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Circles for Peacemaking

You have probably heard of at least some of the elements that go into peacemaking circles and perhaps you have used some of them in discussion groups or decision-making exercises. The elements - a talking piece, a facilitator or keeper, guidelines that all agree on, and consensus decision-making - are simple; used together they create a powerful and effective way to make decisions, do restorative justice, and build community.

Circles can be used for purposes such as community-building, healing, decision-making, transforming conflict, celebration, and more.  In some communities, courts will participate in restorative justice circle processes to decide on sentencing for certain types of crimes.  Some schools use circles to handle school discipline.  Circles have been effective in working with rival gangs to reduce violence.    

The circle process draws directly from the traditions of indigenous people who use a Talking Circle to discuss community issues and it is supported by post-Newtonian understanding of reality/relationship that comes through quantum physics.  Circles are built on a common set of values - usually including respect, humility, compassion, spirituality, and honesty - that provides a framework for the interactions in the circle. Everyone participates equally, including the facilitator. Because decisions are made by consensus, not everyone has to be enthusiastic about the decision of the group, but everyone has to agree that they will support it.  

A circle opens with a ceremony, which can be as light-hearted as a game of catch with stuffed animals or as solemn as the reading of a spiritual piece. There are many ways to mark that the space of the circle is sacred, where “participants are present with themselves and one another in a way that is different from an ordinary meeting.” The opening ceremony centers the group, helps all feel part of the process, and prepares the group for the work of the circle.  The closing ceremony settles the circle, allowing participants to consider what has gone on for the group and for themselves in that session.

The group has a talking piece that is passed always in one direction.  When you have the talking piece, you can talk or you can pass the piece.  You cannot speak when you do not have the piece.  The group will have agreed to guidelines that usually will include confidentiality for what is shared in the group and that set the tone and tools for being respectful to all and upholding one another’s worth and dignity. If you speak, you speak about your own reaction to the topic for that passing of the talking piece without judgment about what others have said or shared.  Sometimes the sharing is done in a non-verbal way, but the principal that only one person is “talking” at a time and that the talking piece goes in only one direction still holds.

Over the past year I have been fortunate to be in a few circles, for different purposes.  It is hard to describe because much of it has been interior, with feelings and new understandings being more prominent than exterior results.  But taking part in circles has shown me that they are a way to build strength and gain wisdom that can help you change your life and your community.  I hope this post will let more people know about them.

I recommend The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis (from which much of the foregoing has been taken) for stories from circles and much more about the process, what it is, and why it works.

Elaine Learnard
Conscience Bay Quaker Meeting


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