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Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self-Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups
by Charles Garfield, Cindy Spring, Sedonia Cahill
Visit the WisdomCircle.org Web site.
Page on the Wisdom Circle format.
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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
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
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
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.
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,
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, 3756 Grand Ave., Suite 405, Oakland, CA 94610
(510) 272-9540 or FAX (510) 272-9184. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A network of spiritually and transformationally oriented circles
who advocate use of "Ten Constants," excellent guidelines
for powerful circles.
Christina Baldwin, Calling the Circle: The First and
Future Culture (Swan, Raven & Co., 1994)
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, email@example.com,
Fax (603) 878-2793.
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