Circles

Often, and whenever possible, at the opening or closing of an event or meeting, I often ask participants to arrange themselves in a circle, preferably standing. With the circle, we typically use a “whip-around” protocol, depending on the size of the circle, so that everyone gets a chance to share. I use the circle intentionally and strategically to create loops of emotional feedback to reinforce people’s belonging and value. I’ll talk about that shortly. What else does a circle accomplish?

Circles help remove barriers between people. If we stand in a circle, I try to create the moment so that there is open floor space between participants. No tables or desks between us. Why? Furniture as barriers often make us orient our posture and bodies to accommodate the furniture. We lean on a table — so what? This changes our posture toward others, which changes our felt connection to others and our brain chemistry. We know that a desk obstructs others’ view of us — so what? Knowing we are partially hidden introduces the subconscious thought that we can hide, and so the scene implies a veil and imposes some reservation on how we conduct ourselves. It sounds crazy but it’s true. Removing the furniture from between people allows energy to flow between them, improves eye contact, and deepens the emotional resonance of the moment.

Circles help change the story about power relationships. Any classroom or meeting with one person at the front of the room implies that there is one person leading, teaching, or facilitating and that sends the message that describes the power relationship: this person is in charge. Circles unsettle that. As people take turns sharing in the circle, they are practicing looking at others as the leader. It’s a similar feeling as if, in a traditional meeting, the person in charge went and sat at the back, and one by one, others got up and facilitated the meeting. While that’s awkward and time-consuming, in a circle it’s natural and efficient, for circles of a certain size. More on that in another post.

Do you know the #1 psychological need of human beings? To belong. Probably not close behind, is to be valued. Circles help provide belonging, and if facilitated deftly, the value they create is that everyone feels valued as well. More on how to facilitate deft circles elsewhere. Make sure you read the “Blame It on the Protocol” post and see if you can connect the dots with circles.

Some other quick thoughts about circles: they’re free; they take us back to childhood; they imply a game; they’re pretty; they exude democracy; and, did I mention, they’re free? The only cost is being brave enough to try.