Circles: An Introduction

By Cara Walsh, Catherine Bargen, Aaron Lyons, and Matthew Hartman 

​“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle… The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were … and so it is in everything where power moves.” – Black Elk 

What are circles?

A circle is a dialogue process with the goal of creating deeply respectful space to be with one another. In a circle, everyone’s voice is equal and uninterrupted; no person is more important than another.

​Circles are an ancient form of human interaction that have been preserved through Indigenous peacemaking traditions, taught widely and generously, and embraced by people of many cultures around the world. They are based on the understandings that the world is profoundly interconnected; human beings desire to be in good relationship; and that we all have essential gifts.1

Circles embody in physical form the values of respect, inclusivity, equality, collaboration, honesty, and transparency. There are no sides and there is no hierarchy. When we come into a circle, we are stepping into a place of genuine encounter. Created with intention, the circle is a powerful container for all of the human experience. 

What are circles for?

The simple technology of circles can be adapted and used for different situations, including building community, healing, decision making, resolving conflict, talking about difficult subjects, giving/receiving support, celebrating, and more. 

What are the elements of a circle?

Circle Keeper: The Circle Keeper is a caretaker of the process. They are in a position of responsibility, but not authority. They are responsible for helping participants maintain the values of the circle, and tend to the quality of the space throughout the circle.
Opening and Closing: Circles invite us into a space and a way of being present that is different from ordinary meetings. Creating moments of ritual or ceremony to open and close the circle helps participants center themselves, arrive in the present and create a useful demarcation from everyday conversation.
Talking Piece: Circles typically use a symbolic object that regulates turn taking. The talking piece is passed from person to person to allow the speaker to share without interruption and to allow the listeners to focus on deeply listening without interruption. No one is ever required to speak. In an online format, the idea of the talking piece can be maintained by participants passing the speaking role to one another according to a pre-determined speaking order.
Circle Values/Guidelines: Having guidelines and shared values about how participants agree to conduct themselves and show up together is an essential component to the creation of a circle. Guidelines are not meant to be rigid rules, but shared expectations and norms of being together in right relationships.
Circle Prompts: Circles use guiding questions or themes at the beginning of each round to initiate thinking and catalyze authentic sharing. 

Resource Sheet for the Online Circle Keeper 

1) Determine the speaking order
​Type/paste everyone’s name in chat box to determine the circle order.

2) Open the Circle
Provide an opening to ground and center participants into the space.
Suggestions: Mantra, prayer, singing, reading, silence, meditation, breathing exercise, etc

3) Review Circle Guidelines
Review circle guidelines to create shared foundation and container for how to show up together.

4) Some suggested guidelines:

  • Honor the Talking Piece: The holder of the talking piece is the only person speaking. In an online format, the passing of the talking piece happens when the person speaking states the name of the next person in the speaking order.
  • Listen From the Heart: Give your full attention to the speaker. Let go of stories, judgements, and ideas that make it hard to hear one another. Practice deep listening and radical curiosity.
  • Speak From the Heart: Share your truth, your perspectives, your experience and not those of others. Be as honest as you feel ‘safe & brave’ to be.
  • Say Just Enough: Without feeling rushed, share what you would like to share while keeping it short enough so everyone can have a turn. Maintain an awareness of time; sharing responsibility with group; being concise and considerate of the time of others.
  • Trust You’ll Know What to Say: Release the need to rehearse and prepare as you wait for your turn.
  • It is Always Okay to Pass: There is never an obligation to speak in a circle. If someone receives the talking piece and does not wish to speak, they can simply say the name of the next person in the speaking order.

4) Introduce the Speaking Order
Let participants know that turn taking will happen in the order that the names are written in the chatbox.

  1. Introduce the Circle Prompts
    Share the circle prompts that have been provided for the session (these will be in the chat box)
  2. Close the Circle
    Create an opportunity to transition out of the circle space with intention and acknowledgment of time and connection together. Suggestions: one word check-out, song, silence, reading, etc. 

5) Introduce the Circle Prompts
Share the circle prompts that have been provided for the session (these will be in the chat box)
6) Close the Circle
Create an opportunity to transition out of the circle space with intention and acknowledgment of time and connection together. Suggestions: one word check-out, song, silence, reading, etc. 

Tips for Circle Keepers

  1. The role if the circle keeper is to be a caretaker for the circle process.
  2. You are also a participant, not just an observer.
  3. Your main role is to ensure that guidelines are upheld and it remains a safe/brave space for all to show up.
  4. The natural urge to cross talk, ask questions, and comment is strong in us. Help participants honor the ‘talking piece’ and not talk out of turn. 

1* We gratefully acknowledge the work of our teachers Mark Wedge, Kay Pranis, Harold Gatensby and Phil Gatensby, in offering these concepts and teachings. All imperfections here are our own.