Living Justice Press

About the Circle Process

What Do We Mean by "Circle"?

What we understand as the “Circle process” has been a part of the community life of Indigenous peoples around the world for millennia. And different Indigenous peoples have their own ways of conducting Circle-type processes.

Non-Natives who now use talking Circles have, directly or indirectly, learned Circle values and practices from Indigenous people. The process is endlessly adaptable to different situations and cultures. Non-Native Circle practitioners use elements that are culturally appropriate and comfortable for those in their group. This happens organically.

So, while we are attempting to give a description of the Circle process here as many of those we know practice it, we do not view ourselves as an “authority” on the subject. Rather, because the term “Circle” has gained a wide usage, we simply want to indicate for newcomers what is generally meant. On our listing of Circle people, each person describes his or her work, and we leave it to our Web visitors to decide whom they would like to contact for further discussion about the Circle process.

As we understand the Circle process from many of the Circle people we know, “Circle” refers to a process of facilitating dialogue wherein:

1. A talking piece is the primary mode of regulating the conversation, so that each person has an equal opportunity to speak.

2. Participants engage in an intentional conversation about values and a set of guidelines for how they want to be together.

3. The process opens and closes with some form of ceremony.

4. Building relationships precedes and is treated as equally important as tackling difficult issues.

An excellent guide to “healing Circles” is available online in a blog sponsored by the Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI) in Chicago:

Not all people who describe their work as Circles engage all aspects of the process. Sometimes that is fine; other times the experience is less than what it could be. For example, a friend told us that she wasn’t too keen on Circles. She had attended one where participants “ganged up” on the person they deemed to be “the problem” and then told the person what to do. Needless to say, this is not our understanding of how Circles work.

Also, some YouTube clips show people sitting in a circle but not using a talking piece. They also show participants going right into talking about the conflict without first exploring shared values, agreeing on guidelines, or spending time building relationships and an understanding of each other. Again, Circles engage these processes in order to create a safe space for all the participants and to build good relations that endure beyond addressing the immediate conflict or harm..


As a publisher on Circles, we naturally recommend books that strive to convey a fuller understanding of the philosophy and practice of Circles.

The Circle: A Safe Space to Come Together

In Indigenous societies, coming together in a circle has been as natural as sitting around a fire and reflecting on shared concerns.  It inspires a different quality of conversation. People tell stories and share experiences.  We are more likely to speak from our hearts and listen from our hearts as well.  We want to experience each other not as adversaries but as fellow human beings.  We find a place where we can share what is going on with us, whatever that may be.

The Circle process brings these qualities into modern experience.  Circles offer a different way of dealing with the challenges of every day life as well as of responding to the larger challenges we face.  Circles help us learn how to “be in a good way” with each other, and they give us a place and time to practice this positive way of being.

  • Circles draw on our best values;
  • Circles help participants respond from one’s best self;
  • Circles build community;
  • Circles create a space for deep listening and being heard;
  • Circles generate mutual understanding and respect;
  • Circles honor all voices equally;
  • Circles make decisions by consensus;
  • Circles cultivate mutual support;
  • Circles honor the gifts, knowledge, talents, and experiences that each participant brings.

Though participants may not realize it at first, Circles offer a structured form of dialogue. The idea is that we can engage in difficult conversations most fruitfully when we first nurture our shared values. Setting aside time up front to build relationships based on what we have in common, Circles create a safe space for participants to express different viewpoints and strong emotions as they discuss difficult issues later on. The process is useful for both communicating and making decisions.

Participating in Circles is inherently transformative, because we experience the world from more perspectives than our own.  Drawing on diverse knowledge and experiences, Circles generate options and solutions that are often outside the box of conventional thinking and that often go beyond what one person could generate on their own.

Circles Can Help Many Situations and Needs

The circumstances in which Circles can be valuable are virtually unlimited.  Here are a few areas where the use of Circles holds enormous potentials.  Many of these applications are already in use:

Schools: Enhance learning in the classroom; reduce bullying; deal with behavior issues constructively; build team spirit in sports.

Youth & Youth Centers: Address issues that lead to gang involvement; build team and interpersonal skills; promote safe teen driving.

Families: Support parent–child relations; deepen relations between spouses and partners; ease the pain and conflict around divorce; help to blend new families; enrich retirement; deal with deaths, wills and estates.

Support for: Grief, emotional healing, transitions in life, times of illness, recovery from addictions, health crises and maintaining health.
Business & Workplace: Enhance problem-solving; build communicatiion and good relations; transform conflicts into positive opportunities; make business planning more effective; build support and options during unemployment.

Community Building: Draw on diverse strengths; build mutual understanding; participate in the local planning process; rally activism to respond more effectively to challenges and injustices.
Local Planning: Integrate diverse community voices in forming plans; resolve conflicts; make complex decisions; support follow-through on plans; address environmental and safety concerns.
Criminal Justice Uses:
  • Diversion Programs -  To create alternatives to incarceration.
  • Prison Residents - To promote positive change.
  • Re-Entry Programs -  To reduce recidivism and support positive life changes.
  • Probation -  To support positive behavior.
  • Rebuilding life after exoneration.

Block Clubs: Deal with neighborhood issues; address conflicts in positive, community-building ways; build relations across racial and class divides; resolve differences and build relations in apartment
or condo complexes; create a net to support young people in the neighborhood.

Racial Justice: Address historical and ongoing trauma from racial injustices and inequities; promote awareness and understanding across racial, class, and ethnic differences; work for equity, repairing longstanding harms, and meeting human needs.

Veterans: Support the return of veterans from war; help with PTSD and addictions and to prevent suicides; help rebuild family and community net for veterans.

Environmental Issues: How to save energy in the home; respond to climate change in every way possible; stop patterns of pollution; clean up and reduce toxins.

Churches and Nonprofits: Enhance mutual understanding; resolve conflicts; avoid factionalizing and restoring community spirit; plan projects and address administration issues; develop or re-energize shared vision.

Elder Centers: Create community among residents; provide support with issues surrounding aging; develop meaningful projects.

Hospice: Support the person moving toward death and his or her family; handle the funeral arrangements; provide support for surviving family members and friends.

And these uses of Circles are just the beginning …

Whatever the need or use, though, Circles bring people together in a good way.  Taking time to sit down, listen to each other, and express mutual care and concern are restorative. Especially among those who live and work together, the Circle experience can move relationships to much deeper levels.

There is much suffering in the world—physical, material, mental…But the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having no one. I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.
                                -Mother Teresa



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