Archive for February, 2013

Sitting in Circle

circleFive teenage girls sit in a circle. The one speaking holds a ball that looks like planet earth. Whoever holds that “talking piece” has the floor. The others listen intently as she talks about what is on her mind. Once a week they take time from regular classes in their high school to meet like this.

Ann initiated these circles of high school girls.  These are girls who would not normally talk together; they are from three very separate cultures. But as they have listened to each other week after week in circle, they have started to notice and greet each other outside of circle meetings. After many meetings one says, “We got each other’s back.”

I met Ann in a women’s listening circle and I’m fascinated with her experiences with high school girls. Ann started these listening circles for high school girls as a measure for supporting them as part of a restorative justice program. She describes how the girls had topics to discuss in their circles at first but had so much to say about their own burning issues that they often never got to their discussion. These girls are learning to connect and listen. This is indeed an enlightened interaction.

Over time, the benefits of these circles have grown and multiplied. One girl finds it easier to listen to her parents now that she’s learned to listen to her classmates and discovered how satisfying it is to have them listen to her. Another girl wished she could talk to younger girls to help them avoid some of her problems. Ann was able to help her make that happen and opened a door for her to be powerful and proactive which might otherwise never have opened to her.

Ann was absent one day but no one told the girls that their circle meeting was cancelled. The school’s principal found a small group of girls in the hall, sitting in a circle. Rather than go back to their classrooms, their consensus was to hold their circle as usual, passing a coin purse to designate whose turn it was to talk. Few school programs are nourishing enough that students attend voluntarily.

Sitting in circles seems a natural thing for many of us to do. In our modern hierarchies, we easily forget that hierarchical structure has only been used for a very short time in our history as humans. For most of the human experience we have circled around a fire to discuss and listen. The tribe was the support which is no longer so easy to find in our small families and lone net surfing.

The discussion, so unlike our business meetings, is egalitarian. Each person takes the time they need to talk. The structure of a listening circle enforces a careful listening that promotes understanding. Complex issues are heard in their complexity and not glossed over. Rather than peppering the speaker with questions that barely veil criticism, the speaker is allowed to speak fully and answer the questions before they are asked.

A listening circle slows the discussion down to a pace which fosters use of the whole mind and access to deeper, more creative parts of the individuals and the group. Often, simply hearing oneself verbalize thoughts can provide clarity and enable solutions to be created that couldn’t be seen in other circumstances.

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