circle, candle

the centre of the circle

Sometimes, it’s nice to have your paradigms shifted.

I have a “healthy” distrust of conference calls. In my working life, I saw them as necessary evils, and in my last job, I tried for years to make them work with my national staff. But no matter what new ideas or formats I brought into them, I almost always walked away feeling discouraged. It seemed nearly impossible to have meaningful conversations with people spread across the country when some of them didn’t engage and others chose to engage in less-than-healthy ways. They got a little better when I stepped out of the chair position and circulated the responsibility, but still they were seriously lacking. The dysfunctions of our team seemed most apparent when we gathered on the phone and didn’t have the benefit of non-verbal communication.

And so it was that when the organizers of the circle/story retreat I was at in October asked if people wanted to hold a conference call to explore the extension of our community of practice, I was skeptical. “Can anything good come out of a conference call?” I wondered.

At the same time, I was eager to reconnect with the amazing women I’d spent four days with at the side of a lake. There’d been such incredible energy around our circle that I was willing to try anything that might continue to extend that into my life.

The call was on Sunday, and… well, let’s just say that my paradigm was significantly shifted. It worked! Beautifully! The whole time I was on the call, I felt held in the warm embrace of this circle of women. One person suggested we open our photos from our gathering time, and so I did, scrolling through while I listened and being reminded of their faces and what they’d come to mean to me.

It was so beautiful and meaningful in fact, that the next morning, just before I emerged from sleep, I had a dream in which each of these women offered me a little gift of advice, wisdom, or story.

Why did it work? It worked because we had been intentional about meeting in circle during those four days in October.

What does it mean to meet in circle? It’s a beautiful, simple concept that is as old as human communication. Long before anyone dreamed of conference calls connecting us across the miles, our ancestors gathered around fires in the evening to share stories of the challenges and triumphs of their lives.

Here are some of the elements we committed to in circle:
– we are intentional about the shape in which we meet – each person can see each other person’s face and there is no heirarchy or power imbalance
– we are all leaders and all take responsibility for holding the rim of the circle
– we honour the space by adhering to some simple rituals
– we pass a talking piece around the circle and only the person who holds it has the authority to speak
– we use a bell to ring us into and out of the circle, thereby clearly demarcating it from other conversations and experiences
– the centre of the circle is like the hub of a wheel – it holds objects which symbolize the intentions of those around the circle
– we are intentionally inclusive, and honour each other’s contribution to the circle
– we speak into the centre of the circle, and trust that the circle will hold whatever is shared
– we build trust by deeply listening to each other’s stories

Because we had worked hard at establishing this circle when we were together, we were able to transfer the elements of it onto our conference call. Several of us lit candles, one person let her voice function as the talking piece, passing it back and forth around the circle, a bell was used to ring us in and out or to mark a pause when we just need to catch our breath, and we all showed up prepared to honour and trust each other.

For more on the circle and how you can use it in the groups you lead or participate in, read The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. (Note: Christina was our teacher when we met in Ontario in October.)

One of my commitments, coming out of this learning, is that I want to host circle conversations. I think they have the power to transform and I want to be a catalyst for that transformation. Talk to me if you have some ideas of how I can serve your group by hosting such a conversation.

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