Open Circle and Related Processes

        Along with Story-telling, the oldest and most basic verbal learning-game is for people to sit around as peers and tell each other what's on their minds. Open Circle is a disciplined and conscious process for this, which may be seen, within the context of this book, as a specialized and verbal version of Circle of Sound.

        I first learned about the dynamics of Open Circle in the course of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, and ever since have seen it as a political game, in which a community meets democratically to assess its collective state, perspective, learning, and/or will. There are innumerable occasions for this ritual in the small and large communities of our lives, and many ways to structure it as a game. Robert's Rules of Order defines a very detailed game, of an argumentative and hierarchical caste. Open Circle is a game of a different order. Often some version of it is played informally; but I'll talk about it as a formal game in a context requiring disciplined gamekeeping, as a way of illustrating its principles.

        Suppose we have fifty people, or several thousand, with some reason to be together and something of emotional weight to discuss. We seat them in a circle, as nearly as possible, in the geometry of equal influence, which matters even more in visual space. (The circle may be many ranks deep, to keep it compact enough for all to hear each other.) In the center is an open space, which symbolizes the function here of gamekeeping: to create and maintain an open space of conversation. The conversation may be ready to begin; or the gamekeepers may need first to engineer an "ice-breaker," a drama to engage, open, and focus the players' energy. Either way, it proceeds within a structure of rules which the gamekeepers make explicit, and to which the players should explicitly assent.

        There may be a time limit on people's speeches. There may be reason to let or ask some people to speak before others. But the basic rule is that the space of the open circle is free and communal, not to be dominated by any one or any faction, without a central authority defining its content. Each person who speaks once may not speak again until everyone who hasn’t spoken and wants to gets the chance. Each person is totally free to speak her thoughts, and perhaps to be questioned to say more; but no argument with her is permitted, during her speech or any other’s. Disagreements should be expressed, but not as rebuttals: rather, as personal statements of what another sees and feels. The gamekeepers’ function is to enforce these rules, with as much help as possible from the players. When and if the gamekeepers speak to the content of the discussion, they do so under its rules too, with no special privilege.

        The mode of conversation that follows within these rules is quite different from the familiar modes of the seminar, the caucus, and the conference. It is poor in rational argument and debate, in logical progressions and lines of thought. Its main continuities are associational and emotional. Its process is not focused, but wandering and global. Individually, it is a process of testament. But if let to run on, its drift is not randomly individual. Insofar as there is in truth some complex commonweal of perceptions and feelings among the players, this begins to be defined – as if each were speaking not privately but as one fragment of a common heart and mind, whose outlines become clear as enough fragments accumulate in the open space. Indeed, the most striking thing about playing Open Circle, when it really works, is the way that everything one is burning or afraid to say comes round in time from someone else’s mouth, as if we were in truth all part of one another. Played out, Open Circle makes its own completion. There comes a time when talk begins noticeably to repeat or be redundant, which the gamekeepers may point out if participants fail to. It is usually both impossible and unnecessary to summarize the "conclusions" of the conversation, and the game may disband without a closing ritual more elaborate than someone saying, “Well, I guess we’re done for now.”

        I'll give some examples shortly, but for their understanding some more discussion of general features is useful first. “Keeping the space of the conversation open" has something in common with Socrates' precept to "follow the conversation where it may lead" -- indeed, it is a kind of remedial therapy in pursuit of this freedom. Based on the understanding that our usual ways of conversing function subtly and powerfully against our conversations leading wherever they might, Open Circle legislates against these to provide protection for what they may obscure and impede.

        And so, under the rules, many things normally seen as furthering for serious conversation are deliberately inhibited. Critical and supportive response; argument, counter-argument, and refinement of one's position; goal-oriented focusing on a line of inquiry – all are diminished. As they wither, so does the structure of roles and ritual transactions which defines the learning society adapted to that competitive, linear mode of searching out truth together; and its customary patterns of authority; and the structure of sub-games which usually dominate the game of conversation.

        Pragmatically, the gamekeepers work to keep conclusions from forming too soon. When two people would argue on, reducing the game to a private drama with spectators, the gamekeepers forbid this. When players would question a speaker more than briefly, extending his time and establishing him as an authority of sorts, the game-keepers stop them. When an articulate subgroup tries to constrain debate to a particular stance or sub-issue, the gamekeepers find ways to break up the coherence of its effort by helping the unheard voices to be heard. Yet they have no objection at all to anyone couching their own testament in response to what another has said. Indeed, their interest is in whatever testament people have to give, which is why they work constantly against the development of any kind of centralized authority within the conversation -- any process that would structurally define, through the persons of a few, which limits and main emphases are appropriate.

        With all that is so simply taken away, one might expect chaos, and it sometimes does happen at first. But there is something left: the simple, naked authority, the moral authority, of one's own testament, of speaking one's perceptions and understandings in a public of people who, by the very process of their conversation, have agreed to accept each other as peers. The authority conferred by listening to each other is also a collective authority, in this game replacing hierarchical and factional authority. In the open space of the circle, on these grounds, something begins to be re-created. The cancellation of centralizing authority has a decentralizing effect, opens the conversation to the input of its true diversity of players and resources, and to the emergence of organic form.

        In time, everything felt to be strongly relevant will emerge; each major difference or contradiction will be revealed, and every thrust of resolution; summaries will be attempted when the sense of their relevance arises. Structures of mutual perception, of difference and agreement grow, too various and subtle to emerge in focused conversation with its constraints and dominations. The multiplex society listens to itself in the open circle, thinking its complex thought aloud, integrating its complex response. Sometimes the result is as simple as coming to consensus, in thought or action; usually it is organic, with its own sense of wholeness and sufficiency.

        The players need patience and discipline. The conversation wanders; and they must be able to tolerate its initial lack of focus, its ambiguity and unresolved differences. They need to listen and integrate, rather than to react and respond; they need the quality of attention people bring to serious debate, but in a peer situation in which their own words are to be taken as seriously; they need to endure the process to its conclusion, which may take many hours. In general, all this is possible only when they are compelled by a sufficient emotional urgency.

        When this happens, there is often a peculiar texture of emotional openness to the game. In the absence of criticism and divisive transaction, fear is reduced; and freed not so much from direct constraint as from the subtler tyranny of limited example and expectation, with no one else to decree what is appropriate to say, people reach into themselves and improvise to fill the space with whatever they have to express. In general, only a minority of those speaking will be accustomed to laying claim to public space; and the emotional tremors in the voices of those unaccustomed are often the best index that an open space has indeed been created. Sometimes, particularly after 'ice-breaking' dramas, a person will stand up shaking and stumble through an intense, confused, and genuinely difficult speech whose content reduces to this: he doesn’t really know what he wants to say, or why he feels so powerfully moved to speak; and he will apologize for taking up time, or start to cry, or say, "but gee, it's good to be here with everyone," or all three, and then sit down in obvious embarrassment. After watching this happen twenty times in various contexts, I came to see this person as a herald, and his contentless speech as an announcement that the space of the circle is indeed extraordinary, open and inviting of testament.

        I’ve gone into the general character of open circle processes at such length because this is difficult to summarize through any particular example; and because it stands in all regards in sharp contrast to the customary character of group conversation. Blatantly or subtly, what structures and determines most "natural” group learning conversations is the basic game Classroom. In Classroom, the teacher speaks longer than anyone else, and speaks again after each time another person speaks. He defines by example what is to be discussed and how. People speak to him rather than to each other. He passes public judgment in some way, often nonverbally, on each person’s speech; if focus wanders, he brings it back to what he wants and people must respond to that. His authority controls the energy of the entire group. He is the conductor of the orchestra. But an Open Circle is an orchestra without a conductor, save perhaps of its process.

        Of course, I am describing Classroom in its purest terms; and anyone watching actual classrooms in process will recognize many modifications and softenings trending somewhat towards the terms of other interactional games, including even Open Circle. It might seem logical that there is a continuum of interactional forms or games, stretching between Classroom and Open Circle. But from what I’ve witnessed, though Classroom can be loosened significantly towards Open Circle without losing its basic character, the converse is not at all true: due perhaps to our conditioning, a small taste only of Classroom suffices to collapse an Open Circle process back to Classroom format. For this reason, the gamekeepers of Open Circle must be especially vigilant and active. (In Classroom, nearly everyone joins unselfconsciously in the gamekeeping!)

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