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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Clark

A Beginner's Guide to Circling

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

Circling is a core practice in the relational arts. That comes down to how profound and flexible it is, providing practitioners with seemingly endless possibilities while always bringing us back to the same foundation of presence with others.

Below, we’ll go over what circling is and why it is so important, but the practice often requires experiencing people circling to really “get it.” So you’ll probably want to listen to some of the Practice episodes of The Container podcast to really grasp what circling is and can be. But nothing (really, nothing) can replace actual practice with other people.

guide to circling

What is circling?

Circling is meeting with other people in the present and trying to stay there for a certain amount of time.

This can look like many things, but one of the easiest ways to begin might look like this:

  • a group sitting in a literal circle

  • with everyone focusing on sharing experiences like:

    • physical sensations (I feel this…)

    • observations of others in the circle (I notice you did this…)

    • highlighting stories that these sensations and observations give rise to (I have a story that this feeling is because of…)

    • curiosity about others in the circle (I’m curious about…)

  • people limiting their sharing of:

    • personal history (things that happened outside the circle)

    • ideas, theories, concepts

    • talk that brings attention outside of the people in the circle

Does it sound complicated? It isn’t. To get started, all you need to do is sit in a group and try to focus on what is absolutely present.

Here are some helpful ways to form the things you say while circling:

  • “I notice…”

    • This can include feelings in your body or things you observe in others you are circling with

  • “I have a story that…”

    • This can include any beliefs or narratives that come across your mind while circling

  • “I’m curious about…”

    • This can open a question that invites people in the circle to share about their own experience — but don’t be surprised if they take it in new, exciting directions

It doesn’t matter that you do it right all the time. The important thing is that you try to stay present.

The Circling Container

It’s important in circling to have a container — setting aside a place and time that you will circle.

You do that in three parts:

  • Set the Container:

    • Make the space conducive to circling (quiet, free of interruptions, etc.)

    • Get everybody on the same page

    • Serve any biological needs before starting

    • Silence (or better yet, turn off) phones

  • Practice:

    • Set a timer (start somewhere between 10 to 20 minutes, but explore with all kinds of times)

    • Give at least 30 seconds for everybody to drop in with themselves before talking (don’t skip this, it’s crucial)

    • Practice circling

    • Stop as soon as the timer goes off

  • Debrief:

    • Reflect on what the circle was like

    • Highlight and analyze key moments or big insights

    • Discuss potential theory or practical concepts (What are other choices I could make if in a similar situation again? How did the moves I chose to make effect the circle?)

The Big Four Moves

In circling, a move is an intentional action you take related to your practice. There are four major ones you can make:

  1. Make a neutral observation (I notice you are moving back and forth.)

  2. Share impact (Hearing that, I feel waves of energy moving up from my stomach.)

  3. Proactively disclose some feature of your experience (Right now, I’m feeling warm and buzzy.)

  4. Express genuine curiosity about something (I’m curious what it’s like to be you right now.)

What if I do something wrong?

There are things we can do that seem to be really good at staying present in the circle. So we want to emphasize those activities — like saying how you are feeling or asking others to share what life is like for them right now.

But there are basically an infinite number of choices we can make at any given time. Some of those will get everyone in the circle really focused on the present. Others will only focus on the present a little bit. And, of course, some will be massive distractions that will force people to try and circle the resulting mess of vibes.

So, how do you decide what your next move will be?

Try starting with the sentence stems and questions below:

  • Reliable Sentence Stems

    • I notice…

    • Right now, I’m feeling…

    • A narrative my mind is creating is…

    • I feel curious about…

    • I am imagining…

    • I have a story that…

    • The way I interpret that is…

    • What comes up for me is…

    • What’s alive for me is…

  • Reliable Questions

    • What’s alive for you?

    • What’s happening for you?

    • What was it like to hear that?

    • Does that land for you?

    • What comes up for you around that?

    • What’s that like?

    • What else is there?

    • How is this experience going for you?

At some point, you’ll find yourself wanting to step out beyond these training wheels. That’s okay! Every choice you make in a circle simply affects it in a unique way. It’s up to the people in the circle to discover what to do next. The sentence stems above are just a few ideas to get you comfortable getting started.

But what is circling, really?

Circling is whatever we make it in the moment.

Frustrating, right? Well, sometimes, circling is frustrating. But whether it is frustrating or not, it is a group of people striving to be in the present together.

Remember, we all show up in our own ways. Some of us are battling disease, heartbreak, and stress. Some of us are suffering from poverty, trauma, and addiction. Still others might be on joy rides you’ve never thought possible. Nevertheless, we all show up at the circle and try to simply see and share what is going on right this second.

The circle is a container where we protect and prioritize this moment we share. It will always look different, and it will always change while you are doing it. If you feel really lost, look to others in the circle for examples of what the practice looks like.

Got any pro tips to get started?

  1. Respect Yourself: You have needs. You are probably the leading expert on what those needs are, so act like it. If you really need to go to the restroom at any time, get up and go. If you need to step out because you think something is going to give you a panic attack, do it. If you need to take five because that’s what you need, do it.

  2. Acknowledge Adulthood: Everyone allowed in the circle is an adult. That means we acknowledge that, while we might try to be respectful, we expect everyone else to be in control of their own involvement. If something is potentially boundary-testing or emotionally difficult, we presume people in the circle will speak up for themselves if they are uncomfortable. This understanding allows everybody to focus on their practice rather than trying to do unnecessary caretaking for others.

  3. Pursue the Edge: When we think about our engagement in terms of a stop light, it breaks down into three categories.

    1. Green: Activity that is easy and low-stakes.

    2. Yellow: Activity that makes us a bit uncomfortable, but we can manage it.

    3. Red: Activity that (re)activates trauma or in some way pushes us too far. While circling, let’s try to pursue the yellow. You don’t need to step a single toe in the red, and it’s okay to be in the green a little — but yellow is your friend. That’s where we tend to learn and grow the most.

  4. Ask for Confidentiality: Remember that everything you are saying is in a group of people who could repeat whatever they hear. So, make sure to ask for confidentiality if you need it (you can do this before you share something or after the fact). And if someone ever asks you for confidentiality — either before they share something or after — honor that request.

  5. Stay Safe: These groups are grown organically. None of us can predict who will show up. At the same time, circling leads to feelings of deep connection very quickly. That makes it smart to maintain healthy boundaries. At the same time, given our adulthood and self-respect, we are not in the business of policing how others mutually pursue connections made while circling.

Circle, Circle, Circle

The key to this practice is to practice. Continue to watch and read material on it, but you just have to practice.

Luckily, circling is free. All you need is one other person who is interested in trying it with you.

So why don’t you start?

For more info on circling, check out these posts:

And check out this episode of the podcast:

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