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Listening Circles

The linear, efficient, clearly-defined world of industrial culture is made of rows, columns, boxes, schedules and agendas. We see them all over -- from organizational charts to square buildings and auditoriums. Linear patterns make it clear who is in front, who's on top, what's important, what's relevant, and where we're headed. Linearity gets us from A to B. Its dangers become clear when we arrive at B burdened down with unexpected problems and side-effects -- or when we suddenly realize we shouldn't be going to B at all. Clearly, we need some other (or at least additional) approach for making our way through life.

I believe a co-intelligent civilization needs to be built, at its most elemental level, out of circles and spirals, just as many indigenous cultures were and are. Circles lend themselves to a sense of wholeness and balance, to an awareness of the rhythmic processes (cycles) of the world and our place in them. Circles make us conscious of context.

Sitting in a circle helps us to fully see each other as peers sharing meaning, creativity, and a common center. I believe the most basic unit of co-intelligent social life is people sitting in a circle listening deeply and speaking from the heart.

This is a different kind of meeting than most modern people are used to. The focus is on dialogue -- on exploring and learning together -- not on getting things done or completing an agenda. It is possible, with expert facilitation and savvy participation, to do both linear and circular modes in one meeting. If you have an agenda, you can often fit some dialogue into it. But remember that "exploration" and "getting somewhere" are very different energies. Give them each their own time to do their work.

Listening and sharing from the heart

What do I mean by "speaking from the heart?" It starts with being grounded in our experience of what is -- especially being grounded in our feelings and in things that are truly important to us. It means being honest, taking risks, being real, allowing the vitality and emotion we feel to find its way into our voice when we speak. It means finding ourselves saying things we have not said before -- sometimes things we didn't even realize we thought or felt. Our industrial culture seldom welcomes this kind of openness and honesty, so most of us need a safe space in order to speak from our hearts.

By "safe space" I mean a group that can really hear us, where we feel we won't be judged or have to deal with negative consequences as a result of our speaking our truth. Co-creating such a safe space is an important challenge for most of us. Another important challenge is speaking from our hearts even when we aren't sure how safe it is to do so. This courageous act often opens the door for others to speak from their hearts.

It is immensely freeing, on both an individual and group basis, to succeed in these tasks. It is also profoundly important for the survival of our culture.

How to do a listening circle

This form of dialogue is inspired by Native American councils. It is practiced with many names and variations -- talking stick circle, wisdom circle, council process, and others. I call it listening circle because of its trademark quality of listening -- a deep listening to one's deepest self, to the group mind and to Spirit, as well as to each other. We can even listen deeply when we are talking: we can be aware of the words we are saying as we say them, of the way our bodies feel, of the stream of semi-formed thoughts and emotions out of which our words are coming, and of the receptive group space into which we are sending them.

Imagine now that we are doing a listening circle. You and I and a number of friends are seated in a circle. We tell a few newcomers what to expect. When we are all clear on what will be happening, our circle starts. We sit in silence. A stick (or some other holdable object) sits in the middle of our circle. A woman who feels moved to speak picks up the stick. She holds it as she speaks, and we all listen to what she says. No one speaks unless they have the stick. We engage in no cross-talk or conversation in the usual sense. When the speaker is done, she passes the stick to the man on her left who ponders it for a moment before speaking. After a few minutes he passes the stick to the person on his left and so it goes. The stick continues around the circle, with each of us speaking in turn and the rest of us listening. When our scheduled circle time is up -- or when we pass the stick around the whole circle with none of us speaking -- the stick is returned to the center and our circle is done.

That is the whole process. At its heart, it is that simple. [For examples see the "Circles and Dress Codes" story and the Co-Intelligent Prison Work story.]

Going around the circle

To the extent we honor the stick (or other object) and its role, we don't need chairpersons and facilitators; the stick, itself, in its journey around the circle, shapes the structure and quality of our dialogue. Sometimes, though, someone sets the tone and gets things started, and someone signals the end of the meeting.

As the focus of our attention moves around and around the circle, it spirals down into deeper shared understandings, richer shared meanings, and a growing sense of a shared, evolving story. Although sometimes we go around only once, our best circles result from going around at least 3 or 4 times, with people speaking briefly if necessary to permit more rounds. Brevity can be very powerful. It is also important to sustain everyone's attention. Sometimes we time our turns, often 1-3 minutes each, rarely as long as 6-10 minutes. A well-functioning circle should help those who usually speak a lot say less and those who usually don't speak up to say more.


It helps to remember that the essence of these circles is listening and speaking from the heart. Head-tripping, pronouncements, chatter, posturing and run-on monologues of the sort that make up so much of ordinary conversation only serve to disrupt the atmosphere of the circle. On the other hand, silence -- so avoided in ordinary conversation -- often helps deepen the atmosphere.

We can learn a lot about silence from Quakers, whose traditional meetings for worship have little or no ritual, leadership, or conversation, nor do they take turns around a circle. Rather, they sit in a silence which they perceive as being filled with Spirit. From time to time a member who feels "called" (moved from within by Spirit, by their "inner light") rises and speaks. When finished, they simply sit down. No one responds. The pregnant silence settles once more among and within the congregation. Many circles try to nurture this spirit in their midst, at least occasionally, with or without a formal period of silence or the religious beliefs the Quakers bring to it. In a formal circle, anyone can create silence in their turn simply by holding the object and not speaking. A person can also skip their turn, passing on the object after only a moment.

In conclusion

Clearly, much skill, consciousness, and experience can be developed in the process of doing circles, and yet the basics are incredibly simple. All of us can promote the basic circle format and spirit wherever we are, in our families, spiritual communities, schools, workplaces.

Even the simplest, most unsophisticated circles are experienced as revolutionary by people who've known little more than the hectic, banal, adversarial or repressed communication modes typical of our mainstream culture.

You don't have to do anything fancy to use the circle process -- just get together with some friends or associates and take turns speaking from the heart as best as you can; use a stapler as a talking-stick if that's what's handy. The important thing is to just do it. You will be amazed at how powerful it is. Even before you learn how to do them "well," in nine out of ten circles the rewards will pay back your efforts a thousandfold.



Wisdom Circles: A network of spiritually and transformationally oriented circles who advocate use of Ten Constants for powerful circles.

Peerspirit offers trainings and consultations grounded in circle work. Their site includes free guidelines for circle work from Christina Baldwin's book (below).


Christina Baldwin, Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture (Bantam, 1998).

Charles Garfield, Cindy Spring and Sedonia Cahill, Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self-Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups (Hyperion, 1998).


The Circle Way, a pamphlet on starting and maintaining circles. $8 from Another Place, Inc., 173 Merriam Hill Rd, Greenville, NH 03048 USA, (603) 878-3201,, Fax (603) 878-2793.



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