Friday, June 7, 2013

Group Works: Circle

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Circle. Here is the image and text from that card:

A Circle is a safe, solid, yet permeable space with an inside, an outside, and a focus that moves from person to person. A welcoming form where everyone can see each other and all voices are heard, it creates a field that invites sharing and story.

This is almost right. 

Circle in Sight
I agree that it's important to protect sight lines whereby all participants can see one another. Usually the size of the group (or the size of the meeting space) are such that one circle gets the job done. Mostly though, if you're likely to need the group to be able to focus attention on visuals (such as an easel, chalkboard, or projection screen) and in those situations you're actually better off with a horseshoe configuration, with the facilitator and the visuals located in the gap. (If you use insist on a circle, it's damn hard for the folks seated near the visuals to be able to see them.)

Circle of Sound
A round layout is definitely good for promoting hearing. Not just because the distance between participants is minimal (sound intensity decreases as the square of the distance between voice and ear), but because people are facing one another. If people are arrayed around tables or distributed as in an amphitheater, there will inevitably be times when one person is talking to another's back. Not so good.

And there is another angle on this. When someone has something to say, you absolutely want to make it easy for that person to be heard. However, it's not true that everyone needs of speak on every subject. Often enough, a person doesn't really care about the topic, or perhaps another person has already voiced the same views as a person who hasn't spoken and there's no need to have it said twice. Sometimes a person hasn't completed their thinking about a topic before it's time to move on, and they'd rather complete their digestion before opening their mouths (and displaying to everyone their half-chewed thoughts). Not so pretty.

Circles that Are Unbreakable
It's not obvious to me that circles are a "welcoming" form. Sometimes they can, even unintentionally, define an "in" group and an "out" group that is psychically all but impossible to penetrate. While circles are definitely not authoritarian (good), they are not necessarily egalitarian, or equally accessible.

Sometimes this can be subtly addressed by making sure that there is always an empty chair or two, inviting last arrivals to join the circle. Sometimes it's a stretch for people to be seated "on the inside" at a meeting, where they can't escape easily if things get unbearably awkward—and your well-intended invitation to "join the circle" lands (inadvertently, mind you) as an invitation to a neck-tie party (or perhaps a tongue-tied party).

Circling Around to Seating that Works
I agree with the notion that circles are a great layout for sharing from the heart. Just don't lose sight of the fact that all meetings aren't story hour. When you're doing business, for instance, horseshoes are luckier better. If you're expecting to use small group breakouts, then tables can be pretty handy. The key is not having the shape of the seating wag the dog—pick an arrangement that's congruent with what you intend to do, and don't be a slave to an idealized shape.

Don't get me wrong. I get around a lot and I like round a lot, it's just that sometimes half arcs, spirals, ovals, kidney shapes, and even the occasional amoeba can be just the ticket. Let those circles breathe a little.

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