How often do you sit round in a circle at work, particularly without a desk or table in front of you?  Has that ever happened?  What did you notice?

We often aim for this when we are working with clients; assuming the table isn’t bolted to the floor and entwined with cables (an increasingly common occurrence).   When we manage to set up a room in this way there is often some discomfort to start with, partly practical – where should I put my tea/laptop/book?  And partly, well I’m not sure why, perhaps it just feels a bit vulnerable, or naked even?  The early awkwardness is sometimes dispelled with the much-used 12-step invocation “Hello my name is Nick and I’ve been addicted to (insert vice of choice) for x years”, which more often than not breaks the ice.

I was thinking about this over the summer because I spent quite a bit of time in one of three circles and paid particular attention to the ebb and flow of the conversations, the way silence played a part and how a sort of unconscious connectedness took place.

Without boring you with too much detail, the circles looked as follows:

  • Circle One – several hours a day for four days – 26 people – one conversation – learning environment
  • Circle two – several hours each evening for one week – 12-40 people (varied each night) – multiple conversations – village camping trip
  • Circle three – 30-60 minutes three times a day for three days – 10 people – single conversation – men’s retreat weekend

Probably worth noting that circle two was always round a fire, circle three was sometimes round a fire and circle one was mostly round a sort of display made up of a plant, some stones and a candle.   I say this because when we work there is often nothing in the middle and when the conversation is tough I find myself often yearning for a fire in the middle to calm people down and tune people in.  I’m not sure Facilities Management would be so keen!

What I have noticed
is something different in the nature and quality of the conversation when people are in this configuration.  So I thought it might be worth exploring the attributes present that might be missing from some of our ‘normal’ work conversations and meetings.

The four attributes I came up with were:

  • Equality.  It’s clear that a circle has no hierarchy, which fosters a sense that the voices are somehow more equal.  This encourages people to speak with less fear or constraint.
  • Openness.  The physical way we sit in a circle, all with hearts facing fully inward, combined with the lack of barriers in the form of tables etc, seems to encourage vulnerability, curiosity and openness.  This leads to the types of conversations that I often don’t experience in other configurations; about possibility, about compassion, about trust.
  • Presence.  Perhaps it is just me, but there is a presence created when a circle of chairs is formed that feels more focused, defined and clear.  It could be the intentionality of the set-up, or perhaps the lack of distraction.
  • Interbeing.  This is a word, Buddhist in origin I think, that I only discovered this year.  It’s an idea that we are all interconnectedness.  That somehow the ‘I’ evaporates as the ‘we’ becomes more clear.  Working in circles seems to catalyse this feeling that we are all in it together.

It’s possible I’ve got a bit carried away here.  I am currently working in a particularly First Nations part of Canada and am loving the idea of the powwow.   I recognise that the context for normal business conversations can feel very different to those described here.  And I understand that creating a helpful environment for good quality conversation is not always possible. 

But I do believe there is something to be learned from the inherent wisdom of circles.   We have so much of this in our collective past;  how could we benefit from this right now?

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