by Ben Page, Open School staff and co-founder
May 16, 2017
In our culture, we are trained to listen in a logical and dualistic manner. We listen in order to respond, and so what we hear is not always what is said. What we hear is cast through a lens of our own bias and our own reflexive experience, and this allows us to formulate a response that represents what we may call the viewpoint or perspective. The problem is not whether we have a perspective, but whether we are able to open our minds to the perspectives of others. This is the absolute heart of democracy, and it is also the heart of Circle, a practice we employ at The Open School to effectively teach listening, empathy, and self-awareness.
Like all offerings at the school, Circle is not mandatory. Those who come do so because they want to share their own stories and listen to those of others. The form is simple: we sit in a circle and pass around an object called the talking piece. Whoever is holding the talking piece is the only person allowed to speak. No one is allowed to interrupt, ask questions, or respond to anyone else’s story.
We always begin with dedications: each participant may choose to dedicate the circle to something. I find that the dedications are usually a way for each person to share what they are most excited about in that very moment.
Next, a facilitator offers the first prompt, something like “Tell us a story about a time you encountered an animal” or “Tell us a story about a time you travelled somewhere that you had never been before.” Each participant shares their stories, and then in subsequent rounds, each participant offers a prompt. Because of the age mixing at our school, the prompts are beautifully diverse, ranging from the simple “What is your favorite food?” to the complex “What makes you happy and why?”
We finish with games that can be played in a circle, the perennial favorite being Telephone. I always reflect to myself that Telephone is a funny game to play because what makes it fun is a somewhat purposeful lack of hearing and understanding. In the linage I was trained in, we call that coyote wisdom. It’s a way of turning the whole thing upside down and laughing about it. We always end Circle with smiles.
Sitting in a circle and practicing listening is a human tradition as old as time. We all have ancestors who learned to listen in this way. It unlocks the potential for people to know themselves and express their perspective while also training them to listen in an unbiased way. It’s not about being right or wrong, or winning an argument, or being the smartest person in the room. It’s about tending our connections to each other and to ourselves. I offer Circle because I hope that those who practice it will always know what it feels like to be heard and what it feels like to truly listen. I believe that these are the skills that bring forth quiet revolutions wherever they are employed.