Restorative Practices in ResLife: From “Floor Meeting” to “Community Gathering,” Using Circles

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Curriculum Development | Residential Curriculum | Intentional Conversations & Interactions | Assessment | Organizational Culture | Into Practice |

It’s probably the first active strategy you open with and perhaps the final one you close with: the floor meeting.  While a curriculum is bound to include many creative strategies, nothing quite replaces bringing the entire community together.  The content of these meetings may vary significantly based on your unique goals or learning outcomes, but a simple change in the format to utilize circles — perhaps the best known element of Restorative Practices — can create community and increase engagement during these gatherings.

When integrating circles into community meetings, it’s important to acknowledge the practical components that we can’t abandon.  Often these meetings are used to deliver important updates: conduct standards, health and safety inspection procedures, and information about closing.  However, pulling the community together solely for the purpose of information sharing is a missed opportunity.  While policy can be delivered in person or via email, community can only be created in an interactive environment.  While I’m conflicted about renaming a common practice since it can create confusion or feel inauthentic, I prefer to think of “floor meetings” as “community gatherings.”  A meeting is business-oriented and often has an agenda set by a leader; a gathering is an opportunity for connection and allows for contribution from any member of the community.

If you’re familiar with circles only through a Restorative Justice lens, you may immediately think of formal conferences — highly structured circles that bring together perpetrators of harm and those harmed to restore relationships.  These are not the type of circles to incorporate into floor meetings.  Remember that Restorative Practices, when done well, includes 80% proactive community building measures to create norms and diminish the likelihood of harm occurring and 20% responsive strategies to address harm when it occurs.  The community gathering circles are the proactive work of Restorative Practices.

How to Implement Circles:

In general, circles are simple; it’s about creating a space that allows community members to contribute during a gathering.  However, there are a few key elements of circles worth highlighting:

  • Room arrangement —  When everyone is seated in a circle, everyone can see every other person and no one seat assigns more importance or attention to an individual; even the facilitator can be seen as a member of the community.  Additionally, the circle makes order easy by just going around.  There’s no guessing who’s next to contribute, which is efficient and eliminates the anxiety of being called on.  Circles can still be done when space is constrained, but the geometry of the circle enhances the experience.
  • Community standards — Even if only meeting for one circle, it’s important to establish norms of how the circle will run, and these norms should be co-constructed, allowing the participants to give feedback and create their own standards as a group.  Some norms may be simple and logistical or hold folks accountable, for example going around the circle and contributing in sequence with the option to pass or agreeing not to speak over others.  Other standards may promote building community, like taking time at the beginning or end of each circle to acknowledge accomplishments or points of celebration for individual community members.  Co-creating standards gives those who do not hold positional leadership more power to create norms and hold others accountable to them.
  • The talking piece — While not essential, a talking piece may be helpful in implementing circles.  This is an item that is held by the individual designated to speak at that time.  Obviously, this ensures one person is talking at a time, but if introduced intentionally, the talking piece can also serve as a reminder to those not holding it that they should be putting their focus on listening to the person holding the talking piece.  
  • Types of circles — How you facilitate a circle depending on the situation may look different, but there are a few different strategies.
    • Sequential circles: The talking piece is passed from person to person around the circle with each community member having the option to contribute.  These can be helpful to give all voices the opportunity to contribute.  Folks who may not be inclined to raise their hand will be holding the talking piece at some point.
    • Non-sequential circles: Individuals are called on to speak as they have contributions.  The talking piece may be tossed across the circle as one speaker finishes and the next raises their hand.  A non-sequential circle provides some structure while allowing for dialogue to occur. 
    • Opening and closing circles: The opening and closing circle are a type of sequential circle that takes place at the beginning and end of a gathering.  They may be related to the topic of the gathering, offering an opportunity for reflection, or solely for the purpose of connection.  While these circles require a time investment — and it’s vital to limit responses to one word or a phrase in larger groups — they ensure that everyone in the community has had a chance to contribute.

But Why Integrate Circles?

  • Creating community and traditions — A meeting with a rigid agenda is great at delivering information but not at building community, but if the gathering is co-constructed with community members, it generates a sense of investment or belonging.  Letting a community set its own standards and traditions helps folks engage.  Perhaps they’ll begin each gathering with a game, make time to celebrate successes or birthdays, or end each meeting with a meal together.  Whatever it is, it’s something that is totally student generated and thus will match the interests of that specific community.
  • Making space for all voices — While a circle is not the be-all-end-all of inclusive practices and it’s still essential to question what voices are silent, being silenced, or perhaps not even invited to the table, it can contribute toward creating a comfortable sharing space.  The geometry of a circle may lessen the intimidation caused by positional leadership.  Additionally, sequential circles eliminate the anxiety folks may feel when not knowing when they may be called on.  An opening circle is an especially powerful sequential circle, as it grants everyone the opportunity to speak at the beginning of the gathering, often in a fun low-stakes context, making it more likely they might speak up again later in the gathering.
  • Providing tools for more difficult conversations — While a talking piece or community standards may seem superfluous during a first community gathering, these practices are particularly useful in heated conversations.  When harm has been caused or conflict has escalated, having a talking piece or another set of norms can make restoring relationships much easier.  Unfortunately, folks who are already upset or angry probably aren’t interested in learning new practices, so introducing circles while building community makes the use of circles to address harm possible.

If you’re looking to incorporate Restorative Practices into your work, circles can be a great first step.  Since it’s a change in structure rather than one that dictates content, circles can be applied to any type of meeting.  That said, it’s essential to consider the central restorative philosophy of working with people rather than doing things to or for them.  Simply sitting folks in a circle and then running down a meeting agenda or implementing a rigid facilitation guide with no room for community building outside the outcomes does not make for a restorative circle.  It can be done with announcements and facilitated learning activities in the mix, but it’s about creating structure for residents to co-create and engage in community.

Key Questions:

  • What current structure do your floor meetings take?  How do they work to engage with students rather than presenting to them?
  • How can you train staff to authentically organize and facilitate a circle?
  • How can you empower residents to own their role and membership in their community?
  • What opportunities do you see to integrate circles into your work or curriculum?  What barriers do you anticipate?
  • How might you prime students to be ready to contribute to the creation of a community during a circle?

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