Calling Circles: A business practice for conversations that matter by Kerry Sandison

Symptoms of conversations that don’t matter

Many managers complain about the number of meetings that they attend daily. People often feel that many meetings are not really productive, take longer than they need to, waste time and are vehicles for a few people to air or enforce their views. Many are de- energising rather than energizing, boring rather than enlivening.

In our experience most culture and climate surveys the quality of communication is one of the lowest ranked items. People express frustration at being kept in the dark, not being consulted about things that affect them, of their ideas not being explored or their frustrations and feedback being ignored.

Many groups in organisations feel marginalized. Some typically marginalised groups are women, junior staff, Blacks, back office support staff. They know they have a lot to offer and yet their perspectives and uniqueness are seldom valued or tapped into. Their experience is that their voice is silenced or minimized in a myriad intentional and unintentional ways.

Why conversations matter

Business is about relationships. Yes it is about making profits and growing marketshare, and keeping customers but all of these outcomes are dependent on relationships. The quality of relationships formed and built across the entire value chain is what determines whether the organisation is mediocre, good or great. We build relationships through conversations, whether it is a scripted conversation on the phone with a call centre agent or a negotiation for a merger, a tough performance discussion or an interviewing a prospective candidate for a job.

Conversations matter, conversations open the door to possibilities and new opportunities.


Imagine a place where you are heard

Imagine a place where you feel safe and supported

Imagine a place where you can take your dreams and ideas

Imagine a place where you can laugh and weep without feeling judged



This is not silly dreaming. There are countless people discovering that this place does in fact exist. It exists in the growing number of circles all over the world that are meeting to reshape peoples lives, workplaces and communities, into what might be, into the impossible dream awakened and lived into reality.

People have been meeting in circles since the discovery of fire and perhaps even before that, so the knowledge of what it means to be part of a circle is deeply rooted in our physical and social DNA. Christina Baldwin in her book, calling the circle says that ‘a circle is not just a meeting with the chairs rearranged. A circle is a way of doing things differently than we have been accustomed to. The circle is a return to our original form of community as well as a leap forward to create a new form of community’

There is a story of the 100th monkey which comes from the experience of scientists working off the coast ofJapan who had been studying monkey colonies on many separate islands for over 30 years. To keep track of them they lured them out of trees by dropping sweet potatoes on the beach. One day an eighteen month old female they had called Imo started to wash her sweet potato in the sea before eating it. One day all the monkeys on the island were washing their potatoes.

Then suddenly monkeys on all the neighboring islands were washing their potatoes without having had any direct contact with Imo and her colony.

This has become known as the 100th monkey effect – the notion that once enough member of a species are engaging in a certain behaviour the rest of the species will follow suit. This phenomenon has been well documented by biologists such as Rupert Sheldrake.

Jean Shinoda Bolen a Japanese American psychoanalyst and author took this idea and turned it into the dream of a million circles across the world, of people meeting with the intention of reshaping our world into a more humane one. The idea of a million circles is metaphorical, it might be sufficient to have 800,000 or it may take 5 million circles. But if enough of us gather in circles to dream, encourage and support the living of those dreams then we become part of the movement that drives change in the world. And when enough circles are dreaming and acting together then we will start to see change in the world.


Circle Practices

In her book on circles Christina Baldwin says that there are 3 principles for sitting in circle

  1. leadership rotates – every person in the circle has a contribution to make and at different times different people step briefly into the leadership role to do what is necessary in that moment
  2. responsibility is shared – each person takes ownership for providing whatever the circle needs, that may be asking for silence, asking questions, offering to host the next circle
  3. knowing that something greater is created when people come together – that something sacred is created in the centre of the circle when people take their place on the rim

And to hold the rim requires that each person:

  • Is willing to show up and be present to whatever happens
  •  Is prepared to listen deeply and to suspend judgment
  • Is able to let go of the need to be in charge or be right
  • Believes that the group of people gathered together in the circle collectively hold the wisdom and have the creativity to produce extraordinary outcomes.

In the circle it can be useful to have a talking piece ie any object, a pen, a stone, a paperweight that gets passed from person to person in the circle. People may only speak when they are holding the talking piece. This way you ensure that no-one dominates the space and that even the most reticent person is actively invited to participate when they hold the talking piece. People however do not have to speak when they have the talking piece and are free to pass it on without speaking.

In our modern organisations we are mostly rushed, constantly under pressure and very outcomes focused. There are agendas and time limits for each agenda item and every discussion. In the circle we need to have a clear intention and focus but then we have to let go of the need for specific outcomes and to trust that in the process of conversations over time new understandings will develop, new relationships will be formed, fresh perspectives will emerge. And these are the ingredients for better outcomes in the business focused task meetings. Once people have learnt to be in circle and in deeper, respectful conversation with each other they will bring this attention, understanding and skill to the business as usual meetings.

Each time you start the circle it can be useful to have the talking piece go round the circle twice from person to person to give everyone an opportunity to have their voice heard. Then you can place it in the centre of the circle. When people wish to speak they pick up the piece from the centre and when they are done they replace it.  When you are ready to close the circle it is useful to again send the talking piece around for each person to have a last word if they so wish to reflect on the conversation and the experience.

Whoever you are, whatever your role in the organisation you have the power to call a circle. Call a circle to meet at lunchtime to discuss a current pressing organisational issue. Call a circle to bring together departments that are in conflict with each other. Call a circle of support for people who are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, close to burnout. Call a circle to discuss whatever you needs see in your organisation.

Set a clear intention and focus for the discussion and then call a circle, see who shows up, introduce them to the principles and practices mentioned above and then sit back and see what happens in the space that has been created.


1 Comment to “Calling Circles: A business practice for conversations that matter by Kerry Sandison”

  • I have enjoyed reading the article and I believe that it will be different and more interactive. I am going to teat this in meetings at our organisation. While reading the article I asked myself what about power point presentations how do we do that in a circle however I believe that it has a place in the circle when required. Thank you Kerry for sharing your insights on this platform.

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