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Tracy A. Thompson:

"There are many types of Circles, and in such a pervasive phenomenon, there is a great deal of variation in how they are structured and operated. Nonetheless, four characteristics describe the purest forms of Circle interactions and distinguish them from Triangle-like interactions: egalitarian participation, shared leadership, group-determined purposes and processes, and voluntary membership.

Egalitarian Participation. The horizontal and collegial interaction of a Circle stands in contrast to the vertical and authority-driven interaction of a Triangle. In a Circle, people literally form a circle when they interact. Standing or sitting in a circle encourages conversational, peer-oriented, and respectful group dialogue in which members engage as equals. Often, Circles employ additional practices that further foster and reinforce these egalitarian norms, such as formalized systems for taking turns talking, reminders to listen without judgment, and methods for handling interpersonal conflict. Such practices help members to feel safe and to contribute, and they create mutual expectations for broad-based participation.

Shared Leadership. In contrast to Triangle interactions that vest leadership in one person by virtue of her authority, unique skills, or social power, Circles treat leadership as a set of functions that can be divided and shared. Moreover, Circles assume that these functions and the skills to execute them can be nurtured in any member. How leadership is developed, decentralized, and shared varies, depending on the particular Circle methodology being employed. Some Circle manuals present formalized practices to explicitly divide and rotate leadership into distinct roles, whereas others encourage leadership roles to emerge and rotate in a more informal fashion. (See “Guides to Creating Circles," below.)

Group-Determined Purposes and Processes. The egalitarian principles that underpin Circles mean that all members are viewed as having the capability to contribute in meaningful ways. In the most extreme case, Circle members collectively articulate and develop shared goals or purposes, determine how the group operates, and set the ground rules for group interaction, including how problems and conflict are handled. In other Circles, particularly those employed in microfinance, the group’s purposes and process rules might be suggested by a third party, such as an NGO facilitator or bank employee. Even in those contexts, however, members are encouraged to own and modify these purposes and processes, for example, deciding how much money to save, what the repayment rules are, what constitutes delinquency, who gets loans, what the interest rates are, and the expectations for member interaction.

Voluntary Membership. Participants join Circles based on their interests and desires rather than being obligated, required, or forced to join by an authority figure. In Tacoma, Wash., women responded to fliers posted in the community and self-selected into one of seven WE-CAN Circles offered through an alliance of several nonprofit organizations. When forming quality circles, employers typically ask for volunteers. In other types of Circles, such as self-help groups and village savings and loan associations, participants are often invited to join by an NGO representative, family member, friend, or neighbor." (


The Benefits of Circles

Tracy A. Thompson:

"Circles help individuals and groups to develop and exercise autonomy, helping them to solve their own problems and take action. But autonomy can be a loaded term, especially when we look across cultures. Autonomy is often seen as a Western concept that highlights independence and individualism, and thus it has often been assumed to be irrelevant in more collectivist cultures. But as Cigdem Kagitcibasi, professor of psychology at Koc University in Istanbul, argues, such a view confounds autonomy with separateness or individuality.

Autonomy is better thought of as agency, the degree to which an individual is able to engage in intentional and noncoerced action toward a desired outcome. The opposite of autonomy is heteronomy, where action is ruled or controlled from the outside and not willingly undertaken. Autonomy and heteronomy should not be confused with relatedness, the degree to which an individual sees herself as a separate entity or, alternatively, as part of an undifferentiated whole, where the boundaries of separate selves are fused with others. Separating autonomy from relatedness allows for the possibility of autonomy in more collectivist cultures. Mila Tuli and Nandita Chaudhary, both at the University of Delhi, India, use the term “elective interdependence” to describe the intersection of agency and interdependence, and their work highlights the relevance and distinctive characteristics of autonomy as it occurs in more collectivist cultures.

Many Circles target the individual and her development. For example, in more individualistic, Western cultures, book clubs and study circles enable adults to take control of their own learning and education. Other kinds of Circles, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Simplicity Circles, help individuals learn new ways of thinking, interacting, and making decisions by themselves. WE-CAN Circles focus on enhancing women’s self-leadership, helping each to identify and overcome the barriers to her educational and personal goals.

In more collectivist cultures, Circles are used to empower women, but how women express and enact their autonomy may vary from their Western counterparts. For example, in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2002 study of the impact of the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Program’s interventions on women’s empowerment in the southern states of India, women reported that through their experience in the self-help group they were able to exercise greater choice and control in a variety of areas of their lives—engaging in nontraditional employment-related tasks, visiting new places, traveling without male support, and having a greater say in reproductive choices such as the timing and spacing of children, use of contraceptives, and abortion decisions.

image In addition to enhancing the autonomy of individuals, Circles also work to enhance the autonomy of groups. They encourage a group to identify and solve its own problems and in so doing, enable a group to produce better ideas, products, or programs. For example, many businesses leverage the intelligence of groups by employing quality circles, a kind of self-managed team whose focus is to work together to improve productivity and quality. Those interested in empowering disadvantaged groups and creating social change commonly employ Circles as a tool for community mobilization. NGOs and community organizers encourage the development of study circles as a means of helping groups develop novel solutions that address community-wide problems related to racism, the educational system, and health. Research on individual self-help groups like the Saranayalaya Group document how these Circles have overcome the constraints facing women to take action on social issues in their communities, for example starting a school, helping a community member in need, providing health care education, or closing down a local liquor outlet." (

The relational dynamics of Circles transcend both gender and culture

Tracy A. Thompson:

" In Egypt, Sekem, a complex organization composed of biodynamic farms, food trading companies, a medical center, and schools, regularly employs Circles where male and female employees discuss what happened the previous day or week and what the plans are for the current day or the next week. By transforming the economic, social, and cultural reality of people living in nearby communities, Sekem’s ultimate goal is to change Egyptian society to be more sustainable, equal, and just. Sekem uses Circles as a subtle but powerful socialization tool for fostering new norms and beliefs around punctuality, planning, and equality.

Ibrahim Abouleish, Sekem’s founder, explains the relational dynamics generated by employees standing side by side and holding hands, regardless of gender or position, and how that leads to greater respect for others, self-efficacy, and a sense of personal responsibility. “The Circle is a very social form,” says Abouleish. “We form a circle and people can see each other. But the equality and the equal opportunity is something we have been missing for a long time in this culture. Not everyone here is having comparatively equal opportunities—girls and boys, women and men. Also there are all levels of workers standing together in a circle so that they can experience that they are equal. Equality is very, very important for everybody in order to feel their dignity as human beings. I see people in Egypt—they go to their offices and to their companies without having experienced that dignity.”

Circle interventions not only create a strong sense of connection, they also foster autonomy and independent action, a second factor that leads to the intrinsic motivation necessary for lasting personal growth and change. Membership in a Circle is voluntary. Although a tacit, social obligation to participate may emerge as a result of the relational dynamics, no one forces, tells, or provides external incentives for an individual to join a Circle, to talk in the Circle, or to commit to a new action or behavior. Psychologists have long known that voluntary decisions and commitments are a much stronger means of changing behavior than are those that are imposed from the outside. In addition, it’s a lot easier to learn from one’s peers than from being told by an “expert” what to do, how to think, or what the solution is. By design, Circles employ autonomy in a way that allows members to learn how to take action in forms that are culturally relevant and meaningful to them.

Circle practices also foster intrinsic motivation to learn and change, by feeding the universal need for competence. In Circles, the members share a purpose, and together they work to achieve that purpose. For example, microfinance self-help groups almost always incorporate training to help women master rudimentary business skills and knowledge, including learning how to sign one’s name, how to evaluate business ideas, and the concepts of savings, interest, and loans. As they discuss their work together, members discuss problems and, over time, they begin to experience success in their efforts." (