Conversations set in circles support peerness, listening and turn-taking, often around an evocative, engaging shared center. Cycles return to their beginnings, usually newly and sometimes repeating into spirals of further development or deepening. So include circles and cycles in conversations, meetings, communities, networks, organizations and iterative processes that support peer reflection and inclusive action.
Some related patterns: 2 Appreciative Thinking 20 Cooperative Ownership as Stewardship 29 Expanding Situational Curiosity
41 Groundedness 48 Integrity and Authenticity 64 Powerful Questions
Going Deeper …
This is an edited, clarified transcript of the video on this page.
I was introduced to circle process on the Great Peace March across the United States in 1986. We had a Native American marcher in the March who introduced the rest of us 400 people to circle process and we adopted and used it broadly and in a sacred way. A “talking stick” or “talking object” (often a large crystal) was passed around and whoever held it spoke and we were all supposed to listen and not interrupt.
There is a potentially reflective quality to circle conversations. There are some people who find it limiting. The modern Western “individual freedom” expectation gets interfered with by circle discipline. An advantage of sacred circle is that each person is holding the group as a whole in their awareness, and they’re holding the topic as a whole, not just their piece of it.
Circles originated with indigenous people sitting around a fire, and the fire kind if “held” the energy of the group and the thing that the people were trying to do together. And you can facilitate that original sensibility by putting something in the middle – or not putting something in the middle – but doing something to embody the sense that there is a shared thing you’re doing together.
Circles are all over. There are prayer circles in Evangelical churches, circles in community groups, circles in businesses… there are lots of circle conversations. With circles there’s a sense of peerness – everyone’s equal. There may be a facilitator, but there’s nobody in charge, as such. This is different from everybody sitting in rows facing a speaker in the front. It is a very different thing energetically and leadership-wise. So circles support peerness: Listening and turn-taking are built into the circle form.
But even when it’s not a formal circle conversation, in our culture we use phrases like “circle of friends” and “inner circle” that have the feeling of the intimacy which is typical of circles.
Many group processes use circles. World Café is modeled on how people sit around tables in cafés having conversations. There’s a built-in sense of how to act in such circumstances. When you come into a scene that is set up like a café, you just naturally do what people do in cafés – even if it’s not really a café. It’s just natural to sit facing each other and talk and listen to each other with the level of intimacy that is typical of café conversations.
Another process, Open Space, usually involves people breaking out into groups who sit in circles and talk about some topic of interest to each of them in the breakout group. In another process called Fishbowl, people sit in a small circle within a larger circle, and the people in the larger circle listen to the people in the smaller circle. There are many variations of that, but again we find the circle mode rather than people sitting in rows. That’s the main distinction here.
The circle mode fits with the spirit of inquiry and peerness that is part of the assumptions and worldview underlying the wise democracy frame of reference.
There are interesting circle variations coming out. There’s a practice called sociocracy which is an organizational form. It is an interesting blend of hierarchy and circles. At each level of the management hierarchy there is a circle and in it are people who link it to higher and lower circles. So there’s a representative of a higher level of management in each lower level circle and a representative of each lower circle in the circle above it. So we find interlinked circles all the way up to the top and all the way down.
In a similar vein, there’s a current emerging organizational theory called Teal organizations. These are organizations that have few if any levels of management. They’re organized around teams – which are often called circles due to the peerness of their members – groups of people who are autonomously making their decisions within the larger purpose of the whole organization.
So there are many manifestations of that circle mode and quality.