Difficult Conversations and Talking Circles

A response for those longing for healthy team dynamics by Samantha Slade, April Charlo, and Erika Koskela. Originally published on percolab.com

Snqweylmistn is an indigenous organization in the USA, learning how to run a business that honors its traditional ways of leading. Percolab Coop Canada supports organizations to grow participatory and inclusive structure and culture based on a body of work from the book Going Horizontal.

Collaborating since 2022, the two organizations feel that the challenges they are working through are common to many organizations, indigenous or not, and are co-writing a few articles based on reflections on their work. April Charlo and Erika Koskela, co-founders of Snqweylmistn, and Samantha Slade, author of Going Horizontal, co-founder of Percolab are the co-authors of this series.

April Charlo, Erika Koskela from Snqweylmistn and Samantha Slade, Percolab Coop

Circle for difficult conversations

Samantha’s perspective

It’s surprising how much relationships are key to flow, joy, productivity and even innovation in the workplace and yet relationships are rarely seen as a priority. We are under equipped in tools, methods, and processes that help us to tend to relationships. This is true in life in general and even more so in the workplace where managing legal risk can supersede connecting with one another.

When there are challenges and issues in the workplace the norm is to take it up the ladder to our supervisors rather than deal with it ourselves. We struggle with difficult conversations.
There is a protocol or process that can help respond to this need with surprising ease and impact. It is called circle practice, talking circle or dialogue circle. It’s not new. It has existed for thousands of years in most communities across the globe.

What’s new though is how we can bring it into the modern workplace. Here I will share the protocol we use, where it is useful, the key benefits and experiences utilizing it. Circle practice is part of basic organizational hygiene, it can shift the dynamic and bring a group back together. It offers a space so that the perspectives of all are valued and can be heard. It helps to prepare for wise decision making.

Indoor and outdoor circles . Online works too. Percolab photos, with Gary from Snqʷeyłmist

Erika’s Perspective

Groups who are not indigenous by nature can feel apprehensive about using the circle practice, out of respect to native people who are more widely known to practice the use of talking circles, I have to say that I was surprised.

Personally, I can appreciate that the feelings were coming from a place of respect. That being said, I would encourage any group of people to benefit from this practice. There are many elements of indigenous culture that should be restrictive and protected from any form of co-opting, circle practice, in my opinion, is not one of these. By all means, take these steps and use them.

Circle methodology

Samantha’s Experience

A talking circle is NOT an action taking or decision making process, nor a feedback method. Talking circles help to go into a topic with depth, to explore what is stirring underneath, to engage in the complexity together. Think of something that is rumbling right now in your group or team. Circle practice can help to go into this rumbling in a safe way.

If you find yourself being pulled into side conversations about an issue going on, it might be time to call a circle. It helps those concerned to go into the issue together, constructively. Circle helps to step away from blame culture and to really listen to one another. Once the circle is closed then you can go on to more action oriented work with the clarity and connection created by the circle.

Circle methodology can support a range of business processes, from closing up a project to conflict management. My colleague Olivia Horge shares about her experience of using circle during her onboarding process in her article: Going from a culture of evaluation to a culture of dialogue.

There are many benefits of of talking circles:

  1. Diversity: People take their voice and see each others perspectives. 
  2. Well-being: Proactively address tensions BEFORE they escalate. 
  3. Shared leadership: Everyone cares for the work and relationships. 

A talking circle starts with a good question. This question is in the center of the circle and holds the exploration. A good question usually has these three qualities: 

  • Courageous — Puts the finger on the pain point, without avoiding it.
  • Uplifting — Supports the group to rise up, steer clear of negativity.
  • Inclusive — Is formulated so that all present can connect to the question.

There is no perfect question, it is just good enough for now. Here are some real examples

  • How do you see your leadership and what are you asking of yourself to advance our model ?
  • Why is it so hard to talk about money?
  • How can our traditional ways inform our decision making approach?
  • How am I doing with power, prosperity and relationships over the past months?

What questions could benefit from a circle in your organization right now?

Circle go-arounds

You don’t need to know where it will go or what you are going to say. The circle helps to figure things out, and going around the circle multiple times helps that to happen.

  1. Open the circle with a warmup round : How do I connect with this question ?
  2. Have 1–3 go-arounds, depending on time, to share what is coming up for each person.
  3. Close the circle with a final round : What is becoming clearer for me?

April’s Experience

I enjoyed the clarity that everyone gets a chance to speak, you will have a chance to state your voice, and so will ALL others in the circle. The co-founders have been known to cut each other off, or not wait for everyone in the room to speak before speaking again, or even notice that a co-founder hasn’t spoken in several back and forths between the group.

I was very relieved that this tool would eliminate having to pay attention to the group dynamics and allow me to settle into the process and listen without the distraction of noticing interruptions or excluding the quiet person in the room.

“The circle as a way of gathering is as ancient as humankind and cannot be branded or owned by anyone. We are simply remembering and reclaiming what all our ancestors knew how to do centuries before us.” The Circle Way by Christina Baldwin & Ann Linnea

Circle Practice Guidelines

Samantha’s Reflections

I use 4 simple guidelines for the go-arounds. These make this a circle and not a space where people are reacting to one another. These 4 guidelines help to get to a deeper place in the midst of complexity and emotions.

  1. Speak from the “I”. Share your personal experience, your thoughts, feelings, meanderings, with intention.
  2. Speak to the center of the circle. This is not a conversation. We don’t respond to each other. Speaking to the centre helps something unplanned unfold.
  3. Go around with a talking/listening piece — This ensures that each person gets a chance to speak and take the time they need and that others are listening. It can be helpful to offer 3 talking pieces so people can use one that they are comfortable with. I asked April and Erika if there was anything we should be aware of to be respectful with the talking piece. They reminded me that I should never use an eagle feather. Noted!

I like to offer 3 talking pieces, a blend of nature and manufactured objects, so each person can use the talking piece they are comfortable with. (Percolab photo)

4. Silence is healthy. Take a moment of silence together when you think it is needed. Silence can give space to think and receive.

Talking circles help us to slow down and reconnect, and ultimately to gain time, well-being and wisdom.

Erika’s Reflections

We talk about decolonization and we focus on decolonization, but it’s a tricky thing not even knowing how your perspectives have been influenced by colonization. I am learning how talking circles can help decolonize how I work.

My experience with the use of talking circles has been very limited. Almost as limited as my eagerness to entertain difficult conversations. I have seen talking circles used effectively in grief support groups and youth camp settings. In Samantha’s work with Snqweylmistn we initiated two circle questions. Of those I would say that one circle went smooth and helped us arrive at a place of insight with little discomfort.

The other one succeeded at opening a dialogue that took several weeks to resolve. I find it challenging to start difficult conversations but have learned in retrospect, how when they are left to fester, they become so much more volatile and damaging.

As we move forward, I am thankful to work alongside April, who is so much better at suggesting entering into difficult conversations before any problems have a chance to gain a life of their own. I am still learning to address any type of conflict, and blessed to be learning healthy ways to communicate.

April’s Reflections

Circle has been an interesting experience for me. I have grown to enjoy any type of healing group work and will dive in with little to no apprehension. The first question we had with this group healing tool, I resisted the question. As I reflect on it now, I may have already been triggered from feelings of a couple of buried conflicts I was experiencing with two of my co-founders. The circle did ultimately take me to a place of realization that will stick with me. It gets you somewhere you need to go, when you aren’t able to get there on your own.

I see how the circle did open a festering conflict and it moved us forward. Thankfully, Erika and I are so married to Snqweylmistn that we agreed to do whatever it took to work through our shit so that we could continue to grow the organization in a healthy way. We leaned into other modalities to heal our conflict and have weekly check-in meetings to help work on our relationship so that we can have a strong foundation and a guidebook on how to resolve conflict in a Snqweylmistn type of way.

Give it a try!

Talking Circles can absolutely be applied highly effectively in the workplace, in many spaces. The challenges of conflict and relationship building are faced by all, and this is a foundational practice to care for the hard stuff together. Bring this practice into the workplace or groups you participate in: it’s very adaptable.

It is great to start with lower stake questions to practice the protocol. Bring it in regularly and build everyone’s skill and ease in circle. If you build a good circle culture you will be able to lean on it during times of crisis. Talking circles are part of the path to better relationships, collaboration, creativity and innovation!

Republished with permission.

Featured Image added by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Photo by ArtHouse Studio