3 Schools of Circling

December 8, 2016

By Michael Porcelli

Here at The Integral Center people come from all over the world to learn how to create more of the kinds of human connections they want. They come to learn how to have deeper, more fulfilling relationships and how to have a more effective impact on others in general. We teach this experientially in our weekend intensives and longer trainings in Authentic Relating and Circling. We create a supportive and challenging space where we offer our students the theory, perspectives, skills, and exercises that cultivate the awareness and inner capacities that they can apply in their everyday lives, in any relationship, in any moment of connection with another human being.

My name is Michael Porcelli, and I’m the Director of Training here at The Integral Center. I’d like to tell you more about Integral Circling™, which is the style of Circle we practice and teach here. We train facilitators of this form of Circling in our T3 program. As it turns out, we’re not the only place people come to learn Circling facilitation. With this article, my aim is to serve two audiences. First, if you’re considering attending a training in Circling facilitation, I’d like to give you my overview to help you with your decision. Second, if you’re already a practitioner of Circling interested in my perspectives on the similarities and differences between the schools, I’m also writing for you. I also hope all of this is a contribution to the ongoing development of the teaching and practice of Circling.

What’s Circling?

Circling is an experiential, relational process that’s equal parts art form, meditation, and group conversation designed to create a visceral experience of connection and understanding of each other’s worlds, celebrating who and where we are right now, together. We express ourselves more honestly, openly, and fully. We get to know each other better by learning to take on each other’s perspectives. We are often profoundly moved by a sense of connection and intimacy that we rarely experience in other parts of our lives. We discover new and often surprising things about ourselves. We learn. We grow. Our consciousness shifts. All this and more are possible in Circling.

We’ve talked about what Circling is and why we do it elsewhere. I’d like to get on with sharing more about the “school” of Circling we teach at The Integral Center. As it turns out, we’re not the only place people come to learn “Circling.” We have our own approach, our own process, and our own training, called T3, where we teach Integral Circling™. I’ll also be sharing my perspective on two other schools, The Circling Institute’s Art of Circling and Circling Europe’s SAS. I’ll do my best to be respectful and to not make strong claims that a teacher in another style might take issue with. I’ll also try and indicate any time I’m having an assessment which is my own, rather than making a claim about what the others are actually teaching.

I’ve been with T3 since it began in 2010 in San Francisco at Authentic World with Decker & Kendra Cunov leading it. I volunteered to help Decker codify his approach to Circling back then, and I’ve been a part of the delivery team for all 9 of the T3 cohorts since its beginning. I now support Josh Levin and Jess Nichol in their leadership of T3 through ongoing collaboration and refinement of our approach to teaching Circling at The Integral Center (IC for short).

Also, I’ve been a part of Circles, sometimes as a participant, and sometimes as a co-lead, with Guy Sengstock and Alexis Shepherd (of The Circling Institute – CI for short), as well as with John Thompson, Sean Wilkinson, and Jordan Myska Allen (of Circling Europe – CE for short). Though I’m most familiar with Integral Circling as it is taught at T3 with The Integral Center I’ll do my best to compare and contrast all 3 schools from the information I’ve been been able to gather through my own experiences and through conversations with others. Before diving into the details, I’ll claim that, roughly speaking, all the schools are all teaching and practicing something called Circling roughly captured in my basic description above.

To start, I’ll talk about the CI and IC schools. During conversations with my colleagues and our counterparts at The Circling Institute, I recall speaking of the difference as analogous to the differences between Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. They’re both Buddhism, and they both have meditation practice. It’s just that CI is kinda more like Tibetan and IC is more like Zen. Let’s see if this analogy holds up through my description.

Circling Institute

What I’ve seen in my experiences with the CI approach is something with more variety and an opportunity to apply many different frameworks for healing, growth, change, and transformation within the container of CI’s Circling. I think this comes via Guy’s study and practice of Almaas’ Diamond Approach, his talents and practice as a sculptor, poet, and painter, as well as Alexis’ Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology.

The CI Circling model itself is more metaphorical, using phrases with colorful names like “Explorer,” “Warrior,” and “Deep Sea Diver” for instance. I’ve often heard Guy teach Circling itself as an inquiry, like, “What is Circling Really?” as though it were a Koan (yeah, that’s Zen, not Tibetan, but I’m mixing metaphors a bit). This makes sense to me, at least in part, because it was Guy and Jerry Candelaria who first used the term Circling to describe this process (circa 1997). During their early years together (from stories I’ve heard told from before my time) it was more of a process of co-exploration, co-discovery, and co-creation with each other, with their community, and with their students, than it was a singular Act of Creation. I’ve often tried to imagine what those early days were like. Maybe someone said, “Let’s try this!” And then they just dove right in, all the while staying in connection, exploring the effect on their consciousness or relationships, and continuing to answer the question “what’s that like?”

I think that the sense of Circling as an art form is emphasized most by CI, and it’s no accident they call their training Art of Circling. So if your learning style is more poetic, creative, metaphorical, or artistic, you might jive most with the CI style of training. If that’s less like your learning style, you might find this approach vague, imprecise, or confusing.

One last distinction I have is that CI has seemed to orient their trainings more towards “helping professionals” such as Coaches and Therapists. I think this is because their model is a little bit of a bigger and looser container that more easily accommodates things like healing and change-work, which is more familiar to practitioners in these other modalities.

If there are some downsides to the CI’s approach to learning Circling, I imagine one could be that it’s a bit more work to come up to speed with basic proficiency because so much is possible within their framework. It might be too complex or overwhelming for beginners. I also imagine that there could be some confusion at the margins for beginners between the focus on weaving shared reality about someone’s world and other interventions meant more for facilitating healing or transformation in the Circlee. This kind of confusion, if and when it arises, could interfere with the Circlee’s own self-directed process. On the plus side, I imagine that CI Circling has more of a sense of possibility or inclusivity of interventions—anything could happen! Anything is possible! Let’s just try it out, and see what it’s like! Lest I make this sound too much like the Wild West, I also respect that Guy and Alexis have been refining their approach to teaching Circling for many years now and have taught many practitioners. I believe they do bring a solid approach to the basics and build up from there. If anything, their approach is the more “classical” form of Circling, in part, because it’s probably been under formal development the longest, and at this point is probably the most elaborate, and possibly complex, form of Circling that’s currently being taught. This leads me to talk about the IC approach.

The Integral Center (Authentic World)

First I’ll say that the founders of The Integral Center and the founders of Circling Institute have put in many hours together over the years, experimenting and practicing together in a variety of contexts like Areté and the Authentic Man Program. So there was a lot of cross-pollination in earlier years (circa 2000-2009) before either The Integral Center or Circling Institute were created as training businesses. Prior to this cross-pollination, Decker Cunov and Bryan Bayer (co-founders of The Integral Center, along with Robert MacNaughton) were exploring relational practices within their intentional community, Soul2Soul. Their practices together are the most direct antecedent to Integral Circling™.

What I think Decker brought to his approach to Circling is clarity and simplicity. Rather than continuing with Guy’s inquiry of “What is Circling?” instead he declared “This is Circling!” at least insofar as what HE believed Circling to be. The result is a simple and elegant model that is designed to be more easily learned and more reliably repeated by more people.

Decker created a simple list of the basic steps of Circling. Josh Levin later added another element to our model, the Channels, which serves to orient the Circler’s attention and guide their choices about how to simply and directly engage the Circler and Circle participants.

I think we also have a bias towards “street talk” and simple, crisp, basic concepts that aid in the learning process. This simplicity of the parts help the practitioner build connection and mutual understanding quickly. As the IC facilitator develops, their Circling can feel like just a really great conversation even for people who have never experienced it before. One of my favorite responses from someone who I Circled for the first time was something like “I felt like I really just got to be myself, but without the part that usually feels awkward or uncomfortable.”

The strengths of our approach can also be its weakness. Chunking into bite-sized pieces is helpful for digestion, and the concepts are satisfyingly understood by the mind. However, this can sometimes have our students get too narrowly focused on technique or structure to the detriment of the holistic sense of presence or the sense of an alive in-the-moment connection. This isn’t to say that we don’t focus on the whole. We do. Our approach includes the transmission of what we call the Essence of Circling. One foundational aspect of this essence is orienting from a place of “Welcoming Everything and Assuming Nothing.” When tapping into this orientation within one’s self, the techniques drop away, and relating in a Circling Way comes naturally. These parallel trajectories of essence and technique are hallmarks of learning Circling in the IC style.

Another key aspect of IC style is our rigorous commitment to the ideal that nobody is the authority on someone else’s experience, and we teach this as the principle of “owning your experience” (incidentally, I think this is a term of art that is used quite differently by CE, which I think correlates more closely with what IC calls “congruent self expression”). Our simplest definition means expressing yourself in such a way that it cannot be argued. This rigor serves two important values we hold highly at IC. The first is the Socratic ideal that the answers are already within the Circlee and that they will discover what they need for themselves in their own timing. We don’t need to fix or change them or teach them something about themselves. Our bias is that allowing someone to discover things on their own makes insights more lasting. If it comes down to a moment in a Circle where there is a tension between self-expression or taking full responsibility for your perspective, we teach that responsibility is the higher value, even in cases where it trades directly against your own self-expression as a facilitator. This can often show up like a conscious and intentional act of self-restraint and letting go of any ego-centered agenda—all in service of something greater.

The second reason for this rigor is our commitment to the ideal of not generating any new “negative karma.” Another way to say this is that IC style attempts to minimize negative iatrogenic effects (from the Greek for “brought forth by the healer”). This is, of course impossible to do perfectly. Nonetheless, we teach our students to provide a safe and respectful container for unresolved issues or past traumas to surface, if and when they do. This minimizes chances for re-traumatization or inducing some kind of emotional breakdown, which is more likely when there’s a looser context or no designated leader of the Circle.

We drill this value of “owning your experience” quite deeply in our students. IC Circling is not “therapy-lite” nor is it an “encounter group” nor is it “spectator therapy” nor is it a “social experiment.” It’s a way of relating with others that includes both responsibility and congruence when it comes to self-expression. One critique of this aspect of our style is that this can often make our Circles feel a bit pedestrian, boring, or restrained, particularly when practiced by beginners in our method. This is a conscious trade-off in the design of our style because we prioritize these other values. This carefully crafted intentional design behind T3 and the IC style of Circling is meant to reach the broadest audience that we can, making Circling accessible regardless of experience or background.

I believe the Zen-like rigor of Integral Circling™ is the most pristine of the 3 schools in terms of supporting a Socratic approach to self realization and in minimizing negative iatrogenic effects.

Though the IC model is somewhat simple and its practice probably the most strict, any experience that can be had in Circling is possible within it—from a very satisfying sense of mutual connection, a profound sense of discovering something new, to a turning point where things are never the same again for someone after they were Circled. There’s nothing about our emphasis on technique, conceptual understanding, or our rigorous commitment to owning experience that precludes any of this, especially as practitioners become more experienced.

In addition, I believe it is the simplicity, clarity, and minimalism of Integral Circling™, of the 3 schools, that make it most adaptable to the widest range of relational applications—coaching, conflict mediation, intimate relationships, interviews, business meeting facilitation, sales, negotiations, and lots more.

One important point of commonality between the CI and IC approaches is that we both emphasize the expertise of the Circling Facilitator far more, I believe, than does CE. Though Circling is fundamentally a “peer-to-peer” practice (something common to all 3 schools, I believe), CI and IC both tend to emphasize the explicit role of the facilitator much more than the CE approach. At IC in addition to focusing on the growth and transformation of our trainees, we’re also invested in our certified facilitators being able to re-create a consistent and hopefully comprehensible experience for people who come to experience Circling for the first time. In service of this, we place emphasis on Setting Context in a clear and explicit way such that it could be mostly understood by someone off the street who had never heard of or experienced Circling before. Though we like to say that nobody is the authority on someone else’s experience, we certainly emphasize that the facilitator of the Circle IS the authority on the process and as part of the practice of Circling with IC or CI, the facilitator explicitly defines and claims this role and holds it for the duration of the Circle. This creates a sense of safety and trust in the process more easily for newbies.

A downside to doing this is that it can to some degree run counter to “pure” peer-to-peer aspect of Circling. In the primary format that IC and CI teach, one person is the explicit focus of the Circle, the “Circlee,” and one person is the explicit facilitator, the “Circler.” We call this format a “Birthday Circle” or an individual or personal Circle. What I believe is CE’s tendency to have no fixed roles creates a very different dynamic. The trade off here is that when there is an explicit facilitator, participants in the Circle can more easily disown responsibility for themselves and their experience in the Circle and “blame the facilitator” for any reason they feel dissatisfied. Simply having an explicitly held role as facilitator can in itself interfere with a Socratic ideal of self-directed transformation. I believe that something like this tradeoff is behind CE’s decision to eschew role authority in their style (more on the strengths of this style below). On the other hand, I believe learning to facilitate a Birthday Circle is an easier way to learn the principles and practices of Integral Circling™ than in a more free-form format.

For the sake of completeness here I’ll touch on two other Circling formats practiced at The Integral Center. One we call Organic Circling, or “Living Room” Circling. In this format there is no explicitly designated Circlee, though there still is an explicit facilitator who guides the process. The second format is “Leaderless Organic Circling” which has no differentiated roles whatsoever—no Circlee and no Circler. Though this format sometimes happens within our community center, our training organization officially reserves this format for our advanced trainings and practice groups, both of which comprised of people who are graduates of T3.

Our caution with these other formats is due to them being more complex and difficult to learn to do well, and also because of some risk exposure to side-effects that require a greater degree of time and energy to work through. Strong emotional triggers and the dynamics of power, desire, and conflict often get amplified greatly in the leaderless format. We’re willing to take these risks with more advanced practitioners and our staff teams because these formats have a special richness to them and can powerfully serve leadership development. This brings me to the 3rd and latest school of Circling…

Circling Europe

As I understand Circling Europe’s style, sometimes they will Set Context by giving a brief overview of their “principles” and then just dive right in. CE Circling in its most common form, Surrendered Leadership, seems to specifically reject or ignore any explicit role differentiation for the facilitator or Circlee. This aligns more fully with the peer-to-peer ideal that is part of the DNA of Circling. At other times, CE won’t Set Context at all (or just some very minimal context). Sometimes I think that it’s those who convened the Circle or the weekend who are holding the context mostly in silence, in an implicit way.

A downside of starting off this way can be confusion for beginners. I also imagine that early in the process there can be frequent confusion and challenges regarding things like who has the implicit leadership, power, and authority. To its credit the format welcomes these challenges and confusion and allows them to be catalyzed by the group as those experienced practitioners in the style seem to be committed to keeping the Circle going “all the way” until the participants are in full relationship with themselves through the full experience.

I think there are a number of great things about this style. One is that it focuses on the aliveness in the moment. This ongoing focus on aliveness as one of the top priorities in the CE style is, I believe, both its strength and its weakness. On one hand, it can accelerate deep forms of transformation and growth. On the other hand, I think it can become a kind of sensationalist pursuit of feelings and catharsis for its own sake, or worse, a bunch of egos battering each other about unconsciously trying to fix and change each other so they can feel better about themselves. If IC style sometimes gets dry or boring because beginning practitioners get lost in technique, CE style sometimes gets sensational as beginning practitioners get lost in feelings, intense sensations, and unconscious egoic agendas.

Another great thing that seems to arise frequently in the CE style of Circling is that participants are confronted quite rapidly with any disconnect from their own agency or sense of responsibility for their own experience. Participants who disown their desires or wait for someone else to make something happen for them seem to become rapidly dissatisfied to an acute degree as they’re confronted with a space that is not really designed to make them feel safe and taken care of in the ways that most people are used to (and in a way the the IC style of Circling tends to do). Instead it’s like a freefall from any sense of the psyche’s normal way of handling things and eventually some deeper sense of agency arises accompanied often by a sense of safety that comes from a deeper place. A wise teacher of mine once said “perfect vulnerability is perfect protection,” and I believe that the CE style of Circling frequently leads to a direct realization of something like this. I think this is something like what they mean by “Surrendered Leadership.” Learning to source one’s being from this depth is, I believe, a beautiful, profound spiritual realization, and I believe this style of Circling is a tremendous service for all the practitioners of it who discover this deeper dimension of themselves.

My main critique of this style of Circling is that I think it’s often a rather blunt instrument, like a high speed freight elevator dropping straight down into the dark and often disowned chasms within the participants’ interiors. I sometimes feel concern about emotional re-traumatization. This can then require more energy and time to work through for the Circle to complete the dynamics that are opened up. Often Circles of this style can last a really long time, and it seems like the desired effect often requires this kind of open-ended investment of time and energy. I think of it as an endurance form, like an ironman triathlon (IC style, by contrast, is like a timed workout you can do several times a week, week in & week out). Because of how radically different from everyday life the conditions are in a CE Circle, I wonder if this kind of dismantling of personality can happen too quickly without giving the person a nuanced understanding of how their ego and personality are functioning in their normal everyday lives.

I believe that in the IC and CI approach we sometimes go very slowly and take just as much care and attention in understanding how someone’s heart closes down as we do in understanding how someone’s heart opens up. This slower and more deliberate schools of IC and CI might mean that sometimes it takes more time and require more patience before any radical realizations arise in the practitioner. Along the way it can seem a lot like, well, tediously looping around repetitive and familiar circles.

However, profound states and transformations in consciousness are not exclusive to CE Circling. I believe that any flavor of the human experience can be touched and tasted in the practice of Circling in all 3 Schools. My assessment is that the CE practice is best approached by people who have already learned Circling in a more deliberate and careful style rather than by beginners. My recommendation is to start with IC style if you’re new to the practice.

Final Thoughts

One final set of differences I think is in how the 3 schools each hold the role and purpose of the practice of Circling within the broader world and how we target its usage. I think that The Integral Center places emphasis slightly more on how Circling serves everyday human connection, relationship, and interactions, particularly in using the skills of Authentic Relating in all areas of life. IC & CI focus on training facilitators, though CI focuses more on training experienced helping professionals while IC focuses more on training the educated laypersons across professions, including helping professionals. If IC & CI are more focused on training facilitators, CE is more focused on enlightening beings. Lastly, IC and CE are more directly emphasizing Circling as a component of some greater Integral community and social movement, while CI seems to be focused more on continuing education for the helping professionals. Through all these differences, I believe they’re only differences in emphasis, not in essence.

Before wrapping it up, I also want to draw a distinction between a training for learning the practice of Circling (like T3, Art of Circling, and SAS), and other kinds of intensives (for example, IC’s AMP, Aletheia, and ARC), which use Circling, led by top-level Circling practitioners from various schools. I believe top-level Circlers from all schools can deliver powerful, transformative Circles on a fairly consistent basis. As I’ve been comparing the schools in this article, I’ve been focusing on the approach to learning the practice that happens in the practitioner trainings, and the kinds of issues or tendencies that come up for beginners who are learning the practice.

All of this is of course my assessments and opinions of the schools, and I fully own that I’ve had limited exposure and practice with CI and CE. So please understand I’m likely biased in favor of the style we teach at The Integral Center. I welcome the leaders of Circling Institute and Circling Europe to publish their own perspectives on the 3 schools of Circling for the benefit of our global practice community. I am also open to some dialogue and corrections where I might be off base.

In sum, I think the 3 schools, along with their corresponding organizations, actually all serve different and complementary purposes in the overall culture and ecosystem of Circling and Authentic Relating. I hope this overview serves you in your explorations of the world of Circling and Authentic Relating.

  • Magnus Pålsson

    I SO agree with the notion that as a facilitator, responsibility is the higher value over self-expression. I love it when it’s practised that way. In my experience this helps to avoid situations that sometime happen where the facilitator doesn’t take second position to fully BE with the circlee. Adhering to this value allows for a smoother, deeper, and more connective circling experience in my book.

  • Jennifer Ludders

    An excellent, comprehensive, and super helpful piece, Michael. Thank you!