Show Up, and Open Up

Show up, and open up. It may sound simplistic, but that’s basically the recipe at Circles.

The guided peer groups we run help you explore the challenges you face in life, both personally and professionally, by tapping into what amounts to a universal experience.

“As long as there have been people on this earth, they’ve sat in a circle,” says Jonathan Hefter, the chief guide at Circles. “We’re simply doing it with some great technology and an agenda and a really clear mission.”

Jonathan has spent more than 20 years in business training and learning, drawing on a right-brain, left-brain mix of operations experience and creative peer facilitation. He rattles off the tenets of Circles with an obvious passion, exuding a belief that he’s helping the world become a better place one video conference call at a time.

But he makes it clear that a circle is much more than a conference call. It’s a community, and it’s his job to make sure the people in that community feel safe enough to open up. 

Jonathan, who worked for Circles founder Dan Hoffman years ago, has plenty of experience getting people to open up. He runs wilderness experiences and men’s retreats in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, where men from various backgrounds can sit in a circle and talk about their deepest troubles. Jonathan is now successfully implementing this approach to Circles with one key difference, the technology.

The human element is still at the core of circles meetings though. The key, as Jonathan puts it, is to create a safe space where people can feel like they’re able to share. Just don’t call it group therapy.

“It’s not therapy,” he says. “It’s therapeutic.”

The secret to a great circle is having deeper conversations than most people are used to having at work. People need to feel they are in a psychological space where they can be vulnerable, and vulnerability is crucial to people feeling like they can go deep.

So, how does he do it? One way is by establishing norms, like ensuring each participant starts the circle being willing to open up. Another is ensuring that they cut right to the chase. In the first meeting, for instance, participants don’t go around the circle spouting off their resumes.

“I’d much rather hear about the last time when a deep, meaningful conversation happened in your life,” Jonathan says. “Or, better yet, why are you interested in Circles? Tell me what you want to get out of this.”

The potential number of answers is infinite, and the circle organically follows the discussion where it needs to go, while the guide, and the meeting platform’s timer feature, makes sure everyone gets equal air time.

Granted, Jonathan might not be your guide. But he knows how to pick them, and he has come up with a training program to make sure every guide can help every member get the most out of each circle.

The guides come from a variety of backgrounds — former coaches, a school administrator, a theater teacher — but the standout trait they all share is fundamental for Circles; knowing how to hold space. What that means is, Jonathan can train them on how to keep the circle on track and enforce the norms that have been established. But they all know how to speak from the heart and they all know how to tell a story. They keyword here is empathy. Importantly, they also know how to encourage others to do the same.

Because at its heart, Circles is about how the shared experiences of others can help make your life better. That means sharing stories, not advice. Studies show that sharing your challenge and how you worked through it will be more valuable than any traditional advice you can give someone.

“The question is how do we bring this into corporate America,” Jonathan says. “We have to tap into what all humans want. You want to belong, you want to know you’re not alone. You want safe spaces to get what you need so you don’t go home and pull your hair out.”

For more on how to not go home and yank at your hair, check out how Circles can get you together with your own personal advisory board.

“We all have something to learn, and everyone can teach you something,” Jonathan says. “Your life can be an endless journey of learning. And it’s supposed to be fun.”

You Can Doubt My Opinions, But Not My Experience

I used to love riding along with my wife Kathryn years ago on Saturdays from our tiny apartment on the East Side of Manhattan to her Pilates studio in Connecticut. Saturdays were the busiest days, and I enjoyed sitting at the front desk while she taught client after client, sometimes ten in a row.  She’s better at what she does than anyone I know is at what they do. And, y’know, cause I love her and everything, I was proud to hear her instruction in the next room while I supported her however I could.

There was a part of these trips that I dreaded, though. It was the almost inevitable response she’d get whenever she shared her plans for the business, for our then-new marriage, or, basically anything about herself.  “You know what you should do?…”, her clients would begin, followed by a litany of unsolicited advice.

Now, don’t get me wrong – these are sweet people.  Supportive, kind, generous people who have been key figures in our lives, not to mention they made it possible for us to pay our rent.

Inevitably, though, I would drive home a bit deflated. Feeling like my sweet wife just got turned into a 12-year old in front of my eyes.

Fielding their well-meaning questions opened her up to inspection, comparison with choices they’d made themselves, and – of course – advice.

She navigates this much better than I do (I told you, she’s good at things).  But I’ve seen the light in someone’s eyes dim the minute being vulnerable leads to a lecture.

The thing is – we all have a story.  And, if you haven’t noticed, we each love telling our story.  What’s just as human is to want to know that we’re ok, that the choices we’ve made aren’t wrong.  One of the wounds of giving advice is that it sends the message that what you chose is wrong, and that my way is the right way.  This is what “should” means.  This wounding starts from the moment the conversation goes from listening to telling. From being with someone to teaching. The focus goes from the one sharing their challenge to the one who, apparently, has all the answers.

In that moment, a lot of potential is lost.  The possibility of a deeper connection is gone – at least for that exchange. Nothing kills the will to open up like the unspoken message that what you wanted to share isn’t the focus anymore.

Underneath that, the cut goes even deeper: we make choices based on beliefs, and when we get advice, it sends the message that our beliefs are wrong. For my wife, exposing herself to advice each day made her feel she was doing everything wrong, that she was not enough. And, still, she had to smile.

In a recent podcast interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, one of Tim Ferriss’s big messages was that “You can doubt my opinions, but not my experience.” Advice-giving creates an unnecessary set of assumptions; our views are rarely identical to those of the person handing us the advice. In contrast, experience is data-driven, first-person sharing, without the need for others to make the same choice you have.

How different Kathryn’s experience would have been if she heard stories from experienced entrepreneurs who had gone into these challenges before her, rather than opinion.

We at Circles love stories. Committed to the belief that everyone has something to share, our structure develops the skill of storytelling, reframing your experience from self-doubt for the listener to an opportunity for a shared learning for the circle.

In our circles, we admit – we’re out for a big result.  We’re doing everything we can to make it possible for people to open up – to WANT to open up and go deeper. Why? Because when someone is vulnerable, we’ve seen again and again that the circle rallies to support them.  That’s the tricky thing – the spirit behind giving advice is good: there’s caring. Wanting the best for someone who’s struggling, or who simply doesn’t have to be in the spot they’re in right now.

We’re asking ourselves all the time – what can we do with our agenda-driven meetings to take those instincts and channel them into even deeper sharing, and supportive content? Our norms make that possible. Our learners make it happen.

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

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