Safety in Numbers: Five Circle Agreements

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Albert Einstein reputedly said that you can’t solve a problem within the same environment in which it was created. A new perspective is needed. Distance. Vantage. Maybe just opportunity. Something, at any rate, beyond the ordinary and habitual.

Similarly, it’s difficult to find healing within the same environment in which a wound, loss, ailment, or other transgression occurred. That’s what a Healing Circle provides: an alternate universe—an extra-ordinary environment carved out of time and space, untrammeled and less traveled, that allows safe passage while exploring those dimly lit paths of the psyche and the heavily draped chambers of the heart. Sometimes, though, all that’s needed is simply a place to stop the world for a moment, a place that catches those in free-fall.

Historically, exploration of the physical world has been inherently risky, driven by the possibility of great reward. That same equation applies to exploration of the inner realms of emotion, spirit, and psyche. Whether you’re traveling in the company of Lewis and Clark or under the influence of Freud and Jung, the obvious key to minimizing risk is to maximize safety.

In a therapy-based circle, the presumption of safety is in the hands of a board-certified professional, but what about peer-based circles like those we hold at Healing Circles Langley? What makes those safe enough for participants to feel comfortable?

There are two answers to that question: 1) the circle agreements, and 2) the attentiveness of trained hosts and guardians in protecting those agreements.*

Our Healing Circles are rooted in, and begin with, a recitation and discussion of our circle agreements. These address the way we deal with ourselves, with each other, and with what happens within each circle.

At first glance, the circle agreements might seem self-evident, but they’re much more than that in practice. Each is worthy of a longer discussion by itself but for now, we’ll just briefly touch on them as an orientation rather than full-blown exposition.

We treat each other with kindness and respect.

This is probably the most superficially obvious of the agreements because it’s an essentially a restatement of The Golden Rule that many of us have grown up with. The less obvious part is that “other” doesn’t refer only to our fellow participants in the circle but also to those hidden voices within each of us that often seem “other” and need the same kindness and respect we afford those around us.

We listen with compassion and curiosity.

Sounds easy. But it’s not.

People within a circle are peers, regardless of whether their role is participant, host, or guardian. There is no hierarchy, no positioning, no intrigue. The important part of circle isn’t that it offers everyone a chance to say something, but rather that it offers the opportunity to be heard.

For many, listening is an undeveloped and under-appreciated skill. It takes practice—and commitment. Circle offers the opportunity to get that practice, which comes in handy later when we need to attend to, catch, and lightly hold the stories shared by our own inner voices, just as we do for our fellow circle participants.

In circle, we support—not carry—each other. The compassion we hold for ourselves and each other is empathetic rather than sympathetic—an engagement of spirit in the present moment, not an obligation of action beyond. Similarly, the curiosity we maintain in circle is a profound and genuine attentiveness to what’s being shared—not in the aggressive sense of “Tell me more,” but rather in grateful appreciation.

We honor each other’s unique ways to healing and don’t presume to advise, fix, or save one another.

For some—OK, many—this is the most difficult of the agreements to honor.

We are each responsible for, capable of, and entitled to the discoveries of our own healing: It would be a kind of theft for someone else to take that away or insinuate themselves into the process, no matter how well-intentioned or kind-hearted.

It is natural to want to help—except that it often doesn’t. Even reasonable advice is an invasion; unbidden advice is an assault. Wanting to fix things superimposes the idea of brokenness onto a healing journey that may be anything but broken. Trying to save someone presumes they’re lost. They’re not lost: They’re exploring.

That said, there are sometimes “harvesting rounds” in Healing Circles during which a topic is thrown out and participants share what they’ve found helpful in their circumstances but not in the sense that “You should do this.” The difference between that and offering advice may be subtle, but it is significant.

We hold all stories shared in the circle confidential.

This agreement is likely the most important in ensuring circle safety. However, there can be as many levels of confidentiality in circles as there are different levels of security clearances, so it’s very important to discuss and decide ahead of time what “confidentiality” means for each circle as it begins.

At its most basic, confidentiality means that any story someone shares of a personal nature will not be related outside the circle in any way that might identify the person involved. Some circles allow the lessons learned from a story—but not the specifics—to be shared outside. Many don’t allow issues or stories shared in circle to be brought up again outside circle, even between participants. Some people don’t even want anyone beyond the circle to know they’re a participant, so the entire roster is confidential. For someone involved in several circles, it can be confusing. When in doubt, it’s safer to leave everyone and everything safely within the circle and bring nothing and no one out.

We trust that each of us has the guidance we need within us, and we rely on the power of silence to access it.

This agreement has two parts. The first is the underlying principle of a Healing Circle and that is the belief that we each have the inherent ability to influence our own healing, to do what we can to make ourselves whole—not cured necessarily, but movement toward wholeness. There are innumerable forms that inner guidance may take, but we each have an innate or learned ability to access it.

This is listed as an agreement because it’s important for participants to acknowledge and believe it. We explore and engage in our own healing in a Healing Circle. No one else heals us, and we don’t heal anyone else.

The second part of the agreement is the use of silence to access that guidance. There’s nothing that temporarily stops the chaos and intrusion around us as well as silence. We open and close our Healing Circles with “silence between two bells” and will often do the same several times over the course of the circle. The agreement includes the practice of everyone and everything coming to a stop for a moment of silence whenever a bell is rung.

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We’ve heard the circle agreements sometimes referred to as “circle rules” or “circle guidelines,” but they’re really neither, and it’s more than a semantic issue. Rules are “made to be broken”—especially by the unconscious iconoclast. Guidelines are “suggestions” that imply latitude and flexibility in their application, which can lead to the most slippery of slopes. Agreements, on the other hand, are adopted and honored.

My grandfather never signed a contract in his life. All of his business was done by handshake and the value of his word. Circle agreements are like that. For everyone in the circle to feel truly safe, the underlying assumption must be that everyone in attendance will honor the circle agreements and that the host and guardian will be resolute in attending to them.

* We are deeply indebted to PeerSpirit (Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea) and The Center for Courage and Renewal (based on the work of Parker Palmer) for both the concept and implementation of the agreements, and the roles of host and guardian, which we use at Healing Circles. We have adapted them for our specific circumstances.