A circle is a versatile restorative practice that can be used proactively, to develop relationships and build community or reactively, to respond to wrongdoing, conflicts and problems. Circles give people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in an atmosphere of safety, decorum and equality.
The circle process allows people to tell their stories and offer their own perspectives (Pranis, 2005). The circle has a wide variety of purposes: conflict resolution, healing, support, decision making, information exchange and relationship development. Circles offer an alternative to contemporary meeting processes that often rely on hierarchy, win-lose positioning and argument (Roca, Inc., n.d.).
Circles can be used in any organizational, institutional or community setting. Circle time (Mosley, 1993) and morning meetings (Charney, 1992) have been widely used in primary and elementary schools for many years and more recently in secondary schools and higher education (Mirsky, 2007, 2011; Wachtel & Wachtel, 2012). In industry, the quality circle has been employed for decades to engage workers in achieving high manufacturing standards (Nonaka, 1993). In 1992, Yukon Circuit Court Judge Barry Stewart pioneered the sentencing circle, which involved community members in helping to decide how to deal with an offender (Lilles, 2002). In 1994, Mennonite Pastor Harry Nigh befriended a mentally challenged repeat sex offender by forming a support group with some of his parishioners, called a circle of support and accountability, which was effective in preventing re-offending (Rankin, 2007).
Circles may use a sequential format. One person speaks at a time, and the opportunity to speak moves in one direction around the circle. Each person must wait to speak until his or her turn, and no one may interrupt. Optionally, a talking piece—a small object that is easily held and passed from person to person—may be used to facilitate this process. Only the person who is holding the talking piece has the right to speak (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010). Both the circle and the talking piece have roots in ancient and indigenous practices (Mirsky, 2004a, 2004b; Roca, Inc., n.d.)
The sequential circle is typically structured around topics or questions raised by the circle facilitator. Because it strictly forbids back-and-forth argument, it provides a great deal of decorum. The format maximizes the opportunity for the quiet voices, those that are usually inhibited by louder and more assertive people, to speak without interruption. Individuals who want to respond to something that has been said must be patient and wait until it is their turn to speak. The sequential circle encourages people to listen more and talk less (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010).
Although most circle traditions rely on a facilitator or circle keeper who guides but does not control (Pranis, Stuart & Wedge, 2003), a circle does not always need a leader. One approach is simply for participants to speak sequentially, moving around the circle as many times as necessary, until all have said what they want to say. In this case, all of the participants take responsibility for maintaining the integrity and the focus of the circle.
Non-sequential circles are often more freely structured than a sequential circle. Conversation may proceed from one person to another without a fixed order. Problem-solving circles, for example, may simply be focused around an issue that is to be solved but allow anyone to speak. One person in the group may record the group’s ideas or decisions.
A Real Justice restorative conference, however, employs a different kind of fixed order. Participants sit in a circle, and the conference facilitator uses the order of speakers defined by the conference script (offender, victim, victim supporter, offender supporter) to ask each person a set of restorative questions (O’Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999). In effect, the facilitator serves as the talking piece, determining whose turn it is to speak without interruption. After everyone has responded to restorative questions, the facilitator moves to a more open, back-and-forth, non-ordered discussion of what the victim needs and how those needs might be met.
A sequential restorative circle may be used instead of a formal conference to respond to wrongdoing or a conflict or problem. The restorative circle is less formal because it does not typically specify victims and offenders and does not follow a script. However, it may employ some of the restorative questions from within the conferencing script (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010).
Another circle format is the fishbowl. This consists of an inner circle of active participants who may discuss an issue with a sequential approach or engage in a non-sequential activity such as problem-solving. Outside the inner circle are observers arranged in as many concentric circles as are needed to accommodate the group. The fishbowl format allows others to watch a circle activity that might be impractical with a large number of active participants. A variation of the fishbowl format has an empty chair in the inner circle that allows individual observers to come forward one at a time, sit in the empty chair, say something and then return to the outer circle—permitting a limited amount of participation by the observers (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2010).