This chapter is also available as audiobook
“Along with chocolate, sex and samadhi, Circling is best experienced directly” – Bryan Bayer, author of The Art of Circling
“A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. A joy shared is a joy doubled” – Anonymous
Structure of this and the next two chapters
[Crowd-sourcing note: is this first key chapter sufficient, dear reader, or do we need to open with a compelling real-life story of what happened in an actual circle? I can’t think of such a compelling story, so this chapter is mostly theoretical (and besides which we do the detailed case-study of A/R in action in the following chapter). I do have a fear however that this chapter is too heady]
This Chapter 1 is your first orientation to Circling within the Authentic Relating tradition. It describes the practice from a high-level (or conceptual) perspective: the goals, the logistics, and reasons that you would want to do it. Be aware, however, that (as per Bryan Bayer’s quote above) you cannot really understand Circling until you have had the experience. This is a problem which we, Authentic Relating leaders who are running beginner groups, face all the time. It’s something of a catch-22, because you can’t exactly “teach” Circling, you can only model it. And so, we are asking our students to do something they don’t know how to do but which we can’t properly explain to them. Still, miraculously, it usually works.
There are at least three ways of learning anything: conceptually, through examples or case studies, and through personal experience. This chapter will teach you Authentic Relating conceptually, hopefully. In the next Chapter 2 we’ll do a detailed case study of Authentic Relating in action (or what I call “Authentic Relating on the street”), which will hopefully satisfy your need for examples. In the same case-study in the next chapter, I will do an introduction and critique of Non-Violent Communication, or NVC. NVC is like an earlier model of Authentic Relating and it’s very valuable to Circling and Authentic Relating effectively. NVC was, at the time it was created by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1970’s, the most powerful relational developmental model ever invented. Even today, it gets far more things right than it gets wrong.
And finally, in Chapter 3, we take a deeper dive into the movement. I will tell you the history, ways you can engage, the reason it works, why it is so powerful, and the various practices. The practices include Circling (which is a form of Authentic Relating with shared context), and what I call “Authentic Relating on the street”, which is a form of Authentic Relating without shared context. If you are not immediately understanding “shared context”, don’t worry, we’ll get to that. In Chapter 3 we’ll also talk about “the true joy in life” [George Bernard Shaw], and how Circling and Authentic Relating practices fit squarely into Shaw’s ideas, providing a very practical and directly actionable pathway towards achieving that “true joy.”
Circling is what we call an “infinite game”, meaning something that you can do for the rest of your life and keep on getting better at it. Formal Circling is, bar none, the best way to learn Authentic Relating: because, hopefully, you won’t be wasting any time. You’ve got an hour to practice, typically, so you best “get right to business.” That would be the business of transformation through self- and other-awareness and honest, loving communication.
Can you learn Circling from a book? And where to begin?
No, you cannot learn Circling from a book. Circling, like love, can’t be taught in a book. The successful practice of Circling is likely to be way more enjoyable and more growthful than reading about it. Even so, a book can provide a context (of shared understanding, shared values) from which a powerful conversation is more likely to emerge.
So where to begin? We begin, of course, with the vulnerable sharing of our confusion about what Circling is and how to do it.
Often in a circle with beginners I hear some variation of this statement: “I like what’s going on here but I am not quite sure what is acceptable here, what is Okay for me to do or say.” When I hear this, I usually get happy, for two reasons. First because this expression is a significant reveal (an aspect of leading with vulnerability, which we will discuss more later), and as such opens up the possibility of a rich inquiry for the individual and for the group. And the second reason I get happy on hearing this, is because it is a profound question that can’t be properly answered in a sound-bite. Indeed, it is a question that lies at the very heart of creating deep, transformational human relationships, and as such is also at the core of the Circling inquiry: When and how do we give to others; when and how do we receive from them; and when and how do we give to ourselves? What is really going on here between us?
This book is (among other things) an attempt to answer that question, the question that is at the heart of deep human connection; which in turn relates to the nature of love, the meaning of suffering, and the human journey to wholeness. Ultimately, that is the Circling inquiry.
Circling in a nutshell: the goal of Circling
Circling is a practice of un-withheld present-moment connection to self and others. You could also call it “presence-based relating” or “presence-based communication”, because we return, again and again, to what is happening in the present moment. We investigate our own and others’ present-moment experience of being together, staying present to ourselves while simultaneously trying to understand what it’s like to be in another person’s skin. It’s the attempt to see people for who they really are, “getting their world”, and giving and receiving the kind of attention that changes lives and which allows new possibilities to emerge.
An alternative formulation would say that Circling is about discovering “truth”, or about bringing more self-awareness and discernment into the experience of life, in order to cultivate connection with oneself and others. To note here (and we will return to this topic) that “cultivating connection” may involve the noticing and reporting of lack-of-connection.
As such, anything you say or do in a Circling group, or anything you withhold in a Circling group, ought to successfully pass this test: is this intervention (or conscious decision to NOT intervene) serving connection? Is it serving truth, is it serving the group, is it creating more aliveness in me or others?
Of course, we frequently make mistakes in judgment about whether a particular intervention and self-expression (or else a failure to express) is serving truth or connection. We may be silent when we should have spoken, or say the wrong thing, or say the right thing but poorly; or we can’t come up with anything to say at all, we are so completely befuddled, or full of anger, grief or shame. And yet, we seem to be compelled to keep on trying to communicate and to connect. And hopefully, by allowing ourselves to make these mistakes and then witnessing the impact, we get better at it.
This is the core Circling practice, in my understanding of it. If you have already experienced this degree of connection and of truth-telling (and most of us have, even briefly), then you know what to do, more or less, and you can read the rest of this book with a desire to refine and sharpen your current level of self-awareness and discrimination around this very fundamental question: am I, in this moment, serving truth and connection, or am I doing the opposite (hiding, lying and creating distance)? Who am I being right now, and why?
Two more distinctions here that might be helpful.
The first distinction is to acknowledge that while all aspects of our humanity are important – our beliefs and ideas, plans, “stories”, needs and desires, etc. – the Circling practice is unique in that it prioritizes connection and truth-telling above all else. It does not specifically exclude ideas, plans and stories; it only requests that, when we share stories and ideas, we filter that sharing from the perspective: am I serving connection here? In the next chapter I say more about the sharing of ideas, stories, advice-giving and coaching within Circling.
And the second distinction which can be helpful, is this: Circling exposes the meta-conversation – the thoughts and emotions that all of us have in ordinary human interactions, but which we rarely speak, or speak fully. This is what makes the practice so powerful: because once the in-the-moment emotional truths are being voiced and heard, it becomes possible to take the conversation to a new level, often a level of deep pleasure in which everyone’s needs are met, even when they initially seemed diverging. We have all experienced an event such as this. People of a more religious orientation may view this type of event as a miracle, a gift of Spirit. People of a more integral or agnostic mindset might call this “an alethea moment.” But regardless of our beliefs, it tends to be a very joyful event.
Circling can be viewed as a relational art form of living from a place where “miracles” happen more frequently.
It speaks somewhat to the dysfunction of our culture, that a practice as simple as Circling (at least in theory) inspires confusion and terror in most people who engage initially. Circling done well can be either terrifying, intensely pleasurable, or both.
The big challenge of Circling is that it is simple in theory but infinitely complex in execution. Very much like love, as any parent can tell you.
Logistics of Circling
When circlers first convene in a group, either in person or via webconference, they are often too numerous for a single circle. In this case they form breakout groups of the “optimal” size, which is 3 to 6 people.
There are two common types of circles: Focus circles, in which one individual is the focus of attention of the group for a set period of time (although with the inclusion of reveals and impacts from other participants), and Flow Circles (sometimes called Organic circles) in which the attention flows back and forth between all participants. Depending on the particular “flavor” of Circling, there will be one or two designated leaders, and a fee which is usually quite modest. There is also a variation of an organic circle called a Surrendered Leadership circle, in which the leaders are willing to “surrender” any particular group structure, either totally or partially, in response to what they perceive as the group need. To note however that “surrender”, sometimes known as “welcome everything” is integral to the practice in all schools of Circling.
My favorite style of Circling, and the one that I teach in my courses, is 20-minute Focus circles. In a good group, a 20-minute focus circle is usually very powerful. The more experience you have as a circlee, and the more experienced the group, the more transformation or insight you can get in a shorter time. With experienced practitioners, a 15 minute focus circle is all you need. I personally have had my life transformed, many times, in 15 minute focus circles. With less experienced participants, however, you will likely need more time. Of course, the longer the focus circles, the less people will have an opportunity to receive a circle in a group.
While this chapter is intended as an introduction to the participant role (or “circlee”), rather than the leader role, it is important to say here that everyone in a circle is a “leader.” You “lead” in a circle by providing presence, vulnerability and empathy. This is, indeed, at the very core of the power and magic of the modality, that in a circle one can lead from any position; and thus the collaborative power of the group is multiplied.
What are the benefits of Circling, why engage the practice? There are several possible motivations, all of which play off each other.
1. Circling is fun!
The experience of being seen and accepted for who we really are, and the sense that we are connected to other human beings and part of a larger whole, is one of the most satisfying of all human experiences. Almost everybody knows how pleasurable this experience can be, and yet most of us move along this path of connecting deeply with others in a haphazard way, achieving success only by accident, as it were.
Unlike most “ordinary” human interactions, such as the kind of conversations that happen in bars, around the water-cooler at work, at church, or even in our families, Circling carries an explicit intent to deeper connection. We go into Circling with the shared desire to “know and be known” in all our humanity, whether our inner experience be glorious or unbearably painful.
Through this agreement to join with others, for a pre-set time, in a shared purpose that includes revealing our truth, Circling tends to cut through the bullshit and the games that we all play, and move us fast into a deeper level of sharing.
2. Circling is developmental
Ultimately, Circling is a training in human relationships and in self-love. Self-love, self-acceptance and the quality of our human connections are perhaps the most important predictors of happiness, while gaining skill in human relationships is probably the most impactful thing we can do to become more effective in both our personal life and in business. Circling helps us to expand our inner and outer worlds, increase our wisdom and discernment, and become happier, more loving and more effective human beings.
An alternative way of saying this is that Circling helps us to uncover our relational blind spots. We all have patterns, ways of being, unhealed hurts and wounds that may push people away and block an experience of deeper intimacy, or deeper friendship and collaboration. When we get immediate feedback from people about how we occur to them, and especially when that feedback is coming from a place of their wanting to connect with us and get our world, those wounded places become sharper and more clearly defined. From there, our “hurt zones” tend to soften and change into something beautiful, something holy. After being seen in this way, we are often shocked and amazed that we did not get this earlier, realizing that the real situation, the emotional truths and unconscious beliefs underlying our behavior, were obvious to everyone except ourselves. This is the gift of relatedness, of being able to “see ourselves through the eyes of others.” What’s more, by letting people into our lives and by allowing them to impact us in a positive way, even when they tell us things that might be initially painful, we often help to heal them too.
3. Circling is a global movement for creating a better society
I believe, along with many others, that Circling and Authentic Relating are truly revolutionary practices which, if they were more widely used, would change human culture and alter the course of human history. By uniting the personal and the political, Circling and Authentic Relating sit at the leading edge of human evolution and human transformational technologies – perhaps even more so than any other modern modality. It’s also very affordable.
The problem of defining and writing about Circling
Circling has been described as “equal parts art form, meditation, and group conversation.” But the truth of the matter is that no one has yet come up with a definition that is fully satisfactory or that everyone can agree on. Even among the 3 “major lineage” schools of Circling, there is controversy about whether what some of them are doing accurately represents the “original” form of Circling, as it was created by Guy Sengstock and Jerry Candelaria. Some people in the movement think that what I am doing is not Circling.
The ultimate cause of these disagreements is that Circling is multi-dimensional (what we call an “integral emergent practice”), and so any attempt to define it will by necessity be limiting. For instance: in this book I am presenting a relationship and communication model that I am calling “Circling.” This model is based on what has worked for me after about 2000 hours of Circling practice, which includes successful leadership of my own groups. Most circlers will agree that what I am presenting here covers some important dimensions of Circling. But Circling is, at most, 50% a relationship model. It would be more accurate to call Circling a presence practice, sometimes known as “we-space”, “unified field”, or even Transpersonal consciousness.
It is impossible to convey the felt-experience of “we-space” in a book. It is an experience which is informally described by circlers as “dropping in”, as in dropping into connection. It is a kind of softening of boundaries, of surrendering into a larger whole, a sense of completion and of perfection of the present moment. It is a non-verbal experience and as such it can happen without any words being spoken. It is an experience that is quite “contagious”: once a critical mass of people in a group “drops in” it is quite probable that everyone will feel it. It can be a very pleasurable and calming experience, but it can also be painful, poignant, sad, bitter-sweet. It cannot be created through an act of will, or even the best communication. But when it happens, it tends to be very transformational.
I attempt to catalog other “we-space practices” in Chapter “X”, and compare them with the Circling practice.
How it actually works: the “minimal viable Circle”
I fear that I am talking too much here, that all this is just going over your head (or in one ear and out the other), and that what you really want is to learn how to practice. Feel free to jump ahead to Chapter 5, if you want, in which I tell you just that (how to practice) – at least as much as it’s possible to tell in a book.
But before you do that, I want to teach you a practice which I call “the minimal viable circle”, because it encapsulates the two main dimensions of circling: vulnerability, and impact / empathy / appreciation. In Chapter 4 we return to these communications as, respectively, the feminine and masculine poles of love.
The “minimal viable circle” is something that you can do with anyone you have an issue with, want a deeper connection, or just looking for fun; and will most likely create spectacular results. It is more of an “on the street” practice (i.e. you would not normally do this in a formal group), but it will, probably, require that your partner be trained in A/R. If you have such a partner (or partners), you can do it in the car, at a restaurant, waiting in line for a movie, or whenever you are having a fight.
It is a fairly simple communication pattern, which, despite its simplicity, is something that you will encounter quite rarely in the world. If people would just do this, every day and all the time (and skillfully, which is not always easy), it would change the world as we know it.
It looks like this:
- [Sender] Vulnerable share, a “feelings and needs” statement, optionally followed by a request
- [Receiver] An impact statement (we’ll explain this below), empathy statement, or appreciation
- Sender and receiver either repeat steps 1 and 2, or else reverse roles (i.e. the Receiver becomes the Sender and offers a vulnerable share, etc)
Repeat until there is complete love and clarity between the two parties, or until they agree to disagree and pursue their separate interests
I will spend a moment unpacking the two roles here. This is actually foundational to understanding how Circling works.
Vulnerable sharing is the first role. As an aside, Brené Brown has built a huge platform based on this idea alone, vulnerability. It’s a very powerful idea.
Here is why vulnerability is so powerful: until you let people know what you want, they can’t help you. Letting people know what you really think and feel, provided you do so skillfully, is always a gift to them, because it gives them an opportunity to care for you and contribute to you, which is very probably what they want (more about this in the next chapter). How to do this skillfully can be a real problem, however: such as when you are feeling angry at people and blaming them for their failure to meet your needs (which is a very human thing to do). We return to this problem (and its solution) in Chapter 5, in the section called “Own your experience.”
A side-note here: Circling does not value “feeling” over “thinking.” Both are aspects of our humanity and are very important. If you want to become an effective relational leader you do, however, need to increase your awareness of how your communications, your thoughts and feelings, “land” on other people. And from there, tailor your communications in a way that can, hopefully, increase their impact. Vulnerability is really an art. To do this effectively, both your head and your heart need to be engaged.
Sharing impacts, empathy, and appreciations
How you respond to a vulnerable share from another person – even an unskillful vulnerable share in which someone is telling you all the things you are doing wrong in meeting their needs, and perhaps what a horrible person you are as well because of this – is the second important role in Authentic Relating and Circling.
In Circling, an “impact” is defined as anything that occurs in your experience in relation to another person. It could be a thought, feeling, body sensation, a visual/auditory image, or whatever. Expressing impacts skillfully can be as challenging as expressing vulnerability skillfully. You want to make it about you, as much as possible, rather than about the other person.
I will mention here two specific forms of “impact”: empathy and appreciation. Those two communication structures are the most powerful in the entire Authentic Relating arsenal, and you really – really – need to amplify them. It is almost impossible to overdo the expression of empathy and appreciation.
An empathy statement is anything the other person says which you can relate to, that speaks to your condition as well, and that makes you feel less alone (because another person has shared an experience that applies directly to your life). Alternatively, an empathy statement is a communication that lets another person know that you understand how they are feeling and that you approve of them as such. In my frame, the first form of empathy is called somatic empathy, while the second form is called cognitive empathy. Both are excellent.
An appreciation is similar, and can also be divided into somatic or cognitive. Typically, it has to do with an acknowledgement of the value that the other person is offering, to you and others. It relates to your seeing and expressing the positive aspects of what they are bringing: their courage, their heart or caring, their intelligence or clear-thinking or expressiveness or emotional attunement, their relative sanity and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances, etc. Appreciations are also very powerful. Dale Carnegie wrote most of a book about that (“How to win friends and influence people”) which is a very good read.
Authentic Relating is profound and complex, however there is a simple formula that will very probably make you a winner right out the gate: double (or maybe quadruple) your empathy statements and appreciations. Appreciation in particular is dead-simple, for the most part. Anybody can do it. It’s actually 90% probable that your appreciating a stranger, your waitress or check-out person, will make them feel better, maybe even make their day – let alone should you send empathy or appreciate your significant other, your child, or your boss.
In Chapter 5, section 6 called “share impact” I discuss why our social conditioning causes us to resist giving impacts and appreciations. My simple advice: Get over it.
Onwards, now, into our first practical case study of Authentic Relating, in which you will also learn NVC. It’s the 2-for-1 special!