“We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.” ― Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
All around us, there is a hunger for belonging, a hunger for community, a hunger to be held in circles of grace where we can open our hearts and know that we will be treated tenderly and respectfully. Some of us have not yet awakened to that hunger, believing instead that we can go through life as independent, self-reliant souls. It’s there, though, hidden under the armour we’ve built up in our efforts to avoid being wounded.
To feed this hunger in the world, we need to create more places where people are fed. These are the places I call Circles of Grace.
A Circle of Grace is a place where people gather for meaningful conversation, for compassion, for support, for encouragement, and for growth. While in the circle, we do our best to extend grace to everyone there, including ourselves. We speak with openness and listen with intention. We make a commitment within the circle to be as authentic as we know how to be, and we welcome the same from others. We share, laugh, cry, grow, stretch, and tremble. Even when we disagree and conflict arises, we respond with compassion and open hearts and minds.
A Circle of Grace can be hosted as part of a retreat, it can be the frame for a weekly class (as I do with Creative Writing for Self-Discovery), it can be a way for your family to work through some difficult issues, it can be the way a community or church gathers regularly, and it can even be used in virtual gatherings (as I do with Openhearted Writing Circle).
How do you host a Circle of Grace? Here are some tips.
1. Create enough structure to hold the container, but enough flexibility to adapt to what wants to emerge. The best structure I know of can be found in PeerSpirit’s Circle Guidelines (which you can download for free). Sometimes it feels a little strange to bring structure into something that seems organic, but the structure helps you hold whatever is going on in the circle and helps you take conversation to a deeper place without falling into chaos. You can adapt the structure to what needs to happen in the space. For example, I always use a talking piece at the beginning of a gathering for check-in and at the end for check-out, so that each person has an opportunity to speak without interruption, and then I set it aside in between for less structured conversation.
2. Set guidelines and intentions so that everyone has a sense of their commitment while in circle. Guidelines help us feel more secure in the container because we know how to behave with each other and know what to expect from others. This is a sample of the guidelines and intentions I use when I host Openhearted Writing Circles:
- This is a circle of grace. It is a safe space for all of us, and to make it so, we will treat each other with kindness and grace.
- This is a confidential circle. Nothing that is shared here will leave the circle without the permission of the person speaking.
- This is a sharing circle. Each of us will be invited and encouraged to share questions, wisdom, writing, etc. Nobody will be pushed to share if they don’t feel ready, but everyone will be invited.
- This is a learning circle. We are all here to learn, and so no questions will be considered foolish and no wisdom shared will be silenced. We are all learners together, including the teacher.
- This circle belongs to each of us. Each of us is individually and collectively responsible for how we interact, what we share, and what we get out of this time together.
3. Keep an open mind and suspend judgement. It is important that everyone in the circle feels safe and accepted. This doesn’t mean that any kind of behaviour is acceptable (the guidelines and intentions help with that), but it means that people can share their stories, hurts, and wounds without fearing that they are being judged. Sometimes that will be hard to do (e.g. when someone shares an opinion or worldview that is very different from your own and you’re pretty sure they’re wrong) but it is crucial to extending grace in a meaningful way.
4. Don’t try to fix anyone. As Parker Palmer mentions in the above quote, we need to “avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other”. When others share the struggles they are dealing with, it is human nature to want to help them resolve those struggles, but more often than not, they are sharing in order to feel heard rather than to be fixed. According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, these efforts to fix each other are our defenses against vulnerability. We are afraid to see too much vulnerability in each other and in ourselves, and so we try to rush past the brokenness to a place where we feel more comfortable and struggles are resolved. In a Circle of Grace, we welcome vulnerability and we offer support without trying to fix.
5. Encourage people to ask for what they need. While we don’t rush in to fix things for people, we are happy – as hosts and co-creators of the circle – to respond to their requests if they ask for hugs, advice, encouragement, or silence. Create a space where people learn to be comfortable asking for what they need. This will probably take time (most of us have been taught to stifle our needs and not to extend trust to each other too quickly), but it’s worth the investment.
This is part of a document I am creating for people who wish to use Pathfinder in women’s circles and classrooms. It will be available as a free downloadable pdf. To be notified of its release, sign up for my newsletter (on the top right of this page).