The Power of the Circle

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Personally I am someone who likes to be (or at least feel) in control.  All of the personality testing I have done during my Ordination process and my time with the Arrow International Leadership School have taught me this (if I wasn’t already acutely aware); type one, INTJ etc.  So this community co-design and appreciative inquiry stuff comes to me about as easily as climbing a tree comes to a fish!  For this reason I am especially grateful for the wisdom and example of those I am journeying this with such as Peter McDonald (for whom this at least appears to come more naturally).

One process that I have found at once quite terrifying and deeply rewarding is that of the Circle Dialogue.  Circle Dialogue is all about an intentional conversation that a group (any group; from a regularly meeting management board to a one off community conversation) has about who it is, what it has, and what it wants for itself into the future.

The difference between a meeting and a Circle is its participatory process and capacity (when people are willing) to shift from informal socialising or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of reflective speaking and deep listening.  “Why have a meeting when you can have a conversation,” I’ve heard Peter say. The challenge for someone who likes to be in control is that while a meeting is structured and an agenda is set…. a Circle Dialogue could go anywhere!

BUT: have you ever walked out of a meeting feeling like you have failed to discuss the most important and pressing issue?  I certainly have.  Agendas can stifle our most significant conversations.  But we are so use to them– they also make us feel safe.  Peter gave me a tip on one occasion when I was looking at running a Circle but wasn’t sure how the other participants would warm to the idea.  He suggested that I send out an agenda but when people were sitting around the table I asked them to give me 45 mins without the agenda and, at the end of the 45 mins we could look back at the agenda and, if there was anything on there that was more significant or important that the conversation we were engaged in, we could return to the agenda.  All the participants chose to remain in the Circle rather than return to the meeting structure!

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So what is the Circle?

This Circle Dialogue starts with the caller of the Circle articulating the initial invitation that was given and leading the group in some sort of reflective process which may be a prayer, poem, scripture reading etc that shifts people’s attention from social space to Circle space.  Depending on the group it may also be helpful to articulate at the outset some practices or principles to guide the group such as:

This is followed with a “check in” process.  Each member of the Circle is invited to contribute a sentence that expresses what it is that is most significant and important to them at this moment and/or what they are hoping the significance of this Circle will be.  I have asked the question: “If we only discuss ONE thing for the next hour what would you like that to be?” or “If we only address one question as a group today for you to walk away satisfied that we have achieved what we needed to achieve; what would it be?

“Checking-in” helps bring people into a frame of mind for the Circle and reminds everyone of their commitment. It  insures that people are truly present.

The person currently leading this process will then begin to weave these thoughts together into a question or statement for discussion:

  • If it is the first time you have met and you intend to continue meeting these could be used to form a group “purpose” statement that can then be brought out each Circle and sat in the middle as a centring tool.  Participants can then be invited to comment on this each time: “does this still stand true for us as a group?
  • If this is just a once-off Circle then you might chose to jump straight into trying to form a question for the group to discuss that is born out of these individual thoughts.

It is important to keep getting input as you are doing this.  When I have done this before I have had some people say: “actually forget my statement; now that I am looking at it I think that X is a more important conversation to have” OR “no that’s not really what I meant when I said X“.  So keep the dialogue going as you form this statement because this verbal wrestling will help to weave the interpersonal connections between people.

Once you have a statement or question that everyone is excited about now you can invite the dialogue while ensuring that someone is capturing the conversation highlights.  It is also very important that at least one person is monitoring the conversation to make sure that people are not speaking on top of each other in their excitement; that the conversation is staying around the agreed question; and to call, when appropriate, for silence to give space for those who are deeper processors or to draw attention to an especially profound thought.

After the agreed time (we all hate meetings, even good ones, that drag on beyond the time allotted for them!) it is important to facilitate a “checking-out” process by reflect on what we’ve accomplished: “what was your most significant take-home from this conversation?

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When to use a Circle Dialogue:

Personally I have used it:

  • When forming the new Steering Group for our new project.
  • When running a workshop at a conference (we all know there is never enough time to digest information at conferences and so when I am given a workshop space I like to use it to facilitate this… which some people are thrilled about and others are surprised; especially if they expected to come and here me speak expertly about something… I’m not any type of expert!)
  • When starting a new community consultation process with members of the community.
  • I know Peter also uses it at the meetings of a board he chairs.

Meeting in Circle can be especially helpful when getting to know each other and the issue at hand, or as a means for deep reflection or consensus making.  There are quite a few possibilities for its use because it is a flexible tool.

While I always feel terrified at the start (because who knows how people will respond and what agendas will emerge?) I am inevitably deeply satisfied by the end feeling like people have been really invested in the conversation, that people are closer as a result of it and that people have left the conversation with their most pressing issues discussed.

I remember one participant being especially skeptical at the beginning of a Circle; probably because I had butchers paper and coloured pens and he came from a teaching background so this brought up too many PD day memories for him.  At the end of our 1.5 hour Circle he said to me: “That was the best meeting I think I have ever been a part of“.

You can read more about Circle Dialogue at the Art of Hosting or shoot some questions in the comment section below.

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