Creating Unity With Circles (Part One)


About a month ago, our Public Consultation class was given the opportunity to learn about Circles; what they are; how they are conducted; and how effective they can be, not only in academe (research) but also in terms of bridging communication gaps between members of a community (the “community” here does not necessarily entail citizens per se, for it may also refer to the workplace, household, etc.)

The Circle training was done over a span of two and a half days, and it was the greatest experience of my life! I have to admit, initially, when I first heard about the Circle process, I was rather skeptical. I wondered whether it was effective enough or whether it would actually work. And soon enough, when I did that Circle training and thereafter conducted my very own Circle a couple of week ago (I did it with five Pashtun women, including myself, in my community and my topic was on the empowerment/disempowerment of Pashtun women living in the West), I couldn’t believe how incredible and powerful a process it could be. Prior to this, I’d only heard and/or seen Circles briefly on television; in particular, rehab scenes, where individuals would all be sitting in a Circle and sharing their experiences pertaining to either drug/alcohol use or sexual abuse.

However, Circles I’ve come to realize are much more than that. Much, much more.

Anyway, this article is divided into two parts, in order to better organize it. In this first part, I will be discussing Circles in general: what they are, how they originated, and how could one conduct a Circle (based on my Circle training last month). In the second part of this article, I will talk about my own experience in conducting a Circle with the Pashtun women in my community, what I learned, and how effective it was in terms of creating better communication and relationships. What I discovered was indeed remarkable, for it was not only empowering for the women in my Circle, but it was especially empowering for me to have been able to facilitate this process and elicit the type of stories and emotions from those amazing women.

So, what exactly is a Circle?

The Circle is a discourse; a process that works intentionally to create a safe space to discuss very difficult or painful issues in order to improve relationships and resolve differences. The intent of the Circle is to find resolutions that could and will serve every member of the Circle. The process is based on an assumption of equal worth and dignity for all participants, and therefore provides equal voice to all participants. Every participant has gifts to offer in finding a good solution to the problem.

It is important to note, however, that the Circle process is, among many other things, a very unique problem-solving method. Circles build communities; they strengthen relationships; and they create spaces for healing and transformation. Yet, not many are aware of this incredible life-altering process. The most beautiful thing about Circles is the use of stories; to build understanding, Circles intentionally draw on the power of story-telling. And the stories raise important issues and describe wonderful opportunities.

As a technique, the Circle organizes group communication and makes it more effective. In addition to building communities, it builds relationships; it helps us make more balanced decisions and provides a powerful means for conflict resolution. Yet the Circle is much more than a technique. It embodies a philosophy of relatedness and inter-connectedness that can guide us in all circumstances. It nurtures a way of “being in a Circle” that continues even outside of the Circle.

Further, the Circle process is deliberate in discussing how the conversation will be held before discussing the difficult issues. Consequently, the Circle works on values and guidelines before talking about the differences or conflict. These will be discussed a little more in detail later on in this article.

How did Circles originate?

Circles have their roots in ancient traditions. Ancient cultures used processes very similar to Circles to attend to the community’s work, as many Indigenous Peoples around the world continue to do today. Circles appear to have been used throughout the ages and more so around the globe. Some of the more specific forms of Circles come most directly from various North American First Nations and Native Peoples, who continue to use Circles and integrate the Circle’s core teachings into their ways of life.

Yet, despite its ancient roots, Circles have now incorporated modern understandings about how to resolve conflicts and be in a good way with each other. There is no doubt that we live in fast-changing, ethnically diverse societies. The Circle process is, therefore, informed by modern experiences. New insights into methods of discourse, consensus-building, cross-cultural communication, and personal transformation contribute to how we understand Circles and each other. The process that we present balances the ancient with the contemporary, the individual with the group, and the inner with the outer self.

Further, what initially started off in a closed private sphere has now also trickled into the public domain. This is because, in a larger sense, Circles evolved from the indigenous justice and the restorative justice movements. Also, around the globe, small communities, too, are using similar processes for similar purposes, as they have done so for hundreds and thousands of years. And, in these places, Circle-like processes are the ways in which people live in a community with one another. They are simply how they work out the issues of everyday life.

How can one conduct a Circle?

As I mentioned earlier, when I had my Circle training about a month ago, I had no idea what to expect. As a natural skeptic, I doubted its significance. However, as the training progressed, the more I became enlightened and further, the more convinced I became about its importance, in both the private and public discourse. Hence, in this section of my article, I will discuss in detail how one can go about conducting an actual Circle.

When I did my Circle two weeks ago, I admit I was very nervous, even though the Pashtun women with whom I was doing the Circle are very close friends of mine. However, Circles have a tendency to allow us to become strangers again; it allows us to start afresh and get to know someone all over again, no matter how long we’ve known them. It’s amazing how little we could know about a person, despite knowing them for many, many years. Yet, the Circle changes all of that. Many deep layers are revealed and relationships become much stronger as individuals walk out of the Circle as compared to when they initially walked into it. But, more details of my Circle experience will be revealed in the second part of this article.

So, to conduct a Circle, one would first need a “Keeper.” The Keeper is the person who leads or conducts a Circle and his/her responsibility is to help the participants create a safe space for their conversation, and to monitor the quality of the space throughout the circle. If the atmosphere becomes disrespectful, it is the responsibility of the Keeper to bring the groups’ attention to that particular problem, and help the group re-establish a respectful space.

Usually, the qualities that are most helpful in fulfilling the Keeper’s task are as follows:

  • Patience
  • Humility
  • Deep listening
  • Acceptance of everyone as worthy of respect
  • Willingness to sit with uncertainty
  • Ability to share responsibility

Further, the Circle Keeper uses the following elements to design the Circle and to create the space for all participants to speak the truth, while at the same time respecting each other and, as a group, try to seek resolution of their conflict or difficulty:

  • Seating of all participants in a circle (preferably without any tables; one is also free to either use chairs or simply sit on the floor)
  • Opening ceremony
  • Centerpiece
  • Values/guidelines
  • Talking piece
  • Guiding questions
  • Closing ceremony

It is very, very eminent that everyone is seated in a Circle; yes, geometry matters!  This is because this sort of seating arrangement allows everyone to see everyone else and be accountable to one another face-to-face. It also creates a sense of focus on a common concern without creating a sense of “sides.” Thus, a Circle seating emphasizes equality and connectedness.

Opening ceremony Circles always use openings and closings to mark the Circle as a sacred space in which participants are present with themselves and one another in a way that is different from an ordinary meeting or group. The clear marking of the beginning and the end of the Circle is very important because it invites participants to drop any reservations that they may have, which would create a distance from their core self and the core self of others. Openings help participants to center themselves, bring themselves into full presence in the space, recognize inter-connectedness, release unrelated distractions, and be mindful of the values of the core self. Opening ceremonies may include reciting a poem, telling a story, playing a song, or getting the participants involved in a short activity. It’s totally up to the Keeper to utilize his/her creativity and start the Circle process in whichever appropriate way possible. There are no rules as to which activity is most appropriate to start a Circle, as long as they are respectful to all the participants involved.

CenterpieceCircles usually use a centerpiece to create a focal point that supports speaking from the heart and listening from the heart. When I had my Circle training, my professors used some really beautiful centerpieces! These included candles, marbles, crystal rocks, and all other sorts of unique decorative pieces. And these are usually placed right in the middle of the Circle, in the center of the open space inside the circle of participants that are seated either on chairs or on the floor. Typically, there is a cloth or mat as the base and the items used for the centerpiece may represent the values of the core self, the foundational principles of the process, and a shared vision of the group. Centerpieces can be collectively built with more and more representation of the group and the individuals in the Circle as time goes on. For example, during my training, in one of the activities, we were asked to create something using art supplies, and then explain its significance to the Circle. So, after each participant was done explaining the significance of their drawings, it soon became a part of the centerpiece.

Values – When conducting a Circle, the Keeper along with the participants come up with a set of key values that represent us when we are at our best, which hence becomes the foundation of the Circle space. The Circle is a deliberate space designed to help participants step toward their bet self from wherever they are.  These values include respect, objectivity, passion, patience, open-mindedness, etc. And these are usually introduced right at the initial stage of the Circle process, and constantly reminded throughout the process, just to ensure that participants are mindful of why they are in the Circle space to begin with.

Guidelines Just like values, participants in a Circle play a major role in designing their own space by creating the guidelines for their discussion. The guidelines articulate the agreements among participants about how they will conduct themselves in the Circle discourse. The guidelines are intended to describe the behaviours that the participants feel will make the space safe for them to speak their truth.  My reader needs to understand that some of these Circles are done among strangers, where people may hesitate to speak the truth, in fear that they will be judged, ridiculed, or perhaps even disrespected. And that’s normal. However, that is not the aim of the Circle, for Circles are designed to allow individuals to set themselves free by opening their minds and their hearts, and letting go of any fear of being put down if they were to reveal stories that they would never otherwise share in a public setting, and that too amongst strangers. Thus, guidelines are not rigid constraints but supportive reminders of the behavioural expectations of everyone in the Circle. They are not imposed on the participants, but rather are adopted by consensus of the Circle.

Talking piece – Circles use something called a “talking piece” to regulate the dialogue of the participants. The talking piece could be virtually anything: a rock, shell, marble piece, doll, etc. And the talking piece is passed from person to person around the Circle. Only the person holding the talking piece may speak. This allows the holder to speak without being interrupted and it also allows the listeners to focus on listening, and not be distracted by thinking about a response to the speaker. The use of the talking piece allows for full expression of emotions, thoughtful reflection, and an unhurried pace. The talking piece is hence a powerful equalizer. It allows every participant an equal opportunity to speak and carries an implicit assumption that every participant has something important to offer the group. Also, the beauty of the talking piece is that it is not timed! So, a participant can take as long as he/she wants to talk about their stories. And once it passes physically from hand to hand, the talking piece weaves a connecting thread among the members of the circle; it reduces the control of the Keeper and consequently shares control of the process with all participants. Additionally, where possible, the talking piece represents something important to the group. The more meaning the talking piece has (consistent with the values of the Circle), the more powerful it is for engendering respect for the process and alignment with the core self.

Guiding questions – Circles use prompting questions (usually the Keeper asks this), or themes, at the beginning of many rounds to stimulate conversation about the main interest of the Circle. This hence allows every member of the Circle with an opportunity to respond to the prompting question or theme of each round.  Also, one must be careful how they design their questions, which is very important in facilitating a deep and thoughtful discussion.

Closing ceremony – Finally, the closing ceremony, which is similar to the opening ceremony, acknowledges the efforts of the Circle, re-affirms the inter-connectedness of those present, conveys a sense of hope for the future, and thus prepares participants to return to the ordinary space of their lives. Openings and closings are hence designed to fit the nature of the particular group and provide opportunities for cultural responsiveness. Again, these may include poetry, songs, a story, a meaningful quote, etc. It’s up to the Keeper as to what he/she feels is most appropriate and relevant to end the Circle.

So, that’s Circles for you in a nutshell. I could literally go on and on about the more intricate details of the Circle process, but for that I’d recommend you read this great book called Doing Democracy With Circles by Jennifer Ball, Wayne Caldwell and Kay Pranis. It’s a great book and a great source of information for those who would like to learn more about Circles and how effective a process they can be in relationship-and community-building.

In the second part of this article, I will explain my own experience as a Keeper of facilitating my very own Circle. So, stay tuned, dear readers!

3 responses to “Creating Unity With Circles (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Creating Unity With Circles (Part Two) – Empowerment/Disempowerment Of Pashtun Women « SesapZai – Artist. Academic. Philanthropist.·

  2. Do you think that this concept could be used in conflict resolution? Would be interesting for me to know if, in any situation, and even with men, this could be a helpful tool

    • Thank you for your comment, best2belikew! Actually, you asked a very good question, for the sole purpose behind the whole Circle process is to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings. I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced and learned this process, for I feel that not too many people know about this process, nor do they realize how incredibly effective it could be. I’m completely sold on this process and plan to use it as much as possible, even though I know there are people who would initially scoff or roll their eyes at me. But it’s always interesting how those very same people are the ones who end up breaking the most during the Circle process; they are the ones who reveal the most about themselves. So, it’s extremely powerful, empowering, and therapeutic!

      As for doing Circles with men, I haven’t tried that yet, but I believe it would be just as effective as when done with women. And I’m sure it would also be effective when done in a mixed crowd. When I initially did the training, it was in a mixed crowd, but it’s interesting how we all managed to look beyond gender and just view everyone as human beings.

      It’s indeed a very beautiful tool and I strongly recommend it!

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