In the Circle: Everyone is needed


“Everyone is needed for what they bring” is one of the seven core assumptions of restorative circles. We all have stories, perspectives and ideas to enrich each other’s lives.  In circles, we are all teachers and we are all learners. 

As the talking piece goes around, everyone is invited to speak.  The welcoming, equitable process in circles tends to empower students to bring their whole selves to the circle – including their wisdom when it comes to solving problems and “discipline.” 

As adults, we often take control when it comes to “disciplinary” interventions: We tell kids how to fix things. We decide on consequences for their actions without too much listening or conversation.

Yes, it’s quick, but it usually doesn’t allow us to get to the bottom of things.  We don’t address underlying needs or harm that was inflicted, nor do we give voice to those who were harmed.  Or invite those who inflicted the harm to take responsibility for their actions. Telling a student to “say sorry” doesn’t do that.  Not really.  Not if they haven’t come to the realization that what they did deserves an apology, or another kind of restoration.  Not if they themselves don’t take ownership and responsibility for their actions. 

And in that regard, it’s an opportunity missed—a wasted teachable moment.

Last week I facilitated a circle at one of my high schools with a group of around 25 students and staff.  It wasn’t intended to repair any particular harm or resolve any conflicts.  Students and staff were still learning about circles, which is why it began as a “simple” community-building circle. 

Things started out slowly. Students were feeling things out, it seemed. A small group of girls in the circle appeared disengaged.  They were having side conversations and giggled while the talking piece started making its way around the circle. 

When the piece came back to me, I asked students to reflect on their behavior and how it might impact others in the circle. I spoke from the self, explaining how I would feel if I shared of myself while others were having side conversations and especially while others snickered and laughed. I was able to refer to the circle practices we’d discussed a few weeks earlier, especially one on respect, which we’d discussed in exactly this context and agreed on practicing as a group.  I saw several students and staff members nod approvingly as I went over this circle practice in particular. 

This didn’t entirely stop the girls’ behavior, but there wasn’t too much sharing happening yet either. In an earlier post, I talked about listening people into speech, but the opposite happens too: When people start sharing authentically, and there’s enough safety in the circle, it almost always activates deep listening.

Today’s circle was about being a teenager: What is good about being a teenager and what is challenging about being a teenager?

The first question greased the wheels by getting a majority of participants talking.  The second question encouraged students to share a bit more personally, especially after I sent the talking piece around a second, then third time, inviting the students who hadn’t shared yet to do so while asking others to connect, reflect and build on what they’d heard so far in the circle.

The additional rounds eased people into a deeper sharing. Students shared about adult responsibilities they’d had to take on at an early age. They spoke of struggles with family, of adults who were poor role models and worse.  There was talk of drug abuse and friendships gone bad. Peer pressure and low self-esteem. One student talked about missing an opportunity in his early teens that could have changed his life for the better. He said that he hadn’t been able to get his act together and had passed up the opportunity. He thinks about what could have been every day.

Several students and adults talked about having been the target of bullying in schools before this one. Some had turned to teachers, who hadn’t intervened even after they’d been made aware of the physical and psychological abuse. This failure to intervene had led students to take matters into their own hands: For the sake of self-preservation, they had turned to what they were familiar with: violence. So violence had begot more violence.

As the talking piece went around, more students and staff shared of themselves.  Some talked about how they were able to relate to others in the circle in ways they’d never realized before. They liked it. The girls from before had stopped their side conversations. They weren’t sharing themselves, but they had started to pay attention to other people’s stories. 

One young man had been listening attentively. When he got the talking piece, he paused for a good minute. He was thinking, trying to pick his words carefully.  When he finally spoke, he shared that after listening to the stories today, he had decided that he had been a bully. There was some snickering, which quickly subsided as his sincerity became clear.

The young man shared how he was the kid who would laugh while other kids were being teased, how he’d sometimes pile on and do his own teasing. Only now, as he listened to the stories in the circle, he realized the scars his behavior might have left.  That’s the word he used: scars. He hadn’t realized until today the harm he might have inflicted. He showed remorse and paused once more before passing the talking piece to his neighbor.

We were running out of time and the bell was about to ring, so we needed to wrap things up.  In our closing go-round, one of the side-conversation-girls shared, somewhat hesitatingly, that this was different.

It was. It was certainly very different from our usual patterns at school.  I too was struck by what happened, and touched. As the target of relentless bullying in elementary school, I appreciated his willingness to take responsibility for the harm he had inflicted.

Since that circle, I’ve been wondering what might have happened if instead of coming to his realization in the circle, the young man had been told by adults that his teasing and bullying were bad. That he had hurt other people. That this kind of behavior is an infringement of the school discipline code and that punitive consequences would follow.

My gut tells me he might have blown off what the adults told him. Maybe being lectured and punished would have caused him to dig deeper into his role as bully.  Maybe he would have continued his bullying, but would have been more careful about getting caught.

As we invite people into circles without judgment, it’s amazing to me how much learning can happen. It’s amazing that restoration and healing can happen, sometimes years after painful events.

In circle, everyone is needed for what they bring.