Archive: Circle around a rectangular table

by Waltraud Heller
May 2012

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This month’s Circle Tale is by Waltraud Heller. Waltraud lives in Vienna/Austria with her husband and two children. She works in the communication department of a public service organization, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which provides assistance and expertise to policy-makers on how to make human rights a reality for all people living in the European Union. She and her colleagues got in touch with Art of Hosting and The Circle Way one year ago and have started hosting conversations and meetings differently both with stakeholders and internally.

Besides her work, Wal and her husband have embarked on “hosting” the parent-run kindergarten of their children in circle, which is also an exciting experience!

I work in an organization (public administration) that operates in a hierarchical environment. We have the running joke that, in our meeting rooms, “the tables are screwed to the floor.” Our main conference room: Imagine a very long and not very wide room – the seating is a rectangle of tables, with four chairs on the narrow side, and 18 chairs on the long side. Perfectly awful, even for someone who is not into circles.

So what do you do if you, nevertheless, want to do circles? Well, you (have to) do them there.

Since we had our first Art of Hosting training at my organization some eight months ago, we (about 10 colleagues) started making more and more meetings participatory—first external meetings with stakeholders, then also increasingly (some) internal meetings. In the beginning, we were very frustrated about our conference room.

So, the most encouraging experience that I would like to share with you is that, even in our non-ideal setting, circle can work, hosting conversations of a different depth and quality can work!

This may sound naïve, or be naïve, but really – I experienced how “circle” can work in rectangular shapes around tables, it can work without a talking piece, and without a center. To be precise, and here lies my learning, without a VISIBLE circle shape, without a VISIBLE talking piece, without a VISIBLE center.

Of course, the perfect circle is a circle with the right shape and without tables etc., especially for deeper, more personal stories – but when you don’t have it, you have to go with what you have. I’d like to encourage you to do just that.

What does it mean to hold circle “right?” Circle, for me, is there to support better, deeper, more honest conversations and connections from the heart. It is when we achieve this that we have done it “right.” A lot of it is linked to the art of creating the best possible “container.”

To go back to the theory, circle has some basic principles. I quote from the “Basic Circle Guidelines.”

The components of the circle

  • Intention
  • Welcome start-point
  • Center and check-in/greeting
  • Agreements
  • Three Principles and Three Practices
  • Guardian of process
  • Check-out and farewell

Funny. Now that I copy them. I see that shape is not even explicitly mentioned. My argument would have been – OK, so if you have to compromise on the shape, but have all the other components in place – you can, of course do circle, as you can, of course, create a container – even if admittedly it may be more difficult.

So, how do we do it at my workplace, in our lovely meeting room? The (physically not visible) center becomes the purpose/intention that you hold between you – for this, we placed one of us on each of the four sides of this awfully long rectangle. The different sort of talking piece was the push button from the table microphones. How to cope with a rectangular circle shape I explain to myself in the following way: Ann and Christina taught us that a circle is not a circle, but a ball. Now, squeeze a ball (or say a balloon) in its middle into a rectangular frame – it still remains a recognizable balloon, with round parts both up and down, just a silly square belt in the middle…

Just to say, this image has given me a lot of confidence to host circles even in rectangular shapes – forget about the two-dimensional square, think of the three-dimensional squeezed balloon! :-)

What I find more challenging than the rectangle is that people do not sit as closely to each other as they would in a proper chair circle – this is, for me, what makes it more difficult to work on connecting them.

We have already hosted several stakeholder meetings with up to 50 participants in this conference room. I admit what helped was to break out in cafés in between. With some of our stakeholders (EU administration, government representatives, academics and researchers, civil society organizations), when there are smaller groups, we have started moving out to a smaller meeting room, where we do “proper” circle-shaped chair circles as well.

My last, but important comment: When we have to compromise on shape, or visible center or visible talking piece – it becomes harder, of course. So what is key for me is the regular PRACTICE in a “proper” circle setting, with mates, and with all the ingredients to build up our “heart muscles” and practice our container-creating skills – and of course, to never host alone!

Thank you, Waltraud, for this lovely tale and for bringing the circle and the rectangle together! As those of us who practice circle know: it’s a mind shift as much as a chair or room shift. If we shift the mind, we can handle the room.