In the video below, Diana Lindsay, co-founder of Healing Circles Langley, provides an overview of how to hold a healing circle beginning to end.

Calling a circle step-by-step

Each section below describes an aspect of calling and holding a circle in greater detail.

A healing circle is typically born out of love and a desire for service. Discovering your own purpose is a vital first step.

There are many types of healing circles, and all begin with a purpose or intention. Before you start a circle, get clear on why you’re calling it.

  • Where does hosting this circle fit into your life?
  • How does it serve your own wholeness?
  • What will the people in this circle have in common?
    • A shared physical condition or life circumstance?
    • The desire for self-discovery through media such as art, writing, or music?
    • A commitment to learning something new together?
    • Caregivers of others who desire support?

The members of a circle have an equal voice and are responsible for the leadership of their own healing. However, there are three specific roles that help a circle flow smoothly.


Healing circles with at least two people supporting it provide the safest experience for circle members. The roles these two people play are called host and guardian and are service, not leadership roles. Co-hosts can alternate between the roles of host and guardian and can cover for each other in  case of absence.

  • The host convenes the circle, tends to the space in which it’s being held, welcomes members, and sees to their comfort via refreshments and seating. He or she also pays attention to the energy or flow of the circle.
  • The guardian partners with the host to track time, monitor the energy of the circle, call for pauses, and protect the agreements.
  • If the circle chooses, a scribe can volunteer to keep notes.
  • All members share responsibility for holding the circle and for their own healing. Any member may call for a pause—usually by asking the guardian to use a gentle sound-maker such as a bell or chime.

For more information about the roles in circle, see this video.

Establishing a safe environment in which people feel held and comfortable takes forethought and preparation.

The basic steps include:

  • Creating a beautiful and welcoming space that is clean, well-lit, and has comfortable chairs.
  • Making a center for the circle that includes items such as a candle, flowers, and/or objects that symbolize the purpose around which the group is gathering.
  • A pleasant sound-maker such as a bell or chime.
  • An object that can be used as a talking piece, which will be passed from hand to hand as circle participants take turns sharing. This can be as simple as a stone.
  • Offering refreshments such as tea and cookies.
  • Greeting and welcoming each participants warmly and introducing them to each other if necessary.
  • Scheduling time for social interaction both before and after the circle.
  • Creating a smooth transition from social time to circle time.

For more information about preparing for a circle, see this video.

Helping circle members transition from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to being in circle includes four key components:

  • Welcoming is the informal connection that starts to build between circle members from the time they come in the door until they sit down in circle.
  • Entering the circle entails simple rituals that signal the transition into circle. These include activities such as: lighting a candle in the center, ringing a bell, spending a minute or two in silence, or reading a quote or poem.
  • Introductions if a circle has new members.
  • Reviewing circle agreements and practices and reaffirming the group’s commitment to them.
  • Checking in begins to connect the members of a circle and can often be most effective when members respond to the same question. You’ll find examples of questions here.

For a beautiful example of how a circle can be opened and closed, see the blog post Opening and closing a healing circle by Rob Feraru of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program Alumni Healing Circles.

Healing circles are built on the foundation of shared agreements. The “basic set” follows, but you can add agreements that are unique to your circle and purpose. It’s helpful to review these agreements every time the circle gathers.

Healing circles agreements

  • We treat each other with kindness and respect.
  • We listen with compassion and curiosity.
  • We honor each other’s unique ways to healing and don’t presume to advise or fix or try to save each other.
  • We hold all stories shared in the circle in confidence.
  • We trust that each of us has the guidance we need within us, and we rely on the power of silence to access it.

For more information about agreements, see this video.

Healing circles practices

Participants in a healing circle also commit themselves to certain practices. These include:

  • Listening with attention.
  • Speaking with intention.
  • Tending to the well-being of the circle.

For more information about practices, see this video.

The core of the healing circle is the sharing round(s) in which members have the opportunity to speak to what is most on their hearts. This is a moment of authenticity, vulnerability, and often self-discovery.

The talking piece

The member who is first moved to speak picks up the talking piece, which is usually lying in the center. A talking piece can be anything that’s meaningful to the group: a stone, a stick, or other artifact. The circle member holding the talking piece can speak for as long as he or she holds it, while other members of the circle listen. There is no cross-talking in circle. The other members of the circle listen without interruption or comment, simply bearing witness.

Sometimes, to ensure that everyone who wants to gets the opportunity to speak, the group will set a time limit, and the guardian will let the speaker know when his or her time is up.

When a member of the circle is finished speaking, he or she hands the talking piece to the right or left, and then the next person has an opportunity to speak. If, after a moment of contemplation, that person prefers not to share, he or she passes the talking piece to the next person. The person who passed is often given another opportunity to speak after everyone else has had an opportunity to do so.

The center

The center of the circle represents the purpose or intention around which the circle has gathered. Circle members address the center when they speak. This, in addition to deliberate turn-taking and active listening, is one of the main things that differentiates a circle from a conversation or meeting.

Rather than deferring to a leader as the source of all wisdom, healing circles look to the wisdom within every member. Harvesting can be achieved using many different formats and practices. Your group will find its way if you give it time.

  • Personal—The group passes the talking piece again, and this time members take their own discovery process deeper by speaking to what they have harvested from the previous round.
  • Small group—The group can divide into small groups based on numbers or areas of interest, which is good for a larger circle.
  • Whole circle—The circle can explore questions using a “popcorn” method (a few speak to the topic, but there is still no cross-talk); a talking-piece round (in which everyone has the opportunity to can speak to the topic, but there is no cross-talk); or conversation-style (group members can ask each other respectful, open, honest questions).

A circle closes by unwinding in much the same way that it began. Your circle can adopt rituals of its own, but ending rituals  usually include three elements:

  • A check-out. Again, this often works best when each member of the circle has an opportunity to reflect on the same question. For example, “What are you leaving with from today’s circle?” or “What’s percolating inside that you’d like to continue to work on?” Sometimes hosts challenge members to sum up their reflection in a single word or sentence.
  • A poem or song followed by a bell or chime that calls for silence.
  • Blowing out the candle.

Closing a circle takes time. Be sure to allow for that in your schedule.

For a beautiful example of how a circle can be opened and closed, see the blog post Opening and closing a healing circle by Rob Feraru of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program Alumni Healing Circles.


To explore circle in far greater depth, see these works, which inspired Healing Circles:

Deeply buried

Note: One of the agreements that serves as the foundation of healing circles is confidentiality, and that makes it challenging to give you an idea of what it’s like to take part in one. Billy gave me permission to share the following story with you. 

Billy’s mauve cotton headscarf reminded me of the head coverings many people wear when bald from the side-effects of chemotherapy, but I hadn’t attributed Billy’s bandana to cancer until later, when I arrived home from the conference and read his blog. Billy identifies himself as a “Stage IV prostate cancer thriver.”

I was immediately drawn to Billy when he told us how he taught “beading” to patients at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. I could picture this warm, kind, bright-eyed, sixty-seven-year-old man helping people with neuropathy in their fingers from chemo, thread brightly-colored beads onto strings, each one symbolizing an act of courage.

In March 2016, thirty-seven people from across North America were invited to the Healing Circles Conference at Commonweal, in Bolinas, California. Our Callanish team from Vancouver led a grief circle whereby all participants who wished to could share losses from their work and their lives. A large brass bowl was filled with water and placed in the center of the circle as a symbol of our tears, and smooth, round stones were piled high around the bowl, embodying the weightiness of our unattended sorrows. Each person chose one rock for each loss experienced, and wrote a word, or a name on the rock to identify each sorrow. Many people spoke of losing family members, friends, and colleagues to cancer, and the ensuing weariness that comes from years of witnessing suffering. The vulnerability of one person encouraged another to speak.

An hour or so into the sharing, I noticed Billy’s hands trembling as he opened and closed his fist around three small stones. Each one had a name printed on it.

“It started yesterday, when Steve told me he had also served in Vietnam and asked me where I served. I told him I don’t talk about it,” Billy said, his face wrought with anguish.“ And then Nebraska limped back into my dreams last night. Early this morning, after a walk along the cliff, the visions returned: flag-draped caskets, the bodies of my friends, the beggars on street corners back home, too traumatized to reconnect with life again.” Billy rolled the stones between his hands as he spoke, as though he was soothing the bodies of his friends back to life with his love and regret.

The story that had been buried deep in the unreachable recesses of Billy’s heart spilled out into the circle. Billy had served as an airborne ranger in Vietnam and watched three of his men die in unthinkable ways. He had tried for years to push the memories away from his thoughts, prayers, and dreams.

Waves of words and deep feelings washed out of Billy’s heart and soul as the circle held him in silence. It was then that Steve stood up, pushed his chair back and walked slowly behind the circle of chairs until he stood at the back of Billy’s chair. Steve then leaned in and gently wrapped his arms around Billy’s chest, their faces touching. The men held on to each other and wept for what seemed like a very long time.

When Billy lifted his head, I knew he was through the worst of the memories, and when he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled to the bowl of water to drop his stones in, and then lifted handfuls of water to his head and face, I knew that his deep healing had begun.

Steve told me later that he, too, was healed in the process. “There was a palpable sense that Billy and I were both being held and supported by the focused and loving intent of everyone else in the room. In those moments, for the first time in my life, I felt my authentic self—who I am and what I’m really made of. The inherent goodness in my heart and soul that I hadn’t known was there had been revealed to me.”

Later that same day, Billy’s new friends and the wild purple irises in the meadow looked on as he tucked his three rocks into the dark clay soil on the cliff edge, alongside others’ rocks of loss. Billy had tended his sorrows and, in so doing, had deeply honored his three friends, as well as each one of us in the circle who are forever changed by one man’s unwavering courage to heal.

May we all find community to help one other attend to our unattended sorrows before we leave this world.

Janie Brown is the executive director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer and who want to heal, whether it be into life or death. She is currently working on her first book. 

Header photo courtesy of Healing Circles Houston

Photo above courtesy of Gift of Compassion