There is an invisible movement going on in the world. It’s a movement that is manifest in a variety of forms and practices. These practices rest on the same underlying principle: to form a safe collective holding space in which the participants support one another in making sense of and advancing their life and work journeys. It’s not actually new, for it’s what the bond of real friendship has always offered.
– Otto Scharmer, Theory U, p.410
So far in my story and explanations I have mentioned my little Flemish women’s circle and the Women Moving the Edge gatherings, but I have not described the form the actual meetings took. It may come as no surprise that we always worked ‘in circle’. So familiar and ingrained has this practice become in my way of being that I almost forgot to mention it here. Nevertheless, basic circle practice is an essential skill if we want to generate truly novel insight and action.
If you wish to embark on the path towards the Circle of Presence, there are many ways to train in the area of personal growth, especially with a view to learning about I and myself, and I and you. When it comes to I and us, you can look into group dynamics, but most training in this field focuses on how to facilitate or train a group, as an outsider. Opportunities to learn how to be in a group are much harder to find. One of the better options is to train by immersion. This means becoming a participant in a circle of peers, a community of practice. Get yourself dirty in the practice and learn together along the way. It can be rewarding in many areas of life and work.
Both my Flemish women’s circle and all the Women Moving the Edge gatherings used the circle as their main structure and methodology. As a way for people to come together, the circle has been around since the dawn of time. Many people thrive in a circle because it implicitly invites us to treat each other as equal human beings. Sitting in a circle invites an experience that is a world away from what happens when we meet around a square table, or in rows of chairs with someone standing in front. The latter arrangements tend to bring in more hierarchy, planning, debate and discussion (from the Latin root discutere, which means: to chop into pieces). In the Art of Hosting global network, we often introduce the circle as the mother of all social technologies. Lately, I have begun to notice an invitation to return to the circle in many different environments, especially for the purpose of learning the new skills we need in order to engage with the future awaiting us and the complexities currently facing us.
Sitting in a circle to have a conversation (from the Latin root con-versare, meaning to turn to one another) invites (more) equal relations in the group; it is an invitation to be a ‘leader-full’ group. Practicing conversation in this way over an extended period of time allows one to engage deeply with a group of people. It also offers an excellent training ground for the varied aspects of becoming present on all the levels described so far. It offers deep learning by immersion.
Circle practice, with its simple agreements and guidelines (described below), provides a safe space that invites trust, depth, intimacy and authenticity. When applied consistently and well, its guiding principles create a container of trust that strongly invites each participant to express their unique self and to welcome others in their authenticity in turn. As the shared experience evolves, this trust and safety grow, and participants begin to risk ever deeper authenticity, firstly within the boundaries of the circle and later in many other arenas of life and work.
Circle practice connects us deeply with our shared humanity, while simultaneously revealing how unique each one of us is. The witnessing quality of the circle invites each person to express more of who they are. We each realise that there is deeper potential in ourselves and in others as well.
Circle practice is not to be confused with a community culture of superficial saccharin sweetness (“we all love each other so much”). What we are talking about here is a method that has a clear purpose and focuses on a shared inquiry. The purpose of the circle is not to feel happy, but rather to learn together. It is a shared collective inquiry – although one can certainly become happy as a side effect! In a Circle of Presence, the focus is on how to become present – increasingly so and in ever more settings and situations – so that an emergent collective wisdom becomes available. In a Circle of Creation, described in part two of this book, the purpose is to extend the alignment in all directions and reach a space of shared creativity and generativity that adds more to life than what is already present.
Description of basic circle practice
What follows is a description of the basic circle practice. It can be used by any group in a wide variety of situations, as long as the purpose is to share, to learn and to inquire together. To learn more about the practice, I recommend The Circle Way initiated and originally stewarded by my dear friends and elders Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. They have written a number of books that offer a wealth of depth and detail that I can give you in these short pages. In part two of this book, we will build on this basic practice to deepen the conversation for the purposes of a Circle of Creation.
Welcoming and framing
Every gathering benefits from starting well. Circle practice starts with a welcome and some kind of context setting that brings the purpose to the fore. Often the welcome is spoken by the person hosting the gathering, but it could be any person present who feels called to do so and simply volunteers. In our Flemish circle we would always gather at one of our homes, and after welcoming with tea and coffee we would move to a beautifully appointed room to hold our circle and our unfolding conversations. Sometimes we would start with some kind of ritual together, but attending to the beauty and conviviality of the meeting space already made it clear that this was a place of respect and trust where we were all welcome. In the Women Moving the Edge gatherings, which always lasted 3 or 4 days, the hosting team would arrive earlier in the day or the day before in order to prepare the space, both physically, by adding flowers, arranging the chairs, preparing a poster showing the guiding question and getting familiar with the surroundings, and energetically, by holding our collective intention for the gathering in awareness and allowing it to imbue the space where we would be gathering.
How we frame or contextualise a conversation is much more important than we generally realise. Each time we meet, we need to be very explicit about our intention in meeting, the methodology we will use and purpose of the circle. It is not wise to assume that such framing is superfluous and that everyone knows what we are about! While circle practice is very simple, framing the conversation at the outset helps to set clear boundaries for the container being offered (“This is how we do it”) and ensure that that we are all on the same page in this learning environment (“This is what the conversation is about, this is our intention and our guiding question”).
Sometimes a moment of shared silence can be invited at this stage, to allow participants to sink into the here and now of this circle, and leave behind whatever they were doing or thinking before.
Introducing the circle practice
In as far as participants are not all familiar with working in circle, it is important to introduce the principles, the agreements and the main practices.
The practices are few and simple, but very impactful. First is to speak with intention. This means that when we speak we do not let our words meander aimlessly, but we choose what is relevant to the question or the shared topic. Second is to listen with attention or curiosity, giving our full attention to what is shared by others, trying to understand what they are conveying beyond the words spoken. This is empathic listening, where we are able to feel or recognise in ourselves what the others are expressing. The third and last practice is to care for the well-being of the group, specifically being conscious of the impact of what and how we say things.
The three principles are also very simple: first is that leadership rotates, in the form of the few different roles needed for a circle to work and to flourish (a host, a guardian and, perhaps, a note taker). Related with this, the group takes shared responsibility for how the circle unfolds and does its work. Lastly, have a higher purpose for the meeting. Hanging out with friends around a campfire might take the form of a circle and lead to meaningful conversations, but we wouldn’t call that circle practice.
These practices and principles are supported by four agreements: (1) What we say in circle is held in confidence. (2) Offer what you can and ask for what you need. (3) We listen with compassion and curiosity. (4) We agree to pause at a signal (often a bell or chime) to re-gather our thought or focus.
By articulating the practices, principles and agreements of the Circle, we are setting a container in which it is clear what people are expected to do and not do. This creates a safe space for sharing and discovery, and this is why it is so important to name it before the circle starts.
After the welcoming and framing, when we might hark back a little to what happened last time or what we had agreed to inquire into this time, we take the time for a ‘check-in’. In this context, checking in means sharing a little of what is going on in our inner and outer lives, both personal and professional. A check-in is an invitation to become fully present with yourself, as you drop more deeply into what is really at play in your life in the spaciousness of the sharing, and to become present with the others as you witness whatever is shared in the circle, and also with the inquiry at hand.
This slow-paced beginning is sometimes difficult for those of us who are well-versed in the Western patterns of speed, hurry, goals and let’s do it! And this is exactly why most people need a leisurely check-in to become present to what really is.
Talking piece and listening
Commonly, during check-in a talking piece is used to help the group focus on the person who is in the process of sharing and to make sure that no one interrupts. The talking piece can be any object that makes sense in your specific context; often a stone is used. The agreement is that the person holding the talking piece is the one speaking or sharing, while the others are listening with attention. Sometimes the talking piece is called a ‘listening piece’, because that is equally true.
One way of working with a talking piece is to let it travel, from one person to the next, all around the circle. If, when the stone reaches you, you are not yet ready to speak, you simply pass it on to the next person. Once the talking piece has traveled the full circle, it will return to you, and you can then take it in your hand and share your story. Another way of working can be to place the talking piece in the middle of the circle and invite everyone to listen deeply for when it is their true time to share. Whoever feels ready can pick up the piece and, when they have spoken, return it to the centre for somebody else to take up. Proceeding in this way slows the conversation down; people need to become aware of their inner sensing regarding whether and when to share.
To many, working with a talking piece seems inefficient, as it can take a long time – perhaps longer than expected or planned for. Taking a longer view, however, working in this way is more than efficient, as it impacts on so many levels: it builds trust and safety, it enhances listening and sharing, it provides a solid ground for further exploration of whatever difficult topics or questions people are bringing with them, and allows us to dive into our unconsciously-held shared assumptions.
For some people it can be a big thing to just listen without giving their advice, or chiming in, or questioning what the other just said. It confounds their habitual way of being in a conversation. Conversely, others are helped to speak up when the talking piece arrives in their hand – they are invited out of their habitual patterns of holding back and not sharing. The circle practices of ‘listening with attention’ (without interrupting) and ‘speaking with intention’ are an embodiment of true respect for the diversity of human beings. We are sorely in need of both this respect and this diversity: both need to be present if we are to be able to weave ourselves to a higher level of collective wisdom.
Quote from participant:
Using ‘a talking stick’ (or in our case, different talking pieces including stones) changes my relationship to the conversation from one of ‘needing to respond’ to one of ‘listening and silence’… it seems to hold an open space. It keeps my ‘ego’ in check. I’m less likely to ‘look for things to say’ or rush to insert myself by affirming commonality with the speaker or arguing from a place of contradiction or contrast. The usual superficial sociability drops away as soon as I’m slowed down and align with intention that is NOT about ‘me’. – Les
I have used my talking stones, which I carry with me in a beautifully crafted wooden box, in many different places and in many different contexts. I usually introduce the practice as an invitation to speak from a deeper level. You don’t have to have ready-made ideas in your head before you start sharing; you can speak what comes naturally into words. Let the story unfold by itself as you speak. I invite all people to listen not just to the words spoken, but to the whole as all the different stories weave together. This is not just about politely listening and keeping quiet. It is a deeper listening that is invited, a call to become present.
The conversation that unfolds after the check-in will probably be guided by a prepared question or an introduction of some kind. In the early years of our Flemish circle we would dedicate the time remaining (after check-in) to the questions raised by all or some of us. They were of different kinds: they could be therapeutic, asking for professional support, a collective inquiry and so on. The Women Moving the Edge gatherings were always collective inquiries where the guiding question or theme was set in advance by the hosting team.
The group can decide for itself whether it is appropriate to continue using the talking piece. From experience I can say that if you want to invite deep reflection and build capacity for presence and emergence, you would be well advised to keep using it. It slows down the conversation, so that the subtle sensing can find its way into what is shared and into the emergent collective wisdom. On other occasions, there might be a need for more freely flowing conversation and no need for a talking piece.
During both the check-in and the unfolding conversation, there is a role for a guardian. This role can be taken up by anyone in the circle, and can be rotated over different gatherings. The main purpose of the guardian is to keep track of time and the overall energy of the group. He or she will give a sign or ring the bell when it is time for a break, or when we need to stretch. Anyone can ask the guardian to ring the bell when he feels a need for it. Also when stories or insights have been shared that need some time to digest, anyone in the circle can ask for the bell to be rung. After some time, the bell is rung again and the conversation can resume.
When working in circle, it is important to close the conversation properly. We give an opportunity for everyone to say a final word, to share the meaning this particular conversation had for them. An inviting question can be offered to guide this round of sharing. I notice how many times we drop this practice of closing, mostly due to so-called time constraints. When we don’t give in to this pressure, it is very rewarding to learn how people are leaving the gathering and what they take away with them from the circle.
Phases in the life of a circle
If you engage in the circle practice with the same group of people over an extended period of time, you will run into a lot of your habitual patterns (as we described in chapter 1 and 2). Confronting these patterns, acknowledging and reflecting on them, and trying out alternative behaviours and responses in order to change these habits is an essential part of any Circle of Presence.
In his book The Different Drum, Morgan Scott Peck (1) describes four stages that any kind of group goes through before they become what he calls a ‘true community’. Within the safe container of the circle practice, people find a trustful and open space to share who they really are, what they most care about. Most people who experience circle for the first time have lacked this so sorely in their lives that they marvel at the occurrence, and find this to be the best group ever! They experience the joy of finding like-minded people, or so it seems. This is phase one – the pseudo community. The golden glow persists until – as if out of nowhere – diversity shows up in the group. Weren’t we friends? Now I feel angry at you! We were on the same page, and now all of a sudden you have a different opinion?! Enter phase two: chaos. The members of the group are projecting on each other, personal shadow parts are not recognised. People try to fix the process, try to fix each other – or blame the process, or blame each other. And so it continues until finally folks understand that they can only change themselves and start looking within. So begins phase three: emptying.
In the language of Theory U, this is the point of opening the heart, realising that all the emotional charge that we project onto each other really belongs to us and we have to take responsibility for it ourselves. This requires going beyond right and wrong, or any other polarity that is present, and opening up to the reality of how different we all are. During the chaos phase, the talking piece can come to the rescue to keep projections within limits. Slowing the conversation down in this way gives people ample opportunity to reflect instead of instantly reacting to what was said, and letting some time pass before it is their turn to speak. In addition to the talking piece, we can invite all participants in the inquiry to speak to and from the middle (of the circle), rather than addressing a specific individual. I advise, from long experience, never to allow people to break the rule of the talking piece (not speaking when you aren’t holding it), if you agreed to use it at the outset. Introducing a talking piece is an act of power, and breaking the agreement on its use is an abuse of that power, especially as the host of the conversation.
This phase of emptying might look to many like a therapy group, but that is not its ultimate purpose. Reclaiming our projections is necessary if we are eventually to re-weave the strands of the group at a higher level of collective wisdom. The circle practice is a safe birthing place for the broken-off fragments of ourselves. Even when working in groups with victims and/or perpetrators of violence and torture, the sharing of stories in the safe container of a circle reconnects people with their family and their community – as I learned from the Tree of Life project in Zimbabwe. In reclaiming our projections we need the courage to connect with our deeply held and unconscious individual pain. But in opening the heart, first to ourselves, we are also connecting with the pain of the others as fellow human beings.
Otto Scharmer has a very helpful model of four different levels of conversation and listening (2). During this phase of emptying, participants in the circle are learning to listen and speak empathically (his third level). They are now beyond the phase of being nice and socially/politically correct (first level), and beyond the phase of talking tough and preparing for the next move in the debate-battle (second level). In empathic listening, they learn to step out of their own beliefs and ideas into the shoes of the others. Doing so allows them to embrace our shared humanity beyond the boundaries and limiting beliefs we had before we entered the group. As Scott Peck calls the fourth phase, True Community has arisen.
- Peck, Scott, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, Touchstone, New York, 1998.
- Scharmer, O. Theory U. Leading from the Future as it Emerges. The Social Technology of Presencing. Society for Organizational Learning: Boston, MA. 2007, p295.