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Protocol Toolkit Item: 5c


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The Circle Keeping protocol is ideal for deepening relationships, processing difficult experiences, and restoring groups, teams, and communities after a rupture. While it falls into the Transparency group, it also supports effective communication, capacit


  • Chairs or seating space for participants to sit in a circle


60-90 Minutes


The Circle Keeping process described below has been copied from Mediators Without Borders, International. Facilitator(s) should read the information provided and adapt the steps to fit their contexts and desired outcomes. This number of people in your group will impact the time it takes to implement a Circle Process.

Circle Keeping Process

This module was created by Duncan Autrey and Jarling Ho. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 
  • Communicate the values of the Circle Process
  • How to Define the scope of a Circle Process
  • How to Prepare for a Circle Process
Visit this module about the How to Craft Powerful Questions. This module will address the following Core Competencies
  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Cultivate empathy and compassion
  • Support skillful communication
  • Support healing and restoration during and after conflict
  • Restore hope, trust, and a sense of belonging
Circle Process is designed and built on the following values:
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Inclusiveness
  • Shared and Personal Responsibility
  • Empathy


Step 1:

What Is a Circle?

A circle is a gathering that is characterized by thoughtful preparation, powerful questions, and an egalitarian structure. Members of a group, team, movement, or community are all comfortably seated in a circle. Everyone is invited to participate, and all voices are considered equally important. The structure is simple, with a beginning (opening, introductions, check-in), a middle (speaking about the topic), and an end (closing and check-out). The conversation is structured around a series of questions. Every participant will have a chance to speak to each question without interruption. Circles use a talking piece, which is passed from person to person, to designate who can speak at that moment—and who is listening (everyone else). Circles are considered to be one of the oldest forms of group process. Indigenous and First Peoples cultures worldwide used and continue to use circle processes to facilitate community conversations about important subjects.[1] These processes have experienced a revival in modern cultures during the last 40 years and have been used in many applications. Circles offer an inclusive and collaborative space for group members to share openly and build (or rebuild) trust with each other. Circles are generative in nature and can be used as a process for restorative (or transformative) justice, allowing a group to collectively respond to and heal from a rupture or transgression. Circles can also be used regularly to strengthen relationships within groups and provide members the space to understand each others’ perspectives and why they might behave in a particular way. Circles are particularly useful in social and political organizing as they are democratic and non-hierarchical. They challenge systems of oppression, cultivate a sense of belonging, and highlight the human interests at the heart of social change work. Circles as restorative practices have always been a part of certain communities and cultures within the United States. They were also introduced in the judicial system, first within the sentencing process and soon across other parts of the judicial system. They have since been adopted in elsewhere, in schools, workplaces, and communities.[2]

Applications for Circle Process

  • To build relationships within organizations, communities, and neighborhoods
  • To process a shared experience (for example, a school shooting or tragedy in the community)
  • To heal social and political divides, particularly related to matters of equity and inclusion
  • To foster open and safe conversations on sensitive topics
  • To restore the relationship between the community and a person who has caused harm
  • To restore and transform a community after a harm or rupture by identifying a path to reconciliation and the systemic causes behind a problem
  • To welcome back or reintegrate a former community member

When is Circle Process Useful?

  • Circles provide a non-hierarchical format that allows participants to have an equal share in the conversation.
  • It is a holistic format that creates a space to bring the voices of everyone together to share their perspective(s) on an issue.
  • The circle process lifts up marginalized voices and the voices of those who tend to be quieter and it regulates the voices of those who tend to take up a lot of space.
  • Circles are useful for community restoration and transformation.
  • The act of physically sitting in a circle provides a sense of community and belonging and supports the format of the discussion.
  • Circle processes facilitate deep listening.
  • Circle Process is designed to create a brave and sacred space.
  • Circles can shift the focus of conversations from confrontation to shared interests.

Step 2:

Reflection Questions to consider when choosing a circle process

Examine these questions within the context of your work or a contemporary global issue related to your work in social change.
  • Is relationship building important for the group?
  • Will the group benefit from developing a shared understanding of the diverse experiences?
  • Are there voices that have been marginalized or not heard?
  • Does the issue at hand affect the whole group or system?
  • Do you want to support the whole group in processing complex information, news, or situation?
  • Will the issue at hand benefit from having the perspectives of the whole group or system?
  • Is there a need for collective healing or restoration?
Note: If your intention is to convince or change other people’s perspectives, then the circle is not right for you.

Step 3:

Defining the Circle

The first step of a circle process is to define the scope of the conversation and who needs to be involved.
  • Topic – What is the topic, or issue, or conflict that we want to address?
  • Goal – Ask yourself honestly, what is your intention? What do you want to accomplish or experience for yourself and others?
  • Who to invite – Who needs to be part of the circle to ensure that all perspectives and stakeholders are included? Ask others to identify those who need to be part of it. If there is a desire to exclude certain individuals, then the circle process is not appropriate.
  • Voluntariness – Are people willing to sit down and talk about this?
  • Convener – Who is a trusted person or group of people who can act as conveners for the conversation?
  • Circle Keeper and Host – Who will this be and what will their responsibilities be? One individual can be both the circle keeper and host, or it can be separated out.

Roles for Circle Process include:

  • Host/Convenor – A group or individual that issues the invitation, prepares the physical space, helps determine the scope of the conversation, and participates.
  • Guardian/Circle Keeper – A person whose role is to track the tone of the conversation, maintain a safe and open space, and, with the help of others, call for a pause when needed.
  • Circles can also choose to have specific timekeepers to help keep the conversation moving and scribes to record decisions or other items important to the group.

Step 4:

Preparing the Circle

Once you have determined that a circle is suitable for the situation, identified who needs to be there, and identified who will be the circle keeper, then you move on to planning the circle.
  1. Crafting questions – Conveners and/or hosts prepare open-ended questions that elicit different responses. Questions that evoke shared values in the group and allow individuals to share their stories and connect are the most helpful. (Click here to learn more about how to craft powerful questions.)
  2. Invitation – Everyone who needs to be included should receive an invitation. The invitation should clearly communicate the topic, the intention, who is convening the circle, why the person is invited, and explain that the process is voluntary. Ask participants to RSVP.
  3. Materials – Find a talking piece that will have meaning for the group and will encourage respectful speaking and listening. Decide if materials (eg: notepads, chart paper, information, snacks, etc.) are necessary and whether they serve the purpose of the circle.
Preparing the space – Choose a location that is symbolic and feels safe for all of the participants. Arrange the correct amount of chairs in a circle. Ensure there are enough seats for everyone, and be sure no furniture is in the center of the circle. Some may create a symbolic centerpiece for the circle (a candle, flowers, or an object representing the group) or leave the center empty.

Step 5:

The Circle Process

  1. Opening: Host/Guardian/Circle Keeper or convener shares the topic and intentions of the circle and opens with a ceremony or ritual.
    1. Introduce the talking piece
    2. Talk about time parameters (eg, time per person, timekeeper), if relevant.
    3. Agree on the communication guidelines (Sample Guidelines Below)
  2. Question Rounds: In each round, every participant will have an opportunity to answer the same question while all others listen attentively. The talking piece is passed around the circle.  Participants can choose to pass at that moment for a particular question.
    1. Beginning Check-in — A chance for participants to share names and relationship to the topic.
    2. Questions about the topic — A series of rounds, each with a question that deepens understanding about the issue.
    3. Check-out — A chance for people to share their reflections on the circle.
  3. Closing
    1. Reminder about any confidentiality agreements.
    2. Circle Keeper closes with a closing ceremony if appropriate.

Sample Communication Guidelines

  • Respect the talking piece (ie, Listen to the speaker and don’t interrupt.)
  • Speak from the heart
  • Listen with your heart
  • Speak from your own experience
  • Refrain from attempting to persuade
  • Confidentiality

Resources & Further Reading

DPACE Guide for Crafting Powerful Questions Books and Articles The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis The Art of Powerful Questions Fostering Dialogue Across Divides by Essential Partners (2017)
  • Pre-meeting considerations: pp. 27-57
  • Crafting Questions: pp. 24 & 159-166
The Circle Way by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin Citations: [1] History, Defining Restorative | Restorative Practices. IIRP, www.iirp.edu/defining-restorative/history [2] The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis

Examples of Use

  • Building equitable, positive relationships
  • Addressing a concern or rift in relationships
  • See previous sections: Applications for Circle Process and When is Circle Process Useful?
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