An Innovative Methodology for Developing and Practicing Intercultural Competence

By Darla K. Deardorff, Founding President- WCICGC; Duke Fellow

Over the last two years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has successfully piloted an intercultural methodology in all five UNESCO regions that has proven to be quite successful in bringing together those from diverse backgrounds and building relationships across differences.  In all five pilots (in Thailand, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Austria, and Tunisia), participants reported they had strengthened skills in intercultural competence, critical thinking, listening for understanding, tolerance and in developing further empathy.  In addition to the official pilots, this intercultural methodology has been used successfully in higher education institutions in different countries, including Japan, Turkey, UK, Italy, Germany, China, US, and Singapore. This intercultural methodology, called “Story Circles,” is a structured yet flexible methodology adapted for the purpose of developing and practicing intercultural competence, especially the skill of listening for understanding rather than the more typical listening for reply or judgment.

After participating in Story Circles, some participants observed, “We are all human beings and we aren’t the center of the world, nor are we alone; the things we feel and go through, hundreds of others go through the same or similar things.” Others said,  “Getting to know someone doesn’t mean only talking about likes and dislikes and some life experiences; being open and vulnerable can build a strong bond with others.  People can all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and upbringings, but they all can relate to one another at one point in their lives.”  Another participant observed that “Story Circles is not only a well-structured methodology but also it is one of the most quick and effective ways to get to know others culturally and interpersonally.” 

Story Circles take about 60-90 minutes and can be used with any size group as participants are placed into small groups of 4-6 (the more diverse, the better!).  In fact, Story Circles have been used with over 200 participants on one occasion in China.  Once the purpose, guidelines (confidentiality is key), and instructions are discussed, the small groups are given an introductory prompt so they can get to know each other and begin to build trust. For example, “in 2 minutes or less, give 3 words or phrases that describe your background and why those words or phrases are important to you.”  This is then followed by a second prompt—such as, “in 3 minutes or less, tell about a specific memorable experience you’ve had with someone different from you”—that delves more into a personal intercultural experience and then the group engages in a time of “flashback” during which each participant names the most memorable part of each person’s story for them.

Through it all, participants practice listening for understanding, which means focusing 100% on the person speaking with no comments, questions or interruptions.  The time concludes with a small group discussion around specific debriefing questions before returning to the larger group for overall debriefing and discussion, which can also involve some time for action planning on how to use this experience and learning in moving forward.  Story Circles can be used beyond a one-time experience, using different prompts each time, in cultivating students’ intercultural competence so that they can be more successful during their university experience and beyond.  

The Story Circles methodology has been published in detail in an open-access book entitled Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles (by Deardorff) through UNESCO and Routledge, available at The Manual is also available in French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.  UNESCO, which officially launched the Manual in Paris in December 2019 hopes this methodology will be used widely in both formal and non-formal learning settings, including local communities so that participants’ intercultural competencies are not only enhanced but participants are empowered to develop deeper relationships with each other. In so doing, they hope to bring about the much needed goal of facilitating positive peace through cultivating intercultural dialogue. 

The Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies: Story Circles was officially launched by UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris on December 10-11, 2019.  Participating in the launch were members of the World Council community including Jeanine Gregersen-Hermans (The Netherlands), Catherine Jaeger (Germany), and Maria Hussain (UK).

This article was originally published in the January 2020 Issue of the Intercultural Connector newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter to receive updates from the WCIGC and to find articles, enhancements, and more from our contributing members.

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