Leader Resource 3: Serial Testimony Protocol
Adapted from the work of Peggy McIntosh and Emily Style.
"Giving testimony" can mean bearing witness, giving evidence, speaking the truth of one's experience and perspective, and claiming responsibility for one's own truth.
The serial testimony protocol is very simple: The facilitator poses a question, and each participant speaks in turn without reaction from other group members. Under other names (Quaker dialogue, Claremont dialogue), this technique has been used for many years, particularly in settings where the participants' perspectives diverge so radically that they have difficulty hearing each other.
This technique does not aim to solve large problems or to create intimacy among participants. The strength of this method is that it challenges participants to speak their own truth while protecting individuals from becoming the focus of discussion. By providing the opportunity for everyone to hear a wide diversity of perspectives, serial testimony can be remarkably effective in building participants' mutual respect.
As simple as this technique is, to many participants it will feel unnatural, especially in settings where they are accustomed to discussion. The facilitator must carefully prepare the group in advance. Ask participants to honor the following ground rules:
Listen to each other with respect, without interrupting to comment or ask questions.
- Speak about your own thoughts, reactions, feelings, and experiences, not those of others.
- During your turn, do not comment on what others have said before you.
- To foster a sense of inclusion, ensure that each participant has the opportunity to speak and that every person keeps to the time allotted for their testimony.
The facilitator might tell the group that they will probably have strong reactions to the process; the facilitator may ask participants to hold on to and reflect on their thoughts and feelings, and assure them there will be ample opportunity to continue dialogue in other settings.
Move systematically around the circle rather than asking for volunteers to speak. The facilitator may pass a talking stick or other object to reinforce the ground rules.
Allow people to pass if they are not ready or do not wish to speak; return to those who pass after everyone else has spoken, to see if they now wish to speak. If someone speaks out of turn, the facilitator can gently but firmly restate the ground rules; otherwise, the facilitator too should refrain from comment.
Closing serial testimony may be done in several ways:
- A minute (or more) of silence
- A minute (or more) for participants to write their reactions
- A few minutes of debriefing about the experience or open discussion in response to an overall question about the workshop.