How to create a circular process

This is a description of how I design circular meetings. A lot of what I know about circular processes has come from attending General Assemblies of Yukon First Nations over the last 22 years.

In a circular meeting, the overriding belief is that when everyone comes together, and feels safe to share their authentic opinion, the wisdom contained in the assembly will produce stronger relationships, a deeper understanding of the issue, and insight into the shared guiding values and sense of what is meaningful.  This people-centered approach starts where people are at and sees how far they can move forward together.  At the beginning, you do not know where you will be when it ends.  Participants needs to be comfortable with this free form. It often appears to be meandering until insight suddenly appears.

Leadership plays more of a facilitating role in a Circular Process

1. Before any work is attempted the group has to feel connected to their voice, and to each other. In other words, there needs to be a sense of community prior to starting the process. This can happen in several ways. Participating in the enjoyment of art and cultural events connects people in a very human way. Sharing food does as well, providing people with the message that their care is important. Moments of good humour also bring people together along with recognizing and celebrating the good fortune and accomplishments of members.

2. Establish the Container for the meeting

  • Meet in a place that naturally separates people from the rest of the world and allows them to turn towards each other;
  • State the time boundaries and the freedom within it to take the time to hear each other and share true feelings respectfully;
  • Express appreciation for everyone being there and a desire to meet individual’s needs. Everyone should feel safe and appreciated;

3.  Begin with a sharing round, leading to the left (direction of the heart) offering each person a moment to pay attention to where they are at and give it language. The leader goes first and models owning their perspective. When not speaking each person listens carefully to understand and connect.

4. The leader introduces a topic for people to consider and starts another sharing round. People listen for connections between what they feel and others are saying. They may also note where they do not fully understand what someone else is saying.

5. The leader calls for a break and offers an opportunity for people to seek out either like minded people to connect on their shared views, or a chance to be curious about different perspectives with the intention of making a connection with what they are saying (not to convince or persuade a person to see your perspective).

6. Return to the group with an opportunity to share distilled insights. A call to give language to a resolution that speaks to the group wisdom. There may be several phases of breaking for small group collaboration and whole group consideration to develop a collection of resolutions that speak to the overlapping wisdom of the group on the subject at hand. These will be memorable and meaningful.

7. Conclude with a consensus vote which is a collective process of witnessing and confirming and celebrating the finding of the overlap of views.  There are two options in a vote. One is to agree or agree not to disagree. The other is to disagree. People sometimes vote to not disagree because although they don’t see the benefit, they don’t see it causing any harm and they want to support the group in their insights. In a consensus vote, the principle of enough is held in people’s hearts. Whatever point of agreement is reached by these people in the allotted amount of time is enough. They will acknowledge where they are at, celebrate the ability to make it visible, and move forward allowing that knowledge to guide them. If even one person feels strongly enough to disagree it is understood that there must be an aspect that still needs to be explored and the status quo is maintained until the next meeting. The benefit of the gathering was the opportunity to hear the full range of opinion and give it consideration.

8.Close a circular meeting with an expression of gratitude to the participants. The transparency (public vote) of the process is fundamental to the functioning between meetings. People are accountable to each other for their behaviour moving forward and inspired to support each other by allowing the resolutions to guide their decisions.

My favourite example of a circular meeting was the Paris Climate Change Talks. The French managed to create a circular process for a large number of people in a high pressure times.

How to build a linear process

A linear process is any process that results from linear thinking.  In its most basic form making a daily list is a linear process.  At the other end of the spectrum running a government would be an example of a linear process.

There is no shortage of information on how to build a linear process.  There is a mountain of textbooks on project management, leadership books, and training programs.  I decided the value I might add to the discussion is a brief description that describes the critical aspects of the process at a glance.  This becomes really useful when we go to compare it to the circular process.


        1. Define the goal in a specific and measurable way including a timeframe.
        2. Assemble the team and motivate them by instilling a clear picture of the challenge they are facing, the strategy that will be undertaken to overcome it, and the benefits of success.
        3. Develops a plan that identifies all the parameters that need to be addressed and breaks the challenges into manageable chunks including timelines, and cost estimates.
          1. Consider potential obstacles and develop contingency plans;
          2. Identify required skills, resources to do the job;
          3. Assign tasks to special teams.
        4. Hold regular meetings to get reports on how the plan is progressing, track measureable parameters to define progress. Ensure everyone is well focused and pushing towards the goal.
        5. Hold the space for individuals to work hard, fix mistakes, and overcome obstacles. Control the pressure, take responsibility for adherence to the plan, and preserve the integrity of the process through delivery of consequences and rewards where merited.
        6. Announce the successful achievement of the goal with report on the numbers that indicate the magnitude of the achievement and the sharing of the profits and benefits of success. Restock the stores, fine-tune safety practices, rest, etc.


This steps will be customized to the personality of each leader and the scope of the project.


a little theory

There have been great scientific advances made in the last decade around how the mind works – many of which a person could have concluded intuitively. Two Ways of Knowing finds support in the results of neurobiology research, psychology, and the experiences of people who care about good communication.

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and neurobiology at the University of Southern California, and author of Self Comes to Mind and Descarte’s Error, developed a theory of the relationship between emotions and decision-making.

Damasio’s research began with a record of Phineas Gage’s medical history. He was a railroad construction manager on a track to success when a spike three feet log and an inch and a half wide was accidentally driven through his head. Remarkably, he remained conscious and able to walk to the cart and talk as co-workers took him to the doctor in 1848.  He recovered physically, except for the loss of sight in one eye, fully able to move, talk, hear, sense touch – but his ability to process feelings was damaged.  The interesting thing was, this also meant he was unable to make decisions that would benefit him.

Phineas had no ability to read social cues. He lost his job and his ability to get along with people. Similar effects on people with damage to the same emotion processing areas of the brain led Damasio to propose that information needs to have an emotion attached to it in order for it to be called upon in decision-making. When a person’s connection to one or both of these two broad categories of emotions, the felt experience of pleasure or potential pain (love and fear), is damaged, there is no decision-making.

These two drives create a kind of homeostasis in human thought processes. We pull in or are pulled in by what we feel love for, love being a drive towards connection in its broadest interpretation. We push back against or seek to control what we feel will cause us pain or be detrimental to us in the future. Together they provide a balance of nourishment and protection.

Practicing two ways of knowing is fundamental to the human condition. We care about relationships and we care about productivity.  We want meaning and direction.  Every person is capable of both ways of knowing. A person may have a default preference, or an environment may foster one over the other, but we are wired as humans to be capable of both styles of thinking.

Daniel Siegel, who has made a career of integrating brain science with psychology also found that emotions fall into two broad categories, which he calls survival and attachment circuits. He correlates what 2WK would describe as linear and circular thinking with left and right brain activity. He describes the left brain as linear, logical and literate – the list maker. It sees things in terms of an on/off switch described as an “OR” point of view. The right brain is holistic, image and metaphor processing – it sees life in terms of an “AND” point of view (Siegel 2010, 108).

Siegel describes two powerful but quite distinct neural processes in our heads that seem to inevitably be at war with each other. Indeed, he notes that when one mode dominates for long periods of time we become rigid or chaos results (Siegel 2010, 109). Optimal functioning of these two drives is to move from one to the other.

International facilitator and negotiator Adam Kahane also came to the conclusion that there are two drives in the human condition. His work in bringing large groups of people together to solve social issues in areas such as the Middle East and India changed forever when he recognized there were two drivers at play. In his book Power and Love he describes power as the ability to achieve one’s objective and get the job done. 2WK describes this kind of power as linear – the ability to assert your will even against the will of others (Max Weber).   He describes love as “the drive towards unity of the separated,” (Kahane 2010, 3). 2WK sees love as another form of power, the ability to be all that you can be and want the same for others. Each way of knowing has its own source of power. Kahane uses different language but comes to the same conclusion through his experience in working with people. As humans we have access to two ways of knowing and each creates its own form of power.

Research has also given early indication that fear and love cannot operate simultaneously. Dr. Charles Limb, an Associate Professor of John Hopkins University, conducted experiments where he placed a jazz musician with a special piano into an fMRI and observed his brain as he did improv. A rapper was also placed in the fMRI and fed random words to rap with. In both cases fear centers of the brain were inactive while creative centers lit up. Dr. Limb noted that the self-inhibiting parts of the brain are inactive when masters are being creative. He suggested fear and creativity (love-driven) are incompatible (TED Charles Limb).

To put it another way, you can’t be in linear and circular mode at the same time and get a good result. Daniel Siegel proposes that when the attachment drive and the survival drive are triggered at the same time it creates an unresolvable conflict – two opposite drives in the person at the same time which causes a very painful sense of being fragmented (Siegel 2010, 185, 195).

These two drives, two ways of knowing, are opposite of each other. Ideally, one shuts down while the other is called into service. They each have a mechanism to keep them separated. This has a positive effect.  However, when over-activated, linear and circular thinkers lose sight of the benefit in the other. Using their EITHER/OR mentality, linear thinkers find circular methods irrational, a distraction to be eliminated or ignored.

Circular thinkers see the removal of our humanity, also known as objectivity, as a loss of their core values, which is not to be tolerated. They are driven to incorporate the AND principle and be inclusive rather than seek to focus discussion or limit ideas. They seek to incorporate the human ability to see patterns and intuit into their decisions.  Participating in a linear process feels like a betrayal to a circular thinker.

These problems occur because each is only seeing part of the picture. Recognition that there are two ways of knowing, both of  which are valuable, opens the door to crossing the distance between the two modes.

Dan Pink’s work on motivation highlights that there is great resistance to switching to circular modes even when there is much linear evidence to show the benefits. He uses variations of the candle experiment where he gives subjects a creative challenge and offers money incentives and competition, to demonstrate his point. Participants are given a candle, tacks and matches in a tray and asked to attach the candle to the wall. Increasing the potential reward does not improve productivity. Solving the problem requires creative thought. You have to think outside the box, as it were, and use the tray the candle and tack were in as part of the answer. Successful participants tacked the tray to the wall and put the candle in it (see TED Dan Pink). This requires freedom to move in any direction (autonomy) which is the opposite of moving towards a set goal. Offering bonuses moves people to linear mode where they focus on getting the bonus.  What is required is autonomy, resources and knowing they are safe even if they fail.

Circular and linear modes are functionally opposite of each other.  The beauty is, when we become consciously aware of the benefits of each mode they function very well in an alternating pattern.