The CCP circle of truths exercise is a transforming experience that engenders surprising respect and understanding toward opponents. It also is an effective tool for planning nonviolent actions. We know that a growing child eventually develops the cognitive and emotional maturity to conceptually "put herself in someone else's shoes." It is this ability to role-take that is practiced and refined in the circle of truths exercise.
Role-taking is a skill that oppressed people master in order to deal effectively and nonviolently with their oppressors. This same skill can help us develop humane responses in situations where there are inequalities of power--through knowing the heart and mind of others, a concern for how we will appear to them, and a motivation for cooperation.
By practicing role-taking, we strengthen our capacity to understand opponents. We more accurately envision a variety of actions on our part and their likely responses, and then tailor our strategy for action. We anticipate the other's response and use this awareness to guide and adjust our actions, exercising flexible self-control of our own behavior. Role-taking also helps us relate to the humanity of our opponents through empathy, which restrains our tendency to demonize, and can lay the foundation for negotiation and eventual reconciliation. If we are skilled in role-taking, we create more effective strategies, develop more love and empathy for our opponents, and better prepare for eventual meetings and negotiations with them.
The Circle of Truths exercise is designed to practice the skills of role-taking and active listening. It is helpful to groups struggling to understand and respond to conflict or controversial issues in a faith community, in town government or an organization, and in national controversies. Some groups practice the exercise many times in order to deepen their understanding of opponents' perspectives and to develop viable action plans.
If your group has spent time together and developed a level of trust, the exercise may be a useful tool for strengthening nonviolent and action-planning skills. To prepare ahead of time, brainstorm issues of violence and injustice which are of great concern and gain consensus on one to use in the exercise. Then identify six or seven roles, which reflect possible opponents or groups you will want to understand and address when you take action. (An example related to the Iraq war: soldier, politician, taxpayer, Muslim, parent, veteran.)
Allow at least one hour for the exercise: a brief presentation and demonstration, conducting the exercise in small groups of six, and then discussion of the experience, learning and application for your work. Begin with a presentation and mini-demonstration before asking participants to move into small groups. Ask the groups to stand or sit in a circle behind role cards and to begin by silently centering themselves in their assigned roles.
Then each participant in the small group will speak to the issue in two or three sentences and express some likely needs, fears, or desires of someone in the role. They will not speak the usual public utterances of someone in the role, but the private feelings that might be share with a partner or intimate friend. When a participant in the small group is speaking from a role, the other participants will actively listen, letting the words touch their minds and hearts. They will not argue, attempt to convince one another, or seek a compromise. After a cycle of the roles is complete, participants will move over one role and complete another cycle. Using their creativity, they will strive to go beyond stereotypes and caricatures of the roles so that together they can reflect diversity within each role and a variety of the deep feelings individuals in the role might hold. The goal for participants is to practice role taking, experience standing in another's shoes, and actively listen to the hearts of opponents. As participants in the roles convincingly and forcefully speak from the heart, they enable others to deepen in understanding and compassion for opponents.
Mohandas Gandhi was a master role-taker who acknowledged that everyone holds a piece of the truth, and no one holds it all. His own role-taking skill led to effective nonviolent strategy and to astonishing compassion for opponents. May we, like Gandhi, develop the capacity to stand in another's shoes.
May we learn to stand in another's shoes.1/04
May we hear another's Truth
May we plan effectively
May we aim for the heart.