Anna Wohlrab and Gioel Gioacchino
Anna used this technique for conflict resolution facilitations with at-risk youth, while working with Global Majority at Rancho Cielo, Salinas, California. Through this exercise she realized that young people can have very particular fears because their experience is rooted in a very specific context. The exercise also pointed out the universality of fears. This helped to build empathy and spark new conversations within the group.
Understanding each other’s fears can bring researchers and research participants to empathize in a more authentic way. It helps researchers expand their perception of the community by better grasping what people might worry about, and how they might perceive danger.
This exercise creates an opportunity for participants to act out their fears – by exaggerating their emotions through movement, they can take a step towards exorcising them. In allowing for patterns to emerge, this exercise could generate crucial knowledge and collective reflection about the systemic difficulties a community might be facing.
Introduce the exercise by asking the group to define empathy. Ask what it means to them personally, and what it means within their community. Explain that the exercise will help the group explore how to build empathy and support each other to overcome our fears.
Ask participants to stand in a circle and think of a sound that represents fear to them. Ask one participant to start producing the sound repetitively, while all other participants join in, one by one, so that in the end the whole room is filled with a chorus of fear.
Provide 3 small pieces of paper to each participant and ask them to write one fear per paper, always starting with “I am afraid of…”. Once they are done, ask them to fold them up, so they stay anonymous. Have everyone put their fears in a balloon, blow it up and tie the knot. Invite the group to throw the balloon in the middle of the circle.
Ask each participant to grab a balloon (ideally not theirs). Each participant will pop their balloon, one by one, and read out loud the fear on the paper, always starting with “I am afraid of…” . Once somebody reads out the fear, ask the rest of the group to act out with a movement and/or sound what the fear might feel like in their body. Repeat until each person in the group has read a fear.
When the circle has been completed, and each person has gone at least once, ask participants to close their eyes. Invite participants to observe: how do the fears they have been interpreting feel in their body. Which fears felt most powerful? Invite participants to imagine how their life could feel without this fear and move their body to represent that imagined fearless life. From this position, ask participants to open their eyes and share out loud one tip they want to share with the group on how to overcome fears.
The technique allows the participants to reflect on their own and their peers’ fears. It also allows them to see how others interpret them. The content can be used to identify problem patterns in a community.
The exercise also builds empathy; by reading each other’s fears out loud, people are invited to empathize with the fears of others by embodying those fears.
Sometimes people don’t want to share their fears, so some people will only write down less intimate fears such as “spiders”. However, since they get to write down three fears there is usually enough for a meaningful debrief. Sometimes these fears can stir up a lot of emotions. For example, one student wrote: ‘I am afraid of myself’. Since everything was anonymous, it led to a great conversation on what this can mean, and how an individual, as well as other community members might support or contribute to such a fear.
Doing embodied work is hard and awkward if there isn’t the right kind of warm up. We’d recommend doing other community building exercises before arriving to this one.
Instead of using balloon, you can put the fears in a hat. You can also have participants crumple up the papers and throw them in a corner.
Make sure to have everyone read out the same number of fears. If there is a very large group just have them write two fears and have everyone only read one so as to increase the chances of at least one fear being read out loud of each participant.
Following this exercise, you might want to do the Community Mapping exercise. This will invite participants to locate their fear within a geographical space and increase the richness of your data.
No additional resources for this technique…
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