Some Open Circles
Open circles come in many sizes and degrees of intention and rigor. One rudimentary version is the game Introduction, played when a group of strangers meets to learn or work together. One speaks after another, in no necessary order, until all have said what they feel is appropriate about the places or experiences they are coming from, or what their needs and expectations are. When this initial group portrait is complete, they may move on to another game; or extend this one by responding to each other. Here the rules of Open Circle are implicit; and the gatekeeping is minimal, for there is rarely an impulse to break the rules. But the emotional immediacy of presenting oneself in the circle remains, even in so familiar and safe a ritual.
I have seen another use of Open Circle by a campus political movement, following the failure of a sit-in. Representatives from each of the movement's fifty constituent groups met to assess what had happened and what to do next. They spoke in strict rotation, in the order of their seating (save that one could pass one's turn and perhaps claim it later), analyzing the tactic's failure, calculating its impact, and considering future strategy. It took five hours to go once round the circle, whereupon they disbanded, each taking home to her group her own digestion of the broad ensemble of opinion -- as was fitting, in a coalition of independent groups. Again, little active gamekeeping was necessary, for the players had chosen this mode in preference to debate, and were respectful of the situation's complexities and their differences.
I have seen another version played by five thousand people, meeting the day before a scheduled demonstration. Here the game might equally be called Open Mike -- for a microphone stood in the circle's center. Its use was controlled by a time limit and a single rule: one had to sign up on a speaker's list to speak. The wait between signing-up and speaking was long enough to disrupt any narrow continuity of argument, and often people canceled their turn when it came, their point having been stated or its urgency lost. The main tactical question was whether to risk arrest on the morrow, and a host of considerations – objective and subjective, public and private -- bore on this. Speakers testified to them at first almost randomly; but as the discussion developed they began increasingly to respond to what had been left unsaid, and to the collective will of the group as it stood so far revealed. After four hours, some eighty people had spoken. The next one said quietly, "I think we know all we can know now." No one else was burning to speak, and the group dispersed without a vote. It was clear that many would demonstrate illegally; and that for everyone, what to do was ultimately a private decision to sleep on.
Some things about this example bear mention. It demonstrates a disciplined way for a mass of people to speak together, as contrasted with the usual chaotic dominance of the most articulate and aggressive or the best-known. It shows a different way for a few to speak for, to represent, a many democratically. It illustrates how Open Circle can be used for goal-oriented conversation and tactical decision. (Often a critical factor in such decisions is information about the internal states of the individuals and the group -- information hard to come by through any less open form of discussion.) Finally, this mode of decision-making is appropriate for a group which continues to exist only through the decisions of autonomous members responding to one another.
l helped tend another version of Open Circle during an informal meeting, to which a chancellor had come to address two hundred students interested in educational reform. In this case, the emotional climate was not right at first, but was prepared by an ice-breaking drama -- for he had little constructive to say, and in time was interrupted by one student's wildly impassioned denunciation of the state of campus education and the administration’s efforts. This drama amounted to the ritual dethronement of established (educational) authority, leaving a psychologically open space; and triggered the usual complex of strong feelings in those attending. After they argued heatedly and fruitlessly for awhile about what the true situation was and how offensive the interruption had been, two of us visiting as consultants stepped in to gamekeep. With the authority of our roles, we suggested that they speak to the question of what might be useful to do on the campus, and that they give up argument for a time; and asked for permission to enforce this last rule.
The open process that followed was fueled by the emotional energy that had been aroused, and ran on for several hours, loosely enough so that in time some people, including the chancellor, were allowed to speak more than once. It ended with the decision to establish several departmental reform committees, and to try to organize a free university -- decisions made not formally by the whole group, but by sub-groups of individuals who chose after the meeting to work together on these ventures. As for the gamekeepers, some discipline was necessary, for we were both bursting with ideas about what they should try. But given our status, to articulate these forcefully would have amounted to recreating the same kind of centralizing authority to the conversation which had been abolished by the drama. I held back my urge to control, sublimating it by rocking back and forth in my body; and when my colleague could not withhold his, I sent him to silence people talking loudly in the rear -- thus tending the talk's ambience, and neutralizing our influence on its content. (This gives a first image of the difficulty of being gamekeeper and player both, which is particularly strong in Open Circle.)
Often, ice-breaking is necessary to start an Open Circle process, and it may be done deliberately by gamekeepers prepared to follow out the process. Any drama which combines naked emotion with heavy and appropriate cognitive content may serve, for it is the dissonance and tension between these modes which catalyzes the group's energy. And so we have begun with an impassioned speech, or with a quiet plea to hear each other as comrades while dealing with something that mattered; or with a full-fledged drama, as when we acted out a student's alienation and suicide at the first session of a conference on suicide prevention, and then set an open microphone in the audience. Often, the gamekeepers must help the players move on from their initial obsession with reaction to the drama, into exploring themselves. And often it is necessary to call repeated attention to the process, and to ask participants not to focus their attention back on the gamekeepers. (A difference between a speech followed by discussion, and an open circle catalyzed by a speech, is that in the latter the speaker’s authority ends sharply, and the following discussion does not pivot around either her speech or her person.)