by Heather Plett
I was sitting in front of my computer, at my tiny desk, facing the window that looks out over my well-treed backyard. On the computer screen in front of me, in little boxes lined up like a tic-tac-toe game board, were the faces of the people who’d gathered for my Openhearted Writing circle. We’d had a check-in, and now we were talking about how our writing practices can heal us and help us offer healing to others.
A beautiful conversation was unfolding. A woman of color from Washington, D.C., shared her personal story of generational trauma, growing up black in the U.S., the descendant of slaves. We listened with attention, honoring the virtual talking piece she was holding. Her sharing prompted another woman to share a similar story of growing up Jewish in Germany, the descendant of concentration camp survivors. Thousands of miles separated these women from each other (and from me), but there were common threads in their stories that allowed us all to learn a little more about the deep woundedness and trauma that is present all over the globe. Holding the rim with them, I sat in awe and admiration of these two women who were both willing to crack open in this unknown, virtual space, and share with vulnerability and graciousness.
It was a sacred moment — one of those “thin places” that the Celtics talk about, when the veil between heaven and earth is especially thin and we catch a glimpse of the transcendent. In this virtual space, where none of us could reach out and touch each other, we had found deep connection and resonance. I’d seen it happen many times in in-person circles, but this was something new.
By the end of the day-long virtual retreat, I had a renewed hopefulness for the world and a mental image of the Internet as a vast space full of intimate rooms where people can come together for healing and growth. Imagine what might be possible, for example, in a virtual healing circle made up of people who have suffered from marginalization and generational trauma from all over the world — Jewish people from Germany, black people from the U.S., Indigenous people from Canada and Australia, and black people from South Africa.
When I first started offering the online Openhearted Writing Circle a few years ago, I was skeptical about how it would work. I’d had a few online coaching clients nudge me for quite some time to offer something like this, but I’d dragged my heels, not sure I could create the kind of vulnerable, brave, and compassionate space that’s essential to the kind of personal writing I teach. Finally, with not much conviction, I gave in and promised I’d at least try. Now, a dozen virtual circles later, I am committed to and enthusiastic about this model and others that will grow out of it.
What I didn’t expect was just how much vulnerability and trust is possible in a virtual space with people calling in from all over the world, from very different cultures and lived experiences. Participants have been from all over Europe, from South America, from Africa, from all over North America, and even from South-East Asia where they’ve had to stay up all night to participate. No matter where they come from, they step into the virtual circle with a willingness to listen and open their hearts.
After a dozen online circles and about half as many in-person circles (using essentially the same material and flow of the day), one thing, in particular, surprised me. In an online space, where people are sitting in their own homes and know that they will probably never meet the people they see on the screen, the deep dive into vulnerability and trust happens more quickly than when people are sitting in the same room. At first, I thought it was just an anomaly based on who had gathered for each circle, but then I started to pay more careful attention and realized it was a pattern.
I now believe that it is possible to create an online space that invites people very quickly into deep work. It is even possible that this can happen more effectively and with fewer barriers than when people are sitting in the same room.
Why is this the case? I’m not entirely sure I know the answer — I can only speak to the pattern I’ve witnessed. Perhaps it has something to do with it feeling more safe to speak from within our own homes than having to adjust to the unfamiliar space of a retreat center. Or perhaps it is because, when we can see each other only through a small video screen, we spend less time trying to interpret body language and other cues. Or maybe it’s because we’re pretty certain we’ll never encounter each other again, so our inhibitions are down.
I would never advocate for virtual retreats to entirely replace in-person ones (there are still a lot of things that you can’t do in online spaces), but this experience has given me hopefulness for how The Circle Way can grow around the world and help to heal and connect people. So much more is possible when we start to play with the tools that the Internet has made available to us. Just this week, for example, I started a new, extended version of the Openhearted Writing Circle where we’re mostly gathering in a private Facebook group with three weekly conference calls for a deeper connection. As people gather in the Facebook group, there is already vulnerable and authentic sharing happening. I also host an online community (called The Helpers’ Circle), where leaders of all kinds gather in a private Facebook group and have bi-weekly video circles. I know that there will be other experiments in my future. Perhaps there will even be a multi-day training in The Circle Way that will happen online.
After a few years of experimentation with virtual circles, I would offer these suggestions:
Video is more conducive to circles than audio-only conference calls, but both can work. I’ve used both Skype and Zoom and prefer the look and usability of Zoom. On Zoom, participants who don’t have video conferencing capacity can call in from their phones.
As much as possible, create the same environment as you would for an in-person circle. I usually light a candle and show it to participants. I also use a bell, just as I would for in-person circles. And I show them a talking piece and tell them to imagine passing it around the circle. Sometimes participants hold their own talking pieces while they speak.
Give people verbal cues for what they might be lacking in visual cues. For example, saying something like “I pass the talking piece” or “piece back into the center" at the end of speaking signals that you are finished.
Even if you can’t bring in all elements of the circle, give yourself permission to play with what is possible. For example, in my private Facebook group for The Helpers’ Circle, I host a check-in each Monday, asking a question and then passing a virtual talking piece in the comments section.
Consider how the limitations might actually be creative opportunities. When we see only the barriers, we won’t be able to imagine something new. But when we start to play with possibility, our collective imagination will take us much further than we expected to go.
As we collectively imagine what is possible, I would love to take this conversation into the Facebook group for practitioners of The Circle Way. If you aren’t yet a member, click this link, and click the green Join button. After your request to join is approved, you can share your own stories/questions/ideas about what is possible if we begin to play with The Circle Way in our online spaces.
Heather Plett is a writer, coach, facilitator, and public speaker. She is also a wisdom-seeker, edge-walker, community-gatherer, and story-catcher. She gathers circles of people together to share stories, ask questions, co-create, and build community. She delights in holding space for people as they discover their courage and grow their ideas.
Heather is trained as an Art of Hosting and The Circle Way facilitator, is a narrative coach, and a leadership mentor. She hosts retreats and workshops; speaks at conferences; teaches writing, creativity, leadership, and self-discovery classes; facilitates planning and community-building sessions, makes journals for mindfulness and growth, and coaches people who are seeking deeper authenticity and connection.