How do you design a circle process?

For some conflicts and wrongdoings, a traditional restorative justice conference process with clear victim and offender roles may not be appropriate or necessary. Sometimes multiple people are both responsible for harm and have experience harm.

For example, at the university, there is a lot of conflict around every day things like a messy shared apartment or a rowdy group of students who frequently have noisy parties that bother neighbors and leave a mess in common areas. These day-to-day conflicts can expand into larger conflicts or can slowly drive a wedge between people, corroding feelings of connection and contentment.

Even when a restorative justice conference isn’t the best response, it is still possible to use a restorative approach.

One way of doing this is through a circle process. The circle is a simple and adaptable restorative practice that can be used to build relationships, establish group norms, process community trauma, or respond to conflict and behavior issues. For more information about how the circle is used in different contexts, check out “Building a Restorative University” or “Restorative Practices in the Workplace.”

Before jumping into using circles to respond to conflict, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the facilitator role. Circles have a profound power to create a space of connection and empathy, but in order for the process to be effective, the facilitator must be capable and comfortable holding and encouraging that space. The good news is circles are a lot of fun to practice! Try facilitating relationships building connection circles with your friends, family and co-workers to help you get used to the facilitator role. You’ll find that beautiful things come out of creating that intentional space with your loved ones!

Once you are ready to design a circle to respond to a specific conflict or issue, use the following steps to help you think through the process. Remember that it is most often helpful for the facilitator to not be an involved party in the conflict being discussed in the circle that he/she is facilitating.

Step 1: Look through a Restorative Lens

When we look at the world through the Restorative Lens, we shift our focus from rules and punishment to impacts and repair.

Remember the Guiding Restorative Questions and approach the conflict through that framework of understanding.

  1. What happened?
  2. Who was affected?
  3. What can be done to make things right?

Step 2: Pre-Conference

Meet with the involved parties individually to build relationships and trust and talk through how each individual person has been impacted and what his/her needs are moving forward.

Step 3: Identify Needs

In addition to the information gained through the pre-conference meeting, clues for needs are found in two places:

  1. Wrongdoings generate needs. Ask the involved parties, what is needed to repair the harms?
  2. Harmful behavior indicates a need that is not being met. Behavior is an attempt to fulfill a need, so try to identify the need at the root of problematic behaviors.

Step 4: Design Circle Questions

Remember to maintain the flow of the restorative questions, moving from impacts to ideas for repair. It is advisable to open with a question that will help to build comfort with the circle process and speaking in a circle. Ending with a question round that gives an opportunity for each person to have a final word provides a sense of closure.

The number of rounds and specific questions will vary depending on the needs being addressed by the circle.

Designing a circle

Depending on the situation, the discussion of ideas for repair will take different forms. At times, it may be enough for people to verbally commit to what they will do to make things right. At other times, it may be necessary to suspend the circle speaking order to allow more in-depth discussion of what is needed to make things right. This may culminate in a written agreement with specific action items moving forward. This can help circle participants to continue to take responsibility and make things right after the culmination of the circle process.

Example Circles

To help illustrate this process, I am including two stories of circles I have facilitated in the last couple weeks.

Circle 1: The Messy Flat

This case involved an apartment full of female students who hadn’t know each other prior to the university placing them together in student housing. The apartment was routinely extremely messy, with piles of dirty dishes covering the kitchen and trash left so long that it developed maggots. Each woman felt like the others weren’t completing their chores. They had also had several months of very high power bills and contentious conversations about how to divide them. Communication in the flat had devolved into passive aggressive Facebook messages. The RA and hall management had tried to hold a couple flat meetings to resolve these problems, but reported that most of the women would just sit there quietly on their phones, not willing to discuss the issues. I agreed to facilitate the circle with a member of the hall management team so that these sorts of conflicts could be resolved in-house in the future.

Using a talking piece and the circle format with clear questions invited each person to share how they were being impacted and what their needs were. We were able to get full participation through the structured equal voice. The women discussed important issues like not feeling at home in their flat, the extra stress created by the Facebook messages, and the financial strain and panic two women in particular felt when the power bill arrived each month. They agreed on a system for cleaning, a fair way to divide the power bill each month based on usage, a new way to communicate with each other, and an occasional flat dinner to get to know each other better. None of these solutions came from myself or my co-facilitator. It was all a product of creating the space for the conversation.

Here is the circle outline used to facilitate this process.

Circle Outline

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking the time to have this conversation.

Introduction: We are here to discuss the issues in the flat (particularly the cleanliness, the power bill, and communication), to understand how everyone has been affected, and to work together to find a solution moving forward.

Ground Rules

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece:  Share the significance of the talking piece and its connection to the circle. For this process, I used a rock I found on the beach that can balance in a really unexpected way up on its side and looks like a sculpture. It also feels nice to hold. I showed them how the rock could balance and said I hoped that this meeting would be a chance for them to find an unexpected and perfect way to come back into balance in the flat.

Question 1 Hopes: What are you hoping to get out of this meeting?

Question 2 Relationship Building: What is something fun or interesting you would like your flatmates to know about you?

Question 3 Impacts: What is the main issue for you and how have you been affected?

Question 4 Repair: What needs to happen now to make things right/improve the experience of living together in the flat?

Discuss ideas and reach agreement.

Final Round: What are you taking away from this process?

Close: Thank you for being here. Final reflection.

Circle 2: The Trouble-Makers

This case involved a large group of male students who had become friends in one of the university residential halls. Most nights the group had big, noisy parties with outside guest that negatively impacted the other residents in the hall. These parties had also resulted in damage to the hall and a mess left in common areas. The group also has a history of being very disrespectful to RAs when they have knocked on the door to ask them to be quiet.

RAs and Hall Management had tried to have one-on-one conversations with each of the young men as issues arose, but it was clear that what was needed was a chance to bring them all together, so they could all be part of the shared commitment to change some of these behaviors.

Two RAs and the Hall Managers were also present in the circle. One of the most impactful moments was several of the men with larger stature talking about how even though sometimes people think they are intimidating, they are actually really friendly and want to have a chat and include everyone. The female RA expressed that it was really helpful to hear that because she had often felt intimidated by them.

The group agreed to be mindful of their noise level and the impact on the hall and common areas, to be respectful and helpful to RAs, to keep each other honest and in-line, to rotate where they host parties so it wouldn’t always be one group of neighbors being bothered, and to keep the lines of communication open and respectful. They also asked the RAs if they would be willing to come by earlier in the evening to knock and just check in so that it wouldn’t always be a knock when they had gone to far. The RAs said they would be happy to do that.

Here is the circle outline used to facilitate this process.

Circle Outline

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking time to have this conversation. We are going to use the circle format for this meeting. That means we’ll go around the circle and each have a chance to respond to a few different questions.

Ground Rules

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece:  Share the significance of the talking piece and its connection to the circle. For this process, my co-facilitator used a polished moonstone. She said that this rock didn’t look like this when it was picked up off the ground, it had to be polished and cleaned to look like this. The same goes for our communities and ourselves, we don’t start out all shiny, but with a bit of effort and intention, we can make it just as beautiful.

Question 1 Relationship Building: What is your name and a story connected to your name?

Introduction: The co-facilitator and I won’t participate in answering the next few rounds, this is your chance to talk. We are here because something isn’t working and people are being affected.

Question 2 Story: What’s been going on that has been negatively impacting others?

Question 3 Impacts: How have people been affected (including yourself and the staff)?

Question 4 Strengths: What is something great about you that you bring to the hall?

Question 5 Repairs: Is there anything that needs to happen right now to repair the harms you’ve named? If not, how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore?

Discuss ideas and reach agreement.

Final Round: Chance for a final word.

Close: Thank you for being here. Final reflection.

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