“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”

Rachel Naomi Remen

How is a circle of two different from a conversation between two people?

Like every healing circle, circles of two are built on the foundation of agreements.

In a circle of two, participants:

  • Treat each other with kindness and respect.
  • Listen with compassion and curiosity.
  • Honor each other’s unique ways to healing and don’t presume to advise or fix or try to save each other
  • Hold all shared stories in confidence.
  • Trust that each person has whatever guidance is needed within and rely on the power of silence to access it.

What happens in a circle of two?

In an in-person circle:
  1. Put something in the center—a candle if you’re at home, a stone if you’re outside, a salt shaker if you’re at a restaurant. Or skip this step if you’re on a walk.
  2. Use a talking piece. One talks, the other listens, then switch. This slows the conversation down and makes sure both are heard.
  3. Speak and listen intentionally. Speak to the center using only “I” statements. Listen carefully without forming a rebuttal, jumping in with advice, or wanting to tell your story.
  4. Ask each other if you’d like to do another round of sharing. Another round could include clear reflection, an open, honest question, or simply repeating step 3.
  5. Close with appreciation for your partner and your circle time.
In a virtual circle:
  1. Light a candle.
  2. Ring a bell to call for for a moment of silence.
  3. Start with a brief check-in question, such as: What’s alive in you today?
  4. Signal that you’re ready to talk by unmuting yourself and/or holding up a talking piece if you can see each other. If you can’t see each other, take special care to avoid interrupting each other.
  5. Speak and listen intentionally. Use only “I” statements. Listen carefully without forming a rebuttal, jumping in with advice, or wanting to tell your story.
  6. Ask each other if you’d like to do another round of sharing. Another round could include clear reflection, an open, honest question, or simply repeating step 5.
  7. Close with appreciation for your partner and your circle time.

How can hosts encourage heart-sharing?

Deep listening

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously, and discover their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends.

Deep Listening involves listening, from a deep, receptive, and caring place in oneself, to deeper and often subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person. It is listening that is generous, empathic, supportive, accurate, and trusting. Trust here does not imply agreement, but the trust that whatever others say, regardless of how well or poorly it is said, comes from something true in their experience. Deep Listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and unexpected. It calls on a special quality of attention that poet John Keats called negative capability. Keats defined this as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Henri Nouwen (in Reaching Out)  

Reflective listening

Reflective listening is a kind of “checking out” process to determine that both you and the speaker understand. Reflection allows another to verify that he or she is being heard.

For this process to be effective, you must be able to:

  • perceive accurately what the other is experiencing and communicating.
  • understand the communication at both the content and feeling level.
  • commit to being present while he or she works through problems and arrives at solution.

When you can answer the question, “What is going on with this person right now?” and have your answer verified, then you are listening with precision.

The reflective listening process is beneficial because it:

  • lets participants know they’ve been heard, understood, cared for, and supported.
  • provides feedback on what the participant has said and how it came across.
  • allows hosts to check on their own accuracy in hearing what the participant said.
  • prevents the mental vacation in which the host is inattentive.
  • helps participants to focus on themselves, vent, sort out issues, express feelings, and deal more effectively with emotions.
  • allows participants to move to deeper levels of expression at their own pace.
  • helps participants arrive at a solution to their problem.

Hosts may choose to reflect content, feelings, meanings, or provide a summary of what they heard. For example: “What I’m hearing is …. Is that correct?”

Source: 1994 Neil Katz & Kevin McNulty


The term “empathy” describes a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.


Asking clarifying questions

Learning to ask honest, open questions is challenging. We may slip occasionally into old fixing habits and need forgiveness from others and from ourselves. It helps to continually remind ourselves that our purpose in asking open and honest questions is not to show what good problem-solvers we are, but simply to support another person in listening to his or her inner wisdom.

Paraphrased from Parker Palmer

Learning to respond to others with honest, open questions instead of counsel, corrections, advice, etc. can be life-altering. With such questions, as Parker Palmer says, we help “hear each other into deeper speech,” a speech that might reveal a turning point in a life, an intuition about one’s health, or an insight into life’s purpose. For ourselves, the practice frees us from having to know “the answer” or solve “the problem.” It allows us to relax into our own humanity and the pleasure that comes from being connected to another.

But what is an open and honest question? The best definition is that the asker could not possibly anticipate the answer to it. So, give it a try in your circles, in your marriage, and with friends and family.

10 tips for asking open and honest questions

  1. Ask yourself what assumptions you’re making.
  2. The best questions are simple ones.
  3. Avoid questions with right/wrong, yes/no answers.
  4. Ask questions aimed at opening doors for the other person rather than satisfying your own curiosity.
  5. Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem – questions about feelings as well as facts.
  6. Invite imagery or metaphor.
  7. Trust your intuition, even if your instinct seems off the wall.
  8. If you aren’t sure about the question, be quiet, wait, and if it keeps surfacing, ask it.
  9. Watch the pacing of your questions. Questions coming too fast can feel aggressive.
  10. Avoid storytelling or behaviors that call attention to yourself.

What’s the difference between a circle host and a professional counselor/therapist?

Circle host Professional counselor/therapist
Speaks into the center Addresses client directly
Primary responsibility is to provide a safe container by paying attention to process Draws on professional training, expertise and experience
Follows circle agreements Is bound by professional ethical standards
Asks clarifying questions, provides empathy and referrals only when requested May provide interpretation and guidance
Is free to speak from personal experience Needs to maintain professional boundaries and distance
Manages expectations, e.g. articulates purpose of the circle: social-emotional support, not therapy Clarifies and articulates to client what therapy means their professional framework
Consciously takes professional hat off Consciously puts professional hat on
Encourages and models heart-sharing Asks poignant, probing and often analytical questions
Refrains from interpretations Gives feedback, interprets
Consciously delineates difference between social-emotional support and shares information only when that has been requested- careful to not fix and advise Makes professional judgments about when to advise and when to move from process to sharing of content/information

Dropping in for a Cup of Tea and a Circle of Two

As humans, we are happier and healthier if we have someone to talk to when we need it. For people who are newly diagnosed, grieving, at a turning point, or simply needing to connect, we offer circles of two at Healing Circles Langley. Our primary purpose is to listen and help people find their own voice.

At minimum, we can offer a hug, a cup of tea, and an attentive ear to whatever the day’s concern is—whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. We aspire to both generous listening and open questioning, affirming strength when we hear it and supporting inner guidance as it emerges.

What’s most satisfying for me as a volunteer is just being there for people who walk through the front door. The social support I’ve personally received from Healing Circles has been ‘a life raft.’

Kitty Adams, Healing Circles Langley volunteer drop-in host

Our volunteers are trained in peer-to-peer co-counseling methods such as active listening and clear reflection. Circle hosts do not offer medical (or other) advice or therapy, but they can serve as a clearinghouse to assist people in finding additional community resources.

The same circle agreements apply: confidentiality; listening with compassion and curiosity; honoring each others’ respective paths; and pausing for a moment whenever necessary to catch our breath and bearings.

It’s not easy to turn to a stranger for help, but some of the pain that gives new people the courage to cross our threshold includes:

  • “I’ve just been diagnosed with a life-altering illness.”
  • “I’m overwhelmed by being a caregiver.”
  • “I’ve just lost a loved one.”
  • “I’m at a turning point in my life.”
  • “I’m having a bad day, and I’m lonely.”
  • “I’ve just moved to town and have no support network, and now I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.”
  • “I don’t know why I’m here. I just needed to talk with someone.”

So far, our reach has not exceeded our grasp. We have enough volunteers to host circles of two three days a week, and in 95 percent of the circles that take place, our volunteers have felt comfortable in their role. We’ve enlisted the help of a team of crisis counselors who are willing to take a call and perhaps offer a complementary session for those with mental health issues. So far, we’ve had to call on their help only a few times.

We have additional volunteers experienced in working with those suffering from grief, pain, cancer, and aging, and we also direct people to other social organizations or therapists who could be of better assistance.

Circles of two are a beautiful way for generous spirits to volunteer at Healing Circles Langley. The program protects the integrity of our larger circles because we can use them to either match people with the best circle for them or invite them to continue to come to circles of two if that works better.

I feel that serving as a Healing Circles host is a privilege and a treat. Not a burden at all; it’s a gift. What a great feeling it is to hear visitors say as they’re leaving, “I’m so glad you were here.”

Linda diRienzo, Healing Circles Langley volunteer drop-in host

Diana Lindsay is a co-founder and co-director of Healing Circles Langley. She is the author of Something More Than Hope: Surviving Despite the Odds, Thriving Because of Them, the story of her recovery from stage IV lung cancer.

Header photo by David Welton