Sitting at the Table Together – Circle Sharing

What sort of conversations do we want?

This work was inspired in 2009 by my observation that our very limited way of sharing information in most work environemts greatly limited the potential outcomes. This is a way of sharing my learnings from The Men’s Work Project, WA Annual Men’s Gathering, Darlington Men’s Group, Pathways Foundation and Sociocracy to other parts of society.

In meetings have you:

  • Felt not listened to?
  • Had your points ignored?
  • Found it hard to be heard?
  • Been spoken over?
  • Had to loudly put your point to get into the discussion?
  • Felt that your point was expressed poorly?

Circle sharing can help overcome these concerns and lead to richer outcomes. Let me provide an example.

Our task, eight of us, self-selected, friends and strangers, all volunteers, was to create a weekend event for 100 men. We had 10 months to design, promote, enrol and orchestrate ceremonies, workshops, group meetings towards our theme ‘Better Men for a Better World’.

Our first meeting – welcome, food, check in, business. We felt good – why?

Because we put connecting with each other before the work. We did this at all our meetings even with the pressure of the last two weeks before the event. We also put in place strong rules around listening. We sat in circles.

There were tough times, emotional times, conflict times. We were open and honest. Above all we shared our personal journeys together.

We found we got the business done efficiently and easily when we were connected. Sometimes the check in was even longer than the business.

The following section is designed to share tools that I have used successfully in my work as well as in forums such as men’s groups.

Tools for Having the Conversation We Want

The Check In

This involves sharing how we are that day or how we are feeling in relation to the meeting at hand. In Sociocracy this is called the Opening Round. The opening round creates energy in the room and creates a sense of belonging to each person in the room. I call this connection. It happens when people share their uppermost concerns at the moment, particularly with respect to the aim of the meeting. Buck and Villines (2007).

Check In’s can take a variety of forms depending on the situation and timeframe, how well people know each other, level of trust and degree of confidentiality.

It may be important to stipulate the time allowed per person for the Check In. It is important that every person has an opportunity to share.

Examples of Check Ins

  1. Use one word to describe how you are feeling right now. Good words are sad, mad, glad, fear and shame.
  2. An extension of the one or two word response (you may feel sad and mad!) is to explain why you are feeling that way. This is best in groups that have already built trust and have rules for confidentiality.
  3. Humour can be good. For example you can ask: What sort of vegetable do you feel like today. And then go around the room in turn. We did this recently with a group of 16. It created much humour and created a good basis for the meeting, which was about food.
  4. Use the topic to create connection. At a recent meeting each person was asked to explain their passion for being at the meeting. When we finished the sharing we felt connected, we had shared from our hearts as well as our intellect. One person had not thought about their work in this way before and it was transforming for them.
  5. Check In’s can also be longer and allow someone or a number of people to share deeply how they are travelling.

So the Check In connects us, it can connect us at a ‘heart’ level. We are not just there to ‘do the work’ but also because we have connected a little with each other. A successful check in can create a sense of community, of sharing the journey together.

The Check In creates the foundations for fruitful meetings.

The Talking Stick

The Talking Stick is a tool to create good listening. We use this a lot in men’s groups. The talking stick can be any object but often a special object is used. In the Darlington Men’s Group we use a wooden duck!

The person who has the Talking Stick has ‘the right to speak’. Everyone else’s role is to listen. Sometimes we go around the circle in turn. Sometimes ‘the stick’ is placed in the middle and is picked up when someone feels ready to speak. The silences can be powerful. If a person does not wish to speak they can pass the stick on or not pick up the stick, this is respected.

The Talking Stick is great for Check Ins and can also be used in the business part of meetings. It is up to a meeting to decide the most productive format. Sometimes think tank and debate approaches can provide rich outcomes. In my experience making sure every voice is heard is very important. This can be achieved without a physical ‘Talking Stick’ by following rules of respectful listening.

I heard of coloured pipe cleaners being on the table for bright ideas. If someone has a bright idea they can pick up a pipe cleaner and wait for a suitable space to speak. This is better than butting in.

The listening is the important part.

Talking from the ‘I’

This is important for the Check In and also for the business part of meetings.

I am feeling ……. I think this because ……

This gets away from generalisations “most people think this therefore it must be right”

When we talk from the ‘I’ it is easier to have respect.


Respect for others views is important for successful meetings. Acknowledgement that a persons views are valid from their perspective and experience is important. The listener’s opportunity is to try and understand the speakers perspective – to walk in their shoes. When we do this it is surprising how barriers come down and frequently a common understanding emerges.

The Facilitator

The Facilitator has an important role in ensuring that agreed rules are followed. This can be done gently and with respect. For example if someone is not talking from the ‘I’ the Facilitator can gently tap his/her heart can indicate to the speaker to come back to the ‘I’.

An important role for the Facilitator may be to ask a question of clarification if he/she feels that the speaker has more to contribute but is unsure of time or feeling unsure in themselves. This often allows the ‘real’ issues to emerge.

The Check Out

This is called the Closing Round in Sociocracy and is always used. It is also used in Future Warriors meetings to ensure that there is no incomplete business between people. It is used less often in men’s groups.

The Check Out provides an opportunity for people to voice how they feel about the meeting process or their relationship with people in the meeting. They are usually quite quick but can take longer if issues emerge; it is not a time to go over the meeting again. The Check Out ensures that people do not leave feeling unheard or aggrieved. If there are concerns with process or people these can be dealt with then (best) or arrangements made for the issue to be followed up promptly.


We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy – J. Buck and S. Villines. 2007