We live in strange times, teetering nervously on the edge of radically divergent futures. All over the world, people are seemingly divided in two. Red and blue. Pro-mask, anti-mask. Pro-Islamic, pro-secular. Leave Europe, Remain. Never the two shall meet, or so we are told. Living in a world of siloed, binary, either-or thinking produces constant tension where we are primed to be alert, fearful and mistrustful of the other.
I know of longtime friendships that have fallen over COVID. Family members that no longer speak to each other due to Brexit. If finding our way back to each other through this terrifying polarization is the task of our times — where do we even begin?
There are rooms where small miracles can happen. I’ve been in some. Tiny sites of microcosmic magic where people can glimpse something greater, wiser, freer than this limiting path of either/or we are being force fed. As a facilitator, I practice the power of coming together in groups as a container for transformation and change.
“everyone has a place”
My first encounter with this was as an adult student at the International School of Storytelling in the rolling hills of Sussex. Part of our curriculum was to sit quietly in a circle once a week with the sole instruction being to share whatever was alive in us, speak only when it was our turn and to wait for even the quietest person.
At first, it was excruciating. It took forever. These people weren’t my people, I told myself. They weren’t this enough, that enough. I had more important things to be doing with my valuable time. I resisted. Cycling to campus one morning I had an epiphany — I had spent my adult life constantly rushing to be somewhere else. Now life -in its infinite wisdom- had delivered me to this rural campus, to be with this very specific group for a few months. I started by accepting where I was.
This is the first tenet of coming together as a group. Accept that everyone including you is necessary and has a purpose there. When we sit in a circle, we’re implicitly suggesting that we are all equal and that we are connected. A circle is inclusive and level.
Talking circles are deeply rooted in the traditions of First Nations people. Most basically, members sit in a circle to consider a problem or a question. The circle opens with a prayer, usually by the person convening the circle, or by an elder. A talking stick is held by the person who speaks and moves around the circle until everyone has been heard. The invitation is to speak and listen from the heart. This continues for as long as is needed. The practice has been adapted by many organisations working today, from prisons to boardrooms.
A circle asks us to slow right down — first of all in order to actually hear ourselves. Often in group situations, we are so nervous that we rehearse in our minds what we are going to say. In a circle, the practice is to keep our mind empty so that we can listen and be responsive to what is being said. I learn to trust that when it’s my turn to speak, the words will come. In this way a circle becomes a place where we practice what it’s like to speak honestly and from the heart. This ripples out into every area of our lives — we become more honest in all our relationships.
This inevitably brings vulnerability. Only in the quietude of those moments would I realise that although I had brushed it off, I was in fact really hurt by something someone had said, or that I was anxious about an upcoming performance or worried about political events. Things other people shared often moved something in my own inner landscape. As we dared to show ourselves and what we cared about, we became closer and, as a result, to work better as a group. “It is the quality of relationships among individuals, teams, and institutions that give rise to collective behavior and practical results,” says MIT’s Otto Scharmer, author of the Theory U approach to group process.
Learn to listen. The more circles I sit in, the less attached I become to my own opinion. Active listening, where we give a person our full and undivided attention, has a magical effect: it creates presence. This allows the speaker to drop beneath initial surface level thoughts and untangle what it is they are really trying to express. It can surprise us: “Oh, this is really what’s going on”. The gift of being a great listener is one of those subtle superpowers often missed in the noise of the world. In time, individual gifts silenced by a culture of he who shouts the loudest emerge: for instance, a sensitive person might intuitively feel when something is left unspoken as a headache or bodily discomfort. Naming this can help the group tap into a deeper layer of conversation.
Welcome difference as fuel for growth. When difference starts to show up in a group (or any relationship) I see it as a sign of maturity. It means there’s enough trust in the bank to allow people to take a risk. A group just starting out can spend quite a bit of time in the “It’s great to be here — I want to thank everyone” arena. Conflict is jarring but if we can learn to greet it with curiosity rather than tension, we allow for growth to happen. Although difference may be voiced by one particular person, more often than not, it reflects a thought or experience shared by others in the group. Getting comfortable with difference, accepting it as necessary in any growth process, is part of maturing as a group. A filmmaker documenting intentional communities in southern Europe told me that the ones that lasted were those that had successfully learnt to trust conflict when it arises.
Move at the speed of trust. Best-selling author and leadership educator Stephen Covey coined the term “Moving at the speed of trust” as a precondition for collaborative work. In order for the circle to birth its wisdom, everyone must trust that they can speak openly and be heard. Trust takes time to build. We all carry wounding around groups — from families or high school cliques to bone memories of tribes in history when exile from the group would have meant certain death. Groups naturally bring up the question of who is in and who is out and deeply ingrained fear that we may fall on the wrong side of that. When we experience over and over again that we can say what we truly feel and still be accepted, even welcomed, in a group, we teach ourselves a new way of being. Our nervous system begins to settle and our creative capacity awakens.
“Small groups can do what large bureaucracies typically cannot: provide the necessary psychological safety to allow people to bring their full selves to the task at hand. As such they provide the necessary precondition for the kinds of innovation and creativity we are going to need in this moment of metamorphosis,” says activist Brian Stout.
The power of vulnerability. On the surface I’m a high achiever, fiercely independent and founder of several successful businesses — it was only in that small group that I was able to speak publicly of how shy I can be and that I got so nervous before a performance that I could barely eat. Paradoxically, the more I spoke about it, the less anxious I became. Being witnessed by others in my vulnerability was profoundly healing.
Trust in something bigger. First Nations people open a circle with a prayer. The word is charged for some but to me all it means is to invoke the presence of something greater than our small, human selves. You could call it life, the universe, God or a quality such as compassion. Invoking this helps strengthen the circle when the tough conversations unfold. It also brings in a touch of magic. The mythologist Martin Shaw tells of sitting in a circle with a group of Vietnam war veterans one day, speaking of the impossibility of ever fully returning from that war. At that moment, a hawk flew into the window and died. Shaw, awake to the moment, suggested a storyteller’s tribute — that each man go out and whisper 12 secret names for the hawk into its ear. It was a deeply healing act of love for those men.
In the concentrated presence of a circle, we start to feel something larger than us that accompanies us and to open up to inspiration that comes from where, we know quite not. Our awareness of the many ways we are connected grows.
Trust the process. I have sat in and facilitated enough circles now to know that things have a mysterious way of working out -even if it doesn’t look that way- if you just let the circle do its thing. “The beauty of the circle,” says Rob Dreaming, Way of Council facilitator, “is that you start to learn that wisdom isn’t held by any single individual. It emerges from the circle. The circle holds the wisdom.”
As a facilitator now, I think about other group situations in my past — the newsroom! Family gatherings!- and how helpful a similar process might have been. Rather than acting out, speaking behind each other’s backs, holding back on original ideas, we could have been learning and growing together.
As a technology, a circle is deceptively simple. There are some basic ground rules: don’t interrupt, don’t analyse or judge anyone else’s contribution, keep it confidential, speak from the heart, set a time limit. Within that container, the way it works is simply to go around the circle and hear from everyone. Do that enough times until it feels complete.
The challenges of our times are daunting and complex. I can’t pretend to know that small working circles that operate on principles of equality and trust can truly help. What I do know is that I have seen miracles happen when people commit to this at times awkward, excruciating and deeply rewarding group practice. Whatever our context -at home, at work, as a member of a club- we can practice this way of authentic, relational being. If we get the foundations right, we may have a better chance of building up the networks of connection we so desperately need.