Council Circle

The process of Council comes from a number of Native American traditions and has been used by many non-native people for generations to facilitate meaningful interaction. The structure of a council can vary from place to place and has had a number of innovations and alterations over time, but the basic form remains constant. A group is gathered in a circle for a conversation about a specific topic. The opportunity to speak is given one at a time to all members of the council, often passing a “talking piece” clockwise around the circle to identify the speaker. Members only speak when it is their turn and are encouraged to listen intently, without comment, while others are speaking. All members have the right to keep silent or “pass” when their turn comes. A facilitator is charged with maintaining the boundaries of the circle to protect the process.

Intentions. The following excerpts from the Ojai Foundation’s Center for Council Training may be helpful in developing your understanding of how to engage in the council process:

Council uses four simple intentions that provide the basis for interaction in the council circle. An intention is a direction that we want to move in to the best of our ability, despite difficulties we might encounter.

  1. The first intention is to “speak from the heart” when you have the talking piece. This means to speak not only with your head and your ideas, but with your feelings as well. It means to tell your own story as honestly as you can trust in the moment. You have countless important and meaningful experiences. When you speak about them truthfully, you are speaking from the heart.
  2. The second intention is to “listen from the heart” when another person has the talking piece. This means to listen without judgment, to listen with an open mind, even if you disagree with what the person is saying. Listen not just with your mind, but with your heart as well.
  3. The third intention is to “speak spontaneously.” This means that we try to wait before the talking piece comes to us before we decide what we want to say. There are good reasons for this. First, if you are thinking about what you are going to say, then you are not listening completely to the person who is speaking. Second, when you don’t preplan what you are going to say, you will often be surprised what comes to you when it is your turn.
  4. The last intention is to “speak leanly.” Something that is “lean” doesn’t have anything extra on it. When you speak, keep in mind that many others would like a chance to speak, and that there is limited time. Use only those words necessary to get your point or story across. Please remember that no one is required to speak.

These four intentions provide the foundation for all council practice.

Council Facilitation.  There should be one person designated as the facilitator, who sets the initial intention of the circle and offers the basic structure and ground rules. This person also helps the group maintain circle boundaries either in terms of content or behavior, and should use gentle reminders to individuals and the group to adhere to the basic ground rules. This person should be empowered to call for brief pauses in the conversation or for a break if the group is too tired to continue in a productive way.

Process. Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the facilitator to begin the circle with a gesture that shifts people’s attention from social space to council space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, singing a song, or listening to a musical interlude to invite a sense of calm presence.

Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for council and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed intention. It ensures that people are truly present in mind as well as in body.

To check-in with a new circle, participants may say their names and offer a brief self-introduction. To check-in with an ongoing circle, they may speak briefly about their hopes for the meeting, offer social comments, or share anecdotal stories about their lives.

The talking piece can be any object that passes easily from hand to hand. This may be an object from nature, such as a stone, stick or feather, or an object that has meaning for a particular circle. Only the person holding the talking piece speaks, and other circle members listen without interruption.

A talking piece is used whenever there is a desire to move the conversation more slowly so that everyone’s stories, input or wisdom can be gathered. One member picks up the talking piece, shares his/her thoughts or story, and then passes it on. The talking piece progresses around the circle, either in sequence or by volunteering, until everyone has had an opportunity to contribute.

Checkout and Farewell. When is a circle over? There are a number of ways to define the length of a council circle. A time frame can be set or a decision made to go around two or three times. Another option is to continue the council until there is a completely silent passing of the talking piece indicating that no one has anything left to add to the discussion. Make sure that you define the limit of the circle before beginning.

At the close of a circle meeting, it may be worthwhile to allow a few minutes for each person to “check-out” and comment on what they learned, or what is in their heart and mind as they leave. Closing the circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on anything that has transpired, and to reclaim objects from the center.

Often after check-out, the facilitator will offer a few inspirational words or farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the circle is released.

Further resources for Council Process: