Sharing Circles and Square Pegs

I attended a workshop recently on The Circle Way, based on the 2010 book of that title by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. The workshop leaders were very promotional of groups using the Circle format to do deeper, more connected work. While I agreed with much of what they offered, their pitch reminded me of Shaklee distributors touting the universal benefits of Basic H (the miracle cleaning concentrate of the ’70s) and I have the same reservations about sharing circles as I did about Basic H: although the Circle is a fine format some of the time, it isn’t the best choice all of the time.

As someone who has lived in intentional community for 40 years and worked as a group process consultant for two-thirds of that time, I’ve been to an untold number of meetings, read gobs of books about group dynamics, and witnessed many different formats. Ever since workable models of secular consensus were first evolved to meet the emerging needs of the East Coast anti-nuclear groups of the ’70s (thank you, Movement for a New Society) there has been an explosion of work done to develop cooperative processes—abandoning the arcane and susceptible-to-back-room-manipulation world of parliamentary procedure (think of all the murky and morally questionable process shenanigans that accompanied the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, as showcased brilliantly in the award winning 2012 Spielberg film, Lincoln).

Here are some trends that I can distill from the broad sweep of my immersion in cooperative dynamics the last four decades:

o The hunger for cooperative culture (in contrast with adversarial, competitive culture) is very wide and growing. (If anything, mainstream dynamics are getting increasing shrill, uncivil, and dissatisfying.)

o Having the intent to be cooperative is insufficient to consistently produce cooperative behavior—especially when people disagree and the stakes are high.

o The essential difference in cooperative group dynamics is that participants have to engage productively on the energetic plane as well as the rational plane. Among other things, this means that how something gets done matters as much as what gets done. On a practical level, this means that good meetings are ones where all participants feel that their input is welcomed, heard, and respectfully treated without their needing to change personalities, or to check their passion at the door.

o While energy work can be significantly supported by the thoughtful choice of formats, there is no single format that works best (or even well) all of the time. If, as a carpenter, you fall in love with your hammer and neglect your other tools, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail.

Circling Back

Let’s return now to Circles as a format option. Mostly I’m aware of these being used in cooperative groups as a change of pace when it’s more important to focus on energy than problem solving. An example would be a Grieving Circle when a dear one departs the group (perhaps by moving away or by dying). It could also be a celebration, as in a marriage, an anniversary, or an Appreciation Circle on the eve of someone’s departure. In each of these instances, there is no problem to solve; the Circle is called so that people can share their hearts and deepen their connections.

Another common use of the Circle format is when doing a check-in (and it’s twin sister, the check-out). While participants may or may not actually be arrayed in a circle, the concept is that everyone will get a chance to speak in turn, one at a time, saying briefly how they’re doing and perhaps naming something on their mind that they’d like to set aside to attend to the purpose of the meeting. The point is to be better connected with everyone, and to allow a graceful opportunity for everyone to energetically arrive in the room before any heavy lifting is attempted.

Circles are also employed to get at the feelings connected with a topic prior to engaging in problem solving. The concept here is to clear the air of significant distress prior to discussing what action the group wants to take—mainly to eliminate or at least diminish the distortion and brittleness that typically accompany upset or reactivity. Groups that engage directly with “what to do” and skip this clearing step (either because they are unaware of the distress or because they lack confidence in handling it well) generally suffer difficult and exhausting meetings. With the idea of streamlining the process, they inadvertently wind up getting bogged down, or suffer relationship damage that takes longer to repair than the time they thought they were saving by not attending to the initial upset. Ugh.

While there are certainly more applications of the Circle, that’s sufficient to lay out common uses among cooperative group that mainly operate through open discussion.
At this point I want to introduce what Baldwin & Linnea label the Components of the Circle. In their words this is an overview of what they advocate:


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 shift from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening and to embody and practice the structures outlined here.


Intention shapes the Circle and determines who will come, how long the Circle will meet, and what kinds of outcomes are to be expected. The caller of the Circle spends time articulating intention and invitation.

Welcome or Start-point

Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the host, or a volunteer, to begin the Circle with a gesture that shifts people’s attention from social space to council space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, or listening to a song—whatever invites centering.

Establishing the Center

The center of a Circle is like the hub of a wheel: all energies pass through it, and it holds the rim together. To help people remember how the hub helps the group, the center of a Circle usually holds objects that represent the intention of the Circle. Any symbol that fits this purpose or adds beauty will serve: flowers, a bowl or basket, a candle.


Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for council and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed invitation. It insures that people are truly present. Verbal sharing, especially a brief story, weaves the interpersonal net.

Check-in usually starts with a volunteer and proceeds around the Circle. If an individual is not ready to speak, the turn is passed and another opportunity is offered after others have spoken.

Sometimes people place individual objects in the center as a way of signifying their presence and relationship to the intention.

Setting Circle Agreements

The use of agreements allows all members to have a free and profound exchange, to respect a diversity of views, and to share responsibility for the well-being and direction of the group.

Agreements often used include:

—We will hold stories or personal material in confidentiality.

—We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity.

—We ask for what we need and offer what we can.

—We agree to employ a group guardian to watch our need, timing, and energy. We agree to pause at a signal, and to call for that signal when we feel the need to pause.

Three Principles

1. Leadership rotates among all Circle members.

2. Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience.

3. People place ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), rather than on any personal agenda.

Three Practices

1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment.

2. To listen with attention: respectful of he learning process for all members of the group.

3. To tend the well-being of the Circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.

Forms of Council

The Circle commonly uses three forms of council: talking piece, conversation, and reflection.

—Talking Piece Council is often used as part of check-in, check-out, and whenever there is a desire to slow down the conversation, collect all voices and contributions, and be able to speak without interruption.

—Conversation Council is often used when reaction, interaction, and an interjection of new ideas, thoughts, and opinions are needed.

—Reflection or Silent Council gives each member time and space to reflect on what is occurring or needs to occur in the course of a meeting. Silence may be called so that each person can consider the role or impact they are having on the group, to help the group realign with its intention, or to sit with a question until there is clarity.


The single most important tool for aiding self-governance and bringing the Circle back to intention is the role of guardian. To provide a guardian, one Circle member at a time volunteers to watch and safeguard group energy and to observe the group’s process.
The guardian usually employs a gentle noisemaker, such as a chime, bell, or rattle, that signals everyone to stop action, take a breath, and rest in a space of silence. Then the guardian makes this signal again and speaks to why s/he called a pause. Any member may call for a pause.

Check-out and Farewell

At the close of a Circle meeting, it is important to allow a few minutes for each person to comment on what they learned, or what stays in their heart and mind as they leave.
Closing the Circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on what has transpired, and to pick up objects if they have placed something in the center.
As people shift from council space to social space or private time, they release each other from the intensity of attention being in Circle requires. Often after check-out the host, guardian, or a volunteer will offer a few inspirational words of farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the Circle is released.

• • •

Baldwin & Linnea are going well beyond suggesting that Circles be used as an occasional seasoning in cooperative meetings; they’re boldly advocating that groups consider using Circles as their main mode of conducting business—that the Circle is robust enough to handle whatever comes along, and probably do it better. What’s more, there are a number of groups that have accepted that invitation.

With due respect to the ancient traditions which anthropologists inform us are the roots of Circle meetings—and which therefore testify to the vitality and resilience of that form—I want to raise questions about how far to take Circles in today’s context.
Laird’s Laager

I’m going to start by making some observations of contemporary Western culture, that provide a context for my recommendations regarding Circles.

1. In the sweep of human history, it’s doubtful that human society has ever been more toward the “I” end of the I-we spectrum than we are today. I’m referring to how people tend to think first about how a thing impacts them as an individual, rather than how it affects the group, or the collective. There are even social and economic theories that the group is best taken care of when it’s ignored and people only think and act on what’s best for them.

While I think you can make the case that people are increasingly aware of the moral bankruptcy and unsustainable consequences of this approach (given how it supports gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and access to resources, and therefore widespread misery), the idea of the supremacy of the individual is not going to go away quietly.

That said, the steady rise in interest in intentional communities is testament to the appeal of purposefully trying to move back toward the “we” end of the spectrum—not to embrace the complete subjugation of the individual to the tribe, but rather to find more equilibrium.

2. Cultures that antedate post-Word War II overwhelmingly tended to be highly structured, which permitted far less latitude than we enjoy today regarding where you lived, class, sexual orientation, spiritual identification, choice of spouse, and even employment options. While there was a stronger sense of “we,” it was packaged within hide-bound tradition, top-down hierarchy, and a level of xenophobia and parochialism that very few people today find appealing, or even acceptable.

In short, we want a greater sense of connection, safety, belonging, and home, yet are unwilling to give up much individual freedom to get it. This is a challenge. A lot of us literally know who we are because we have views that differentiate us from others. Because deferring to others can be equated with loss of identity, many of us have learned at an early age that it’s more important to focus on differences more than on similarities.

3. We are ritual starved. Though traditional cultures tended to offer much more ritual, in the name of religious freedom and separation of church and state people today tend to feel malnourished relying solely on Christmas trees, Fourth of July fireworks, Valentine’s Day roses, and chocolate Easter eggs to connect with Spirit. While organized religion still provides an avenue for that, many are seeking to fill that void in other ways—and are not necessarily being successful in the attempt.
So here are my thoughts about the ways in which Circles are powerful, and the ways in which they are limited in their application:

o In honoring the Circle’s ancient roots, Baldwin & Linnea, they are offering a ritual-laden version with a set sequence, and defined roles that are purposefully rotated among group members. While I think the ritual will have resonance for many (addressing my third point above), some will chafe at the heavy attention to an arbitrary structure, losing sight of the prize: connection.
To illustrate my point, one of the workshop leaders (in the role of Host) took a moment to chide the other (in the role of Guardian) when that person chimed three times to indicate a shift in the process, instead of twice—even though attendees had not been told a thing about the significance of the number of chimes. You don’t have to step back very far before you realize the ridiculousness of focusing attention on the number of chimes (a la the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin), when you are principally trying, in a workshop, to introduce the concepts of ritual and tone. That was an excellent illustration of how substance can be lost in attention to form.

Thus, while I think the purposeful introduction of ritual to cooperative meetings has merit, don’t get hung up on the exact form it takes. Make it be your group’s form—and don’t take yourselves too seriously.

o Along similar lines, you don’t need to employ all of the roles outlined by Baldwin & Linnea above, nor do you need the roles to be strictly rotated among the membership. Better, in my experience, is to encourage roles to be filled as widely as possible, yet allowing members to opt out if any particular role is too uncomfortable for them.
While I’m in favor of helping people get over their anxiety about trying on unfamiliar roles and making the opportunity available to everyone, I’m not in favor of twisting arms or applying peer pressure to enforce rotations. I just tends to traumatize the reluctant and result in the group being poorly served. Yuck.

o Not everyone is going to find Circle work appealing. Perhaps because they’re uncomfortable with the unfamiliar; perhaps because the ritual overlay is too evocative of the unpleasant childhood church experience (from which they’re still recovering); perhaps because the pace is maddening slow (not matching their metabolism or Latin style of expression and engagement); perhaps because it’s too woo woo for hard-boiled pragmatists.
While the workshop leaders assured us that the initially skeptical will come around in time—and I buy that that will be true for some—I doubt it will be true for all. In fact, I’m confident in predicting that a good portion of initial skeptics will not come back to give it a chance to grow on them. You’ll just lose them. Some pegs are simply too square to find affinity with the Circle.

o Circle process will tend to work better among the soft-spoken (because there is protected air time), among those who take longer to process what they think and be ready to articulate what they want to share (the deliberate pace helps with that), among those more comfortable sharing at the heart level (as distinct from the head level), and among those who tend to be overwhelmed by strong feelings, especially anger and rage (because of the deliberate, reflective pace, and the emphasis on honoring requests for a pause whenever anyone wants one).
In pointing out these tendencies, I’m not trying to favor the soft-spoken over the loud-spoken, the slow over the quick, the emotive over the rational, or the passionately expressive over the subdued. I’m only making the case that in searching for a truly level playing field, Circle ain’t it, and it’s naive to think otherwise.

o If you’re part of a group that uses Circle as its main way of conducting business and you’re happy with what you have, by all means keep doing it. I’m a big fan of doing whatever works. If you’re thinking about moving in that direction, I advise that you to consider my reservations and see if you think they have substance in the dynamics of your group.

o Personally, I like preserving Circle as a contrast from the main way of doing business, partly because you can then be more judicious about employing it only when it’s the right fit for the need (which I believe are the times when aligning energy is more important than making progress on resolving an issue), and because you’ll maximize the boost you’ll get from the Hawthorne Effect, the temporary uptick in enthusiasm you’ll experience simply because you’re doing something different.

While I don’t think Circle is the one ring to rule them all, and I don’t know if the Circle will be unbroken, I think it fully deserves an honored place in the pantheon of format options for cooperative groups.

Category: Meetings

Tags: Group Process

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