Holding Space for Challenges Within Circles

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The very nature of healing circles invites what is unhealed to present itself in hopes of healing. People can arrive raw without being quite sure themselves what their emotions are, how to hold themselves together, or how to let themselves fall apart. Hosts set a calm environment and tone and recite circle agreements that are designed to support a smooth flow into/through/and out of delicate territory. The candle is lit, the chime is rung, and the topic or theme is introduced. All these elements are put in place so that, when challenges show up, there is structure already in place to help hosts and group members navigate.

Three kinds of discomfort tend to show up in circle process: shadow, conflict, and sabotage. We name them, so we can talk about them and guide participants through moments of tension when understanding discomfort is part of the whole.


Shadow is the part of ourselves we don’t see, or can comprehend only with difficulty (and oftentimes disbelief or defensiveness when a behavior is pointed out to us).

Here are three brief examples:

A classic example of shadow is when we are unaware of our own behavior. “This is such a sweet circle,” one participant said. “There is no one here who requires extra time and attention or sucks energy from the group.” Yet as she was speaking, the host thought, “No one except you.” And she began to ponder how to help the woman see her own impact on the group.

Shadow also occurs as projection: assigning attributes to others instead of claiming them or recognizing them in ourselves. “Wow, I admire how you’re handling this diagnosis, I could never be so calm. You must be truly spiritual.” There is a thin line between genuine appreciation and projection. The key is how does it feel? To be assigned the unacknowledged capacities of another person doesn’t feel good. Positive projection carries resentment within it because it disempowers the one offering flattery and can flip to the negative where all that was perfect about you now becomes the opposite: “She thinks she’s got the perfect answers through this—but just wait and see, she’ll crumble. I’m not listening to her.” Suddenly the pedestal you never asked to stand on is kicked out from under you.

If people’s comments make you uncomfortable, invite them to explore their own strengths.

A man undergoing aggressive cancer protocols always spoke harshly of his treatment in chemo and radiation, complaining how uncaring the nurses were. One day, a circle member accompanied him to the cancer clinic. The companion told him: the nurses are great and going out of their way to make you comfortable, so I wonder what are you really angry about? “I know nurses,” he said. “My mom was a nurse. She always seemed to care more about her patients than her children.”

This is shadow as transference (putting the experience we have had with a person in the past onto another person in the present.)

In each of these cases, the intervention is dialogue. We need other people to help us unveil our own shadow, and the interactions above are an opportunity to shift behavior from not knowing to knowing. Go gently, because shadow is very volatile. People can be surprisingly reactive, resistant, and unaware. The adage, “If we name it we can change it” is the way through shadow.


Conflict is the presence of difference, which is always present in a healthy group. When we believe our voice will be heard, we experience difference as a contribution to making wiser choices. At its best, conflict expands or focuses a group’s expectations of purpose and what it will accomplish.

When we bring previous experience or projection into the room (“Oh, I’ve been in circle with him before, and he doesn’t consider other people’s feelings”) we can inadvertently create conflict by assuming that the past will be repeated. We get defensive or submissive in anticipation, and unhealthy conflict starts, even if there has been no apparent trigger for it in the present.

The idea of “an elephant in the room,” or things unspoken, occurs when shadow and conflict are present, and the group doesn’t talk about it.

We find that questioning is always helpful as conflict arises: it slows us down and gives us a chance for perspective.

  • What seems to be going on? (Putting it into a story can grant perspective: Once there was a group trying to find its way through a forest of opinion to a clear path of purpose.)
  • What is trying to happen? (Is the group trying to get clear? Trying to avoid an issue? Trying to break free of past dysfunction?)
  • How can we help one another? What aspects of circle practice will help?
  • What are we willing to do about it?
  • What do we need as a safety net to inquire? (Are the agreements worded strongly enough to hold a conversation about conflict? Are people practiced at having emotions without spraying them on others?)

The center of the circle is a very potent tool in conflict: it literally serves as neutral ground. Emotions, opinions, differences, can be expressed to the center like puzzle pieces for the group to consider together.


The third form of discomfort is the hardest to respond to with collaborative group processes. Sabotage is a very complex situation that mixes shadow and conflict accompanied by volatile emotional energy and outburst. Working with a group held by sabotage is a difficult learning field.

Sabotage is the presence of strong opinion or emotion that is so forceful it shuts down dialogue, difference, and options. It is nonnegotiable energy, often embodied with anger and implied (or actual) violence.

Sabotage creates the sense that there’s a “bomb in the room” that could go off at any time. No one is sure what triggers the explosion, so everyone is very, very cautious. There is fake talk rather than real talk; no one is exposing his/her heart: everyone is protective except the one sabotaging the process.

Sabotage requires that the host, guardian, and as many group members as possible, fiercely practice the infrastructure of The Circle Way. It is for these situations that the infrastructure was designed. When a group is coasting along in healthy, trusting dialogue, people get comfortable with the “vehicle” of circle process. Then if/when the group process starts to veer out of control they will remember—oh yes, we have brakes (ring the bell, call for silence, stop the participants from doing further damage to one another until we can restabilize ourselves). Oh yes, we have a steering wheel (review the agreements, name and recommit to purpose, go slow, become a leader/guardian in every chair).

Remember to ask questions, to inquire, to practice neutral language (i.e. “This level of anger stops group process. Notice that we are stopped here. The guardian and I are going to hold this pause, so that nothing else happens. Use this pause to check in with yourself, to find your core strength, to bring yourself fully into your chair and attach to our purpose as symbolized by the center.”)

There is not one easy “here’s how to solve this” solution. However, naming these three forms of discomfort can provide a vocabulary that enables people to talk through what’s going on—seeing it as part of the social condition, and not blaming one person or another.

Circle is the practice of imperfection and constant learning. Its capacity to hold us in moments of profound insight, transformation, and heartfulness is unmatched. When something goes awry, circle can hold us, so we can have a transparent conversation that explores what’s not working and what needs to shift. When meeting with other circle hosts, you might share a story of a time when you felt unable to respond to the needs in a group; didn’t know what to do, or felt incapable in some way. What did you learn?

It’s at times like these, when each person shares how he/she learned to stay present in a difficult situation, we learn from one another and grow in respect for this practice.

For more information, see:

Understanding Shadow and Projection in Circles and Groups (ebook)

Calling the Circle, The First and Future Culture

  • Chapter 8: Challenges in the Circle
  • Chapter 9: When the Circle Shatters

The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair

  • Chapter 8: Activating and Responding in a Social Container
  • Chapter 9: Why Circle Takes Us to the Shadow
  • Chapter 10: Circle as Support for Collective Healing


Header photo by Corrine Bayley