In the Circle: Quiet Participation

January 19, 2015

I recently heard the educator and writer Parker Palmer talking about silences with Courtney Martin on NPR’s On Being.  Palmer said that we need to "learn to listen deeply to each other...and ask honest, open questions to hear each other into speech." We need to create a safe space where this can happen, one that allows for pause and reflective silence.

These words resonated with me because that is what we do in circles -- or at least it is what we aim to do as circle keepers.  Our students mostly feel unheard.  They have plenty of people in their lives talking to them or at them, far fewer people who practice listening.  Our students have a need to be heard into speaking - as do many of the adults working with them, by the way. 

After a particularly deep and powerful circle with staff at one school, the principal came up to me and asked, "What did you do to make my teachers cry?"

As a keeper, I don’t necessarily DO much of anything.  It’s more about helping to create a space where people feel they can BE themselves and share of themselves - to share what’s true for them, at least in that moment.  Sometimes this sharing is painful, but it can also be light, fun, and celebratory. And then there are those times when pain and playfulness coexist in the same circle, odd as that may sound.

Some people are comfortable sharing of themselves under all kinds of conditions. Others need more time to think, to collect their thoughts, to let things settle in their minds, before they’re able to respond or share.  There are those who pass when the talking piece comes to them, and pass again when it comes around for a second or third time.  They are just not comfortable, or maybe they’re not ready ... yet.

People who take part in circles sometimes wonder about these silences. If these students, or staff, continue to pass, are they participating?  I would say that the answer is quite possibly yes.  Mindful listening is participation.  In fact, I think mindful listening is essential to creating an environment where people can start to feel comfortable sharing deeply. 

I’m reminded of the student who, slouched in his chair, with a hoody pulled deep down over his face, continued to pass the talking piece without saying anything.  The classroom teacher, who had joined us for the circle that day, was itching to say something about his "lack of participation," but thankfully held back. 

When the talking piece went around a fourth time, the girl sitting next to the slouching student dropped the talking piece in his lap and said firmly, "It’s your turn."  The student took the talking piece, slowly sat up, glanced out from under his hoody, and said, "I’ll share when I have something to say.  At this point there’s nothing I can add to this conversation, but when I do, I will."  He passed the talking piece and slouched back down. 

It may not have looked like he was listening, but after that comment, people in the circle were good with his silence.  He would share when he was ready.  That was his choice.  He was in charge.  And I’ve learned that when the silent ones finally choose to speak, what they say is often profound.