Practice of Circles

Council circles are an ancient conversational practice used by primary cultures worldwide. Tribal elders sit in a circle around a central fire, each one speaking from the heart while all others listen with full attention. All voices are heard in turn as a talking stick is passed from hand to hand. The process continues for however long it takes for a broadly supported course of action to emerge. Within this crucible, the vital energy of conflicting points of view is transformed into collective wisdom. Life and death issues are decided in this way.
Today organizations and communities are re-discovering this practice as a practical tool to access and manage collective knowledge. Some business meetings are conducted in a circle format. Gatherings of practitioners begin and end in ceremonies with fifty or more in a single circle. Consulting organizations teach the practices of circles and council grounded in traditional Native American ways.

Circles are also a key element of two other CIP conversational practices: the practice of dialogue and the practice of open space.

Circle Symbol

The circle is an archetypal symbol of wholeness used by every spiritual tradition. It reminds us of our essential interconnectedness with each other, nature, and the Mystery. Circles are the most expressly spiritual of our conversational practices.

Circles help us experience greater social coherence in at least three ways:

Conversational Training Wheels

Most of us have conversational habits that fragment group intelligence. Instead of listening, we rehearse our response before others finish. We interrupt each other. We polarize group thought into my right against your wrong. Only the most bold are willing to offer their piece of the truth. What most of us know is never said. Group intelligence suffers greatly.

The discipline of circles helps us learn new habits of speaking our truth and listening with full attention that are keys to using our rich diversity as a source of collective power.

Inclusive Community

Circles are the most common pattern found in living systems: cells, organs, bodies, and even the Earth itself is a circle. Each involves three basic architectural elements:

Whether we circle for council on tough issues or to celebrate our community, a circle is a safe space, a container for generative conversation and transformative learning. It is a unity that embraces our diversity, a place for group and community spirit to come alive. The rhythm of its rounds are like a group heart beat.

Hidden Wholeness

Many believe we are more interconnected than appears on the surface. If this is true, learning how to experience it may have practical application in helping groups work together more effectively.

Many different words are used to explain this Mystery.

While these explanations may be helpful, we often disagree about which is the right one. How can we include the possibility of this spirit in our circles while respecting the diversity of our paths? Often all that is needed are a few words at the beginning or a symbol in the circle's center like a candle or some beautiful flowers.

Like a flock of birds, if we are attuned to this hidden wholeness, we may be able to turn in flight in breathtaking unison. This has profound implications for coordinating business activities. As we practice meeting in this primal circle pattern, we may develop our ability to enter the imaginal realm, where for millennia shamans have gone to bring back gifts of wisdom for their tribes. Now we may be discovering how to enter it together in search of vital knowledge that will help us guide our tribe through the dangerous pass ahead. This journey is neither easy nor without risk. Displined practice is the key.

The Practice

There are many useful variations on the practice of circles, taught by a growing array of practioners, including many members of this community, too diverse for us to describe with due respect here. Instead we simply sketch out some of the common elements for the practice in a face-to-face setting. See Council Circle Design Commentary for more on the translation of this ancient practice into cyberspace.

Circles are created by a skillful blend of personal and community practices supported by appropriate tools.

Personal elements of the practice include:

On the surface, these skills seem simple, and yet they are quite challenging for most of us. We need practice.

Community elements of the practice include:

Most of us yearn to be part of a community, and yet these collective practices too can be quite challenging to our rugged individualist ways. Practice helps.


Conversational practices teach us more effective ways to use our attention. Practicing circles helps us learn to simultaneously hold these five focuses of attention:

As we practice holding these we are learning to be more in touch with ourselves, individual others, the diversity of our community, our common center, and the great Mystery which connects us with each other and all nature. Its quite a stretch, but worth it.

A circle practice is aided by two basic tools to help shape and focus our personal and group attention in these ways: the circle itself and a talking stick/object.


A circle is a simple and powerful architectural arrangement for shaping and focusing group energy and attention. It arranges people:

A circle in the only architectural pattern where everyone is in an equivalent position and sees everyone else. It simultaneously focuses our attention on self, the rim, and our common center.

A talking stick or object is a simple tool that helps us be aware of who is speaking and make sure everyone gets a turn. It focuses our attention:

From the 1996 Awakening Technology Community of Inquiry and Practice (CIP)
Content and Groupware Design 1996 Awakening Technology.

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From on 04/18/2024 ---- item last modified on 06/02/1997.