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.