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Sit and Listen: The Legacy of Circle Practices

The Transition Narrative |

by Aja Schmeltz, with Susan Grove

When I was a kid, I remember my entire family (parents, grandparents, great-grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins and even close family friends) gathering in my Grandmother’s living room after we shared our Thanksgiving meal. The adults would form a standing circle and the children would have to sit in the middle. If you were a kid in the center, you had one job and one job only, and it was to sit and LISTEN. Let me say that again, your job was to sit AND LISTEN. That is an extremely tall order for a small child, particularly a small child that had just eaten a large meal but still had a burning desire to sample every dessert on the table. To get things started, my Great-Grandmother would open up the circle with gratitude for the day, gratitude for all of us being together, gratitude for all of the year’s blessings and hardships (this was done in Spanish. My Great-Grandmother rarely spoke English. She knew how to, she just wanted us to learn the language of our Puerto Rican ancestors. So if we spoke to her in English, she would respond to us in Spanish). When she finished, all of the adults had an opportunity to share with the circle. However long that took, all we could do was sit and listen. 

At that time, I never understood what we were doing. I thought it was some sinister plan created by the adults to torture us kids. But what is this practice? Did she make this up? What is this for? Where did this come from? 

A quick lesson:

Circle arose in different cultures and languages and re-adapts to different cultures, languages, and environments. We have always known that the circle is a natural way to gather for conversations. Circle is democratic space where we can look each other in the eye, lean in and listen, and include all voices with a sense of equality. The practice of circle often leads to more creative options, wiser decisions, clearer actions. (1) 

What we understand as the “Circle process” has been a part of the community life of Indigenous peoples around the world for millennia. And different Indigenous peoples have their own ways of conducting Circle-type processes. Non-Natives who now use talking Circles have, directly or indirectly, learned Circle values and practices from Indigenous people.(2)

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 sense 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. (3)

As I got older, I started to understand why the kids were not allowed to speak during circle. We were getting an infusion of knowledge about our family. So having us sit and just listen was a way of ensuring we all heard and absorbed what was shared. What a gift!

At GWI, we have adopted a form of circle practice for our meetings. The general practice is this: we have a facilitator (we rotate that role) who holds the agenda for the day. Items on the agenda can be a proposal, input, idea-generating or updates (the actual circle practice varies for each). The facilitator will open the meeting with a gratitude practice, a brief team check-in and/or some deep thoughts around our work. We then work through the different items on the agenda. If the item is a proposal, the proposer has a chance to share it with the team. We then go in circle to ask any clarifying questions. The proposer can either answer each question as it is asked or wait until the end, but no one else should be speaking unless it is their turn. After the clarifying questions are asked and answered, there is a reaction round that also flows in a circle. Once that stage is complete, there is a consent round (see Susan’s In Search of a Decision-Making Ideal: Finding a Consensus Around Consent blog post!) 

Adopting this practice creates an environment where we are all striving to listen to each other. When their turn arises, each member of the team has a chance to consider whether they want to speak and what they want to say. The practice allows us to slow down enough to strive for a balance of voices at the table. We are engaging in intentional conversations grounded in our values and shared guidelines, deepening our practice for how we want to be with one another, within and outside our organization. 

“…it’s important to remember the long lineage of circle and its role in human community. Circle process is not a technique; it’s a heritage.” –  Margaret Wheatley 

(1) From: What is the Circle Way
(2) From: Living Justice Press: What Do We Mean by “Circle”?
(3) From: The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair