Trust me, it will flow naturally. Instead, focus on listening deeply and empathetically to the person who is sharing their story. Telling a personal story requires that we trust that our listeners will respond to our story with respect. In this way, trust is built both ways.
When you tell your story, be as honest and go as deep as you can. Get out of your comfort zone, but stop short of going into a crisis zone, triggering your own flight or fight response. Challenge yourself to go 20% deeper, sharing more than you might in a casual conversation.
During feedback: Each listener has a chance to briefly share something that struck you about the story you just heard. No healing or fixing. Just reflection. The storyteller stays silent for these two minutes – this is their turn to listen to what part of their story moved you.
I’m going to keep time for the whole group. When I ring the bell, the first person should start telling their story, and continue talking until I ring the bell again after seven minutes. During that time, they should be the only one who speaks. I’ll let you know when you have 1 minute left. Then the listeners of the group will have 2 minutes to reflect on the story and give feedback, because it’s important to close the story with respect.
Before we get started, I’m going to give you one minute to decide who’s going first, second, third and fourth. (pause) Everyone know your order? Ok. Let the storytelling begin.
Here are some prompts we’ve used in the past that worked well:
Stories with a focus