Circle Process

This module will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

Visit this module about the How to Craft Powerful Questions.

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Cultivate empathy and compassion
  • Support skillful communication
  • Support healing and restoration during and after conflict
  • Restore hope, trust, and a sense of belonging

Circle process is designed and built on the following values:

  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Inclusiveness
  • Shared and Personal Responsibility
  • Empathy

What Is a Circle?

A circle is a gathering that is characterized by thoughtful preparation, powerful questions, and an egalitarian structure. Members of a group, team, movement, or community are all comfortably seated in a circle. Everyone is invited to participate and all voices are considered equally important. The structure is simple with a beginning (opening, introductions, check-in), middle (speaking about the topic), and an end (closing and check-out). Conversation is structured around a series of questions. Every participant will have a chance to speak to each question without interruption. Circles use a talking piece which is passed from person to person, to designate who can speak at that moment—and who is listening (everyone else).

Circles are considered to be one of the oldest forms of group process. Indigenous and first peoples cultures from around the world used and continue to use circle processes to facilitate community conversations about important subjects.[1] These processes have experienced a revival in modern cultures during the last 40 years and have been used in many applications.

Circles offer an inclusive and collaborative space for group members to share openly and build (or rebuild) trust with each other. Circles are generative in nature and can be used as a process for restorative (or transformative) justice, allowing a group to collectively respond to and heal from a rupture or transgression. Circles can also be used regularly to strengthen relationships within groups and provide members the space to understand each others' perspectives and why they might behave in a particular way.

Circles are particularly useful in social and political organizing as they are democratic and non-hierarchical. They challenge systems of oppression, cultivate a sense of belonging, and highlight the human interests at the heart of social change work.

Circles as restorative practices have always been a part of certain communities and cultures within the United States. They were also  introduced in the judicial system, first within the sentencing process and soon across other parts of the judicial system. They have since been adopted in elsewhere, in schools, workplaces, and communities.[2]

Applications for Circle Process

  • To build relationships within organizations, communities and neighborhoods
  • To process a shared experience (for example, a school shooting or tragedy in the community)
  • To heal social and political divides, particularly related to matters of equity and inclusion
  • To foster open and safe conversations on sensitive topics
  • To restore the relationship between the community and a person who has caused harm
  • To restore and transform a community after a harm or rupture by identifying a path to reconciliation and the systemic causes behind a problem
  • To welcome back or reintegrate a former community member

When is Circle Process Useful?

  • Circles provide a non-hierarchical format that allows participants to have an equal share in the conversation.
  • It is a holistic format that creates a space to bring the voices of everyone together to share their perspective(s) on an issue.
  • The circle process lifts up marginalized voices and the voices of those who tend to be quieter and it regulates the voices of those who tend to take up a lot of space.
  • Circles are useful for community restoration and transformation.
  • The act of physically sitting in a circle provides a sense of community and belonging and supports the format of the discussion.
  • Circle processes facilitate deep listening.
  • Circle process is designed to create brave and sacred space.
  • Circles can shift the focus of conversations from confrontation to shared interests.

Summary

Circle processes can create a different path for group members to relate to and support each other in striving after a common mission or vision, especially when tensions arise in the struggle to move society forward or when different perspectives or approaches stall organizations in accomplishing their goals. The embedded characteristics of equitable voices (non-hierarchical form), deep listening, and face-to-face communication in sacred space offer a counterpoint to current fast-paced, debate-centered, and technology-based communication practices. The structure contributes to circles being ideal for deepening relationships, processing difficult experiences, and restoring groups, teams, and communities after a rupture.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to consider when choosing a circle process

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • Is relationship building important for the group?
  • Will the group benefit from developing shared understanding about the diverse experiences?
  • Are there voices that have been marginalized or not heard?
  • Does the issue at hand effect the whole group or system?
  • Do you want to support the whole group in processing complex information, news, or situation?
  • Will the issue at hand benefit from having the perspectives of the whole group or system?
  • Is there a need for collective healing or restoration?

Note: If your intention is to convince or change other people’s perspectives, then the circle is not right for you.

TOOLS AND TIPS

Defining the Circle

The first step of a circle process is to define the scope of the conversation and who needs to be involved.

  • Topic - What is the topic, or issue, or conflict that we want to address?
  • Goal - Ask yourself honestly, what is your intention? What do you want to accomplish or experience for yourself and others?
  • Who to invite - Who needs to be part of the circle to ensure that all perspectives and stakeholders are included? Ask others to identify those who need to be part of it. If there is desire to exclude certain individuals, then the circle process is not appropriate.
  • Voluntariness - Are people willing to sit down and talk about this?
  • Convener - Who is a trusted person or group of people who can act as conveners for the conversation?
  • Circle Keeper and Host - Who will this be and what will their responsibilities be? One individual can be both the circle keeper and host, or it can be separated out.

Roles for circle process include:

  • Host/Convenor - A group or individual that issues the invitation, prepares the physical space, helps determine the scope of conversation, and participates.
  • Guardian/Circle Keeper - A person whose role is to track the tone of the conversation, maintain a safe and open space, and, with the help of others, call for pause when needed.
  • Circles can also choose to have specific timekeepers to help keep the conversation moving and scribes to record decisions or other items important to the group.

Preparing the Circle

Once you have determined that a circle is suitable for the situation, identified who needs to be there, and identified who will be the circle keeper, then you move onto planning the circle.

  1. Crafting questions - Conveners and/or hosts prepare questions that are open-ended and that elicit different responses. Questions that evoke shared values in the group, and that allow individuals to share their stories and connect with each other are the most helpful. (Click here to learn more about how to craft powerful questions.)
  2. Invitation - Everyone who needs to be included should receive an invitation. The invitation should clearly communicate the topic, the intention, who is convening the circle, why the person is invited, and explain that the process is voluntary. Ask participants to RSVP.
  3. Materials - Find a talking piece that will have meaning for the group and will encourage respectful speaking and listening. Decide if materials (eg: notepads, chart paper, information, snacks, etc.) are necessary and whether they serve the purpose of the circle.
  4. Preparing the space - Choose a location that is symbolic and feels safe for all of the participants. Arrange the correct amount of chairs in a circle. Make sure there are enough seats for everyone; that there will be no furniture in the center of the circle. Some may create a symbolic centerpiece for the circle, (a candle, flowers, an object that represents the group), or leave the center empty.

The Circle Process

  1. Opening: Host/Guardian/Circle Keeper or convener shares the topic and intentions of the circle and opens with a ceremony or ritual.
    • Introduce the talking piece
    • Talk about time parameters (eg: time per person, timekeeper), if relevant.
    • Agree on the communication guidelines (Sample Guidelines Below)
  2. Question Rounds: In each round, every participant will have the opportunity to answer the same question while all others listen attentively. The talking piece is passed around the circle.  Participants can choose to pass, either in that moment or for a particular question.
    • Beginning Check-in -- A chance for participants to share names and relationship to the topic.
    • Questions about the topic -- A series of rounds each with a question that deepen understanding about the issue.>
    • Check-out -- A chance for people to share their reflections on the circle.
  3. Closing
    • Reminder about any confidentiality agreements.
    • Circle Keeper closes with closing ceremony.

Sample Communication Guidelines

  • Respect the talking piece (ie: Listen to the speaker and don't interrupt.)
  • Speak from the heart
  • Listen with your heart
  • Speak from your own experience
  • Refrain from attempting to persuade
  • Confidentiality

Resources

DPACE Guide for Crafting Powerful Questions

Books and Articles
The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis
The Art of Powerful Questions
Fostering Dialogue Across Divides by Essential Partners (2017)

  • Pre-meeting considerations: pp. 27-57
  • Crafting Questions: pp. 24 & 159-166

The Circle Way by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin

Citations:
[1] History, Defining Restorative | Restorative Practices. IIRP, www.iirp.edu/defining-restorative/history
[2] The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis

Click here for a statement about Intellectual Property.

Our team of highly skilled conflict professionals can support you.

For more information and support, or if you are interested in becoming a member of the DPACE team, please contact  Wendy Wood, Project Director dpace@mediatorsbeyondborders.org