Emergence and The Circle Way

by Tenneson Woolf

Recently, in working with a core team preparing for a multi-day, system-wide event in a faith community, six of us were sharing reflections during a video conference call. We met in the format of The Circle Way. For this group it meant we started by naming the purpose of the call. We had a deliberate check-in. All were invited to share needs, and to ask for needed help. We had a deliberate check-out. Smooth and simple.

This was a call that was less about the details of the event — room setup, supplies needed, and when breaks would occur. This was a call that was more about being in learning together — what were we each learning about ourselves on this team, and about how each of us was learning to face the unexpected, and about how each of us was learning to hold responsibility for a whole group while simultaneously tending to individuals. These were pastors. There was a lot of nodding heads as we each contributed and used The Circle Way to witness each other. We took turns — I think of it as having passed a virtual talking piece.

Our conversation moved into discussing the dynamic tension that exists of participants preparing discussion topics before their multi-day event (a fixed agenda), compared to waiting and seeing where energy lay when the group of 200 would be together (a dynamic agenda that comes from emergence). Most of us know that there is no absolute answer to this that can be applied across all circumstances. But that conversation with that core team helped me to remember that part of their job, and I believe the job of many of us who convene groups, is to create the conditions for emergence to occur.

“Emergence is the game,” I said to them — yes, there’s still a 14 year-old in me that wants to make it a game. Emergence is not the familiar skill that is showing up and willing data or meaning upon one another like can happen in many classrooms. It is less about imposing, and selling or winning a perspective. Emergence is a less familiar skill (though I would say it is one that we are remembering, not learning as new) that is listening for the surprise that shows up among people engaging together, because they are interacting in words, and sometimes play, and sometimes silence that a circle can offer. Emergence requires letting go of some preconceptions. It means listening well with others and speaking a truth without posturing it. It’s paying exquisite attention to what is showing up in the together part that can’t show up in the not together part. “This is not a 100-level skill, the marker for most entry level college classes,” I shared with that faith community team. “This is a 500-level skill. It is a graduate class.” 

I know that there will always be many layers of working together that exist simultaneously. Rooms do need to be set up. Supplies do need to be ordered. Breaks do need to be planned. And, to be clear, there are good keynotes and didactic learning that The Circle Way can really effectively follow or precede. But the skill of working with emergence is one of those underlaying approaches that changes everything. Not just meetings, but also the day to day norm of how we are together and how we attend to one another, and how we nuance into the future, the sourcing of “us” rather than “I.”

Get ready friends. If you haven’t registered yet, we have two spots left for The Circle Way Practicum, August 17 to 22, 2016 on Whidbey Island. If you are coming, Amanda Fenton and I will be talking about this. We will be inviting the group to learn more about how The Circle Way helps us to welcome emergence. That means surprise, sometimes. That means confirmation, sometimes. That means essential listening and participation as a core competency all of the time.

Leaving With Confidence: The Circle Way With Family

Leaving With Confidence: The Circle Way With Family

“Tell me a little more about what you hope for from the practicum?”

This is a question that pops up during our phone calls with the people who have applied to attend The Circle Way practicum happening on Whidbey Island, Washington this August.

One of the common themes in the answer to this question is the hope to leave the practicum with the confidence to host circles in their work, community, or family.

This story, from recent Circle Way workshop participant Emily Gillies of North Portal, Saskatchewan, Canada, is an inspiring example of leaving with the confidence to try circle.

Read more here

Is The Circle Way For Men — A Call For An Emerging Masculine

By Tenneson Woolf

In my nearly twenty years of being a Circle practitioner, there have been many times I’ve found myself in circles in which the participants were primarily women. Thirteen women, two men. Sometimes more women; same number of men. If the ratio of men exceeds 25%, it has been noteworthy and surprising. I’ve been a bit puzzled by this observation over the years.

It’s OK by the way. These have been good circles. I’ve learned a lot. Participants learned a lot together. We built strong and trusting relationships. We got some good work done. I contributed what I could, with full honesty, which is always the intent. 

In those groups, there have been many times when I, or someone from the group, have eventually asked, “where do you think the men are?” That question usually evokes a group chuckle — it’s a kind of tension release valve that occurs when something really obvious but unspoken is verbalized into the room.

When I ask that question, to be clear, I’m not asking about men’s work. That is important, but a different kind of circle. I’ve been lucky to be a part of those over the years also. And, to be clear, I recognize that gender identity includes a larger spectrum than a binary choice.

I’ve heard others talk about circle as a more feminine form. “It is for listening, which is what women tend to do better.” Or, “It is for feeling, which, again, is what women tend to do better.”

Um…, OK…, ur…. sure. All of that is true. But it is a bit niggly and not true also. Just sayin’. 

In those Circles in which I have sat over the years, wondering, I’ve asked myself a few related questions that, seem just a bit bizarre. Like, “are men on the whole unable listeners?” I know, the stereotype of never asking for directions does come to mind. Sure, sometimes, but that’s an old story, right? “Are men just fixated on command and control?” OK, sure, I get it that embedded in the male DNA was a well-serving need to survive. Fair. But that feels old too. Or that it needs to become old.

I want to re-language the gender-typing just a bit as it pertains to The Circle Way. The Circle Way is a methodology and way of being that is bedrock to the kind of leadership so often needed in these times and in today’s organizations. It is the leadership that is listening, which also happens to be a lifelong practice. It is the leadership that is being smart together. Yup, that’s gender free. It is the leadership that is diving deeply into purpose. It is the leadership that is shared discernment. The Circle Way creates leadership process that invokes the best of what people, men and women, masculine and feminine, can offer as gift.

I’m glad to have known a few men in my life that have transcended many of these stereotypes. There is a noticeable softness in them; I’d call it a mature masculine, that knows how to be with others. That knows how to be curious. That knows how to ask questions, together. That doesn’t need to be the star of the program. Men that have lived a shift that my friend Margaret Wheatley names, “from leader as hero to leader as host.”

In August 2016, Amanda Fenton and I will host The Circle Way Practicum. We are among the people that have been welcomed to pick up the 20+ years of lineage that is the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. We get to do this in their home teaching space, The Marsh House at Aldermarsh on Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle, a short drive for both of us.

Amanda and I are inviting good leaders everywhere. We are committed to working with whomever shows up. We are also committed to a unique bridging, held with some deliberateness to invite us all to The Circle Way, women and men. 

Join us. It’s true that men may find themselves in a context that they don’t find themselves in every day. Sitting in a Circle. Sitting on the floor. Taking long and spacious breaks. Listening to the quiet. Taking turns. 

But then again, men know this too. Amanda and I, along with many other colleagues from The Circle Way, hope that the next twenty years grow us, all of us, men and women, in doing good together. In a way that, together, we as a society can mature a collective psyche through practicing together. 

The Circle Way is a call for all of us.

Designing for Real Conversation

Many of us crave authentic conversation. In this short video Amanda talks about the ancient practice of circle, hosting yourself, using powerful questions and how these can foster more connection and conversation in today's busy world.  A glimpse into some of what we dive into and explore together during The Circle Way Practicum on Whidbey Island this summer.


The Circle as Path to Presence: Three Approaches

By Tenneson Woolf

Recently I hosted with a colleague a workshop in which the primary focus was on presence. Our overall focus was on leadership. But our first gateway into that leadership was presence.

For this gathering, I wondered what books to choose as resources for people to peruse. I didn’t want to bring too many. Four seemed enough, one placed in each of the cardinal directions in the center of our circle. I brought some favorites. One by Pema Chodron (Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change). Another by John O’Donahue (To Bless The Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings). Another by Mark Nepo (The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life). These are each rich. They are books that I can randomly open to most any page and find a paragraph or two that deeply satisfies.

The fourth book surprised me just a bit. The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair, by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. It’s not the quality of the book that surprised me. It was the realization that I wanted this book as one of only four to encourage presence. The Circle Way — as process methodology and as way of being — has been helping me to develop my practice of presence for close to twenty years now.

Here’s three ways of how I’ve experienced that.

The Circle Way Invokes Stillness — Most of us live in rather frenetic worlds don’t we. Meetings on top of meetings on top of meetings. Multiple channels of data that we comb, cull, or that regularly ping us with the latest happenings. Our texts. Our news apps. Our email. Who hasn’t realized after a few innocuous clicks that they’ve fallen into a bottomless Facebook rabbit hole of Top 10 this’ or thats. So much stimulation and mass awareness can evoke a kind of adrenalin rush, doesn’t it. I feel that. It can be rewarding in the moment. It’s just not helpful as an uninterruptible pattern over the long haul.

I want to suggest, contrary to this frenetic pattern, that stillness (and a simple process for evoking it) is equally important. If it were a list of capabilities required for a job, I’d put stillness next to “ability to multitask.” The stillness that is bringing full attention to the matter at hand. The stillness that is not jumping ahead to the other meetings that you know you still need to prepare for. The stillness that is kindness, by offering the gift of our showing up undistracted with the people that we are with in the moment. The Circle Way is a simple approach to invoking and remembering stillness. It’s structure and practices inherently encourage it. Waiting. Passing a listening piece. Being able to see others in the group. Democratizing meaning-making.

The Circle Way Creates Turning To One Another — One of my mentors, Margaret Wheatley, wrote the book, Turning To One Another in 2009. It’s a very good collection of short essays that are at the center of people learning together. It’s also a primary narrative for what we are supposed to do together that I’ve been using since Meg wrote it. It is engagement. Encountering one another. Listening for what can’t be known by any individual but can only be known by people being together.

The Circle Way is a process methodology. It has structure. It has agreements. It has intention. It entrains a way to interrupt the pattern of isolation that many of us find ourselves in. Separation has been the game for many years now — human beings are skilled at buffering from each other. The Circle Way moves us from a classroom dynamic of “informing” to a collaborative dynamic of listening together for what is in emerging among us through our turning to one another.

The Circle Way Reveals Subtle — Many of us now know that there is always some level of mystery involved in our work, in our communities, in our families, and in our relations. Some things can’t be objectively named and measured. Yet they remain quintessentially important. Like the special something that makes Granny’s soup different than yours despite the same recipe. Like the grandeur that many feel, inexpressible in words, trying to describe their feeling at the Grand Canyon or other places of beauty.

The Circle Way can help us discover a feeling together, a subtle feeling, that isn’t secondary, but rather primary for influencing all of the tasks and things that we do. It gives us a kind of attainment, a coming into resonance. It gives us a gentle way of being together in an unknown or an unknowable. It gives us a way to discover subtleties that change the arc of the whole narrative.

In August 2016, Amanda Fenton and I will be hosting The Circle Way Practicum on Whidbey Island. Come join us to grow the skills and perspectives above, and more.

What creates safe-enough space?

by Amanda Fenton

“Change the chairs, change the conversation” is a line us circle practitioners will often say. Sometimes moving the chairs into a circle and removing the table is a bold step on its own – activism for a better way of being together. However to entrust the circle to hold our most important conversations, and potentially high-heat situations, changing the chairs alone will not create the safe-enough space needed to help us speak and listen in a different way to let the new emerge.

I often speak about the components of The Circle Way as that which helps give circle process it’s strength, and here are five of the components: having a centre, agreements, visible points of leadership, talking piece, and check-in/check-out:

  • Have a centre: The centre of a circle is like the hub of a wheel; it connects us and holds the rim together, gives a common ground where people can put their words rather than onto each other. Creating a centre in a circle gives us a resting place; a place to look to remember why we are here in the conversation and where you can direct your emotion, energy and opinion instead of zinging it across at someone. It might hold a symbolic object for the team, or the mission and values on placards…. Or asking people to bring an object to contribute to the centre.

  • Agreements: Are how we show up; using agreements calls people to being together respectfully. They often focus on how we will speak – with intention to be aware of our impact, how we will be listened to – with curiosity and without judgement, how we will handle confidentiality, and agreeing to pause when needed. If you don’t have time for a group to create their own agreements and are offering these four common ones as guidelines, you can ask a group if there are any others to be added to feel safe enough for this conversation? The agreements give us neutral language to draw from when we notice we are not contributing as best we can to the well-being of the whole circle.

  • Visible points of leadership: A circle is a leader-full group and it is led with some particular roles – visible points of leadership. One of those roles is a host who holds the agenda for the conversation. Working with the host is a guardian who sits across from the host. The person serving as guardian is tending to the health of the social process. They ring the bell to inject silence and to re-focus the group process. Everyone shares responsibility for guardianship of the circle and can ask the guardian to ring the bell. The third role sometimes present is scribe.

  • Talking piece: This isn’t named as a specific component, but is a tool to support the practices of speaking with intention, listening with attention and contributing to the well-being of the group. A talking piece is a hand-held object that signifies who’s turn it is to speak, and the others are released into their listening intend of preparing to interject with what they want to say. Using a talking piece helps to slow down the conversation, hear all voices, and speak without interruption. They have found talking pieces on archaeological digs, which gives us a clue that the desire to speak without interruption is as old as our tendency to interrupt! Using a talking piece changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation. This is particularly useful in times of conflict, uncertainty, and to tap into the space of emergence. You can hold the talking piece for a few moments to consider what you want to say without fear of being cut off or losing your turn. You don’t have to use a talking piece the whole time you are in circle – after a talking piece check-in round, you might put the piece in the middle, move into general conversation, and go back to the talking piece as needed. It is there to support a different pattern of speaking and listening. 

The talking piece helps to manage the discussion of very emotional issues. Because the talking piece must go around the full Circle, it prevents two individuals from getting into a back-and-forth emotional exchange, and responding without thinking. If the words of one participant anger another, multiple members of the Circle may address the issues raised before the talking piece reaches the angry participant, thus relieving the angry participant from a sense of needing to defend him/herself alone.
— A quote from Kay Pranis’ Little Book of Circle Process that illuminates how a talking piece is helpful when working with conflict and emotion
  • Check-in and Check-out: The beginning sets the tone. Start intentionally, in a manner that invites people to connect with one another, and for each person to enter their voice into the circle. Participating within the first five minutes of a meeting helps set the pattern for participation throughout the meeting – that we are all contributing to the quality of the experience in the circle. I think of the mantra ‘Check-in convenes us and check-out releases us.’ Check-out is the same pattern; each person speaking a few words – maybe something they learned, are carrying forward, or where at as a result of the conversation, at the end of the circle.

Being in circle is like walking a tightrope. Circle doesn’t mean we won’t fall when there is a wobble, but there is a safety net to catch us. The components of The Circle Way help create that safety net. For a full picture of all the components of The Circle Way, have a peek at this two page PDF . And the videos (and other resources) found here on thecircleway.net are also great resources. 

Don’t just change the chairs. Change the conversation.

Register today to learn The Circle Way.

Listening Matters: Circle Helps On Four Levels

by Tenneson Woolf (Excerpted from a full article here)

In my experience, Circle helps four levels of listening to occur: to self, to each other, to the group, to the subtle. Circle, among all other things, is most centrally that for me — a way to listen well in a world that has so frequently replaced listening with noise. Circle is not a whiz-bang, flash-in-the-pan, new-fangled methodology. And no, I don’t believe Circle is a fix all for all situations. But good connecting and good listening will always help.

1. Listening To Self

Back in the 90s, one of my favorite grad school professors was a man that said, “sometimes I need to say it out loud to know what I think.” I relate to that. Circle, with it’s deliberateness of a center to catch individual expressions, mix them with what others say (note that this is not a time for providing answers), and slow cook them like a good stew is bound to stir up a few surprises and clarities about ourselves. “I didn’t know that I really thought that.” Or “I didn’t know that I thought that so strongly.” Circle helps with a self clarity that isn’t possible in isolation.

2. Listening To Each Other

When I have hosted Circles for groups that have been together for a long time — colleagues in particular — it has caught my attention that people learn a few things about each other that they didn’t know before. I’ve heard expressions, “I’ve known you for 20 years and I’ve never known that about you.”

Contemporary work culture has advocated a fierce distinction between professional and personal life. There are times when that distinction is very helpful — some things are private. However, rejecting the personal actually diminishes the quality of the professional capability in many settings. To interrupt the pattern of mere transactional exchange often common in work settings, is to create room for a different and needed kind of knowing of each other.

3. Listening To The Group

Ann Linnea is another primary teacher for me of Circle over the last fifteen years. One of the premises I’ve heard her claim often is that there is always more wisdom in the collective of the group than there is in any one individual. It stands to reason doesn’t it. In today’s context of increasingly complex and intractable challenges, we need to hear from multiple perspectives. To become aware of blind spots. To see more.

I want to offer one additional layer and nuance here, a peek under the hood that is Circle. Not only are we listening to ourselves and to each other, which I suppose you can compile into the group as a sum, we are hearing more than the sum. A friend calls this “activating the composite being.” It’s the “all of us.” There isn’t parts (which is still conceptually challenging to hold, right). There is only the group. The words that are being spoken are coming from that group being. Not from individuals. If you can get that, it’s a moment of listening to write home about.

4. Listening To the Subtle

Though I accept that there are as many versions of subtle as their are drops of water in a lake, I will assert that however any of us name that subtle, listening to the unseen is an important category and that Circle helps with that. Spirit? Sure. Ancestors? Sure. Nature itself? Sure. The deeper story in us as individuals? Yes. The deeper purpose of what a team is all about? Absolutely.

I will continue to assert that there is always more unseen than is seen. There is more unheard than is heard. In offices. In organizations. In communities. In families. It’s not a criticism of those forms. It just a reality that sets the imperative for us to be perpetually curious. You never get the whole movie or it’s subjective meaning. You never get every note played at the concert. There is just more than is possible for any individual processing to get it all. With so many of the people I work with, they are hungry for this level of listening, even unfamiliar as it can be.

Join Us

I’m fortunate to be picking up some more significant teaching of Circle in this 2016 calendar year. Along with a friend and colleague, Amanda Fenton, and with some other global colleagues, we are helping to carry the tradition that is Circle and the 20+ years of legacy from Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea to a next generation of scale and scope.

If you want to develop the best foundation for today’s context of applied participative leadership, I suggest learning more of Circle. It’s really the place to start and return too. Learn more of that here and at www.thecircleway.net.

Circle Process: More Than Changing the Chairs

By Amanda Fenton

Many people who use participatory process as part of their facilitation and leadership practice are often familiar with circle as a way of arranging the chairs to create an environment for something different to occur, or as a tool for check-in and check-out at the beginning and end of conversations.

And it is much more. There are many other facets of circle process and how it can be used: for the whole length of a meeting, as a management process, to make collaborative decisions, and more. It can be adapted to organizational settings, the boardroom, classrooms as well as the living room. I appreciate the components of circle process in The Circle Way, as learning them has helped me understand how to create a strong container for the different kinds of conversations needed now in our families, communities and organizations.

For those of you who want to go deeper, further in your capacity and ability as hosts of conversations that matter, I invite you to learn circle process. Get the listening, get the silence, get the experience of creating a center through which inspiration can arrive. Understanding the power of circle means being able to take the other practices and methodologies to a deeper level as they all share the pattern of circle. ~ Tenneson Woolf

Here are some of the ways I have used circle process in my life and work:

  • During a year-long leadership development program for directors and regional managers at a financial institution.

  • To help a task force move forward on their project to select initiatives that will prevent and reduce violence against women in their community.

  • In core team planning sessions as well as the design and hosting of a day-and-half strategic reflection retreat for a faith community.

  • At an evening “catalysts dinner” with members of the graphic design community and others to discuss the future of an annual event.

  • Over a multi-day gathering that integrated circle process with project management to support action-orientated work under a year-long initiative.

  • During an international conference gathering of reform movement rebels who are working for change inside a very old institution.

  • At a bi-monthly gathering to reflect on how we are really doing and what we can learn when we pause and listen.

Five years ago I would not have imagined bringing circle process into these environments. I remember how my heart pounded the first time I introduced a talking piece, the first time I put something in the centre, the first time I rang a bell to slow down a high-heat moment. And I also remember how the talking piece (a flip chart marker!) travelled around the circle and allowed each person to have a voice, how the centre shifted the dynamics of where we put our words, and how the bell permitted a much needed breath where before someone would have been steam-rolled in the discussion.

Join us at The Circle Way Practicum on Whidbey Island in August 2016. Discover how the circle is made strong by the importance given to the centre, the topic, the issue and the potential of each person’s voice and participation.

Don’t just change the chairs. Change the conversation.

Register today.