Council Circle Design Commentary

The conversational Practice of Circles is both ancient and new. Council circles have been used for millennia by primary cultures to include all voices in important tribal questions. Now leading edge organizations looking for more effective ways to think collectively are rediscovering circles.
We all know the arrangement of furniture has a profound impact on group dynamics. The effects of meeting in a room with a podium and straight rows of chairs

is quite different from chairs in a circle.

Circle Symbol

The circle is an ancient symbol of wholeness found in all great spiritual traditions. Its form is fundamental to all life. Cells, hearts, bodies, and the Earth are all circles, containers that both protect and nurture life within their boundaries. Life moves in circular rhythms: our hearts beat, night and day take turns, and the seasons come and go.

One senses archetypal forces at work here. Might this primal symbol be the mark of an architectural pattern uniquely capable of harnassing potent conversational energies? Might the circle be a key to coherent conversations in cyberspace?


Imagine a circle of elders sitting around a fire, or a business group meeting in a circle of chairs. Notice how the architecture focuses group energy and attention.

Often a talking stick or object is passed hand to hand. You speak only when it's in your hands. Everyone is heard and yet has only one turn each round. The group's attention is focused on one person at a time. Notice how this simple tool supports a conversational style very different from our all too common modern style of making points, shooting from the hip, and interrupting each other. Is there a cyberspace equivalent of this circle architecture that focuses our attention into a more egalitarian and coherent pattern? How would a virtual talking stick help us learn to listen to each other?

Translation into Cyberspace

We began asking these questions in 1987. Then like now, most on-line conversations were scattered and fragmented, particularly in asynchronous conversations where group members were participating at different times.

Animated by these questions, from 1987 through 1991 we developed our first Virtual Circle groupware and used it to conduct pioneering personal growth seminars via computer. Much to our surprise, the circle seemed to make a difference.

The CIP Council Circle design builds on that work, and goes several steps further into this uncharted territory.

Virtual Circle (tm)

Like a circle of chairs, our design is a virtual architecture that shapes and focuses group energy and attention into a more coherent pattern. It is embodied in:

Smart Boundary Agent

Circle Agent

Virtual Talking Stick

Talking sticks are commonly used in face-to-face circles in two ways: 1) passed hand-to-hand (you speak only when it's passed to you), or 2) placed in the center (you take it before speaking). The first ensures everyone has an opportunity to speak but you must wait your turn. The second gives you more opportunties to speak, but allows some to speak more than others. But both eliminate interruptions. Depending on the nature of the group, one method may be more useful than the other.

One way to implement a talking stick would be for the software to lock everyone else out until you have finished writing. This would be the most direct translation of the first method. However, in an asynchronous system, particularly one that is replicated with delays between systems like Notes, where it can take hours or even days for what I write to reach your desktop, this would be prohibitively slow.

Our talking stick implementation draws characteristics from each of these face-to-face methods. Like a stick that is always in the center, you can take it whenever you are moved to write, unlike passing around the rim where you must wait your turn. And yet like a stick passed around the circle, it reminds you to respond once each round and lets you respond only once, unlike a stick in the center.

Contrast with the Cafe

Like the CIP Cafe (see Cafe Design Commentary), the CIP Council Circle design is an adaptation of the traditional Lotus Notes Discussion format. While the Cafe, like most Notes discussions, is designed to encourage informal conversation among self-organizing groups, the Council Circle is designed to evoke more heartfelt and coherent conversation through the Practice of Circles. Below is a table comparing the two designs.

CafeCouncil Circle
Small groupsOpen tables anyone can joinPrivate circles of up to 16
Groups per memberAs many as desiredOne circle per member
Document hierarchy/treeUp to 32 levels of commentsTwo levels: rounds and responses
ResponsesAs many as desired per tableOne per round
Topic focus/selectionIndividual (tables joined)Group (current round)
Software agentsInvite you to join tables just readRemind you to follow the practice (see below)
New itemsHighlighted in view; select to readDisplayed on way into circle; also highlighted in view

Reminders to Follow Practice

This Virtual Circle is designed to help us learn more effective conversational styles -- to listen to others with full attention and speak our truth in the moment. In our early experiments, we programmed the computer to enforce what we thought were more effective patterns only to learn this created counterproductive resistance.

The current design gives us broad freedom to read and write as we like, with a few intentionally chosen exceptions noted below. Instead of coercing us, the Circle facilitates learning by respectfully nudging, inviting, and encouraging us to follow the practice. We are free to ignore these reminders.

The practice is embodied in the facilitation software agents that display reminders in certain situations like these:

In a few carefully selected situations, we designed the agents to give us no choice in order to strictly enforce the practice: To further reinforce the practice and evoke an ambience of devout listening and speaking from the heart, each weekly question and all responses display a one-line reminder randomly selected from a list assembled by the facilitators. Bringing an element of surprise to the Circle, each time you read the item you see a different reminder like this:

Consider: In the circle we are all equal.

Everyone Can Be First

Unlike face-to-face circles where only one person is the first to speak, cyberspace offers us the unque possibility of each of us being first in the circle, simply by choosing not to read what others have entered, before writing. The Circle agents encourage you to view others' responses until you have seen them all by displaying them on your way into the circle and by reminding you that you have not seen them whenever you respond, but it allows you to respond without seeing any of them!

Designers' Dilemmas

Our design attempts to strike several balances between competing needs. In our experience there is no pat answer to these dilemmas. The most fruitful balance depends on the situation.

1. Safety/Privacy and Outflow of Knowledge. In designing these circles we were tempted to let everyone read the transcript of other small groups to encourage cross fertilization, expecting some members would request it. We decided to keep each circle confidential. Everyone responds to the same evocative question each week, but each small group sees responses from its members only. Knowledge from each group flows out into the larger community through harvest items created by anyone by available to everyone that summarize what each group is learning. Writing harvests augments learning. Human perception/intelligence is still the best tool for weaving higher order knowledge.

2. Completing Rounds and Supporting Latecomers. Asynchronous meetings via computer allow latecomers to review the transcript and catch up with the group. In practice, however, those who have missed a lot tend to stay away to avoid the chore of reading tons of material or the guilt of skipping over it. When a round closes, the software moves the round out of the main (Current Round) view. It is still available through the All Rounds view, so latecomers can read it if they wish. We could have programmed the agent to not let you respond to a round you have missed, but instead it just reminds you that it may not be seen by everyone.

Transcending The Limits

To evoke the metaphor of a circle, we have used a variety of images: a photograph of people meeting in a circle, a fire, members' names arranged in a circle, and a photograph of two hands holding a talking stick with feather to suggest the traditional roots of this practice. These images remind us of the experience of being in a face-to-face circle and help us visualize and remember the practice. But the circle and talking stick are more in our imagination than in our hands and spatial arrangement.

Someday soon we will meet in 3D virtual worlds where we can arrange our selves in perfect circles and see each others' virtual faces. In that space we will be able to replicate much of the dynamics of face-to-face circles, if we are willing to schedule meetings at a common time. But what if we work in different time zones? And what if space-time collapse of the ubiquitous "here" and "rolling present" of cyberspace opens up entirely new ways for us to collaborate? What will we miss if we limit ourselves to recreating synchronous in-person dynamics?

Cyberspace is limited to what the computer can render. We talk of meeting in cyberspace, but we are not inside our computers or the optical fibers that connect them. We meet in another place that is paradoxically inside our minds and everywhere, all at once. For millennia shamans have explored this imaginal realm and brought back gifts to their tribes. How can we enter into this world together and bring back gifts of shared meaning and collective wisdom for our organizations?

Practice, Tools, and Emergence

We can use the Practice of Circles to enhance our communication via electronic mail or in a traditional Notes discussion database. No tools are needed if our intention is clear to listen devoutly and speak only when moved from a deep place. But we are swimming upstream against strong currents of cultural habits and groupware architectures that create more fragmentation than coherence.

Tools like those described above can help. But even these do not guarantee the emergence of those sought after moments when groups function with extraordinary grace and power. Somehow it seems to be beyond our control, and possibly beyond our understanding!

What we can do is practice. However, the great paradox of practice is that those who engage in it for the journey, not the destination, often get the most miraculous results.

Virtual Circle is a trademark of Awakening Technology.

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

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From on 05/23/2024 ---- item last modified on 06/02/1997.