The Transformative Power of Circles 

The Transformative Power of Circles 

Melody Lee

We live in a polarized society. As citizens of a nation, we are as distant from each other as we ever were. Even within our communities, organizations and families, we too often experience ourselves as separate and disconnected. We need new ways to communicate. Communication Circles provide one way of relating to each other in ways that are authentic, connecting and constructive. They can provide a way for us to create deeper relationships with each other as we strive to create create communal values to live by. In this piece, Melody Lee tells us how. The Editors.

In this time of heightened cultural and political polarization in our society, it is important to employ models of communication which allow for respectful and open discourse among individuals and groups with disparate views and experiences. Circles can be a powerful tool in shaping human interactions in ways that provide opportunities for deep listening and sharing with others in hope of reaching a common ground of mutual understanding. Circles create an opportunity to recognize the shared humanity of everyone sitting in the circle. They allow us to see our individual point of view in relation to the views of others and to discover points of commonality as well as disagreement. Circles are also dynamic and the interactions between members within them become a catalyst for change.

Sitting in circles has given me opportunities to listen deeply to others, to find my own voice, and to grow. My first circle was a women’s consciousness raising group in a three-story, orange and gray, clapboard house on Boylston, now JFK, Street in Harvard Square, before Roe v. Wade and therefore before legalized abortion in Massachusetts, when I was young, malleable, new-to-Boston, and adulthood. In that circle I listened to other women speak honestly about their relationships, sacrifices, and struggles to express their own identity. I learned that circles offered not only support but empowerment for women. Some years later, sitting in a darkened room speaking my truth into a circle of women gathered on the full moon, I understood the transformative power of a circle as I felt my words witnessed by others and amplified by the silent center that whispered my intention back to me in a way my heart could hear, remember, and act upon. In the decades since, I have participated in and been supported by many circles. 

A circle models a culture of equality. It is both a shape and a set of principles that guide fair and safe communication within its boundaries. In a circle, there is no hierarchy, no ranking order that compares one person to another. Each person holds a position in the circle equal to that of everyone else. It is the responsibility of each participant to hold the integrity of the circle both as a physical shape and an internal system. This happens when each person pays attention as others speak and speaks with openness and honesty. 

There are several basic principles that guide a circle and allow its members to serve as a mirror for one another and allow everyone a safe place to grow.

First Principle: A Circle has an Invisible Center that Represents a Universal Source of Energy and Compassion.

As we settle into a circle sensing the presence of those beside us and in view of others around us forming the boundary of the circle, it is helpful to sit in silence for a few moments to become aware of our own internal center and sense its connection to the energy contained within the circle. Some circles choose to mark this center space with a candle, stone, or other sacred objects. Jungian analyst and writer, Jean Shinoda Bolen in her book, The Millionth Circle, suggests that each person is a spoke radiating from the center of a wheel as well as a point on the rim itself. She states, “A circle that holds its center is a place of wisdom, love, and honesty” (67). To understand the way a circle functions it is crucial to acknowledge the power of the center.

Second Principle: A Circle is a Time Set Apart to allow for a Deeper Level of Communication Distinct from the Normal Give and Take of Conversation

It is important to mark the beginning and ending of a circle with a symbolic action such as lighting and extinguishing a flame, sounding a chime, reading a poem, or some other ceremonial gesture that feels comfortable to all participants.

Third principle: A circle allows each person to speak without interruption. One way to honor this principle is to use a talking object.

The object is passed around the circle to each participant in turn. Only the person holding the object may speak. Anyone who does not wish to speak holds the object for a moment in silence and then passes it on. Speaking in a circle is always voluntary and never coerced. Bolen notes that using a talking object helps people listen more intently and shape their thoughts before speaking. Holding the object reminds us that “we are calling upon the wisdom, honesty, and compassion that exists in the center of the circle, and within ourselves” (44). No one should speak a second time until everyone else has had the chance to speak once. Multiple rounds of sharing may occur during a single meeting.

Fourth Principle: A Circle Needs a Timekeeper to Monitor the Length of Time Each Person Speaks

When the time limit agreed upon by the group is reached, the timekeeper asks the speaker to complete their sentence and conclude. The timekeeper may give a minute or thirty-second warning. The purpose of this role is to maintain an equitable balance and not allow anyone to dominate the group. However, timekeeping is best done with sensitivity and leniency if an individual is sharing something of particular significance to themselves or the group.

Fifth Principle: A Circle Encourages its Members to Speak from their Direct Experience and to Stay Open to their Feelings

Nondefensive sharing and listening within the protective boundary of a circle allow trust to grow over time. Circles are especially well suited to multiple meetings over some length of time with the same group of people. This allows for a sense of trust to be established so that individuals can speak honestly from their deepest truth and open themselves up without fear of criticism or ridicule. Sometimes the things that are hardest to say are the most important for the members of the circle to hear. 

Sixth Principle: A Circle Honors its Members Rights to Confidentiality

What is shared within the circle should not be discussed outside of the circle or shared with anyone who is not physically present in the circle. To maintain an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and equality members should be encouraged to address painful or controversial subjects within the circle and not discuss them with other members outside the meeting time of the circle. Once a problem is named, it can be addressed, and the collective wisdom of the circle brought to bear in finding a solution.

At their best, circles create places where people can share their vulnerabilities and help one another grow. A circle is a womb space supporting new possibilities, allowing them to take shape slowly, and holding them until they are ready to emerge into the larger world. What better environment is there than a circle of people committed to one another and the principles of the circle dynamic to do the hard work of bridging social andc political divides?

How Circles Lead to Constructive Change

Circles offer a structure which can help people engage in constructive conversation about a specific issue or policy question on which they hold differing views. Circles create ways for people to share their perspective on an issue and listen respectfully to the perspectives of others. Each participant can discuss their own viewpoint without being judged by others and get real answers to sincere questions they may have about another participant’s point of view. It is possible on a second or third round of sharing in the circle to place the talking object in the center allowing whoever wishes to speak to take it up. 

If a member of the circle wishes to respond to another member, they might begin by rephrasing what they have understood the other person to have said. If the person’s whose viewpoint is being reflected agrees, the speaker can continue with their response. On the other hand, if the person whose words are being paraphrased wishes to clarify what they mean, they can ask for the talking object and be given time to respond before handing the object back to the original speaker.

Willingness to participate openly in a circle without an agenda will lead to change. As we seek to understand what life experiences have brought others to hold the views they do, the experience of participating in the circle is at work subtly enlarging our perspective and shifting our thinking so that new solutions present themselves. We are not debating one another to change our opponent’s mind or score a point for our team, but rather engaging in a collaborative process that has the potential to create solutions that are larger than the sum of their parts. The circle becomes a vehicle for engagement in a communal process that may produce a novel outcome which no one could have envisioned beforehand and in which all members can feel a sense of ownership and pride. Through attentive listening, we can support one another and build a strong community based on principles of collaborative democracy.

Circles create ripples of expansion. Many circles together can generate compassion great enough to confront the challenges of our fractured world and transform despair into hope. In circles we can utilize the diversity of our skills and ways of knowing to tackle the existential problems which face us, keeping faith with those who have gone before and bequeathing a better world to generations to come. 

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