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Friday, December 1, 2023

Circle Process (Part 2) – Sally Campbell

CIRCLE PROCESS (Part 2)Sally Campbell


Ceremony in circle process can be described as “singing up the sacred” (Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community, Pranis, Stuart & Wedge), the sacred that resides in each of us. 

Ceremony is an integral part of circle process. The goals of ceremony in a circle differ in significant ways from the goals of ceremony in a court setting. Whether the ceremony is a prayer/ask for guidance, a few moments of silence, or a sweetgrass “smudge” in an Indigenous setting, the intent is to have participants feel a sense of connectedness to their higher selves, to each other and to the process. Here in the West, we live in a general culture that values independence and autonomy in adults. Individualism is a strong cultural value. While this has its benefits in terms of support for people realizing their potential, having the freedom to decide and pursue their own personal goals, it has its downsides. Independence can lead to much loneliness, to isolation, to people feeling that they lack a safety net, that they are all alone. Autonomy and independence have also contributed to our disconnect from the natural world, our failure to fully appreciate that we and all our actions are interrelated, and hence, to the climate crisis. In the world of engagement with conflict and peacemaking, the emphasis is much more on our interdependence, our inescapable connectedness with one another. Ceremony is a powerful way to remind us of that.

In many institutional settings, political arenas, and courtrooms, ceremony is designed to remind participants of hierarchies and authority, with the mayor, CEO or judge firmly ensconced at the top. We see how people give over their power to the judge when they enter a court of law. Hierarchical authority is underscored by established rituals such as having the judge seated above everyone else in the room, wearing clothing that marks rank, being addressed in a particular way, and having everyone stand upon the judge’s entering or leaving the courtroom. 

In Circles, ceremonies are used to convey the fact that each person present is equal to every other participant, including the keeper(s). Power resides within the circle. Ceremony helps people tap into that power and shift to an expanded consciousness. It helps create a climate where genuine peacemaking can occur.

People can create their own ceremony before meeting in the circle. This may involve such things as going for a walk together before sitting down in the circle. It may mean bringing food to share after the circle has done its work. It may be agreeing on an inspirational reading or music before the talking begins. It could be having the keeper set the tone for the circle by reiterating the shared values of the group, the goals of building understanding and bringing closure. Ceremony doesn’t have to be elaborate, although sometimes it is; it needs to be authentic, and of a nature to build relationship rather than create more dissention. This means it’s important that ceremony not be imposed on participants; it has to be organic.


Circles are values-based processes, and guidelines help people put their core values into practice.  Despite their differences, people worldwide tend to share common values such as respect, honesty, courage, trust and forgiveness. In circle processes, people do not have to leave their values at the door and arm themselves for an adversarial contest. They can and indeed are expected to act upon their values in every phase of the process. 

Agreeing upon guidelines for the conduct of the circle is often a first agreement between those holding differing or opposing views. Talking about how participants will talk together builds a sense of shared responsibility for the process. Having guidelines grounds people, makes them feel safer at a time when they may well be anxious about what’s ahead. Even two people having a difficult conversation can make a few guidelines about how it’s going to go. One may ask that there be no interrupting, or leaving the room if it gets hard, or making eyerolls when disagreeing. Another may suggest that everyone speak only from their own perspective rather than assuming they know what another is thinking or feeling. Simple guidelines can make a powerful difference and are an indicator of respect – self-respect, respect for the other(s), and respect for the process.  Inability to agree on guidelines often says that parties aren’t yet ready to work on the conflict in this way. What kind of supports do they need?  Focus on process before content. Creating a good process is engaging with conflict – a significant step forward!

(Next week: Part 3)

Author: TIG

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