How Do I Handle a Heavy Circle?

Well-facilitated circles can give students a chance to listen and share their thoughts and feelings about difficult or emotional subjects. Here are some suggestions for facilitating a circle in which strong emotions surface.


Recently in a circle, we had a very “heavy” sharing.  I was struggling to balance respectfully listening and appreciating participants' sharing and reflections. Then it got even heavier. When the talking piece got back to me, I acknowledged the heaviness in the room and suggested that we reflect on the hopes and expectations and the positive values/gifts they added to the centerpiece earlier. Do you have any other ideas?  Thanks. 

-- Betty Feibusch, Climate and Culture Manager, NYC DOE

After people share deeply of themselves, acknowledging a subsequent heaviness in the room can be helpful.  It can be similarly helpful to name the actual feelings that the sharing brought up. Neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel refers to this as “naming to tame it”: Putting words to our feelings often helps reduce their intensity.
You might say, "I sense a lot of sadness or maybe anger in the room right now." If you're not sure about the exact feelings people are experiencing, you can share instead how you yourself were affected, e.g.: "Listening to your stories, I feel a deep sadness."  Naming your feelings, as the keeper, invites others in the room to do the same.
I might also encourage people to take a few deep breaths at times like these.  When we tell or hear difficult stories, we sometimes forget to breathe.  This can add to the physical tension and discomfort we experience. Taking a few deep breaths can release the tension in our body and lets us get back in touch with ourselves, and with others in the room.
Inviting people to return to their breath also allows us to pause so that we can give people’s experiences the space they deserve. A few moments of quiet breathing can be a way of honoring and respecting the stories people share.
Sometimes I guide the breathing: On the in-breath, I invite people to acknowledge the painful stories we just heard, pause, and honor them. Then, on the out-breath, I invite people to let the stories go, releasing some of the heaviness or sadness the stories might have brought on.  I may do this for a minute or more, allowing people some space to process their emotions.
In intense situations, when we get overwhelmed, the stress response is triggered.  This is an age-old survival mechanism, in which the neo-cortex part of the brain is bypassed and our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in.
Naming our feelings and deep breathing can help us regain control. In some cases, as a counselor in one of my circles explained, it may also be helpful to invite people to get back to their physical bodies by instructing them to become aware of their feet planted on the ground, their seat connected to the chair, and by possibly patting their bodies with their hands, starting with their feet, coming up their legs, torso, arms, face, and head.
Finally, in wrapping up a heavy and emotional circle, it can be helpful to connect the stories in the circle to the values and intentions that are placed in the center piece (as you did), reconnecting to a greater vision of our school as a safe, supportive, encouraging place for all.

A note:  Sometimes after an emotional circle with students, you may want to invite everyone to pull themselves back together and ready themselves for the world beyond the circle. See my post about putting on the armor here: