This Ancient Practice Helps Resolve Workplace Conflicts
I heard my mother’s words—“let the circle be unbroken”—long before I knew I was a “circle keeper.”
Now, as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer of the New York City Fire Department, I realize that restorative circles are one of the most powerful tools available to help create a more positive and holistic work environment. Circles open communication channels, help resolve conflict, encourage trust and transparency, and create a safe space for courageous conversations—all of which cultivate a better sense of belonging and community.
How Circles Create Dialogue
Restorative circles, used by courts, prisons, schools, and others, are based on the belief that what we need to enhance or even repair relationships will evolve naturally, through dialogue in a circle. The “circle keeper” formulates questions for the circle. A “talking piece” is passed to give everyone a chance to speak. No one interrupts. No one is required to speak, but everyone is invited. All participants are treated equally, regardless of rank or title. By building a foundation of wisdom based on shared stories, experiences, and perspectives, the circle becomes a container—strong enough to hold emotions that are difficult to process.
In circles, there are “shifts,” moments of enlightenment. Sometimes, we “shift” because of what we share. The most meaningful way we connect with others is to share our stories. Sometimes, our ability to “hold space” for someone else’s story is what we need to discover something about ourselves. Circles not only reveal our own suffering, but also how we have harmed others. Sometimes anger enters the circle, which is necessary to express. Anger can be a catalyst to release toxins, move beyond pain, and even open our hearts to forgiveness.
Adapting the Process for a ‘Check in’
Environments like firehouses, where people are accustomed to talking around the kitchen table, can easily adapt to the circle process. I’ve also circled in conference rooms, offices, auditoriums, and at retreats. We use circles to “check in” regarding topics that are important to us. We use circles to find out how our colleagues’ needs can be met and to build a foundation of trust in the center of shared experience.
I learned about the power of restorative circles from Judge Raymond E. Kramer, executive director of the NYC Center for Creative Conflict Resolution. The center provides NYC agencies with positive ways to have difficult conversations.
How Circles Build Community
The first time I used restorative circles was to address conflict. I later realized that circles are equally important to build community. By passing the talking piece, we can listen to concerns that we would not otherwise hear. We can offer resources to those we would not otherwise know are in need. We can renew ourselves and regain awareness of our purpose simply through the process of sharing with others. Most importantly, passing the talking piece in circles builds a stronger community for circles, so that when they are needed to address conflict, circles are already part of the culture.
One series of circles we do is called “Bravest Women Talk,” which gives us space to laugh, cry, and be uplifted by sharing our wisdom and our strength each month. Our May 2019 circle was extended to invite women from all of the city agencies through FDNY’s Women to Women Summit: Co-Creating Courageous and Compassionate Communities. Part of the day-long summit included 12 circles to develop community among women throughout NYC. Afterwards, many women expressed a feeling of gratitude for a safe space to share and a true sense of belonging—more than they’ve ever felt in the workplace before.
I was trained in circle-keeping by Elizabeth Clemants. Her restorative circle intensive was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. Not only did I learn technique, but I also experienced the benefits of the circle as a participant. I developed more clarity regarding my relationships with others and gained a deeper insight on how to move forward with my goals. Most importantly, the weight of several emotional burdens that I carried were lifted.
Our ancestors and indigenous communities share wisdom we have long forgotten: circles are powerful vehicles to heal discord, address harm, and resolve issues. They also provide communal respect, mutual admiration, and self-empowerment. By passing the talking piece in community, circles create better communication, more trust, and greater harmony. All of these benefits lay the foundation for a more compassionate workplace, where people of all backgrounds feel included and valued.
As my mother says, “Let the circle be unbroken.” I now understand her words. She is not talking about the periphery of a single circle but about the sanctity of a long-standing tradition of circle-keeping. Yes, let the circle be unbroken; there is much that it can teach us.
Cecilia B. Loving is Deputy Commissioner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer of the NYC Fire Department. A lawyer, minister and author, she is also Co-Chair of the City Bar’s first Committee on Mindfulness and Well-Being in the Law. She is author of God is a Brown Girl Too, Ten Laws of Unlimited Success, and several other books, articles and blogs.