Tips: hosting and participating in online circles

Amy's story on hosting circle online inspired Tenneson Woolf to share his tips.

I love Amy Lenzo's commitment to a virtual world, featured in this newsletter. I continue to learn a lot from her and with her in the work that we share. Online circles are real -- of course. They are just another kind of real that requires some unique attention.

5 Tips I Remember When Hosting and Participating in Online Circles

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been with literally hundreds of people in face-to-face circles. Some circles as large as fifty of sixty people. More commonly, in groups of six to sixteen. Most of us have been moved to tears at times in these circles. Or deep convictions. Or delightful surprises. Some of us have even found life-time companions, friends, and colleagues in the container that is circle.

One of the most common questions I'm asked from those face-to-face circles is, "Is this possible online?" I love the hope in people's eyes that is behind that question. And I can see a bit of the worry too — worry that often comes with the vulnerability inherent in hope.

My response is always the same, after a deliberate pause to hear the question. "Yes, of course." That's the simplest, and most honest response I can offer. It speaks directly to the hope and to the worry. Then I usually go on to share that online circles are related, but different from face-to-face circles. Both are important. Both are exciting. With intent for good hosting all around, it’s important to feel the similarity of depth and to acknowledge difference.

Over the years, particularly the last ten, in this explosion of virtual possibility and global community, I've come to rely on a few tips in hosting and participating in online circles. I think of these tips as practices and dispositions.

1. Arrive Early -- For me, that's five to fifteen minutes. It's a step of personal preparation. It may look like me sitting at my desk again, the same one I've been sitting at all morning. But it means me clearing the space. Putting papers away. Moving materials to another spot. Sometimes lighting a candle. The online world has a different timing expectation that feels so instant. We are used to google searches that lead to fascinating information in a nanosecond. Don't let the speed of google over-generalize to your presence in a virtual circle. Take some extra time to get to your physical heart beat before the circle starts.

2. Avoid Distractions -- Did you see that on your computer screen! An incoming email notification! A Facebook post from one of your favorite people! A news headline! A received text! They all have figurative or literal exclamation points on them. It's beautiful that we can have so much information on our devices. But these wonderful notifications can also be very distracting. Who among us hasn't chased one, thinking it will only take a minute that turns out to be ten minutes later and a lot of attention.  When possible, close the programs and notifications.

3. Virtual Environments Take Time Too -- Many of us become expectant in our virtual worlds for everything to be “a click away.” Move your pointer, click, and you are looking at a document or watching that video clip. Click. Click. Though true in a virtual environment in which those clicks are happening, the work of circle and of humans showing up together doesn't all happen in a click. An aha itself can happen that way. But circle aha's are not available in a one-click setting that says "Buy Circle Aha Now." Beware the overgeneralization of virtual speed with the pace of human connection.

Photo by   Olu Eletu  on  Unsplash

Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash

4. Get A Little Extra Tactile and Descriptive -- Virtual circles have us sitting in many places. Or walking too. Since we aren't all sitting in the same room, much of the access to visual cues that we count on as shared when face-to-face isn't present in a virtual circle. We don't all see the rain pouring down through the window. When online, describe a little extra from your location to presence texture. It's a sunny morning. The aspen trees are blowing outside my window. The city is bustling as it normally is at the ground level. Help people to see and feel where you are.

5. Invite a Sequence for Speaking and Signal Your Completion with Extra Directness -- In a face-to-face circle, you can pass the piece, literally giving the stone to the person beside you or back to the center. People know it's their turn because they are holding the talking piece. In online circles, this takes a little extra signaling. You have choices. Sometimes invoking a geographic direction, east to west or north to south helps people know when to pick up the virtual piece. In small enough groups with visual aid, I've loved to see a picture of names of people in chairs and in a circle. When complete with your speaking, or pausing, let the group know by offering the words, "piece to the center."

I'm glad that so many of the virtual circles I've participated in and hosted have felt intimate and well connected. I love it when people express their appreciations. It's the voice of hope. It's the relief of released worry.

When at my best, whether face-to-face or online, I remind myself that I / we are not just leading meetings. We are holding space for a possibility. An honesty. A realness of connection. Presence is the common denominator across the mediums. Presence is the operating system. It just takes a little extra imagination and practice to bring it fully to make the virtual circle real.

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Tenneson Woolf ( is a facilitator, workshop leader, speaker, and writer. He posts a daily blog, Human to Human, in which he offers reflection on varied aspects of participative leadership practices, insights, and human to human depth. Tenneson designs and leads meetings in participative formats. To help people be smarter together. To get people interacting with each other — learning together, building relationships, and focused on projects. To get deeper to the heart of what matters. From strategic visioning with boards to large conference design. He has been a practitioner of Circle and other participative forms for 20+ years. His lineages include The Berkana Institute, The Circle Way, and The Art of Hosting.