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The Circle Way Model

Last summer, Melissa Kelly, LICSW, proposed the use of a new way to conduct a meeting called The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair. The book is authored by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, co-founders of PeerSpirit Inc., an educational company that teaches circle practice.

As part of an NSGP Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee Initiative, Melissa Kelly collaborated with Guy Croteau, LICSW, CGP, and Mary Alicia Barnes, OT, OTD, OTR/L, in using The Circle Way to run a book group that worked its way through Me & White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. This important book is a method by which you begin to challenge your own personal racism and begin the work of anti-racism.

We wanted to share a bit about The Circle Way with you. It is an approach that emphasizes there is a “leader in every chair” (http://www.thecircleway.net/). It’s no accident that our traditional way of meeting for group therapy is in a circle. People have been meeting this way since the hunter-gatherer days of our ancestors. Gathering in a circle around a fire fosters connection and invites sharing of our stories: “When we listen, we speak more thoughtfully. We lean in to shared purpose” (Baldwin & Linnea, 2016).

The main components of The Circle Way (TCW) include Setting Intention, Three Principles, Three Practices, and Forms of Council (possible structures that monitor energy and can allow process to flow -- e.g., talking piece, conversational, reflection). Circles can start with a Check-In and end with a Check-Out reflecting on our takeaways. Setting an intention is an important component as it brings a shared focus. The Three Principles of TCW are: 1) Leadership rotates among all group members; 2) Responsibility is shared for the quality of the experience; and 3) Reliance is on wholeness rather than anyone's personal agenda. The Three Practices include: Speaking with intention, Listening with attention, and Tending to the well-being of the group.

The principles and practices help us to form an agreement that allows members to have a free and profound exchange and respect a diversity of views. Agreements may include statements of confidentiality, listening without judgment, and asking for what we need. The group shares the responsibility for the group’s well-being.

In practice, Melissa, Guy, and Mary began the use of TCW with a book group that began in August 2020. Ten group members met bi-weekly for 10 total sessions reading “Me and White Supremacy.” Each circle had its Host, a Guardian, and a Scribe. These roles rotated among the group members, each having an opportunity at each role. The Host sets the intention and the frame for that particular meeting. The Guardian’s role is to help with timekeeping and to monitor group-as-a-whole affect and energy, calling for pauses as necessary or requested. The Scribe takes notes of consequence as agreed upon by the group. Each group or circle followed a similar frame that included a Check-In where each member checked in with the group around thoughts, feelings, and intentions for the circle. Then we moved into a group “process,” which included each member responding to the questions posed by the author of Me & White Supremacy. Given the material of doing anti-racism work and the importance for creating brave spaces, each member spoke with intention and listened with attention. The circle refrained from too much cross-talk or giving reactions to other members. This is where TCW differs from what we all understand about “process groups.'' We allowed members to speak in a brave and safe enough space without the worry of offense or others' emotional reactions. While difficult at first, circle-group members found the process of TCW refreshing and liberating which allowed each member to do their own individual work around anti-racism free from shame, guilt, or embarrassment.

Guy R. Croteau, LICSW, CGP
Mary Alicia Barnes, OT, OTD, OTR/L
Melissa Kelly, LICSW

Baldwin, C. & Linnea, A. (2016). The Circle Way Pocket Guide, The Circle Way, 6-22,

Note from the Editors:
NSGP’s series of Town Halls is using an adapted version of The Circle Way model.

Summer/Fall 2023 Issue 6

Northeastern Society for Group Psychotherapy
P.O.Box 356 | Belmont, MA 02478

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