There is a simple methodology for meeting in groups so that every voice is heard and information and stories are shared in a conscious way. It's been around for thousands of years; the methodology is called the circle.
Christina Baldwin studied the structure of the circle and developed guidelines and principles that she outlined in her first book about the circle, Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture (Bantam books 1994, 1998). In this new book, there are many more stories about the people and organizations who have used the model of the circle for meeting. Baldwin and Ann Linnea, cofounders of PeerSpirit, Inc., an educational company that teaches circle practice, have travelled the world to sit in circle with people and show how this ancient form can be used in modern meetings. The two have been to the United States (they live on Whidbey Island), Canada, Europe, Southern Africa and, most recently, Australia and New Zealand.
A ring of chairs in a circle activates an archetype and, as the authors say, "People who have experienced circle often refer to this archetypal energy as the 'magic of circle' that occurs when the best (or sometimes the worst) comes out of us and we find ourselves capable of responding with a level of creativity, innovation, problem solving, and visioning that astound us."
I have experienced that "magic" in circles in various settings, following PeerSpirit guidelines, with writers, the mental health community, the women of a First Nations community, the gay community, seniors, and teenagers. The circle aids communication and builds community. I can't say enough about the value of the circle and the importance of the work of Baldwin and Linnea in sharing these tools through their books and their training programs.
The Circle Way describes the personal preparation required for a circle (especially if you are acting as host), the invitation to others, and the hosting. I've always called myself a circle facilitator (especially since being trained at a PeerSpirt circle practicum). The authors, though, use the term "host," which they say "is more integrated than that of a facilitator." They say a facilitator conducts a meeting by staying outside the process. "A host sits within the process." I've always sat inside the process as a facilitator of writing circles, answering the same questions I pose to others. Now I'll have to rethink the term!
Whatever the term used for the person guiding the circle, there are internal components of circle structure that are key to equal participation: having a centre (a candle or something to represent your focus); a start-point (such as a poem to shift from social time to more focused listening and speaking); circle agreements (which can be added to by the members of the circle); check-in (at which time each person can respond to a question); intention; three principles; and three practices.
All of these components, and many more, are described in detail in the book. If it all seems overwhelming at first, choose a couple of aspects to introduce at your next meeting. Begin with a poem or an inspirational reading. Pass a talking piece so each person has a chance to speak and be heard.
As the authors of the book say, "Circle gives us space to sit down in our not knowing, to hear each other out, and to hold on to the story while taking the next step forward."
by Mary Ann Moore
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women