The Circle Way

A Leader in Every Chair

Christina Baldwin (Author) | Ann Linnea (Author)

Publication date: 03/01/2010

The Circle Way

An accessible guide to this foundational form of collaborative decision making.

  • An authoritative and accessible guide to this foundational form of collaborative decision-making

  • Uses images, stories and step-by-step instructions to teach the basics of circle and explore it's deeper meanings

  • Written by two pioneers in reviving, standardizing and popularizing circle process


More and more organizations are looking for alternatives to rigid, top-down hierarchy. Even the most old-school now realize that good ideas can come from anywhere and that fostering collaboration and group cohesion is vital to any healthy enterprise. But what approach can best create an environment that ensures clear speaking, compassionate listening, and the making of well-grounded decisions? The most ancient one: the circle.

The circle was the form of original gathering that taught human beings how to create social patterns. All modern group processes open to collaboration or to flattening the hierarchy are based in some way on circle practices. Here two veteran practitioners offer a comprehensive guide to this foundational form of human interaction

The Circle Way lays out the basics of circle conversation based on the original work of the coauthors, who have studied and standardized the essential elements of circle practice and have been implementing them in a variety of organizations for over fifteen years. It opens with a unique visual guide to circle and then presents both structure and story so that readers understand how these elements come into play and how they are interrelated and interactive. Baldwin and Linnea include detailed instructions and suggestions for getting started, setting goals, and solving conflicts. And they delve into the deeper aspects of circle, illuminating the profound transformation the process has on people who participate in it.

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Overview

An accessible guide to this foundational form of collaborative decision making.

  • An authoritative and accessible guide to this foundational form of collaborative decision-making

  • Uses images, stories and step-by-step instructions to teach the basics of circle and explore it's deeper meanings

  • Written by two pioneers in reviving, standardizing and popularizing circle process


More and more organizations are looking for alternatives to rigid, top-down hierarchy. Even the most old-school now realize that good ideas can come from anywhere and that fostering collaboration and group cohesion is vital to any healthy enterprise. But what approach can best create an environment that ensures clear speaking, compassionate listening, and the making of well-grounded decisions? The most ancient one: the circle.

The circle was the form of original gathering that taught human beings how to create social patterns. All modern group processes open to collaboration or to flattening the hierarchy are based in some way on circle practices. Here two veteran practitioners offer a comprehensive guide to this foundational form of human interaction

The Circle Way lays out the basics of circle conversation based on the original work of the coauthors, who have studied and standardized the essential elements of circle practice and have been implementing them in a variety of organizations for over fifteen years. It opens with a unique visual guide to circle and then presents both structure and story so that readers understand how these elements come into play and how they are interrelated and interactive. Baldwin and Linnea include detailed instructions and suggestions for getting started, setting goals, and solving conflicts. And they delve into the deeper aspects of circle, illuminating the profound transformation the process has on people who participate in it.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Christina Baldwin

Christina Baldwin is an author, teacher, consultant and co-originator of PeerSpirit Circle Process with more than thirty years' experience as a seminar presenter. She has written eight books and contributed three classics to the international renaissance in personal writing and story.  Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice, was revised and reissued in 2007 after 100,000 original sales and Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story, is a seminal work on the necessity of story to communicate in all areas of professional and personal life. As a primary thought leader in understanding personal story, she began, with Ann Linnea to study personal growth and group dynamics, and wrote Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture to explain how collaborative conversation could release needed wisdom and lead to well-informed action and activism. Since 2000, she has also written The Seven Whispers: Spiritual Practice for Times like These and recorded an entire curriculum, ""Lifelines, How Personal Writing Can Save Your Life."" She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with honors at Macalester College, and a Master of Science degree in educational psychology at Columbia Pacific University. She currently lives on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, from which she travels extensively to lecture, teach, and call people and organizations into conversations of heart, meaning, and activism.



Visit Author Page - Ann Linnea


Ann Linnea is a writer, educator, facilitator, mentor and guide with decades of experience serving the art of dialogue in a fascinating range of settings. Whether guiding people on a wilderness quest or presenting a workshop to business leaders, she embodies the stewardship of wild things that has characterized her life and work. She began her writing career in Utah, composing hiking and skiing guides during her years as a U.S. Forest Servicee Naturalist in the 1970's. In 1991, Ann co-wrote the award-winning Teaching Kids to Love the Earth. In 1992, she designed her own mid-life rite of passage and became the first woman to circumnavigate Lake Superior by sea kayak. Deep Water Passage: A Spiritual Journey at Midlife, describes this journey, portraying her extraordinary physical courage and even more extraordinary spiritual trial and transformation. Besides The Circle Way, her most recent work is Keepers of the Trees: A Guide to Re-Greening North America.

Ann graduated from Iowa State University with honors and distinction in botany and holds a master of education degree from the University of Idaho. When replenishing herself at home on Whidbey Island, she enjoys gardening, hiking, kayaking, and motor-scootering. She has two grown children and one adorable grandson.

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Table of Contents

Foreword: When Did We Forget This?

Preface: The Origin of the PeerSpirit Circle Process

Part One: The Circle Way

Chapter 1: Where Circle Comes From and Where It Can Take Us

Chapter 2: The Components of Circle

Part Two: Circles at Work in the World

Chapter 3: The Power of Preparation, Invitation, Intention, and Center

Chapter 4: Rotating Positions of Leadership in the Circle

Chapter 5: Accountability Through Agreements, Practices, and Principles

Chapter 6: Circle, Step by Step

Part Three: The Art of Presence in Circle

Chapter 7: Story as Core Communication

Chapter 8: Activating and Responding in a Social Container

Chapter 9: Why Circle Takes us to the Shadow

Chapter 10: Circle as Support for Collective Healing

Part Four: Circle as Paradigm Shift

Chapter 11: Organizational Experiments in Circle Governance

Chapter 12: Circle as a Way of Life

Afterword: Circle in the Heart of Stone

Glossary

Notes

Bibliography and Resources

Acknowledgments

About the Authors

Index

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Excerpt

The Circle Way

CHAPTER
1
Where Circle Comes From and Where It Can Take Us

The room sizzles with tension. Emotions are high, opinions are formed, polarities harden, and alliances and divisions are drawn. Twelve women and men dressed in the current armor of business are about to engage one another on the battlefield of a contentious meeting. In the next two hours, they will decide things that shape their organization’s future. The agenda is overfull, and there will be insufficient time for discussion or consideration of consequences. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, as the decisions have essentially been made through background e-mails, late and early cell phone calls, text messages, and side conversations in the catacomb of cubicles and corner offices. The players wander in: the CEO, the guy from accounting, department managers, and supervisors. The boss’s assistant sets up coffee, flip charts, and related papers and gets ready to take notes.

These are good people.

These are the people who keep business running—in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, China, Australia and the Pacific nations, Latin and South America, and Africa. Wherever there is enough stability in society to hold together commerce and community, some variation of these people gather, around the clock, around the world. They have spouses and partners and children they love whom they send off to school in the mornings and cheer at soccer games. They walk the dog, pet the cat, read the paper, watch television, and enjoy a good meal and perhaps a glass of wine or a cup of tea to draw a line through the end of the day. They put the kids to bed and often head back to their laptops or hand-helds to tend to correspondence they have no time for in the rush of their workday.

“Two to three hundred e-mails a day,” they tell us, “and we’re required to have our BlackBerrys on 24/7.” Another one says, “I get up every night at two A.M. to see if the early meetings have been changed—sometimes we have to be here by six A.M., and I have an hour commute. Then I have to wake my husband and negotiate how we’re doing the kids if I’m gone by five—surprising how many other road warriors are on the freeway that time of day.” A man laughs sardonically: “I sometimes think of myself as a six-figure lemming rushing toward the cliff. I was going to transition out, but my financial parachute burned up back in 2009. Now I’m just grateful to have made it through the layoffs.”

Underneath their resignation is tremendous frustration at what it takes to run the world this way—and to be run by the world. And the place that much of this underlying discontent shows up is in how we run our meetings—how we greet and treat each other and how we wield interpersonal power in the attempt to hold on to some sphere of influence that satisfies our desires to make a difference. This world, however, the world of human interaction and participation, is our world to mold and change to fit our needs. What is about to happen here in this room is not predestined; we can redesign it. There is another way: the circle way.

Where Circle Comes From

When humanity’s ancestors began to control the use of fire and to carry the embers of warmth and cooking and light along with them from site to site, fire brought a new experience into being: the need for social organization. We speak of this imagined scene many times in circle, awakening our connections to the dreamtime of human origin.

The man is wet to the skin and shivers. The lifeless body of a rabbit bounces against his shoulder as he hurries through the twilight. The woman trotting at his side pauses in the fading light to gather a few leaves, scratch a surface root free with her toe, and deposit it in the skin pouch at her waist. They move in this fashion along a trail they hope will lead to welcome, warmth, and company for the night. They smell smoke before they can see it, and then hear voices. Finally, they round a bend and there it is—fire glow on a cave wall. Other travelers have already gathered. Not wanting to be mistaken for prey or foe, the man grunts loudly, making the sound for “man-friend.” The people at the fire are alerted now and shush each other, listening cautiously. There is chatter; then one among them grunts back, “Man-friend, man-friend.” The woman opens her throat and ululates the haunting cry of female welcome. The women at the fire call back to her. They have two things to offer: food and story.1

With flame, hominid scavengers could provide one another with increased safety, warmth, and food. These elements allowed hominids to cluster in larger groups, and larger groups required an increased capacity for complex social behavior. Evidence of the controlled use of fire dates back to the Lower Paleolithic, some 200,000 to 400,000 years ago, when Homo erectus, a now extinct hominid, was first exploring its way out of Africa. The skilled use of fire seems to have been passed along to Homo sapiens sapiens—us—who arrived about 165,000 years ago. Solid archaeological evidence of hearth rings has been excavated in South Africa and dated back 125,000 years.

What makes this interesting in a book about collaborative conversation is the supposition that language as a social tool developed alongside the use of fire and the sophistication of hand tools. Just as archaeologists and anthropologists can verify the progressive development of tools, neurolinguists such as Stephen Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, can verify the brain pattern of a developed language center faintly etched in the frontal lobe on the inside of fossilized Homo sapiens crania. Based on this evidence, Pinker states, “All Homo sapiens talk, and all Homo sapiens use language as the way they interpret and filter the world around them.”2 This combination—fire, which provided the capacity for extending physical gathering; tools, which supported hunting and gathering and eventually agriculture and architecture; and language, which provided a way to organize experience, transmit knowledge, and process human thought and feeling—has proved to be an unbeatable combination.

Once upon a time, fire led our ancestors into the circle. It made sense to put the fire in the center and to gather around it. A circle defined physical space by creating a rim with a common source of sustenance lighting up the center. These ancestors needed the circle for survival—food, warmth, defense—and they discovered that the circle could help design social order.

This may seem like quite a leap of imagination, but it seems less so when we notice how strongly the impulse toward circle remains active, almost instinctual, in human beings today. When people are engaged in dialogue and relationships, we generally arrange ourselves in a circular formation. This automatic behavior is based on the need to be able to see and hear each other and to communicate our intentions through body language and facial expressions as well as through words. The dialogue may be heated, with emotions roused, or it may be comforting, with emotions relaxed; nevertheless, we still stand where we can keep an eye on each other and on what we and they are saying. This social patterning comes from somewhere and has obviously been of service since it has been maintained in the psychosocial lineage of how we behave together. The seminal researcher who articulated the sources of psychosocial lineage was the twentieth-century Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, who lived from 1875 to 1961.

Jung hypothesized that all human beings share a number of images that seem to spring from a common imagination deep within the human psyche. Jung called this source the collective unconscious and noted that it was filled with recurring and universal mythic symbols he named archetypes. Archetypes are expressed culturally but are deeper than culture. For example, the archetypal image that arises when you read the words wise old man is influenced by race, religion, and cultural origin—you may imagine Merlin, the Dalai Lama, James Earl Jones, or Black Elk; the point is that calling up an image is universal. Speak an archetypal phrase to a group, and everybody will imagine something. Jung studied the power of circle by examining anthropological evidence and making psychological corollaries; we discovered the power of circle by noticing what happens when people sit in a circular shape.

To understand the power of circle as a collaborative conversation model and the kinds of insights that can pour into this group process, it is helpful to understand that when we circle up in a ring of chairs, we are activating an archetype. Archetypal energy tends to make our experiences seem bigger, brighter or darker; our words become imbued with shades of meaning, and our dialogue, decisions, and actions take on a sense of significance. This is part of the attraction to circle process: the archetypal energy can magnify issues among the group and help transform them.

People who have experienced circle often refer to this archetypal energy as the “magic of circle” that occurs when the best (or sometimes the worst) comes out of us and we find ourselves capable of responding with a level of creativity, innovation, problem solving, and visioning that astound us. Others talk about circle as an experience of synergy, as being able to tap into something they didn’t know was in them and could not have predicted as a possible outcome at the start of a circle meeting.

In Germany a few years ago, we were offering a four-day training to sixteen sophisticated consultants from five countries. One of our participants was a leading scholar and academician who wrote and edited journals on political theory and the legacy of Carl Jung in European pedagogy. He pressed us constantly for cognitive information. It was a very helpful interaction for all of us, especially working cross-culturally and choosing English words we hoped would translate meaningfully into German.

The second day into our conversation, something happened that sparked the group and took our learning into insight—we don’t remember the particulars of the moment but do remember how urgently this man leaned forward and said, “Stop. Stop—right now, what is happening? What is this energy?” He gestured into the space between us, eighteen people sitting in a room at the back of a little retreat center outside Frankfurt on a sunny spring day. He looked at Ann on one side of the room and across the circle at Christina on the other side. “You, what are the two of you doing? How does this happen?”

“It’s not the two of us,” we told him. “It’s all of us and the circle itself.” Synergy is the experience of interaction between elements or people that when combined produces a total effect greater than the sum of the individual parts. The man’s question led us into a rousing discussion on synergy, with clarifications being offered in several languages. After a while, satisfied with their explorations, the participants moved on. Later that evening, with a mischievous smile on his face, our colleague brought a pitcher of beer and a bowl of pretzels to our dinner table and popped the next question: “OK, now I want to discuss from where comes synergy?”

Circle as an Archetype of Group Process

Even though the wheel as a tool wasn’t invented until about 5,500 years ago, the circle as a symbol appears in cave paintings and carvings dating back 35,000 years to the Late Paleolithic era. In his research, Jung discovered that the circle, often in the form of the sun wheel (a pie cut into eight equal pieces), is represented in cultures that developed in complete isolation from each other. The circle shows up around the world as the medicine wheel, the wheel of law, the wheel of the year, the Catherine wheel, the dharma wheel, the Kabbalah wheel or tree of life, the mandala, the zodiac, the Uroboros, the triad cross, the Celtic cross, and many other variations. When we pull the chairs away from the table and out of the rows and into a ring where we face each other, we are turning ourselves into a sun wheel. We assume the shape of the symbol itself—and synergy comes with us.

Since the 1990s, when PeerSpirit began offering circle process in an increasing variety of mainstream settings, experimenting with the circle’s ability to hold conversation in social settings that range from North America to Europe to South Africa, we have remained consistently aware that the ancient, ever-present circle archetype is evident in the modern methodology. We have repeatedly seen people surprised by their own capacities to access insights and come to decisions no one had imagined when their meeting started. They have asked, “How did we just do that? We didn’t get into power struggles. We came up with a course of action no one had seen as possible before.” Or they comment, “The director came into this room with ‘my mind is made up’ written all over his face. Twenty minutes later, he’s at the flip chart diagramming options.” And people begin to wonder, just as we do, “Is there something about the circle itself that encourages us to newness? Could this process work where folks are really stuck? Could slowing down and talking together really make us more productive? Could circle make our work lives more sustainable?”

Not everyone in the room needs to be interested in or thinking about synergy, archetypes, or social evolution for circle to work. However, group process is strengthened when a few thoughtful participants understand that we are playing with the fires that made us who we are. These fire tenders can then help a group remain steady through the kinds of experiences circle elicits, many of which are shared in stories throughout this book.

Circle may start as one small shift that turns out to be a tipping point. Often we suggest that people introduce a bit of circle process by offering a round of check-in, using the first ten or fifteen minutes of a meeting to invite each participant to share a short relevant story that relates to the group’s purpose—essentially, to let the group members know how they appear to each other. Sometimes people worry that the exercise is taking time away from the agenda, and yet this simple routine gathers people’s attention and focuses everyone on the purpose of the meeting. And sometimes the power and wisdom of the archetype shows up.

In the late 1990s, when PeerSpirit worked with the Center for Nursing Leadership (CNL), we had an experience of archetype streaming through and changing check-in. Founded in 1996 by members of the American Organization of Nurse Executives and funded by a grant from the Hill-Rom Company, CNL developed a one-year educational and midcareer renewal program called Journey Toward Mastery. Founding members had read Christina’s book Calling the Circle and were incorporating PeerSpirit methodology into their meetings. We were invited to join them to strengthen their understanding of circle practice. In the first few minutes, we offered the following check-in suggestion: “Tell us the story of how you came to enter the profession of nursing.”

We watched in amazement how the power of the right question can open a group’s synergy. The two of us, coming in as sensitively as we could yet outside the profession we were serving, expected people to check in fairly succinctly. We expected participants to offer a brief anecdote that would better inform us of the motivation behind their career choice and lead into our teaching design for the morning session.

Instead, we witnessed stories of great heart. One person explained that she was the first girl in her large family to go to college; others grew up in small towns and rural areas where their grandmothers had delivered most of the babies. One knew as a child that she had healing abilities that she couldn’t talk about; another had a sense of being called at an early age to serve humanity; another’s father had died when she was fourteen, and her experience of caring nurses during that time made her determined to become such a caregiver. People listened with rapt attention and without interrupting as one by one they reached into their personal histories and brought forward the memory of the moment they had chosen their path. They laughed with one another and cried with one another, and by the time we had finished check-in, the morning was over.

The experience of circle that morning was a far more powerful lesson than we could have provided talking about circle methodology. And after lunch, when we began a more cognitive conversation about how circle process could influence learning within the cohort group and among the nurse leaders in their organizations, everyone had a profound reference point. This is another aspect of circle that constantly informs us: that the process can hold great depth, that it can survive and resolve long-standing conflicts, provide a space for healing, and then shape-shift into an efficient, peer-led, agenda-based meeting. All this happened at CNL in the course of a few hours.

Three archetypes were activated in this experience: the healer that shaped the participants’ life journeys, the circle that provided a learning ground different from any they had previously experienced, and the leader that guided them into the fullness of their careers.

Years later, we still meet these women and men in the places where their work has called them. They are CEOs, chief nursing officers, vice presidents in large and small health care systems, directors of education, professors at nursing schools, and consultants to their profession. Cathy Michaels, currently on the faculty of the University of Arizona College of Nursing, remembers, “It was a profound shift to be invited into story. The question sent us into reflecting on how we had come to live this life. … And when that chord was struck, we became a community that wanted to listen. The serendipitous nature of the question met a waiting readiness in people to let go of everything else and speak from the heart.”

Today, Cathy and other nurse leaders tell us stories of the times since that day when they have pulled chairs into a ring and used such a question to check in with staff and team members. They understand how to help teams become grounded in their foundational stories and to stand together on that shared foundation while using circle to manage their work relationships and tasks.

Triangle as an Archetype of Group Process

“Change the chairs and change the world” is a snappy slogan that contains a deeper truth. Whether or not we realize it, social design is always influencing us. Over time, the arrangement of things in our environment becomes such an ingrained norm that we assume that our way of being together is the only way of being together. We do not see that the arrangement itself sets the ways we interact and that if we shift the arrangement, we can shift the interaction. As we bring the circle back into places where the form of arrangement has become codified by organizational charts and chairs bolted into rows facing lecterns, we are greeting the archetype that has become the modern norm: the triangle activated as hierarchy.

The triangle is a universal symbol as old as the circle, one that similarly appeared in the Late Paleolithic. The triangle is chiseled and painted on cave walls as a representation of the Great Mother and continues down through time, showing up as the Great Pyramid, the Star of David, and the Trinity. We mentally relate to the number three and the three-pointed configuration represented by the triangle. The triangle is the basic unit of family (father/mother/child); the triangle divides how we see ourselves (body/mind/spirit); the triangle shapes how we view society (church/state/individual). Looking at the triangle through a psychological lens, we understand Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with survival at the base and self-actualization at the top. Looking at the triangle as a system of socialization, we get powerful leaders located at the top and followers, employees, and ordinary citizens located at the bottom, with gradations of authority assigned and maintained in a status-based worldview.

As powerful archetypes manifesting in human affairs, the triangle and the circle have probably always coexisted in the organization of human society. One way to look at the world today is to think about the triangle, representing hierarchical power, as having overtaken its partnership with the circle and, as is the nature of power, decidedly come out on top. Hierarchy as a model offers an efficient means for charting systems and for carrying out specific and repetitive tasks when coordinated effort is required. Hierarchy is useful for passing on information, giving directions, establishing chains of command, developing armies, developing workforces, organizing data, programming computer software, and mass-producing goods. Yet it lacks a holistic understanding of networked systems and biological interdependence and connectivity.

Within a hierarchical worldview, people look for their place. They can either accept their place as an unchangeable fact or strive ever upward toward greater perceived stability and privilege. That is our heroic story: the rise to power and the escape to greater freedom. The closer people are to the top, the more they tend to accept and defend hierarchy, and the closer people are to the bottom, the more they tend to acquiesce to or resist hierarchy. Every time people enter a meeting that plays out the scene that opened this chapter, we activate the triangle archetype and struggle to find our place within the implied power grid.

For the past five thousand years, the increasing valuation of triangle over circle, of hierarchy over collaboration, has gone through many evolutionary changes until what is a mutable imbalance of power is accepted as innate human nature: that’s the arrangement. What started off as a concept of partnership in the deepest recesses of the human mind has become a distorted and destructive worldview in which collaborative ways of social organization are denigrated as child’s play, relegated to the past, and discounted as utopian, naïve, or “new-age.” And yet this world, the world of human interaction and participation, is our world to mold and change to fit our needs. We can rearrange who leads, how we lead, and what happens to all participants in a system. When we understand the archetypal shift, we can rearrange the chairs in ways that rearrange our world.

Where Circle Can Take Us

The circle way is a practice of reestablishing social partnerships and creating a world in which the best of collaboration informs and inspires the best of hierarchical leadership. The chief needs a council that brings the voices of the village to his or her ear. The president needs a cabinet. The coach needs a team. The teacher needs students. The elders need children. And the meetings need to change.

The ancient ways of circle are waiting for us to remember and activate a true experience of collaboration. So if the opening scene of this chapter is how most of the world currently gathers, we have the opportunity to change that scene by changing the meeting into circle process. The room buzzes with creative tension, emotions are optimistic, diverse opinions have been welcomed into the conversation, and the past several days of background e-mails, phone calls, text messages, and side conversations in the cubicles and corner offices have all supported the development of an agenda that is focused, with time allotted to each item and premeeting information shared among all participants. Twelve women and men are about to engage each other in the dynamic interactions of a meeting held in circle process. In the next two hours, they will decide things that shape their organization’s future. They have scheduled time for sufficient dialogue and consideration of consequences. They are ready to vote on some issues and to gather information and survey the wisdom in the room on other issues.

The leaders come in and take their places at a round table. The CEO has one agenda item prepared for presentation; the guy from accounting has another. One of the department managers will serve as host today, assuring that the process moves smoothly along; one of the supervisors will serve as guardian, watching over timeliness and helping the host maintain orderly momentum. The boss’s assistant sets up coffee, flip charts, and related papers and prepares to serve as scribe, to note the essential insights, decisions, and action items.

Here the triangle of leadership is embedded within the collaborative circle. The host is not the boss; the guardian is not the enforcer; the scribe is not the historian: these roles are loose, rotating, voluntary, assumed and released as the sessions of a circle-based group advance toward fulfilling their intention. The triangle of leadership stabilizes group process so that the ideas, stories, wisdom, and synergy that emerge can stream through the conversation and be preserved in helpful ways. With this understanding in place, and the reestablishment of the ancient partnership, these good people can change the chairs and change their world.

The group can learn new ways of distributing leadership and responsibility. Participants can set agreements for respectful interaction before speaking and define what material is confidential and what can be shared. They can mark the moment between casual socializing or multitasking and paying full attention to one another. They can blend the dynamism of collaborative conversation with voting, achieve consensus, and acknowledge the authority of informed hierarchy within their roles in the circle.

Creating a Renewed Culture of Conversation

Recognition that we can talk and listen ourselves into the changes we need is simultaneously occurring to people in a number of environments. PeerSpirit Circle Process, the infrastructure of circle we have designed to serve in modern settings, travels in the company of other circle carriers and ways of calling forward this heritage—the Way of Council, the Ehama teachings, Peacemaking Circles, the Millionth Circle, and other interpretations of lineages continue to elucidate circle process and capacity. In addition to the various circle processes, we find ourselves connected to a growing number of conversational modalities that have circle at their base: Open Space technology, World Café, Conversation Cafés, Art of Hosting, Appreciative Inquiry, restorative justice circles, Bohmian dialogue. Variations of collaborative group process are constantly being designed and offered as contributions to our social exploration.

We are in big trouble, so we need big help. We have inherited and created many problems, so we need many solutions. These collaborative conversational modalities are replicating, adaptive, global, democratic forces through which ordinary people are rediscovering their abilities to connect with each other’s hearts and minds and make things happen as a result. These emergent conversations are not, at their essence, policy discussions or strategic planning; they are spontaneous eruptions of empowerment based on the release of energy that occurs while speaking to and listening to each other within the container of the archetypes.

What is generated by this emerging culture of conversation is a social paradigm shift that can occur anywhere, at any time, within any group of people. It operates through an intelligence that integrates the heart and mind. It seeks to restore principles of belonging and to find meaningful ways for everyone to contribute. Perhaps this culture of conversation is occurring now because science has given us a much more complete story of our origins and history: we have come to truly understand that we are one people, literacy among the populace is greater than ever before, and we live in a technologically as well as biologically interconnected world.

In symbolism, the circle and triangle are often found together. A triangle within a circle appears on the back of the U.S. dollar bill and on the front of the Alcoholics Anonymous medallion and is recognized as an international peace symbol. The partnership of archetypes is the willingness to combine the best attributes of both social structures and to know when to call on each of their strengths and to experience their balance. It is the nature of circle to invite in, to provide both access and boundaries, to provide a participatory process, to set social expectations, and to absorb diverse, even opposing, views through the alchemy of a symbolic central “fire.”

Circle functions best in an environment where people feel socially safe and have the time to make authentic, thoughtful contributions to the process. How to foster that social safety is a major purpose of this book. Circle invites contribution—particularly for problem solving or insights from unexpected sources (the janitor who solves a managerial issue, the child whose comment shifts a situation for teachers and staff). Circle provides a social container in which all voices may speak and be heard.

By contrast, hierarchy functions best in an environment where tasks need to be clearly delineated and carried out quickly with little or no debate, where authority requires clear boundaries, and where leaders have the time, space, and education to make good judgment calls and set directions for people who have different responsibilities (the paramedic handling triage, the skipper directing a crew through wind-whipped seas, the platoon leader on military reconnaissance). Triangle provides a social container in which safety depends on each person doing his or her part.

In the mid-1990s, Christina was editing pages for Calling the Circle while seated next to an airplane pilot who was flying home in economy class. He read over her shoulder for a while and then announced in a tone of friendly challenge, “From what I see on your pages, you and I are diametrically opposed human beings in how we see the world.” A spirited conversation ensued, and our civility as temporary companions led us to listen to one another.

After expounding on the need for “one pilot, one decision,” and the sense of responsibility he felt flying these magnificent machines, he mentioned that the research on plane crashes and other in-flight disasters had caused the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate communications training between the cockpit and the cabin crews so that they would better understand each other’s skills and roles in moments of crisis. “Oh,” Christina smiled, “like being able to call a circle in the air?” The two of them came to agree that he led with hierarchy and accepted circle, while she led with circle and accepted hierarchy. It was a five-mile-high dialogue of balance and partnership.

So here we are. We are facing new terrain and a plethora of challenges and disasters we can hardly imagine. No one has come this way before, yet we stand at the front edge of the long and winding path of our human heritage. The greater the number of people who understand where the application and experience of circle can take us, who have the confidence to put a candle or photo or mission statement in the middle of a shouting match and suggest a return to listening, the more empowered we will be to create the kind of world for which we long and on which our ultimate survival depends.

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Endorsements

"This is a book of stories, wisdom, and consummate practicality for how transformed communication can change the way we work together. The authors combine the wisdom of ancient traditions with years of working with diverse groups, taking circle practice to a level of application that is both deep and transcendent."

-- Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science and Turning to One Another


"In this beautifully written book, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea share the simple elegance of their PeerSpirit circle process and how it can be used in organizational and community settings with powerful impact. We have learned a great deal from the way of the circle as a call to remember our collective capacities to design and host catalytic conversations around the questions that most matter to our common future.

-- Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, cofounders, The World Cafe

"The Circle Way offers over twenty years of experience by the authors, who share how sitting in a circle allows for optimum self-governance, facilitates quality conversations that make a difference both personally and professionally, and encourages leaders to become more effective within their organizations and communities. Relevant, accessible, practical, and invaluable for all generations."

-- Angeles Arrien, PhD, cultural anthropologist, author of The Second Half of Life


"Christina and Ann take us through the anatomy of the circle process while, at the same time, showing us the indescribably mystery of what can happen in circle. The Circle Way is one of those rare books that can truly be called a transmission."

-- Jack Zimmerman, coauthor of The Way of Council and Flesh and Spirit, and Elder, Ojai Foundation

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