9 tips for men in circle

Tenneson Woolf gives a list of timely, thoughtful tips for engaging men in circle conversations.

9 Tips for Men in Circle

As with this month’s story, in providing these tips I restate that for me, gender identity includes a larger spectrum than a binary choice of man or woman. In writing these tips, I want to give some attention to what feels like a resistance of circle, often rooted in masculine.

Think of this as a cheat sheet. It’s over-simplified. I offer it to steer through a few common bumps on the road that is men adjusting to circle-based forms of leadership and engagement. These tips won’t resolve everything. They won’t remove all misgivings. But they will, perhaps, help some of us to get past the first stretch of potholes, so to journey into important vistas ahead, made visible only by circle.

  1. If you have resistance, stay curious. Especially about your initial response. Is it that you don’t know what to do or where to sit? Is it that you suspect this will be a waste of time? No, it’s not tables. No, there typically isn’t a projector, nor a podium, nor a front of the room. It’s different, but old, and not wrong. It’s fierce, but just in another way.

  2. Stay attached to purpose. Circles are not just about moving the chairs and being nice together. Circle is a format and container to stay on purpose together. For clarity. For wisdom. For creativity. For lasting commitment. Circle is intended to create essential connection for essential learning and more meaningful action.

  3. Listen on many layers. There are the words being spoken in circle, often at a slower pace. Listen to that. There are also words trying to be spoken that represent patterns and the bigger picture that is behind the words and the pace. Experiment with listening not just for the explicit, but also for the implicit.

  4. Go with it. You are part of the story. The story isn’t without men. It’s rebalanced with men, women, all of us — recovering our way back to processes that preceded the industrial and patriarchal eras. Yes, we love our machines and efficiency metaphors, but people are not machines. The story of “leader as hero” shifting to “leader as host” doesn’t replace men. Rather, it asks all of us to go together.

  5. Know when to be still and when to give voice. The circle is for everyone. Don’t confuse silence with “nothing is happening.” Develop a patience for the reality that someone in the group will sometimes speak what you might have intended to say. Honor all contributions, including yours, which you might not need to re-speak into the group.

  6. Pay attention to patterns. If it is predominantly men speaking, regulate. Watch for the way that others might be caught in an old pattern of not having room to get in to the conversation. Or better, name it out loud. “I think we have a lot of voices to hear. I’m noticing that mostly men are speaking. I’m asking to redirect our attention of process to hearing all or voices.”

  7. Participate; don’t take charge. It’s not uncommon to feel an instinct to take charge. That is the education and cultural pattern that so many of us have been raised with. In many circumstances you will get your turn to host, or to guardian — both are forms of leadership. But remember that circle-based leadership is grounded in principles of sharing responsibility, rotating leadership, and relying on the wholeness that is the group connected.

  8. Sit with discomfort, or difference, or messiness. Sometimes I think of it as re-developing our muscular memory that trusts a slowing down, for the speed and better quality that can follow, only from slowing down. Going together can indeed be messier than going alone. I find that there are, however, inherent surprises in the discomfort and difference that have so long eluded us in more neat and tidy ways.

  9. Contribute what you have to the center. Trust that there is a pot of stew, if you will, that you are contributing to. Your words, your questions, your wonderings — just as it is for others in the circle — spice the whole of things. Circle isn’t about imposing will across a different shape of a room or meeting. It is about putting what you have in the middle and trusting in the simmering that is the collective.

Men, circle matters. The masculine in circle matters. As does the feminine. Circle isn’t the only form needed in contemporary leadership and community. But sometimes, it’s the only form that sustains us. To get humanity together, there must be circle. To get more helpful hierarchy, the shape of triangle, there must also be circle.

Here’s to giving it a go, more of us, for the good systems and relationships that we are all evolving.


Tenneson Woolf is a facilitator, workshop leader, teacher, blogger, and coach committed to improving the quality of collaboration and imagination needed in groups, teams, and organizations — to help us be in times such as these with consciousness, kindness, and learning. His work over 20+ years has been to design and lead meetings in participative formats. From strategic visioning with boards to large conference design to communities just learning to listen again to one another. Lately he has been working with faith communities, educators, and community organizers. 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. Living systems, self-organization, and emergence inspire all of his work. So does emptiness, breath, or a fresh-picked garden tomato. Tenneson’s work lineages include The Berkana Institute with Margaret Wheatley, The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, and The Art of Hosting with Toke Moeller. He lives in a small town where urban meets rural in Lindon, Utah, at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, and is originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A new love for Tenneson is kayaking.