When you put your knowledge in a circle, it’s not yours anymore, it’s shared by everyone.
–Douglas Cardinal, Architect–
The term “Talking Circle” comes to us from the Native American tradition and is again finding broad appeal in contemporary culture. Talking circles are being used by facilitators of personal and spiritual growth, grade school teachers, high school football coaches, religious groups, 12-step and other group therapy gatherings.
Within a talking circle, all members are equal and each one belongs to the circle, which itself represents the interconnectedness of it’s members and the cycles of life. The talking circle symbolizes a sacred space created where all who come, come to listen and respect the views of all others in the circle. A stick, stone, or feather (which symbolizes connectedness to the land) can be used to facilitate the circle. Whoever is holding the object has the right to speak and the others have the responsibility to listen.
A ritual to begin the circle is often used to create a safe place where members commit to keeping all that is shared in the circle confidential, to set an intention to open hearts, to understand and connect with others, and to maintain a spirit of reverence and gratitude.
In a culture where conversation is often considered a competitive sport–the loudest and the strongest overpower the soft-spoken–the safety of talking circle enables those hesitant to speak to express themselves. And for the wisdom of the group to evolve as all are heard and understood.
Guidelines for Talking Circles
Talking circles are usually convened to resolve a problem, discuss an issue, or to focus on a question of interest to all members. When working with a large group (thirty or more) consider forming an inner circle and an outer circle. Whoever is sitting in the inner circle can speak while those in the outer circle listen. Participants can take turns being in the inner circle.
The group leader facilitates the discussion in non-judgmental way. In other words, instead of responding with words like, “great” or “good”, the leader can acknowledge or clarify comments, such as, “I understand you are saying that…” listen. During the circle time, people are free to respond however they want as long as these basic considerations are followed:
- Participants can indicate their desire to speak by raising their hands or waiting for the object to be passed to them around the circle. Generally the person holding the object speaks and is the only one with the right to speak, even if s/he takes a long time to think about what to say and there’s a pause in the conversation.
- All comments are addressed directly to the question or the issue, not to comments another person has made.
- Both negative and positive comments about what anyone else has to say should be avoided.
- Silence is acceptable. There must be no negative reactions to the phrase, “I pass.”
- Going around the circle in a systematic way invites each person to participate without a few vocal people dominating the discussion.
- Speakers should feel free to express whatever is in their heart, in any way that is comfortable: by sharing a story, a personal experience, by using examples or metaphors, and so on. A person is absolutely free to say whatever is in their heart, without limitation, and in the safe and comfortable knowledge that nobody will criticize it or interrupt it.
- If a person talks too long, people around the circle begin to discreetly cough. Too long is usually defined according to the situation, but could be three to ten minutes, depending on the size of the group, the topic, and how long the group wants to spend together. If you have the object and notice that others are coughing, it’s time to pass it along. (Use of a timer or gong would be highly inappropriate for a Talking Circle, as it’s an artificial imposition on the organic process of the Circle.)
- The circle continues either until everybody has had one opportunity to talk (usually in a larger group with time constraints) or until each person, when they receive the object, expresses the feeling that they’ve pretty much said everything they have to say. It’s interesting to see how this works: the process is usually quite organic, and everybody pretty much “winds down” about the same time. That said, short circles can also be used to begin or bring closure to lessons in teaching or training sessions.
Talking Circles are both cathartic, healing, and extraordinarily effective ways of bringing everybody into the process of communication and group life. Because you can’t speak until you have the object, the skills of listening carefully and learning how to remember what you want to say when your time comes are developed and exercised.
As for specialty uses, Talking Circles have had a powerful impact on groups of ADD adults and children. Any family will find talking circles very effective, and can even expand participation into their neighborhoods, including friends (“Come on over to our house for dinner and a one-hour Talking Circle!”).
How can you employ a talking circle in your workplace or within the groups you work with? I’d love to hear what shows up for you. Please share your thoughts, stories, and experiences around this topic in the comments section below.
I have participated in them quite a bit, but none of the circles were larger than 23, so we didn't need to create innies vs outies. Thanks for reminding me about their usage.
Tracy Pan says
My question about 'Both negative and positive comments about what anyone else has to say should be avoided'. I wonder when you see obviously that somebody is saying something wrong, such as his understanding of a definision, can we facilitate and let everybody have a right understanding by not giving negative comments?
Especially in a training session, the wrong saying might mislead the team. Do we need intervention to that?
Harry Webne-Behrman says
Thanks for the reminder, Steve… yes, this is a really helpful approach that we've used in creating spaces for dialogue during conflict. Old tradition, easily adapted by slowing things down and using ritual to reinforce intentions of clarity and understanding before action. I'm reminded of an article I have (somewhere in a file) from Utne Reader about 15-20 years ago that showed recent adaptations of talking circles for work with groups…. I'll try to find it and share it with you.
Stacy Craig says
Thanks so much for including Talking Circles in your educational materials. I have used these many times, especially to close a group experience, such as a service trip or workshop. What I’ve found is exactly what you mention—it takes the competition our of conversation and allows participants to take the time to acknowledge each other, their leaders, and the changes within themselves. What a powerful tool a circle is!
The circle is a powerful shape to be creative with and design from for facilitators.