Pattern #8

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Circles and Cycles

Credits: Background Tyler Olson – Shutterstock /  Circles 1-3 –  The Office for Future Related Issues in Vorarlberg Austria / Circle 4 – AmericaSpeaks/Martin Rausch

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
72 Regenerativity

  • How can we arrange things to help us all focus as peers on the central concerns we all share and the possibilities we all face?
  • How can we counter the hierarchical patterns so deeply engrained in our culture?
  • Are we keeping in mind how the results of this will come back to impact us and our children?
  • Can we think of more fruitful perspectives than the idea that we shouldn’t keep going around in circles and should get from A to B as efficiently as possible?
  • What about our recent failure contains seeds for future success next time around?

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.

Now, you could make these “circle” and “cycle” patterns into two separate patterns. But part of what happens in circle conversations – particularly spiritual or inquiry-based circle conversations – is that iteration begins to happen. As you go around the circle, you’ve heard what people said, and as the circle starts around again, you end up speaking to things that were raised by what other people said – without having a back-and-forth conversation. You offer INTO the middle of the circle what you’ve heard FROM the middle by offering TO the group what you’ve heard FROM the group. The more times you go around in a sacred circle, the deeper the conversation tends to go, like the action of a drill drilling downward.

And that dynamic shifts us over into iteration and into the pattern of cycles. Cycles exist in nature. We do “recycling”, mimicking the way all the materials in nature are moving from one place to another and going around and coming back again. We are breathing atoms of oxygen and carbon and nitrogen that have been breathed by every organism on the planet sometime in the past. The planet’s been around for billions of years. There’s little if any new oxygen or hydrogen being produced or introduced into the global system. So it’s all going around and around and around – and that’s essential to understand what’s going on in nature.

Systems thinkers’ idea of feedback loops is one of our modern understandings. The Great Hoop or the Great Circle are indigenous understandings of this dynamic. The seasons are circular. Days are circular. We talk about circadian rhythms, which have to do with the waking, acting, resting, sleeping cycle of a human life. The life cycle of being born and aging and dying and having children… the cycles of life. Cycles are built in all over the place.

There’s a funny way our culture says “We don’t want to just go around in circles! We need to get from A to B!” It’s like there’s a linear assumption built into that, that it’s better to go from A to B than to think and behave in circular and cyclic ways.

But re-grounding ourselves in circular and cyclic dynamics is fundamental to the generation of wisdom. Chaos theory tells us that a small input into a system can generate large effects. The underlying dynamic of that is iteration – energies, patterns, ideas feeding back into the processes that generated them. Iteration has its own pattern and card, but I want to bring it up here also. It is so significant that in circular, cyclic processes, small offerings can have magnified impact as they are processed by the circular dynamic. We need to allow that to happen and enable it to happen. And if it’s done in a reflective way, it becomes a feedback loop: not only do the good things magnify, but the negative things are digested, minimized, balanced out.

We need to remember that the quality of the conversation, the quality of the facilitation, the quality of the culture around it all – these factors can cause good things to rise to the top and anti-life things to sink to the bottom. So all of this all of this is deeply informative about how to move from power-over linear control kinds of dynamics into participatory, sharing, co-creative dynamics that go round and round. This is fundamental to the Circles and Cycles pattern.

Video Introduction (10 min)

After reading the 50-word pattern heart Tom Atlee elaborates on the pattern.