Circles: Overhype = Underimplementation?

I’ve been wondering if one of the barriers that prevents some teachers and disciplinarians from implementing circles has to do with how we express our enthusiasm for circle processes. Because we believe in them so strongly, we may have a tendency to be less than objective in our assessment of their effectiveness and promise. This can translate into “overhype” with unfortunate consequences.

Here’s how I think it works: we promote circles as a powerful method (which they are) but do not acknowledge clearly enough their limitations. Consequently, those who are interested in trying them may feel like if the circle doesn’t reliably produce great outcomes every time it’s used, somehow they have failed. Who wants to risk that?

Add this sense of disproportionate risk to the incredible pressures on time that teachers and disciplinarians face every day, and you have a recipe for what we might be tempted to call “resistance”, but what is actually just good sense.

Intuitively we all know there is no magic bullet. Circle processes are truly wonderful and may seem magical sometimes, but…they’re not. They are just another tool that is effective when used properly. And part of proper use means understanding when to use them, when not to, and knowing how to recognize success and learn from them when they don’t go as well as we had hoped. Success may not look like what we imagined it looks like when we were listening to the enthralling success stories our circle trainers presented.

In fact, no method can deliver crisp, reliable results every time. We work not in predictable ivory towers, but in environments that are more like messy swamps, complex ecosystems where processes are often indeterminate and unpredictable.

Here’s what I think we can say circles produce reliably: interesting moments, sometimes touching, sometimes aggravating. Periods of c0nfusion alternating with clarity.  Opportunities to connect with others in a meaningful way about real issues.  Fun and hilarity. Frustration and breakthroughs. Sometimes, significant breakthroughs, epiphanies leading to real growth. And by sometimes, I mean often enough to keep me enthused.

I suspect that when we promote our work with a note of humility that keeps promises in perspective will ultimately promote wider adoption of circles.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Amos, perhaps we should be more honest in our precircle assessment of possibility. Sometimes the best result I can imagine is for the people in conflict to let go and move on, with some grumbling. Ross

  2. As a veteran of other processes: court, victim offender mediation, civil mediation, family meetings, etc. I agree that while Circles may not be the cure-all, they may be the best of any of the options we’ve come up with so far.

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