Circle Process (Part 1)


            CIRCLE PROCESS                                        Sally Campbell      

Circle processes truly exemplify restorative approaches. Circles are about the intentional creation of safe, supportive space to talk about what actually happened in a conflict and what were its emotional and other impacts. They are structured to foster careful listening, empathy and acknowledgement, helping the parties to avoid defensiveness and build understanding. We can all learn from collective wisdom rather than being prisoners of our own narrow perspective. Acceptance of responsibility for harms caused is a pre-requisite for a circle gathering. Circles help people to listen deeply to differing perspectives in an atmosphere that promotes dialogue rather than debate. 

In the West, the general culture often manages conflict in an adversarial way, and that mindset favours debate – expression of oppositional viewpoints, tendencies toward black and white thinking, a winner and a loser. The Drama Triangle gets activated. Healing ways of validating, expressing and acknowledging powerful feelings are placed on the back burner or ignored altogether. Punishment and revenge take precedence over accountability, forgiveness and closure. No wonder so many people are conflict avoidant! Why would you take the risk?

As well, our formal system for addressing conflict places a judge or arbitrator in a position to decide who is right, who is wrong, once again diminishing human agency. We all know that creating outcomes which work for everyone is a lot more satisfying. That kind of involvement leads to commitment to making the outcome work. It leads to agreements that are more likely to be honoured. When designed with care and attention, circles can be a highly effective and deeply satisfying way of problem-solving. As a mediator, I often tried to incorporate circle approaches into my work.  They were especially valuable in estate, family business and land-sharing mediations, where relationships were critically important and ongoing. I created a conference workshop called “Multi-party mediation: Shaping a Line into a Circle” which pretty well said it for me.

Circles combine both old and new wisdom. They have been used by indigenous cultures worldwide for millennia. Today’s circles are informed by current ideas about consensus and interest-based approaches. There are community justice and peacemaking circles, healing circles, youth circles, reconciliation circles. Sometimes just incorporating the core principles of circle process into addressing an interpersonal conflict can be helpful. Relationships always matter in conflict, and circles honour each person’s value and dignity.

I worked with a framework of five basics of circle process: circle keeping, ceremony, guidelines, talking piece and consensus.  The framework is drawn from and beautifully articulated in the book: Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community, by Pranis, Stuart, & Wedge. The authors name these basics “the outer frame of Circles”. Using a tree metaphor, they describe this frame as the “trunk of the tree”. The values and principles that form the core philosophy (the “inner frame”) permeating circle processes are described as the roots of the tree. What grows from the roots and truck is the actual circle process.

As well, these ideas are drawn from my training in mediation and restorative practices, from learnings received from Indigenous colleagues and communities, and thirty-five years’ experience as a mediator and facilitator.

Circle Keeping

Keepers of the circle bear similarities to, but aren’t the same as facilitators and mediators. Keepers help the circle live up to its highest potential. They hold the space so that people can speak from the heart and listen to one another with respect. They manage the preparation for the circle and ensure that everyone has access to needed information beforehand. With participants, they decide when (and if) everyone is ready to hold the circle. They help the group set its guidelines with the understanding that everyone in the circle has responsibility for “keeping” it. 

They help promote a balanced dialogue, ensuring that the full range of interests is expressed. They help maintain focus and help regulate the pace of the dialogue. They do not dominate or control; instead, keepers use the talking piece, the guidelines, and the underlying values and principles of the circle to create an environment where trust is built, people can speak honestly, and the collective wisdom of the group can emerge to develop a shared understanding and craft a way forward. Circles help with closure.

And because the circle belongs to everyone, keepers too are a part of the circle and able to participate in the dialogue. Keepers are not expected to be “neutral”, a particularly Euro-centric concept. As the authors explain: “Circles treat issues around bias and neutrality differently. Instead of asking keepers to disconnect equally from all parties, Circles call upon keepers to make an equal commitment to each participant in the quest to respect all interests. Equal commitment serves a process devoted to building relationships better than a strategy of detached neutrality, which would be inconsistent with the Circle view that all things are connected and cannot be separated.” (Pranis et al.)

This means that keepers can and do offer their own perceptions and stories. They may express how they are feeling. They don’t use their role as keepers to impose their views, but they are expected to participate and speak from their own voice.

Next week: Part 2 Circle Process