Holding a sharing circle

Connection and understanding in a group can be stimulated using a very simple practice which is often applied in ecovillages. A sharing circle is a practice for expressing your feelings and thoughts to each other. This can be about a specific topic or just in general. Part of the secret of why the practice helps with both personal growth as well as with feeling related to each other, is that it is actually a practice in listening! During my stay at Small Footprint ecovillage in Estonia I was asked to organize an evening activity for their group of twelve European Solidarity Corps volunteers. I realized that it could be valuable to have a sharing circle with each other as this practice could help take their feeling of connection to a deeper level which could benefit everyone’s personal growth. In this blog I describe the practice of sharing circles, how I organized this particular sharing circle and my experience of it.

I just want to add the disclaimer that this is my personal perspective on a sharing circle. There are many different ways of practicing it and my blog is based on practical experience in several ecovillages and at other events.

Sharing and listening
A sharing circle is a practice where, seated in a circle, every participant gets to speak one a time. All the others listen to this person without interrupting. It sounds so simple, and yet you will notice a world of difference compared to a regular conversation. Everyone in the circle knows that they will get their chance to speak and everyone in the circle knows that when they speak they cannot be interrupted, criticized or ignored. This creates a lot of peace of mind already, since you do not have to be in a hurry to finish what you want to say or in stress about people responding when you haven’t finished talking. Knowing at the same time that all the others are actually listening to you without the intent of judging or critisizing, can create the feeling of being heard and understood. Without others even needing to reply! The practice can allow people to learn to express their thoughts and feelings safely. Making this perhaps also easier to do in daily life in busier conversations.

The practice also allows everyone to see different perspectives and opinions to a topic or situation and thereby the whole group can collectively gain in wisdom. Off course you can still really disagree with what someone is saying, or be offended, but in general you safe that to after the circle. The idea is to create a save space where everyone feels confident to express what they are truly thinking. This with the knowledge that when every individual shares their unique perspective, they all have a valuable input to bring. However, they cannot do so if they feel it is not safe to express their true selves, fearing judgement or exclusion. It is possible for people to not talk at all, they can be there just to listen. It can also happen that when the talking stick is passed on to you, you feel like you have nothing to add in the moment.

Since most of the time in a sharing circle you are not the one talking, this practice is actually a practice in listening. Some people look up to needing to listen so much percentage of the gathering to other people without being able to respond. The potential however is that listening is an act in itself, it is not waiting passively until it is your turn to speak. In my opinion, the listening part in a sharing circle is a lot more enriching and interesting than the sharing part. Since the circle has no aim of coming to some agreement, conclusion or decision, this practice offers the chance of allowing everyone to listen without judgement. When you can listen to one another without needing to respond, it is easier to allow yourself to notice what reactions you feel inside to what others are saying. Perhaps you agree with them, perhaps you don’t, both can teach you something about your own assumptions and values.

Listening is about noticing what is triggered inside you when you hear what other people are sharing. Do you feel related to them from having similar thoughts or feelings? Can you understand where their perspective comes from? Does what they say trigger some emotion inside you, why is that? What does it tell you about yourself when you feel irritated with what they are saying, or the way they are saying it? Listening like this is a way of gaining in wisdom about one another and of expanding your perspective on situations, emotions and topics. Without needing to respond or argue, you can take the space and time to listen and grow personally from what you are experiencing.

Listening is an act in itself, challenge yourself to grow personally from every story you take in.

Different forms of sharing circles
Sharing circles can be about different topics and of different length. Often sharing circles are about how the participants are feeling, either in the moment or in the last few days. However, sharing circles can also be held around a specific topic or question in which everyone expresses their perspective on it. The shortest version is perhaps a type of sharing circle which is also called a check-in. This is often practiced at the start of meetings in ecovillages. A check-in is as simple as making a round in which everyone expresses how they are feeling in the moment for about 10 seconds to 1 minute per person. You do not resond or give advice to each other, everyone simply gets a chance to speak. It allows everyone to understand each other better and feel more related through knowing what other people are going through. In my experience, being able to express my current state also makes me feel heard and then it easier to let go of these personal feelings for a bit to have a constructive meeting.

When a sharing circle is on a specific question every person gets to talk longer, for about 5-7 minutes each. I have attended for example an interesting sharing circle on how we perceived the possibility of disagreement in the community. This is quite a sensitive topic to discuss with your community members. The idea of a sharing circle in which no one in right or wrong and the aim is not to come to any conclusion or agreement, people can feel more save and invited to express their thoughts on a sensitive topic. It also is a nice practice to take the time to learn from each others perspective on different topics, for which you normally don’t take the time to talk about with the whole group. Often this brings to light new perspectives and creates deeper understanding between individuals.

A type of circle which I personally enjoy a lot is one of gratitude. Here a round is made in which every person expresses what they are grateful for. This can be gratitude for things learned or experienced at the end of a project, but it can also be just gratitude in general. With each person expressing their individual perspective of events and being grateful for different elements, the whole group feeling of gratitude rises way beyond what every individual was feeling at the start. A beautiful shared feeling of gratitude is created.

Making use of the fact that this group of volunteers had already been collaborating for three weeks and had started to feel connected and safe in sharing of personal feelings, I decided to pick a more difficult topic to share about. As we were a group of people all around the same age, it felt like a good opportunity to talk about a personal topic which many struggle with, yet few take the time to talk about. The theme I chose for the sharing circle was self-love and taking care of yourself (mentally). Basically asking everyone to express their personal experiences, struggles, doubts, advice or questions they had concerning this topic.

Making place and tuning in to each other
Before you can start sharing, it is important to choose a good place and to tune in with each other. I have attended sharing circles in a tipi, outside around a campfire, in bedrooms and in dedicated meditation rooms. In my experience the most important thing is that the place feels safe and is comfortable, because you will have to sit for some time! (you can also create a space with lots of pillows so people can lay down or stretch a bit). The sharing circle I hosted took place in the area where we normally held our morning meetings, I changed the area slightly by closing the curtains, so the space would feel different from when we are having practical meetings there. It is good to make the place feel different from usual so that peoples thoughts aren’t drawn to their daily worries so much, but instead they can really tune in to what is created in the group.

What do I mean with tuning in? A sharing circle is often opened with a short guided meditation by the facilitator. This is done so that every individual is helped to be in the present moment and experience their inner feelings rather than be distracted by thoughts about the future or past too much. Also, the group meditation helps to make everyone’s minds somewhat focused on the same thing, to which the facilitator guides their attention. This time, because of the topic I had chosen for the sharing circle, I attempted to bring everyone’s attention to their individual perception on this question, from a meditative state of mind.

After lighting a candle in the centre to start the circle, I first guided everyone’s attention inside themselves and down to where they were sitting on the floor. Creating a sense of connection to themselves, to the ground beneath them and with that enhancing a feeling of safety. I then guided their attention upwards inside to the place where the heart lies. I invited the participants to recall the feeling of love and let that feeling be and grow their. Inviting them to look at themselves with love and without judgement. Off course other thoughts can pop up, but I invited everyone to just focus on the feeling of how they experienced love. I then asked to reflect for themselves what this topic of self-love meant to them, how they practiced self-love, if they did, what they felt the need for or what they were struggling with. Starting the sharing with this moment of individual reflection on the question helps the participants to answer more considerately rather than with the first thing that comes to mind. By focussing on looking at the question when meditating on a feeling, we try to prevent the mind from judging things that come up and allow everything to arise.

In my experience, self-judgement from fear or concern of being criticized, feeling shame or not being good enough, is a big barrier to being able to express your real feelings and thoughts. The sharing circle format takes away the fear of judgement from others, with a simple meditation at the start you can also relieve everyone’s self-judgement.

At the end of, or during, the guided meditation it is a common practice to invite everyone to open their eyes and look into each others eyes from where they are sitting. This way everyone gets a sense of who is with them in the circle and looking each other in the eyes helps stimulate feelings of trust and relatedness which can help in making individuals feel more confident to speak what is on their minds and at the same time understand others better.

Holding the circle
After this moment of tuning in and individual reflection on the topic, the sharing can start. To bring the attention more to the person who is talking, and subtly remind the others that really only that one person is allowed to talk now, sharing circles make use of what is called a talking stick. This is an object which the person that is talking holds. It really does not have to be a stick at all, I have seen branches, flowers, shells, stuffed animals, an orange and much more different things be used. The object just brings the focus of the group to this specific person, and allows this person to feel safe that they will not be interrupted and can take the time they need to share what they want, while holding it. Only when they feel they have said all they wanted to say, do they pass it on to the next person. When a person is done speaking, it is common practice that the whole group says thank you out loud to thank this person for sharing their thoughts (or in some cases they say ‘Aho’).

To start the sharing after the guided meditation, usually the facilitator places the talking stick in the centre of the circle. Then follows a time of everyone sensing in themselves if they already have something to say. Sometimes one person picks up the talking stick immediately, starting the circle. From the person that starts, the talking stick will just be passed around along the circle (clock-wise or counter clock-wise, whatever way). Other times everyone in the circle is just staring at the talking stick and nobody starts. As a facilitator, it is good to allow time for people to sense if they want to start talking. Don’t immediately feel disappointed or start laughing uncomfortably when nobody picks up the talking stick. The moment will come. Just look around you in the circle and notice people reflecting individually if they want to talk. Only when you really sense that the topic is perhaps too sensitive or difficult for the participants to feel they want to start sharing, then you as facilitator can decide to pick up the talking stick first and share your thoughts and feelings on the topic. The more open and personal you talk, the more safe others will feel to do so as well after you.

In my session this time, my plan was originally to make two rounds of the circle. This enables people to add to things they said in the first round, after hearing the perspectives of others. Sharing circles can take however many rounds you want, but most common is just to make one or two rounds. Sometimes after the first round, the talking stick is placed in the middle again and people can pick it up pop-corn style when they feel they want to add something still. It turned out in my session that the first round took up more time then expected due to a quite big number of participants (around 13, each talking around 5 minutes makes one circle already last over one hour). I therefor decided to change my plan a bit.

To manage the time, some communities practice sharing circles with a timer, to limit each persons talking time. I agree that this can be very handy and a subtle way to make sure that everyone’s attention span is not overstretched and to manage people who really talk a lot. However, having a timer also creates a bit of pressure on people to finish talking. Since my topic was really very personal I chose not to have a timer and let everyone speak of what came to them without feeling any pressure. Participants of a sharing circle are also always invited to take short breaks and catch breath in between talking. You don’t have to pass on the talking stick immediately when you have nothing to say for a few seconds! Give yourself some time to reflect if you have really said all that you say.

Feeling related
During the first long round of sharing our practices and perspectives on self-love, I could already sense immense feelings of relatedness growing in the group from the deeply personal sharings of participants. I think this feeling of relatedness grew mostly from recognizing that we are all facing similar struggles on a daily basis. And that the techniques we developed to face them aren’t silly at all, but very valuable for others to learn from and they do not have to be self-judged for fear of critique. On top of this, participants gained confidence from simply talking about this topic and noticing that others also see the value of self-love. It allows a subconcious feeling to grow that it is ok to take the confidence and time to invest more time in taking care of yourself. That this is not at all silly or selfish. It was beautiful for me to experience. I also noticed how deeply everyone was listening to each other, really taking in each others words and growing personally from them. The opportunity for deep sharing about this topic was embraced by all participants. I could notice how the setting of a sharing circle stimulated feelings of connection and understanding, resulting in relatedness and personal empowerment concerning this topic and in general to share.

A sharing circle can provide the safe space to talk about delicate, yet important topics. In regular conversations people might not feel comfortable to share about it, or find the courage to bring it up at all even with close friends.

Closing the circle
Due to the time I decided to, instead of making a second round, challenge all participants to share the three things that had inspired them most of what other people had shared. This round was therefore a lot shorter, yet again it made people realize they are so related to each other and it was a custom made summary off the most inspiring things said and the collective wisdom we had created.

Before closing the circle (or sometimes at the beginning) I also always ask if there are people in the group who wish to not be addressed about what they have shared during the circle. There is already the general code of conduct that you do not share what has been said inside the circle with people who have not participated in the circle themselves. However, some people also would rather not be addressed also about things they shared with people inside the circle, this is possible and has to be respected by everyone else. I have even attended sharing circles where agreements are made to not talk about the sharing to each other for 24 hours after the circle, to give everyone time to process and reflect on what has been said before they start talking or arguing with other people about it. This time in the circle everyone was ok to be addressed about things they shared after the circle had closed.

I then closed of the circle by asking everyone to close their eyes once again and return back to their own feelings and sense of being (called centering) through taking some deep breaths. Then, because I felt the air in the room had become quite thick and slow from this emotional topic, I asked everyone to stand up and shake their arms, legs and hands and jump up and down. Everybody started laughing and looking at each other and letting out some of the tense energy and the stiffness of sitting for one and a half hours. Then I counted to three and we all shouted thank you at the same time to express our gratitude for the moment we had created together and the time we took to listen to each other. With that, everybody could go about their evening. Ending this way, rather than immediately after the last round is made, helps people to let go a little bit of the sensitive, contemplative state of mind they were in and be able to constructively go about with daily tasks again.

Sharing can be done anywhere, anytime and about everything!
If you feel inspired, please do go about and practice this simple technique. Many of the volunteers at Small Footprint ecovillage were expressing the intention to also try this at home with their family and friends to grow a deeper connection with them. And sharing can be so simple! You can do it already with just one other person. Just take turns expressing your thoughts and feelings, agreeing beforehand that you will not interrup the other or respond directly. (using a timer for taking turns might be helpful the first few times).

A sharing circle can be hosted for many different things in many different ways. Just listen to your intuition and adapt the practice to your liking, to the situation at hand, to the people participating and the topic chosen.

You can even try this practice on your own. After attending many sharing circles on feelings, I caught myself also asking myself the question every now and then: how am I actually feeling right now? And trying to notice this without judging or wanting to do anything about what was going on inside me. Just acknowledging what is there already creates a feeling of relaxedness.

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