The first time your circle meets, everyone will be excited to begin tackling the issues that have brought you together. Before that can happen, your circle needs to use the circle process to identify shared values through a consensus process. The circle process is grounded on values and the first meeting begins with discussing values before it discusses anything else. While participants may identify “respect” or “justice” as a value, each may have a different understanding of that value. Groups may come together over an issue, but it is our values that lie at the core of any decision we make. (Ball et al., 2010, p. 163)
For an explanation of how to conduct the values circle, see Peace Circles – Resources – First Meeting
Who to invite?
Given that an important purpose of a circle is to gain a holistic view of an issue, do not be afraid to invite people with differing viewpoints. Invite participation from a cross-section of stakeholders who are interested in the topic and the process. More learning often takes place when youth are mixed with adults, educators with students, soldiers with conscientious objectors, victims with offenders. Also, be careful not to limit participation to leaders or those who represent others. Invite human beings to the circle regardless of their station in life. Titles are not recognized in a circle.
The number of participants you invite depends on the time you have allotted for the circle. A minimum of six and maximum of twenty participants is ideal for a circle. Less than six participants may limit the diversity of thought and experience; more than twenty may not allow each participant enough time to speak. For a two to two and a half hour circle, six to ten participants is recommended.
Personal invitations are the best way to generate participation. If you use a public notice, you might ask people for an R.S.V.P.
Choosing a Location
Choose a location that is quiet, without distractions and allows for confidentiality. The space can accommodate an arrangement of chairs in a circle or sofas or sitting on the floor, as long as people are seated closely together to create a feeling of connection.
The Physical Format of the Circle
The circle’s physical lay-out is important. Participants sit in a circle facing one another without tables in the center. A group of people sitting in a circle without tables between them will experience a different dynamic from a group sitting in rows of chairs or even from a group sitting around a circular table.
There are many reasons for this. The geometry of a circle expresses, for example, equality. There is no head to a circle. A circle also conveys a sense of connectedness among the group. Because each participant can look directly at every other person, people have a sense of holding each other accountable as well as of being held accountable. A circle has a single focal point in the center. Putting something that relates to the issue in the center focuses the group on the purpose of the circle and limits distractions. The lack of tables also encourages people to be fully present.
Circle questions are open-ended and based in values. There is no right or wrong answer to a circle question. The purpose of the question is to allow for the participants to tell their stories and reflect on their experiences and values together. Examples of good questions are, “What does respect look like to you?” or “What do you hope for?” As you move beyond the relationship-building phase of the circle, frame open-ended questions that pertain more directly to your issue or theme. Suggestions for circle topics and sample questions are available under Peace Circles – Resources – Topics on this site.
For a two hour circle, be prepared with four or five questions, though you may not get beyond more than two.
Using the Talking Piece
There are two ways to use the talking piece. The first and most important is for the keeper to pass the talking stick clockwise around the circle. Only the person with the talking piece is permitted to speak, though they are not required to do so. If you do not want to speak, simply pass the talking piece to your left. This way is best for the open-ended questions that are the central focus of peace circle meetings. In this use of the talking piece, the keeper answers the questions first as a way to model speaking from the heart and from personal experience.
Sometimes, however, brainstorming, planning, or information sharing is required and so the keeper and/or the participants may decide to suspend the sequential movement of the talking piece in favor of putting the talking piece in the center for participants to pick up at will. For these types of discussions, it is preferable that the keeper speaks last.
How the Keeper Prepares
Keepers are responsible for some advance preparation so that the circle time is inviting and stress-free for the keeper and the participants.
- The co-keepers
- The purpose of the circle
- Who will be invited
- How the invitation will be extended
Plan the Specifics of the Circle
- Choose a time and place for the circle.
- Invite participants.
- Decide on the opening and closing ceremony.
- Decide what will be in the center of your circle.
- Decide what you will use for the talking piece.
- Decide on the questions for the circle to consider.
- If you will be using pens, markers, paper, a flipchart or any other items be sure they are available and in good working order.
- If you plan to offer beverages or snacks, procure what you will need ahead of time.
Meggan Stein of Meggan Stein Mediation talks with Suzanne Ross of the Raven Foundation about how Circle Keepers can help their Circles run smoothly. They talk about recognizing important communication styles and ways to help circle participants feel welcome and comfortable.
Convening the Circle
Keepers set up the room ahead of time so they can greet participants as they arrive. Try to have all the preparations completed at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time so you can have some quiet, centering time for yourself.
Before everyone arrives:
- Be sure that everything you need for the opening and closing ceremonies is ready and nearby, perhaps under your chair.
- Arrange the center of your circle with the items you have chosen.
- Place the talking piece in the center of the circle.
- Gather all the support material you might need such as pens, markers, paper and flipchart and arrange them in the room so they are easy to access.
- If you are providing beverages or snacks, get those set up and ready to go.
After everyone has arrived:
- Invite everyone to have a seat.
- Welcome participants and thank everyone for coming.
- Conduct the opening ceremony.
- Share purpose of the circle and your intent for this circle.
- Explain use of talking piece.