Are you a circular or a linear thinker?

Have you ever been in a conversation and felt like you’ve just been hit by a train?  Or, that the person you are talking to is from another planet, and there might be unicorns and endless time there?  These are extreme cases, but I do sometimes find myself in a discussion IMG_2536where I feel that there are assumptions being made that I don’t agree with or even understand.  It makes it hard to join the discussion.

The root of this disconnect may be that a circular thinker is meeting a linear thinker and they’re not recognizing their difference.  Each of these modes has a set of operating conditions that are intuitively being applied.  When this profound point is not recognized, and people are in different modes, the conversation can go off the rails very quickly.

Here’s a quick quiz to determine your thinking style.  Imagine yourself facing a challenge.  Does column one or column two  feel like the best way to proceed?

Column One                                             Column Two

1. Define the goal                                   1. Gather and welcome everyone affected

2. Develop a strategy                             2. Think about the questions to be asked

3. Make a plan                                       3. Interactively share information

4. Set time lines, costs, tasks                 4. Recognize a pattern, get an idea

5. Activate the plan                                 5. Create a prototype and try it

6. Measure progress                              6. Respond to the information and redesign

Column one is a linear thinking process and column two is circular.  Some of you may have seen yourself more drawn to one mode or the other.  This can be the result of a cultural norm or a personal comfort zone. Scientists often think linearly while artists think circularly; men on average lean towards linear thinking while women are more circular; aboriginal people traditionally think in circles while westerners tend to think linearly.

Possibly you answered “it depends.”  Biologically we are all capable of both styles of thinking and both are highly valuable.

Neuroscience has shown us that there are two fundamental ways we as humans can choose to view the world.  My geology professor, Bob Mason, used to say “there are two kinds of geologists; ones who say this is just like (fill in a deposit name), or ones who say this is nothing like…. The rest are fence sitters, just gathering useless information.”

We are biologically designed to either pull in what we love or push away what is detrimental or a waste of time.  Antonio Damasio‘s research at the University of Southern California found that a huge volume of information reaches our brains every day.  We must attach a love-based or a fear-based emotion to a piece of information for it to become available to us in decision making.  This is why tests are so effective.  We attach a fear based emotion to all the information required to get the grade.  Without the fear it is just a bunch of data.  Another way to learn is to be curious and engaged with the material.  Attaching these love based emotions also embeds information and makes it available for future use.

Fear leads to a linear style of thinking.  It is logical, focused, objective, disciplined, and goal oriented in order to push back against the danger fear has identified for us.  Without this instinct we could not survive.

Circular thinking focuses on pulling in more of what you want.  It is rooted in a drive to be inclusive and transparent – a belief that the answer will come when everyone with an interest is present and a diverse array of thoughts are considered.  It responds to an internal curiosity and subjectively seeks to find what is meaningful and stay aligned with that through a series of course adjustments.  WIthout circular thinking we could not change, feel contentment or develop relationships.

This blog is going to explore how knowing you are applying circular or linear thinking can make a difference to you in big and small ways.

How to create a circular process

  1. A lot of what I know about circular processes has come from attending General Assemblies of Yukon First Nations over the last 22 years.  The overriding belief is that when everyone comes together and feels safe to share their authentic opinion respectfully, the wisdom contained in the assembly will produce the best option for moving forward.  This people centered approach starts where people are at and moves forward from there.  From beginning of the process you do not know where you will be when it ends.  Participants needs to be comfortable with that ambiguity.

Leadership Role in Guiding a Circular Process

1. Make connections to human qualities in yourself, each other and the community prior to starting the process.

  • Participate in art and culture events (connects a diverse group of people);
  • Provide and share food;
  • Share good humour;

Create opportunities to share interests and accomplishments.

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;
  • Establish the time boundaries and the freedom within it to take the time required to hear each other and share true feelings respectfully;
  • Offer an environment where everyone feels safe and appreciated by offering gratitude for showing up and for all the hard work we are about to do;

3. Describe the topic or agenda and remind all that their role is to listen to find points of connection among all the voices;

    4. Begin with a sharing round, leading to the left (direction of the heart) offering each person a moment to pay attention to what they feel about the subject and give it language (owning it as their perspective). When not speaking each person listens carefully to find points of overlap and language that will capture it. They may also consider how they might adjust their position in order to create areas on overlap.
    5. Break and allow spontaneous exchanges where people start to work out possible wording to describe shared values. Special attention is given to people who are the outliers, to try to fully understand their interests and concerns.
    6. Regroup and assess the need for further discussion or ask for tabling of a resolution. If more than one offering, table them both and then synthesize them, or choose one to start with. Open the floor for comments (encouraging people to express how they feel or genuinely ask questions to understand points of remaining concern – not to discredit people). Adjust the resolution, and gradually increase the areas of connection.
      7. Assess if a break for more spontaneous discussion would be beneficial or if there is the possibility of a successful vote. Approaching the time boundaries may also stimulate a vote.
      8. There are two options in a vote – agree or agree not to disagree OR disagree. People sometimes agree to not disagree because they have been heard and recognize the benefit to the collective. The principle of enough is held in people’s hearts. 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.
      9.Close with an expression of gratitude to the participants. The transparency (public vote) of the process is fundamental to the functioning between meetings. People will conduct themselves after the meeting holding in their hearts the resolutions they have been a part of.

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. He describes “a knower, by whatever name one may want to call it – [that] needs to be generated in the brain if the mind is to become conscious,” (Damasio, pg 11, 2012). I suggest he is actually talking about two knowers. One is inward looking, searching to find connections, and an authentic way of being. The other is outward looking, driven by objectivity in order to process the information brought in by the fear instinct. This self has its head up looking for incoming dangers and ready for physical action.

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, 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. He had no ability to read social cues, 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, that person is unable to make a decision.  Some call it survival and attachment modes, there is a correlation with right brain and left brain thinking.  Two Ways of Knowing calls it circular and linear thinking because it identifies the different operating styles that create the two modes.

These two drives create a kind of homeostasis in human thought processes (Damasio 2012, 51-60). 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. “Optimal ranges express themselves in the conscious mind as pleasurable feelings; dangerous ranges, as … painful feelings,” (Damasio 1994, 54). 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 (Siegel 2010, 185). 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). However, 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 recognize circular methods are not like theirs and therefore bad. Is it like us or is it foreign (the other), is the lens they use.   They find circular methods irrational, a distraction to be eliminated or ignored.

Circular thinkers see the removal of caring about our humanness, 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 incorporate the human ability to see patterns and intuit into their decisions.  Participating in a linear process feels like a betrayal.

The problem is that each is only seeing part of the picture. Recognition that there are two ways of knowing, both of  which are valuable when understood in their totality, 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. They cannot operate at the same time without resulting in damage. They are also resistant to each other but if we persist in just one mode of thinking it will eventually lead to rigidity or chaos. The beauty is, when we become consciously aware of the benefits of each mode they function very well in an alternating pattern.