Conversation Circles

Women Leading the Way!The future of the world depends on women.  Women are more oriented to relationships and connection, less to separateness and competition.  All of the issues we face as a global community require cooperation, collaboration, connecting.  Conversation Circles are simply a more intentional expression of what women do naturally. Conversation Circles are purposeful opportunities for women to gather and talk about topics that are important and meaningful to them. They are a space where women can encourage, challenge and support one another. They are a way of amplifying the positive power of women’s leadership.

Convening Conversation Circles is creating a space for women to tell their stories, talk about their roles, their gifts, their concerns, their visions ~ and in so doing, to move more fully into their own power and into connection with one another.

Conversations are how we create our reality, moment by moment.  They are how we connect.  Conversations connect us with each other, and with who we really are.  They connect us with collective wisdom and collective creativity.

And the Conversations happen in Circle.   There is no hierarchy in circles.  No one person is more important than another.  Circles invite deeper listening and honoring of each person.

Conversation Circles are one way women create the future they desire.  As we gather to talk about what is most meaningful to us, as we connect with one another, our personal power is enhanced.  Our achievements, individually and collectively, are magnified.

There are many variations based on Conversation Circle – Action Circles, Discernment Circles, Trust Circles, for example.  Regardless of the specific intention for which Circles may be called, the depth of the conversation, and the quality of the engagement, depends on incorporating some basic Circle Principles.

Circle Principles:

  • Circles are sacred space, honoring both the uniqueness of each individual and the emergence of the collective.
  • All are equal in circle; leadership is shared.
  • Safe space is created by speaking from the heart, and listening to understand.
  • Listening is directed both to individuals who are speaking, and also to the themes, connections, wisdom and energy that is emerging within the context created by the circle.
  • Silence is a significant strategy; periods of silence allow for individuals to integrate their experience, and to stay grounded and engaged.
  • The Circle forms a container that can “hold” conflicting viewpoints and diverse perspectives.

These principles create a quality of engagement with one another that is respectful, non-judgmental, and appreciative.  They support creating a trusting environment where creativity and insight flourish.

Initiating Conversation Circles

Conversation Circles

Convening a Single Session

When you have a deep curiosity about a topic or an issue, concern about a community problem, or an idea for a new project, Conversation Circles are a marvelous way to discover like-minded women for an in-depth conversation, OR a diverse group of women to prompt exploring a topic or issue from many perspectives.  Please see these examples of single session Conversations:

While a number of Conversations are described, they were each separate sessions with completely different participants.

Starting an on-going Circle

As the name implies, these are initiated with the intention of several sequential sessions involving the same people.  They are great for continuing professional development, parenting groups, any kind of support group.  See the Power of Yin notes for an example of an on-going Circle.

The Process for Convening a Conversation Circle is quite straightforward.  The most important part is getting very clear about your intention.  What is the purpose you want to accomplish?  Are you seeking meaningful conversation with other women?  Are you in transition and seeking others with whom you can share that journey?  Are you seeking an action-oriented group?  Once the group has formed, the intention may shift, but it is important to be as clear as you can be initially, about your intention.  This intention will manifest.  Others who resonate with the intention will more likely be drawn to join you.  Once you’ve done that,

  • Describe the topic and why you are interested in it
  • Think carefully about who else might be interested – network and research
  • Identify a date, time and location
  • Extend the invitation

Facilitating the Conversation is simple, and important.  It includes more than facilitating the actual talking.  Here are some components of good facilitation:

  • Create an environment where people will feel comfortable and relaxed.
  • Welcome people as they arrive.
  • If possible have healthy snacks.
  • Perhaps send out a reading or a question with the invitation so people have a chance to mentally prepare for participating.
  • Plan how you will open the session and how you will close the session.
  • At the first meeting, after you have described your purpose in convening the group, begin with some form of “check-in” (See Circle Strategies below)  so that each person has spoken prior to general conversation.  This is how we honor each person, acknowledge each individual who is in the circle.
  • To begin the general conversation you may want to ask each person to respond initially to a question such as “When you thought about the topic we are considering today, what phrase or image came to mind?”  or “How do you connect with this topic?”  This again engages each person in speaking, briefly, and lays a broad foundation for the conversation.
  • During the Conversation the facilitator ensures that all have a chance to be heard, may point out emergent themes, may introduce a new question to take the conversation deeper.
  • In closing, the group may want to summarize key themes of the Conversation.
  • It is again important to ensure that each person has a chance to speak.  This is the “check out” process and important to bring to a close the time spent together in circle.  You may want to invite participants to comment on something that inspired them, challenged them, surprised them or impacted them.  Or you may just invite each person to share a closing thought.

For on-going Conversation Circles, the group may want to identify questions or themes for the next session.  Also various roles may be assumed – facilitating the session, bringing snacks, etc.

Each of the following Variations differ primarily in terms of the purpose for which the Conversation is called.    In Conversation Circles – the purpose is to create space for meaningful conversation about topics of interest to participants.  In Action Circles, the purpose is to support individuals, or the group as a whole, toward accomplishment of a specific outcome.  Discernment Circles provide a space for determining guidance for life purpose or major decisions.  And Trust Circles create a space of openness where joint action can shift the energy in systems.  All of these build on the foundation of Circle Principles described above.  And each includes some unique guidelines as well.

Action Circles:

Conversation CirclesConsider the last group you worked with to achieve some result.  Were the Circle Principles utilized?  Probably not.  Too often, when we think of achieving results, we focus on action, and overlook the value of careful listening to one another, and to the emerging wisdom of the group, “holding” conflicting ideas, using silence to ground and connect us.  Higher quality results are possible when Action is created from the space of Circle Principles.

Both Individual Action and Group Action benefit from the shared wisdom and creativity available in Circle.  Individuals may create Action Circles in order to support one another in achieving significant goals.  In this case, utilizing the Circle Principles, each participant shares her goal.  Others in the Circle brainstorm strategies for moving ahead toward the goal – insights, possible resources, information, contacts, perspectives.  They may also help the individual determine an action plan – steps, sequence, benchmarks.  And at following meetings each person has the opportunity to give a status report and enjoy the group engagement in problem-solving obstacles and celebrating progress.

For Group Action, utilizing Circle Principles, group members clarify their understanding of the problem or the goal.  The Communication Method (described in Capacity Building Resources) may be a useful process here.  When members sense shared understanding of the desired goal, brainstorming possible approaches and strategies can energize the group.  As these are listed, individuals should be encouraged to follow their passion in addressing or engaging with those strategies that excite them.  Rather than trying to create a detailed action plan, it is much more productive – and FUN – to support the energy that exists.  Individuals and small groups – who have an idea about what the desired goal is – are likely to develop their contribution with high energy and creativity, and with an eye to how the whole will fit together.

Discernment Circles:

Whether we are seeking to clarify our life purpose, contemplating a job change, considering investing time, money and energy in a major project, making a difficult relationship decision, or other important decision, our personal reflection and discernment process can be greatly enhanced in the context of a Circle.

The intention of this type of Circle is to provide a “container” in which the individual can access her own deep wisdom.  It is not a time for sharing stories or giving advice. Convening a Circle with this specific intent requires careful consideration of potential participants.  This is a Circle called to support one individual in her discernment process.  It is not a situation where each participant in turn is the focus of the group.

The role of participants is to be witness to the individual as she describes the decision she is considering or the clarity she is seeking.  Participants need to have the ability to support the individual energetically, to set aside their own ego, their issues or biases.  They may ask the individual questions of clarification.  But their primary role is to “hold the space,” to listen with openness and non-judgment, as the individual sorts out her own thoughts and emotions, and listens for her inner guidance.

Trust Circles:

Conversation Circles
Within many organizations and communities, while we may be surrounded by other people, our relationships maybe fairly superficial.  That is fine, in many situations.  However, we also yearn for connections that are more substantive, for ways to connect with our colleagues and neighbors that are professional and, at the same time, allow us to be our “whole selves.”

Trust Circles may start as “Book Clubs” or “Brown Bag Lunches.”  What shifts them to become Trust Circles is intentional introduction of Circle Principles.  Perhaps you still call them Book Clubs or Brown Bag Lunches.  But the quality of connecting with one another changes when Circle Principles are honored – when check-in allows each person to speak, before the conversation takes off, when leadership is shared, when diverse perspectives are heard and appreciated, when silence is acceptable, when people feel free to speak from the heart and where listening both to individuals and to the emerging creativity of the group is practiced.

Then the magic begins.  Information from another department may prompt a design change in an engineering project, information that would not have surfaced through formal channels or casual hall-way talking.  Discovering that others in the community share your interest in urban gardening may spark a project to turn a deserted lot into a garden.

Specific strategies that facilitate Circle Conversations:

Check-in: When a group gathers, each individual is coming from a different place, perhaps distracted by something she experienced earlier, perhaps worried about a family member, or mentally preparing for her next meeting.  Others will be very “ready” for the meeting, perhaps caught up in their own agenda or expectations of the meeting.  Check-in is a simple process that offers a way for people to become fully present to one another and to the intention of this Conversation.

This process includes:

  • The convener of a Conversation Circle invites each person to comment prior to moving to the agenda or topic of the session.  One  person may need to acknowledge a personal concern in order to “let go of it” and engage fully in this Conversation.  Another may want to share her excitement and anticipation for the meeting.  Another may need to acknowledge doubt about whether or not this meeting is for her.
  • Usually, the facilitator asks one person who seems “ready” to begin and when that person has spoken, the person next to her speaks, and this continues around the circle.
  • Comments should be a sentence or two, not paragraphs.
  • Others are listening, not responding to what is said.

In some groups, such personal sharing may be absolutely appropriate and desired.  In other groups, it may seem too personal.  If this is the case, simply asking each person to respond to this question is great:  “What are your hopes for this meeting?”

The intention of Check-in is three-fold:  First it allows each person to speak and to be acknowledged as part of the Circle.  Secondly, it enables individuals to become more fully present.  Third, it creates a broad ground out of which a rich Conversation can flourish.

Check-out: At the close of the meeting, it is again important for each member to have a chance to speak.  This acknowledges each person in the Circle and closes the Conversation.  Again, this should be a sentence or two. Others are listening to understanding.  There is no response to what is spoken.  It is an opportunity to hear what is important to each participant as the group prepares to disperse.

Symbol centers the Circle:  Often, conveners of Circles will place flowers, or candles, or other symbols that have meaning to participants, in the center of the Circle.  There are several benefits from this.  Symbols remind us that when we are in Circle we form a container that holds our diversity, honoring the uniqueness of each person who is present, honoring the differences in perspective and view points that are present.   They also remind us that as we engage in Circle, out of our interaction, the new emerges – new ideas, new understanding, new energy.  As we learn to listen to one another we also learn to “listen” to what is emerging from our Circle.  We learn to nurture and honor the reality that a Circle is more than the sum of the individual parts.  Our participation in Circle evokes and reveals emergent thoughts, ideas, understanding, dreams, possibilities.


Power of Yin Conversations: an example of an on-going Conversation Circle

These Power of Yin Notes are exactly that. During 2008 and 2009 at Antioch University Seattle, we held Power of Yin Conversations once a month.

Women from all over the world joined these Conversations. Through a connection with the Jackson School (now Evans School) at the University Washington, Humphrey Fellows* from around the Globe often chose to engage in Antioch University activities and programs. Many women who were Humphrey Fellows at the UW joined in this series of conversations.

Using Circle Principles, these conversations enabled thoughtful and insightful engagement around topics selected by those participating. The opportunity for personal and professional learning together and learning from one another was amazing and treasured by each person who participated.

There were no “lectures.” Circle Principles ensured that each person had the opportunity to speak – to share her experience and wisdom, and to raise meaningful questions. At the end of each evening meeting, the group chose a topic and suggested “thought questions” to prompt reflection and a beginning place for the next month’s meeting.

These brief notes reveal those questions and give a brief overview of the conversation of the evening. They also often indicate the countries of the women engaged in a particular evening.

Notes provided by Barb Spraker

• [The Humphrey Program is a State Department Program in which UW had been chosen as a participating University. Those selected to be Fellows were selected by their home countries and were assigned to a University with a recognized program in their career field. They were mid-career individuals who had demonstrated outstanding leadership and the passion and commitment to utilize this learning opportunity to enhance their competence and leadership when they returned to their home countries at the end of a year of study in the US.]