In part 1 of this article, What is Relational Leadership, I shared some ideas about the nature of emotional intelligence. In this part 2, I get more personal, of how I discovered the Authentic Relating movement and what happened to me there. It’s an embarrassing story. It’s quite a long story – maybe Too Much Information – but if you are a Circling junkie like myself, and interested in the more edgy aspects of relational leadership, you might find it interesting.
In the spring of 2016 I was living in Dharamsala India, where I had sought refuge after our commune was shut down by zoning, my marriage dissolved, and my business failed. I was a veteran (or so I liked to claim) of every form of therapy, every Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT), every community-based recovery movement, and every New Religious Movement (NRM) that had ever been invented; and I still felt horribly lonely, horny and unfulfilled.
While in India I found some videos about Circling, which is a type of group conversation practice within a worldwide movement called Authentic Relating, or A/R. The A/R movement was only about 16 years old at the time, but it had already spread to all corners of the globe (although mostly the United States and Western Europe). Circling was, at the time, an open source brand [see Note 1], very powerful, it works well in peer-led groups and was quite inexpensive. For $75/mth, I could circle 9 hours a week at the (now defunct) Boulder Integral Center, plus participate in daily yoga and other events. It sounded like a dream come true: not just an answer to my existential condition, but also a long-standing vision of mine, which I called the democratization of transformation. I immediately made plans to return to the US, which I had left 2 years before.
I lived two months in Boulder before my money ran out, but I was hooked. I pushed a lot of people’s buttons there, and later learned that there had been discussions about banning me. “30 years of therapy and still a relational idiot” – that’s when I first started identifying as a “recovering asshole”. I was not helped by my Asperger’s, bipolarity, or history of depression, which I was barely conscious of the impact at the time, on me and others. But I saved them the trouble of kicking me out, by leaving of my own accord. I spent the whole next year (2017) circling every day (and sometimes twice a day) on the online circling platform Circle Anywhere. Nobody gets kicked off Circle Anywhere, and that year I completed my elementary-grade emotional intelligence education. God bless Circle Anywhere, I owe them my life.
That next year was very transformational, both in terms of my writing and my A/R leadership. I wrote the first version of the Circling Guide, and started leading a weekly private circle for my friends. The private circle was simply amazing. In terms of my Circling leadership, I identify with the nursery rhyme: “when he is good, he is very very good, and when he is bad, he is horrid”. I had one person on Circle Anywhere tell me directly that I should give up writing books and leading circles, and get a day job. The memory is both poignant and funny, because he was probably right in terms of my leadership at the time (but not in terms of the book). Looking back, I can see two reasons for the success of that first private group, despite my obvious condition as a very wounded healer. The first reason is that I seem to have good taste in choosing my friends, collaborators and spouses. My friends tend to like each other, and then become friends to each other. It is one of my life’s greatest joys, when this happens. The second reason is that I have, at my best, a kind of endearing, radical vulnerability. I was born to circle. The radical authenticity that I practice is partly an aspect of my Asperger’s (I don’t care very much what people think about me or say about me), and partly an aspect of a lifetime of mental-health issues, what I call “the 30-year war against myself and against the world, trying to make a buck and get a little love, mostly unsuccessfully”. Fundamentally, I have nothing to lose by telling the truth. There is value in desperation.
Writing the book was also a big emergence for me in terms of my writing. It wasn’t my first book, but it was my first book to gain any traction. Ironically, it got considerable push-back in the global Circling community. Some people found it outrageous that I would write a book about Circling, given that I had not enrolled in advanced training from any of the three major schools. To note here, that two of these schools were in arguments at the time about the legitimacy of their respective styles of circling, plus the two founding leaders of the movement were not speaking. The global Circling community has always been somewhat fractured, which ironically is part of its strength (more diversity and distributed management). I argued ferociously with the critics of my book, of course, and got into some facebook exchanges that a more mature version of me would have avoided, or at least dealt with more diplomatically. The journey of the recovering asshole can be a long one.
That first private circle folded after a year, but I continued leading private circles for 3 more years. The most successful of these circles is my men’s group, which is still running, three years into it. I also started leading on-the-ground in different places, at least before Covid, and started to build an A/R community in Asheville. The on-the-ground circles were generally successful, but I was always a nervous wreck before the groups, plus I had a lot of turnover. Eventually I decided that I prefer leading to small, committed groups (as opposed to drop-in groups). That was how Developmental Circling came about. Note as well, that I continued to be (mostly) successful in A/R leadership, even as my life started unraveling in early 2018, and my alcoholism got worse. That’s the power of vulnerability and the benefits of an A/R practice. Nowadays, I think of A/R, not as a magic bullet to all human problems, but as the “sufficient and necessary” condition for deep transformation of any kind. Human beings are hard-wired for connection, and until that need can be met, it is my belief that we cannot truly thrive or be happy. Professional engagements such as therapy are not enough; you have to get with your peers. I know that some people experience healing in peer-led self-help groups such as 12 Steps. I didn’t, although I did make friends there. One of my problems now, is that after experiencing good A/R, all other group formats occur as boring, frustrating, or both. Sometimes, I find other people’s circles wanting, as well. Sadly, I have become a bit of an A/R snob.
In the summer of 2020, as Covid threw almost everyone into an existential crisis, which the election then amplified, I started two private circles in Asheville, over Zoom (Circling works spectacularly well over Zoom). The first circle was called the writer’s and entrepreneurs circle, and the second one was called the Asheville community leaders circle (Developmental Circling inherits all the contexts of traditional circling, but is also explicitly framed as a developmental modality). I invited a lovely and powerful group of people into the writer’s circle. We had 4 wonderful meetings in the writer’s circle; but in the 5th meeting, some tension had emerged with me and another participant, and there was an offer to circle me around that. The person who was circling me got triggered by me and started trying to take control of my session. I yelled at him to shut up, and he told me to shut up. I gave him an ultimatum, he refused, and I left the group.
In fairness to me here, it is acceptable to leave a circle in anger; and it is very bad circling for a leader to attempt to take control of a circlee’s session. In fact, it is the anti-thesis of circling, and I had chosen this particular group of people because they were strong circlers and I assumed they knew the basic context. But when we are triggered, we don’t act from our highest intelligence. It was extremely unprofessional of me, as the leader, to yell at a participant. And dropping out would have been fine for a participant, but not as the group leader (although I was also the circlee, in this particular instance). Honestly, I should have known better, but I was in some weird state at the time, as the dissolution of a certain stage of my life life was beginning, but I wasn’t fully aware of it. Finally, I did something even more brain-dead: I shared with the group a transcript of a conversation I had with my co-lead. It was a private conversation, brilliant in terms of its analysis of the group dynamic, but it should never have been shared. I had thought that it would provide useful insight into what happened; but it was the death-shot to this particular group.
I personally felt fine about this disaster meeting, at first. In Circling, the shit does sometimes fly, and you work through it. I offered this individual a clearing meeting, but it was too late by then. He refused the clearing meeting and he proceeded to send the group a series of inflammatory emails while taking zero responsibility for his own part. This is the kind of thing that puts me over the edge, and I made the initial mistake of replying to the mails. The others chimed in, seemingly unanimously agreeing with him. I stayed engaged far longer than I should have, finally telling them I was done and to leave me out of any further correspondence. They met again a few more times without me, but it blew up again. My co-lead and I now agree that the group was probably a non-starter, that it was just too explosive a collection of people and would have blown up eventually, regardless. To add to my embarrassment, grief, and shame, the second group (the Asheville leaders group) also dissolved. There was a ripple effect, as one of the participants was in both groups, and a friend of hers in the Asheville circle who had heard the news second-hand, pretty much lost it in relation to me (strong projections are unavoidable in deep circling). I handled that one professionally, at least, and cleanly dissolved the group. I learned then, the tremendous power of the statement, “I quit” (it’s powerful, essentially, because it’s an indirect needs statement, but with no value judgment or make-wrong). I also learned that in Circling, you never fire a client (or circlee), Rather, you fire yourself as their group leader. The way I handled the second group re-established some level of my self-esteem, but the experience was devastating, as it happened during Covid and I had nothing else going at the time, really.
That’s my most embarrassing experience in Circling, bar none. Perhaps you are rolling your eyes here, or wish you were doing something other than reading this. I am sharing it, however, as it was the turning point of my life and of the beginning of resolution of the business and personal crisis that had started way back in early 2018. It took 4-5 months for me to metabolize and clean up the mess, especially my internal dialogue around it and self-esteem issues, but it happened. I stopped drinking. I moved away from Asheville, hit the road and entirely re-invented myself. I became more radicalized in every way, with respect to my A/R mission, my intentional community mission, and my politics (that’s another story which I will tell in an upcoming article How to talk to conspiracy-theory Republicans without losing your marbles). I gained a great deal of insight into my characterology, in particular the mental health issues that cause me to be often irritable, short-tempered and combative. There was an explosion in my writing. And I started leading Developmental Circling professionally.
But here is the greatest learning of all: I no longer engage in adversarial communications with people, so help me God. This is why I wrote the first part of this article, What is Relational Leadership, defining relational leadership as the actions and communication that will have people win with you. My belief, is that everyone knows how to do that. It’s a skill, of course, which requires practice in order to master. But the fundamental understanding of how to win with people, we all know at some level. In trying to win with people, some of us err on the side of co-dependence or accommodation (high care, low truth), while others err on the side of asshole-ishness or over-assertiveness (high truth, low care). My commitment these days, is to bring high-truth and high-care to all my relationships. If somebody is upset with me, or if I myself carry resentments or withholds towards others, my commitment there is to curiosity: care for myself and care for the other person, informed by truth. Sometimes, the path towards love and clarity is not immediately accessible to me. In those cases (for instance, in a group in which someone is attacking me), I like to repeat the Jesus prayer under my breath (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner”, or “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on Molly, a sinner”). I can’t guarantee 100% effectiveness for this technique, but it is a step in the right direction. The thought calms me. In A/R, there are no 100% effective techniques, because people are so different. There are only steps in the right direction.
I like to think that I have now graduated high-school in terms of emotional intelligence.
- As of the summer of 2020, Circling™ and Circling Method™ are trademarks of a consortium that includes the Circling Institute, Circling Europe, and Bryan Bayer representing the now-defunct Boulder Integral Center. There was considerably public controversy over this, as originally the trademark application was by the Circling Institute only. Many objected to having a trademark on a practice that had, effectively, been open-source for two decades and discovered independently by at least three different groups (equivalent to trademarking “yoga”, some said). For certain, however, if anyone is to hold the trademark, it ought to be those three organizations, who have done so much to develop the movement. We don’t know yet how aggressively the brand will be enforced, but if you are offering programs in Circling you would be wise to stick to the Authentic Relating name, which is not likely to be trademark-able at this point.