Working in a circle is a traditional process found in the culture of many native peoples. In recent times it has been resurrected, particularly in the field of restorative justice, as an alternative to our standard approach of delivering justice through punishment. In some schools, it is also being used as a way to improve relationships between students to deliver a better learning environment and as a way to deal with unhelpful behaviours.

As the name implies, when working in a circle, those involved sit in a circle. Everyone can see everyone else and the layout emphasises that in a circle everyone is equal. A circle has a facilitator or two co-facilitators. These are often referred to as circle keepers, whose role is to help the circle process run smoothly. It is not the responsibility of the facilitator to control the circle, be in charge or deliver results. It is the responsibility of each participant in the circle to ensure a circle operates according to guidelines that the participants develop as part of the circle process.

The process that follows covers most, but not necessarily all, aspects of the circle process. The information comes from various sources, listed at the end of this page. Each circle is unique to the people involved and the issues being worked on. With that in mind the facilitator and the circle itself designs its own process. You can think of the elements covered to be building blocks that a circle can use to help construct its process. Also bear in mind that a circle can evolve during the process so a degree of flexibility is desirable.

A circle is usually used in situations where a conflict is more serious and often entrenched. It is not a quick fix and would usually require a number of meetings of the circle over an extended period of time. Movement in people's perceptions and understanding of others' views often takes place in the time away from the circle.


The first phase of a circle is to create a safe space where people are able to be open and honest. This starts before the circle convenes and involves identifying the people to be invited to take part in the circle. There are some obvious people to be invited - those directly involved in the conflict. Additionally, there are those affected by the issue. It is useful to include people who can provide support for those directly involved. In addition, there may be people who represent organisations affected by the issue.

Taking part in a circle is voluntary, no one is forced to take part, although in some circumstances the alternative may be judgement and punishment. Part of the preparation by the facilitator is to meet one-to-one with individuals to prepare the way for the circle by listening to their perspectives of the conflict and explain the circle process, including an understanding of the values and guidelines the individual would like to have in place to enable them to fully participate. The pre-circle meeting is a good opportunity to discuss hopes and concerns about the process. The pre-circle meeting is also an opportunity to identify other people to invite to take part.

Part of the preparation is also for the facilitator to think about the questions to be used to prompt the circle and guide the dialogue. This will depend on the nature of the conflict and the people involved in the circle. A selection of useful questions is included in the skills section on questioning.

Setting a time and location for the circle that is convenient for all involved helps people have confidence that their needs are being considered. It is also important to use a neutral location so that no-one is seen as being given preferential treatment.


It is important that people are made to feel welcome to the circle and it is part of the facilitator's role greet people as they arrive. This may be a new and unusual process for many and they will naturally be wary and on the defensive. It helps to welcome people with a warm drink.

When people are seated a welcome should be made to the group, along with a thank you for coming to the circle and an appreciation of people's willingness to be involved in the process.


A circle is a specific place and process and uses opening and closing ceremonies to mark its start and end, separating it from other activities and making it different to other forms of meeting or group activity. The opening might include a period of silence or guided centring to help the participants transition from their everyday lives to a place and space that focuses on their core and that of others. The opening might also include an appropriate reading or quotation.

The centre

It helps if the circle is as uniform as possible so that everyone can seen one another. The circle does not have tables in the middle as in a round table meeting. The centre is considered a special place and the location for the centrepiece, a collection of objects laid on the ground, usually on a cloth. When people speak in a circle they speak to the centre and the centrepiece is made up of things that remind people of the significance of the circle and the way it operates; encouraging people to speak from the heart and listen from the heart. The circle may also include a selection of talking pieces to be used during the circle. These objects can be provided by the facilitator and individual participants, and are chosen because they have significance to the circle process and the individual. Part of the opening ceremony can be to arrange the centrepiece. Over time the objects in the centrepiece may develop to embody the values and essence of the individual circle and situation.

The talking piece

Circles use a talking piece to regulate the dialogue of the circle. The talking piece passes around the circle from person to person. The person who holds the talking piece speaks without interruption from others and those in the circle listen without the distraction of having to think of responses. The talking piece reinforces a sense of equality emphasising that everyone in the circle has an equally valuable contribution to make. It also means that everyone in the circle has an opportunity to be heard at a pace that suits them. Individuals are not obliged to speak when they have the talking piece, they can pass on the opportunity to speak, or they can hold it without speaking to provide a space for reflection and contemplation. When the talking piece returns to the facilitator, or the person who spoke first, a round of the circle has been completed.

The talking piece is an object that is significant to the group and enhances respect for the process and the values of the circle. Having a number of talking pieces in the centrepiece means that a different talking piece can be used for individual rounds of the circle.


The Check-in is a round of passing the talking piece with the intention of letting people introduce themselves, where the participants do not know one another, or let everyone know how they are today. The question is posed by the facilitator who will normally share first to model the type of contribution individuals might make. Typical questions might be “How are you feeling today?” or “Is there anything you feel is important for us to know about how you are doing?” It can be helpful to pose questions in this round that help people get better acquainted, such as, “How would your best friend describe you?” or “If you had an unexpected free day, what would you like to do?”

Values & Guidelines

The way a circle works is built on a foundation of values and guidelines. The values are used to derive the guidelines that articulate how participants will conduct themselves and treat one another. Typical values that people propose are openness, honesty and fairness. The guidelines inform the participants how they would like things to work and the behaviours they believe will help them participate fully, particularly when things get difficult.

The values and guidelines are initially discussed during the one-to-one pre-circle meetings so individuals have an opportunity to come to the circle with their contribution to these foundations. The guidelines are not imposed and can be developed from scratch by the circle the first time it meets. This helps build trust in the circle as it requires co-operation. The guidelines are decided by consensus. Developing the guidelines also shows how the circle will operate before working on the main issue. Alternatively, a draft set of values and guidelines can be suggested by the facilitator as a starting point, with additions and amendments made and agreed by the participants. The guidelines are owned by the members of the circle and anyone can request that they are amended at any time during the life of the circle.

As well as it being the responsibility of all circle participants to develop the guidelines, it is also their responsibility to police how individuals stick to them. The facilitator is not responsible for making sure everyone sticks to the guidelines, but if the facilitator feels that the guidelines are not working or being taken notice of, the facilitator may prompt a round asking the participants how well they think the guidelines are working.

Sample of Basic Guidelines

  • Recognise the power of deep listening. Listen to understand the other's point of view. Try to listen more than you speak.
  • Respect others and refuse to engage in name-calling.
  • Speak about personal experiences. Start sentences with “I” rather than “You”.
  • Minimise interruptions and distractions. Allow people to finish what they are saying without interruption or with side talk between other participants.
  • Maintain confidentiality. Outside the group participants may discuss what was said, but not who said it.

Once the guidelines are in place they are revisited as part of every circle. As the circle is getting established more time might be spent on reminding participants of the guidelines and ask for any amendments. Later it might be enough to have the guidelines visible on a flip chart as a reminder.

Storytelling round

A storytelling round is usually included as part of getting to know people and is particularly useful when the individuals do not know one another. The round helps people to get to know one another by sharing a story from their lives. It is particularly useful when the prompting question reveals the humanity of the individual, helping to breakdown perceptions and stereotypes. The facilitator goes first in a storytelling round.

Sample prompts, share:

  • A time when you had to let go of control.
  • A time when you were outside your comfort zone.
  • An experience in your life when you “made lemonade out of lemons.”
  • An experience of transformation when, out of a crisis or difficulty, you discovered a gift in your life.
  • A time when you had to hear something very difficult from someone and afterward were grateful that it happened.
  • An experience of causing harm to someone and then dealing with it in a way you felt good about.
  • An experience of letting go of anger or resentment.

Exploring issues

This is the first part of the process that works on the the actual issue or conflict and marks the end of the first phase and the start of the second phase. Up to this point the focus has been about building a safe space, developing trust, getting to know people and building relationships.

Exploring issues consists of a number of rounds of the circle and may take place over more than one session of a circle. The rounds typically focus on a specific aspect of the issue, such as, perspectives of what happened, impacts, contributions, feelings and concerns. The early rounds might focus on experiences and perceptions, with later rounds looking at the things that people see differently and the things that people agree on.

Plans for a better future/Possibilities for action

As circles are rooted in restorative justice a requirement is often that a plan of actions is one of the outcomes. This is not necessarily the case with restorative dialogue where an improvement in relationships is considered a positive and valuable outcome.

During the previous rounds ideas for what could be done to improve the situation may have been shared. These will have been noted to bring forward to this stage of the process. Additional rounds will explore ideas of what can be done to address the conflict, repair the harm done, and build a better future.

Agreement, clarifying expectations and follow up

From the actions chosen an agreement is drawn up and documented so that everyone is clear what will happen. This may take a number of rounds as the agreement is based on consensus. Once the agreement is finalised a round is used to let people express what they expect to see happen that will show that the circle has improved the situation. This includes what the follow up will be to ensure what has been agreed is carried out, which could be a follow up circle session.

Check-out round

The Check-out round marks the end of the dialogue for that circle session and is an opportunity for each person to share their thoughts about the circle. This round will generally be quite short and may be that each person sums up their thoughts in a few words, or even one.


The facilitator thanks everyone for taking part in the circle and their contribution to helping resolve the conflict.


The closing ceremony marks the end of the circle. It is similar to the Opening and can take a form that is appropriate to the group, such as a period of silent contemplation.


Guided centring

This guided centring is based on mindful breathing. Others are readily available on the web.

Find a place where you are sitting comfortably. If you feel okay doing so, close your eyes. If you don’t want to, then just find a place in front of you where you can gently focus—maybe on the table, floor, or the wall across from where you are sitting. Now take four deep breaths. Feel your chest rise and fall as you take in the air and let it out. Each time you breathe in, imagine taking in a calm, peaceful feeling. As you breathe out, let all the stress leave your body. Let your shoulders relax and soften. Let your eyes and face relax and soften. Let all the stress leave your whole body.

Continue with more breaths to simply pay attention to your breathing. One place in your body to follow your breathing is your nose. Notice how the air feels as it comes in through your nostrils. Perhaps the air is cooler as you breath in but slightly warmer as you exhale. Follow the breath completely as you breathe out.

Another place to become aware of your breathing is in your belly. It sometimes helps to gently place your hands across your stomach—almost like you are holding a basketball. Notice how your belly expands or gets bigger as you take a breath in and the air fills your lungs. As you breathe out, you’ll feel your chest and belly sink—just like letting the air out of a basketball. Let your breath come and go naturally. You don’t have to “try” and take deep or regular breaths. Just let your body’s natural breathing rhythm happen. Your job is not to change your breath; it’s just to pay attention to what’s gong on already.