FYI: Calling a Circle


Richard Moore

Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2006 23:44:34 +0000
From: James Samuel
Subject: [Co-Creators] Calling a Circle


    Here is a summary of the How-To of Calling a Circle. This is a
    powerful tool, that can be used by anyone. I promised a few people
    that I would post it here. This description can also be on this
    Writeboard, as well as below:

    If you find this interesting and useful, you may also like to download
    the entire Mapping Dialogue book. Dialogue is one of those things we
    can always learn to do better, and this is a very accessible document.



    For as long as humankind has been around, the circle has surely been
    with us. Human beings have naturally been gathering in circle, around
    the fire, sometimes in deep conversation, sometimes in the quiet space
    of simply being together. At its most essential level, the circle is a
    form that allows a group of people to slow down, practice deep
    listening, and truly think together. When practiced fully, it can be
    an embodiment of the root of the word dialogue: "meaning flowing

    "Council" is another word, which expresses the promise of the circle.
    Imagine a circle of elders, passing a talking piece around one by one.
    Everyone's attention is on the person currently holding the piece,
    sharing his or her thoughts, perspectives, and wisdom. Each person's
    voice is valued and honoured. Long pauses of silence are an accepted
    part of the conversation.

    People can meet in a circle as a once- off gathering, or coming
    together regularly over periods ranging from a few months to several
    years. In both these forms, and everything in between, the circle is
    in recent years making something of a comeback. From business
    executives in corporate boardrooms to community organizers in rural
    hinterlands, people are re-connecting with the value of sitting in

    Many of the processes described in this collection make use of chairs
    set up in a circle because it is generally the most suitable
    configuration for a dialogue. This section, however, looks
    specifically at Circle as a process in its own right, not only as a
    physical set up. We draw here on the guidelines developed by Christina
    Baldwin of PeerSpirit. Inspired by her exploration of Native American
    traditions, Christina wrote a book entitled "Calling the Circle",
    which has made a major contribution to re-introducing circle process
    and developing a set of practices that can help us to facilitate
    meaningful circle dialogues. These guidelines can be used in their
    entirety or held more lightly.

    The circle is well known for the use of the talking piece. The talking
    piece is passed around the circle, with the person holding it being
    the only one to talk. The talking piece can be anything - an
    object from nature, a photograph, a pen, or even a cellphone. Some
    people think circle is only about working with talking piece council,
    but this is just one tool of the circle. Often the check- in is done
    with a talking piece, but then people can move into talking without
    it. This is called conversation council, where anyone who has
    something to say speaks. When people have been using circle for a
    while, even in conversation council, the practice is ingrained to not
    interrupt someone, and to let each person finish before a new person


                             Elements of a circle

The circle is good for

      * Enabling a group to connect more intimately
      * Creating equality among people who are at different levels in a
        group, organization or community - giving equal value to
        each person, and requiring everyone to participate
      * Slowing people down and allowing them to think together

Three practices of a circle dialogue

    Essentially the circle is a space for speaking and listening,
    reflecting together and building common meaning. Three practices have
    been clarified, which can be useful to help people come into a higher
    quality of attention:

      * Speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the
        conversation in the moment.
      * Listen with attention: respectful of the learning process all
        members of the group.
      * Tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact
        of our contributions.

Three principles that help shape a circle.

      * Leadership rotates among all circle members. The circle is not a
        leaderless gathering - it is an all leader gathering.
      * Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience.
      * People place ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), rather
        than on any personal agenda. There is a higher purpose at the
        centre of every circle.


    As with most of the tools and processes of good dialogue, the starting
    point is with the purpose and intention. The intention will determine
    who should be invited to join, when, where and for how long they will
    meet, as well as what questions they will focus on.

    The clearer the intention and the stronger the commitment to it, the
    stronger the circle. There are leadership circles, where people gather
    to support each other in their respective leadership practice. There
    are also circles that come together to solve a specific challenge such
    as improving a programme in an organization, or working together to
    make a neighbourhood more safe. It could be a group of workers coming
    together in circle with management to find the best way to deal with a
    need to retrench people, or even a group of homeless people joining
    members of a local church congregation to together come up with the
    best ways to support the homeless.

    Sometimes a circle is more simply a tool used in a larger process
    during the course of a workshop, or as a weekly or monthly meeting in
    an organization, or community. In this case the intention is more
    informal - to share expectations, to connect with how each other
    is doing, and to surface and address any concerns or needs people may

The host

    Although leadership is fully shared in circle, there will always be a
    host for the particular circle. Often the host is also the caller of
    the circle, but where a circle meets continuously over a longer period
    of time, the host role can change from circle meeting to circle

    The host will ensure that the circle flows through its main phases and
    that the intention is at the centre of the dialogue. The host is often
    also responsible, with the "guardian" (see below), for the actual
    physical space. Special attention is paid to the physical centre of
    the circle - a colorful rug, some meaningful symbols or objects,
    and/or a plant may mark the centre of the circle and often represent
    the collective intention. This paying attention to the centre of a
    circle, brings with it a sense of the sacred, when people gather
    together around it. Something out of the ordinary is being invited in.

The Guardian

    The Guardian is the person who pays special attention to the energy of
    the group, and that the group is not straying from the intention. The
    Guardian may interrupt during the course of the circle to suggest a
    break or a moment of silence. Sometimes conversation does speed up a
    little too much, and the centre - or calm - is lost. This
    is where the Guardian, or anyone who feels the need, can call the
    circle into reflection, or silent council, where everyone is silent
    for a while, letting things settle, before continuing either with the
    talking piece or in conversation council.


                         The flow of a typical circle


    The welcome helps the group shift into circle space. A good welcome
    can be a poem, a moment of quiet, or a piece of music to help people
    fully arrive, and to become present to each other and their circle.


    One thing that distinguishes a circle from many other ways of coming
    together is the importance placed on bringing each voice into the
    room. The circle therefore begins with a check-in where each person
    has a chance to speak to how they are feeling, as well as sharing
    their expectations for the meeting that day. The host may pose a
    specific question for each person to respond to in the check-in. It is
    also not unusual to invite participants to place an object
    representing their hope for the circle in the centre, sharing a little
    about the object as they do so. The result is a meaningful visual
    representation of the group's collective hopes in the center.


    When any circle gathers, its members need to formulate guidelines or
    agreements on how they wish to be together. This is an important part
    of shared leadership, and everyone taking responsibility for their
    time together. An example of commonly used agreements of circle are:

      * Listen without judgment
      * Offer what you can and ask for what you need
      * Confidentiality - whatever is said in circle, stays in
      * Silence is also a part of the conversation


    At the end of a circle, similar to the check-in at the beginning,
    there is now a check-out for people to share where they are at. The
    focus of the check-out can be as diverse as each circle. It can be on
    what people have learned, how they are feeling about what transpired,
    or what they are committing to do moving forward from the circle.
    Every participant usually speaks in the check-ins or check-outs unless
    they explicitly choose not to.


                     Case Example - Kufunda Village

    At Kufunda Village - a learning centre focusing on rural
    community development in Zimbabwe - the circle has become a core
    part of the work with communities as well as the way the centre itself
    is run. Every time the centre does its evaluations of its programmes,
    or of the work in the communities themselves, the circle comes up as a
    key factor of success. People seem to connect fully with it, perhaps
    because it is a part of the traditional culture.

    "The circle - we were brought up there. Round the fire was
    where conversation took place. Every evening we would sit around the
    fire, and talk." - Silas, Kufunda Village

    At its simplest, there is a daily morning circle during community
    programmes in which each person checks in with how they are feeling
    around the programme, key learnings that survived the night and hopes
    and expectations for the day. The effect of using the circle with
    rural community organisers is that, where it might typically have been
    primarily adult men who would contribute, here everyone speaks. Slowly
    but surely, they build the confidence and naturalness of each person
    to contribute fully to everything that is done together. At the end of
    several programmes, men express their surprise at how much they have
    been able to learn in honest conversation with women (in the Shona
    system women and men often confer separately), or the elders from
    youth. The circle is taken back home to the communities that Kufunda
    works with, and it has become a natural way of meeting for all of the
    partner communities, allowing for the voice of the youth and the Chief
    alike to be expressed.

    At Kufunda, a monthly team retreat day, where circle is used a lot
    (though not only) brings the team together in a more intimate way,
    giving space for people to express and work through concerns, needs or
    new ideas that may not make their way to the group during daily

    Each team at Kufunda, meeting weekly, begin and end all their meetings
    with a talking piece check in, and check out. It means that people
    don't dive straight into business, but allow themselves to arrive and
    connect with each other, before getting into work. The check-out
    usually allows for reflection on how people are feeling about what was
    covered or decided. In times when the team struggles with
    misunderstandings, dedicated circle work has been invaluable in
    clearing the air - through a practice of truth-telling,
    choosing to listen without interrupting and jumping to defense. These
    are all aspects which the circle help promote.

    The following list is a reflection on what the circle means both to
    Kufunda's employees and community partners from a series of
    evaluations done.

    - The circle brings a sense of belonging
    - Everyone contributes
    - Everyone is a leader
    - People speak from the heart
    - Silence is ok
    - It takes you out of your comfort zone
    - It disrupts hierarchy
    - It connects people
    - It is intimidating
    - It is liberating
    - Everybody's voice is heard
    - It is effective in conflict
    - The circle is regulated by guidelines created by the group
    - It fosters equality

    Another example of a powerful use of circle is in the Alcoholics
    Anonymous (AA). Essential to the AA model are weekly meetings of
    alcoholics to be in dialogue and reflection together, bearing witness
    to each person's challenges and progress. At these meetings people can
    ask for help with personal problems in staying sober, and they get
    this help from the experience and support of others like them. There
    is no hierarchy, but it is rather a place to create a community of
    support for people who all share a desire to stop drinking and stay
    sober. It is a place where people can show up as who they are, letting
    their masks down, and not needing to hide their fear.

    There are open and closed AA meetings. The closed meetings are the
    ones that most resemble circle as we've described it here. AA is
    sometimes ridiculed by those distant from it, but in reality, it is a
    very effective and creative organisation. The relationships and
    capacities people build at AA often turn out to be lifelong and
    relevant in a much broader range of situations.



    In our experience, up to 30 people (max 35) can be in a circle
    together. With 8-15 people one is able to go much deeper. It can also
    be used in larger processes, breaking the group into several circles.
    For this it does need someone familiar with the basics of circle to
    facilitate each group initially.

    Another variation if the group is large can be to use the "fishbowl",
    or what is known as "Samoan Circles". Here, participants are divided
    between an active circle and an observer circle, with only the active
    circle speaking and the surrounding observer circle listening. The
    active circle can either be representative of the whole group, or of a
    sub-grouping, and sometimes it is set up so that people can move in
    between the the two circles. This process is particularly useful when
    issues are controversial, or if the group is large.

    For many who are not used to the circle, the slowness of the
    conversation and thinking can be frustrating. With time most people
    learn to value and appreciate the gifts of slowing down together, to
    really listen to each other. Generally, people who tend to be less
    vocal and less powerful will appreciate the circle immensely because
    they are given the space to speak, while those who are used to
    dominating a conversation will be more frustrated.

    It's worth noting that Social Science research has actually been done
    to show that the first person to speak can have a large influence on
    what is said and the direction the conversation takes. The circle
    seems particularly prone to this dynamic. This can be useful, but it
    can also be problematic. The way around it is to give people time to
    reflect in silence and collect their own thoughts before people start
    to speak. In general, the host should be aware that while the circle
    has a great equalising influence on a group, informal power dynamics
    still exist, and can influence the conversation.

    Finally, there are rituals connected to some circle practitioners,
    which can be off-putting to some. The circle can be used in as
    ceremonial or as bare-bones a way as one wants.



    Baldwin, Christina. Calling the Circle


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