I often like to host meetings with people sitting in a circle. It means everyone can see everyone else and it avoids inadvertently giving too much status to any particular individual. As I sometimes say, it’s the best way I know to organise furniture without reinforcing hierarchy.
That’s not to say that groups don’t arrive with plenty of inbuilt hierarchies, but at least the circle can defuse it a little.
I’ve worked in circles as a host and participant for many years and been present to some pretty amazing and moving experiences in them. So I’m biassed, and I try to be careful to recognise that some people may find the experience uncomfortable.
This sometimes shows up in little quips about Alcholics Anonymous, and I guess that for many people circles may suggest something thereapeutic in which there’s an obligation to reveal yourself.
AA references aside, I think sitting in a circle does increase our exposure and does mean we are more vulnerable – compared to the option of sitting on the back row, for instance. Circles lessen the sense that someone is in charge and that may be unsettling too.
All else being equal, I like to leave people to participate in circular discussions as the spirit moves them, rather than by rote. But I’ve learnt that often it’s more comfortable, especially early in meetings, to get people to speak (for instance to introduce themselves) in order. And/or to get folks to form pairs or small groups to discuss and then feed back.
But without making it a dogma, I generally feel most excited in groups where we don’t organise a set order for speech, and when it seems that everyone is willing to engage spontaneously. That’s when I think we get closer to the sense of a group having a mind that is more than just the sum of the individual minds.
I say engage, rather than speak, because the easiest thing in the world when facilitating, is to panic around people who don’t say much. Again when I sense a conversation is rocking, it’s because there’s some committed listening going on.