Calling a Circle

Description: For as long as humankind has been around, the circle has surely been with us.

Human beings have naturally been gathering in circle, around the fire, sometimes in deep conversation, sometimes in the quiet space of simply being together.  At its most essential level, the circle allows a group of people to slow down, practice deep listening, and truly think together.  When practiced fully, it can be an embodiment of the root of the word dialogue: “meaning flowing through”.

“Council” is another word, which expresses the promise of the circle.  Imagine a circle of elders, passing a talking piece around one by one.  Everyone’s attention is on the person currently holding the piece, sharing his or her thoughts, perspectives, and wisdom.  Each person’s voice is valued and honoured.  Long pauses of silence are an accepted part of the conversation.

People can meet in a circle as a once-off gathering, or come together regularly over periods ranging from a few months to several years.  In both these forms, and everything in between, the circle is in recent years making something of a comeback.  From business executives in corporate boardrooms to community organizers in rural hinterlands, people are re-connecting with the value of sitting in circle.

The guidelines here are based on those developed by Christina Baldwin of PeerSpirit.  Inspired by her exploration of Native American traditions, Christina wrote a book entitled “Calling the Circle”, which has made a major contribution to re-introducing circle process and developing a set of practices that can help us to facilitate meaningful circle dialogues.  These guidelines can be used in their entirety or held more lightly.

Purpose(s): To shift from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening.

Time: Allow 40-60 mins minimum. This will depend on the group size. A group of more than 10 people will require more time.


  • A talking piece.  While anything can serve as a talking piece, attention brought to choosing this can serve to bring the sacred to the circle.
  • Something of beauty to act as a focal point in the centre of the circle.  May include a candle and flowers.
  • A gentle noise-maker, such as a chime, bell, or rattle.


Intention shapes the circle and determines who will come, how long the circle will meet, and what kinds of outcomes are to be expected.  The caller of the circle spends time articulating the intention and the invitation.

As with most of the tools and processes of good dialogue, the starting point is with the purpose and intention. The intention will determine who should be invited to join, when, where and for how long they will meet, as well as what questions they will focus on.


The clearer the intention and the stronger the commitment to it, the stronger the circle. There are leadership circles, where people gather to support each other in their respective leadership practice. There are also circles that come together to solve a specific challenge such as improving a programme in an organization, or working together to make a neighbourhood more safe.  It could be a group of workers coming together in circle with management, to find the best way to deal with a need to retrench people, or even a group  of homeless people joining members of a local church congregation to, together, come up with the best ways to support the homeless.

Sometimes a circle is more simply a tool used in a larger process during the course of a
workshop, or as a weekly or monthly meeting in an organization, or community.  In this case
the intention is more informal – to share expectations, to connect with how each other is
doing, and to surface and address any concerns or needs people may have.

Three principles
Three principles help shape a circle. They are:


  • Leadership rotates among all circle members.   The circle is not a leaderless gathering - it is an all leader gathering.
  • Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience.
  • People place ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), rather than on any personal agenda.  There is a higher purpose at the centre of every circle.

The host
Although leadership is fully shared in circle, there will always be a host for the particular circle.  Often the host is also the caller of the circle, but where a circle meets continuously over a longer period of time, the host role can change from circle meeting to circle meeting.  The host will ensure that the circle flows through its main phases and that the intention is at the centre of the dialogue.  The host is often also responsible, with the “guardian” (see below), for the actual physical space.

Special attention is paid to the physical centre of the circle – a colorful rug, some meaningful symbols or objects, and/or a plant may mark the centre of the circle and often represent the collective intention.  This paying attention to the centre of a circle, brings with it a sense of the sacred, when people gather together around it.  Something out of the ordinary is being invited in.

The single most important tool for aiding self-governance and bringing the circle back to intention is the role of the guardian. To provide a guardian, one circle member at a time volunteers to watch and safeguard group energy and observe the circle’s process. The guardian usually employs a gentle noise-maker, such as a chime, bell, or rattle, if he/she needs to signal everyone to stop action, take a breath, rest in a space of silence. Then the guardian makes this signal again and speaks to why he/she called the pause.  Any member may call for a pause.

The flow of a typical circle

  • Welcome start-point
  • Centre and check-in/greeting
  • Setting circle agreements
  • Forms of circle
  • Three practices
  • Check-out and farewell

Welcome or start-point
Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the host, or a volunteer participant, to begin the circle with a gesture that shifts people's attention from social space to circle space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, or listening to a song--whatever invites centering.

Establishing the centre: The centre of a circle is like the hub of a wheel: all energies pass through it, and it holds the rim together.  To help people remember how the hub helps the group, the centre of a circle usually holds objects that represent the intention of the circle.  Any symbol that fits this purpose or adds beauty will serve: flowers, a bowl or basket, a candle.

Centre and check-in/greeting
Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for the circle and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed intention.  It insures that people are truly present.  Verbal sharing, especially a brief story, weaves the interpersonal net.  Check-in usually starts with a volunteer and proceeds around the circle.  If an individual is not ready to speak, the turn is passed and another opportunity is offered after others have spoken.  Sometimes people place individual objects in the centre as a way of signifying their presence and relationship to the intention.

Setting circle agreements
The use of agreements allows all members to have a free and profound exchange, to respect a diversity of views, and to share responsibility for the well-being and direction of the group. Agreements often used include:


  • We will hold stories or personal material in confidentiality
    – whatever is said in circle, stays in circle
  • We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity.
  • We agree to employ a group guardian to watch our need, timing, and energy
  • We agree to pause at a signal - and to call for that signal when we feel the need to pause
  • We will offer what we can and ask for what we need

Forms of Circle
The circle is well known for the use of the talking piece. The talking piece is passed around the circle, with the person holding it being the only one to talk.  The talking piece can be anything – an object from nature, a photograph, a pen, or even a cellphone.  A talking piece circle is often used as part of check-in, check-out, and whenever there is a desire to slow down the conversation, collect all voices and contributions, and be able to speak without interruption.

Some people think circle is only about working with a talking piece, but this is just one tool of the circle. Often the check-in is done with a talking piece, but then people can move into talking without it.  This is sometimes called conversation council, where anyone who has something to say speaks.  It is often used when reaction, interaction, and an interjection of new ideas, thoughts and opinions are needed.

When people have been using circle for a while, even in conversation council, the practice is ingrained to not interrupt someone, and to let each person finish before a new person begins. Sometimes this conversation does speed up a little too much, and the centre – or calm – is lost.  This is where the Guardian, or anyone who feels the need, can call the circle into reflection, or silent council, where everyone is silent for a while, letting things settle, before continuing either with the talking piece or in conversation council.  Reflection, or silent council gives each member time and space to reflect on what is occurring, or needs to occur, in the course of a meeting.  Silence may be called so that each person can consider the role or impact they are having on the group, or to help the group realign with their intention, or to sit with a question until there is clarity.

Three practices
Essentially the circle is a space for speaking and listening, reflecting together and building common meaning.  Three practices have been clarified, which can be useful to help people come into a higher quality of attention:


  • Speak with intention
    - noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment.
  • Listen with attention
    - respectful of the learning process all members of the group.
  • Tend the well-being of the circle
    - remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.

Checkout and farewell
At the close of a circle meeting, it is important to allow a few minutes for each person to comment on what they learned, or what stays in their heart and mind as they leave.  Closing the circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on what has transpired, and to pick up objects if they have placed something in the centre.  As people shift from circle space to social space or private time, they release each other from the intensity of attention being in circle requires. Often after check-out, the host, guardian, or a volunteer will offer a few inspirational words of farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the circle is released.


Components of a circle


Resources required: Games Resource List (PDF, 124 KB)