What is Circle?

If you were to peek in while I’m working with a group, you will almost always see people sitting in circles instead of the typical sage on the stage, one-to-many format.

At an event a few weeks ago the first day was set in conference table rounds with an agenda of presenters, speaking from the front of the room. The second day the tables were gone and the room was set with three concentric circles of chairs in the centre, with smaller circle pods of chairs scattered around the edges. “Wow does this ever feel different!” remarked one leader with a smile. Another was amazed at how open the room felt. Same room. Same group of people. Totally different vibe. Change the chairs, change the conversation.

But what is circle, beyond changing the chairs? Quoting from the Circle Guidelines:

The circle, or council, is an ancient form of meeting that has gathered human beings into respectful conversation for thousands of years. The circle has served as the foundation for many cultures.

What transforms a meeting into a circle is the willingness of people to shfft from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening and to embody and practice the structure.

I think of circle as a form of participatory leadership, a place for slowing down and deeper listening. From Christina Baldwin’s Calling the Circle:

People rush into business and faculty and committee meetings (and sometimes even to the family dinner table) still talking on cellular phones or responding to beepers; they carry on side conversations that create alliances and rifts right in the faces of those being excluded; they gossip about the organization, its leaders, or members who are absent. People glance at the agenda, slap papers out on the table, go get coffee, leave and return, leave and return, until nobody’s sure who is present or not. Finally someone looks at his watch and commands, “Let’s get this ball rolling.” And the free-for-all begins. This is disrespectful group process, even if it is the current social norm.

 We are counting on the circle to center us, slow us down, and help us be present.

I feel “called home” whenever I have the opportunity to be in circle, whether as host or sitting at the rim. But to host well in circle, people need to know they are in something strong; the strength doesn’t emerge from simply rearranging the chairs. I have greatly benefited from Christina Baldwin and Ann Linea who have gifted us language for the infrastructure and components of circle in the PeerSpirit Circle Practice:

  • Intention
  • Welcome Start-point
  • Centre and Check-in/Greeting
  • Agreements
  • Three Principles and Three Practices
  • Guardian of process
  • Check-out and Farewell

Circle is the area where I feel (still) I have the most to learn. I want to be so steeped in the components, the language and spirit of this process that it is always accessible to me, like a first language. So as my one year anniversary from attending the PeerSpirit Circle Practicum nears I’m going to immerse myself in my books, notes and reflections on my circle experiences to hopefully take my learning of this ‘mother of methodologies’ to a deeper level.