Today a client emailed me with a small anxiety about setting up a meeting room in a circle. The work we will do together is about rethinking relationships in a social movement and the concern was that it was already unfamiliar enough territory to work with. Setting up the room in a circle might cause people to “lose their minds.” I get this anxiety, because that is indeed the nature of doing a new thing. But I replied with this email, because I’m also trying to support leadership with my client who is doing a brave thing in her calling:
I understand the worry about a circle. People are often anxious with that kind of set up. I would invite you to reflect a bit further on that, though.
My experience is two fold. First, people are usually more familiar with a circle than you might imagine they are, and second some people even experience a secret relief that the room is set up that way (this was the case at the recent meeting we were at together: several people said to me “thank God the room was set up in a circle. Then I knew we were REALLY going to do something different.”) This is one of the reasons why one on one contact prior to the meeting helps. It allows you to gauge the anxieties a little more accurately and perhaps address them. It also allows you to talk about why we would use a circle set up.
There is a good reason to create an unfamiliar room set up: it helps to disrupt mental models and invites new ways of thinking. Organizing differently starts with how we organize ourselves to do the work. For groups that are trying to address change in behaviours or thinking, a change in the physical room set up makes a difference.
Here is a good summary of what I am talking about from Peter Block. Peter Block’s work is important in this respect and he talks about some shifts that, when we begin enacting them before hand, help to create the conditions for change.
My strong advice would be against giving up on the circle, especially if you haven’t yet had a chance to chat with people about how we are seeing the day going. Often in invitation documents I refer to the fact that “we will be meeting in circle and in small groups. While that may be unfamiliar to some of you, we are doing new work together and new work comes from organizing ourselves differently!” It will cause people to stop and reflect and engage with what you are doing, and it will make their acceptance of the invitation a more authentic yes. I would be surprised if, even knowing about it before hand, people decided not to come on the basis of the room set up.