Concentric Circles Dialogue Exercise


  • Describe a successful classroom teaching tactic that could be replicated by other instructors.

The context: I adapted this process from anti-racism training for interreligious classroom and conference settings. It also lends itself to intra-group dialogue. This process works best for groups of twenty or more.

The pedagogical purpose: (1) To build community; (2) To provide an opportunity for students to share their religious/spiritual stories, including family backgrounds, values, beliefs, and commitments; (3) To practice both listening and speaking as integral to dialogue; and (4) To work against religious stereotypes by providing opportunities for participants to encounter adherents of other religious traditions as individuals.

Description of the strategy: Students sit in two concentric circles facing each other. Begin the session by asking students to introduce themselves to their partner. The session is a series of questions (generally four to six) pertaining to each person's experience of their religious or spiritual tradition. Participants frame their responses in “I” statements. Only one person may speak at a time. Each partner is asked the same question in a given time frame (two to five minutes). The facilitator designates partners to begin with the inside or outside circle, and gives a signal when it is time to switch partners. After both partners have answered the question, the inner or outer circle moves around the circle until each participant has a new partner. With each rotation, ask deeper questions. Sample questions: What is your religious/spiritual tradition and what are you most proud of from that heritage? Growing up, what did the adults in your life teach you about religious differences? When and how did you first become aware of religious differences? Today, what is your greatest fear in interreligious dialogue? What do you hope to gain from interreligious dialogue? Lastly, evaluate the experience with the group: How was that exercise for you? What was the most challenging? New insights?

Why it is effective: This process emphasizes that dialogue is about speaking and listening. The kinetic movement around the room reduces anxiety, and the sequencing of the questions brings a depth to the discussion quickly. The process helps students hone critical thinking skills, such as interpreting experience, to develop metacognitive awareness of their interpretative processes, and to cultivate deep listening and working to understand others. Rather than favoring students with cultural and linguistic advantages, this method allows democratic access to the process.