facilitating & hosting

What Creates Safe-Enough Space?

This is a follow up from last week’s post on Resources for Circles + Conflict, which supported a one hour teleseminar where I spoke about using circle practice and process to transform conflict in the workplace.

“Change the chairs, change the conversation” is a line us circle practitioners will often say. Sometimes moving the chairs into a circle and removing the table is a bold step on its own – activism for a better way of being together. However to entrust the circle to hold our most important conversations, and potentially high-heat situations, changing the chairs alone will not create the safe-enough space needed to help us speak and listen in a different way to let the new emerge.

On the teleseminar I spoke about five of the components of The Circle Way that help give circle process it’s strength: having a centre, agreements, visible points of leadership, talking piece, and check-in/check-out:

Have a centre: The centre of a circle is like the hub of a wheel; it connects us and holds the rim together, gives a common ground where people can put their words rather than onto each other. Creating a centre in a circle gives us a resting place; a place to look to remember why we are here in the conversation and where you can direct your emotion, energy and opinion instead of zinging it across at someone. It might hold a symbolic object for the team, or the mission and values on placards…. Or asking people to bring an object to contribute to the centre.

Agreements: Are how we show up; using agreements calls people to being together respectfully. They often focus on how we will speak – with intention to be aware of our impact, how we will be listened to – with curiosity and without judgement, how we will handle confidentiality, and agreeing to pause when needed. If you don’t have time for a group to create their own agreements and are offering these four common ones, you can ask a group if there are any other agreements to be added to feel safe enough for this conversation? The agreements give us neutral language to draw from when we notice we are not contributing as best we can to the well-being of the whole circle.

Visible points of leadership: A circle is a leader-full group and it is led with some particular roles – visible points of leadership. One of those roles is a host – who holds the agenda for the conversation. Working with the host is a guardian who sits across from the host. The person serving as guardian is tending to the health of the social process. They ring the bell to inject silence and to re-focus the group process. Everyone shares responsibility for guardianship of the circle and can ask the guardian to ring the bell. The third role sometimes present is scribe.

Talking piece: This isn’t named as a specific component, but is a tool to support the practices of speaking with intention, listening with attention and contributing to the well-being of the group. A talking piece is a hand-held object that signifies who’s turn it is to speak, and the others are released into their listening intend of preparing to interject with what they want to say. Using a talking piece helps to slow down the conversation, hear all voices, and speak without interruption. They have found talking pieces on archeological digs – the desire to speak without interruption is as old as our tendency to interrupt! Using a talking piece changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation. This is particularly useful in times of conflict, uncertainty, and to tap into the space of emergence. You can hold the talking piece for a few moments to consider what you want to say without fear of being cut off or losing your turn. You don’t have to use a talking piece the whole time you are in circle – after a talking piece check-in round, you might put the piece in the middle, move into general conversation, and go back to the talking piece as needed. It is there to support a different pattern of speaking and listening.


A quote from Kay Pranis’ Little Book of Circle Process that illuminates how a talking piece is helpful when working with conflict and emotion: “The talking piece helps to manage the discussion of very emotional issues. Because the talking piece must go around the full Circle, it prevents two individuals from getting into a back-and-forth emotional exchange, and responding without thinking. If the words of one participant anger another, multiple members of the Circle may address the issues raised before the talking piece reaches the angry participant, thus relieving the angry participant from a sense of needing to defend him/herself alone.” I have also found that what others share as the talking piece travels around may help shift the perception, and the fire lessens for that person.

Check-in and Check-out: The beginning sets the tone. Start intentionally, in a manner that invites people to connect with one another, and for each person to enter their voice into the circle. Participating within the first five minutes of a meeting helps set the pattern for participation throughout the meeting – that we are all contributing to the quality of the experience in the circle. I think of the mantra ‘Check-in convenes us and check-out releases us.’ Check-out is the same pattern; each person speaking a few words – maybe something they learned, are carrying forward, or where at as a result of the conversation, at the end of the circle.

Being in circle is like walking a tightrope. Circle doesn’t mean we won’t fall when there is a wobble, but there is a safety net to catch us. The components of The Circle Way help create that safety net. For a full picture of all the components of The Circle Way, have a peek at this two page PDF as well as this one. And the videos (and other resources) mentioned here on my blog are also great resources.
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