Socratic Circles: a method to support high emotion, high conflict conversations

  Me facilitating a socratic circle conversation about a high conflict issue in a rural community in Chile

Me facilitating a socratic circle conversation about a high conflict issue in a rural community in Chile

In workshops and trainings I am asked over and over again HOW to bring people together when emotions run high and tensions are overflowing. A Socratic Circle is a group conversation process that supports learning, relationships, and embraces high emotion. I’ve used it in countless situations as a method to embrace the intense concern, anger, fear, worry or frustration participants are feeling so that it can be understood, and the path created for a constructive conversation.

How does it work?

Participants are divided into two concentric circles, both circles facing in to the centre, with generally equal numbers of participants in each circle. The circles create a container for the emotion that models the space that gets created in talking circles and it intentionally builds deep understanding by creating the outer circle meant for listening.

The inner circle starts the first conversation based on some prompt questions, designed to spark thinking. The outer circle listens to the conversation to hear and understand what is said and are also asked to watch for insights, similarities and meaning.

The inner circle can last for 10 minutes, or 30, or somewhere in between depending on the flow of conversation, the topic, and participant’s energy. When circle 1 ends, the facilitator calls for a switch, and the inner circle moves to the outer circle to listen, and the outer circle takes the inner circle talking seats.

When both circles have completed discussion, the facilitator engages both groups in conversation to identify what stood out for them, what had meaning or insight, where they saw patterns or similarities, or where there may be more that needs to be discussed or considered. The facilitator can start with hearing from participants in the outer circle, then welcome input from all.

If it feels like there is more to say and the issue hasn’t come to any conclusion then you can call for another “wave” of conversation. In this wave you can allow people to self select who sits in the inner circle, allowing those with more to contribute to hold those chairs. If you take this option, be sure to debrief fully with those in the outer circle before going back to the inner circle at the end.

When do you use a Socratic Circle?

When you want to engage people in powerful thinking, sharing and learning that does not require a resolution, consensus or other fixed outcome. Socratic Circles are a great way to ensure participants have ownership of the discussion because they lead and direct it.

The process also encourages equal contributions between participants, and this can be encouraged by tracing the “web” of conversation as participants talk, documenting the pattern and energy of the conversation. At the same time, recorders can document the conversation that is taking place.

Using a Socratic Circle creates a safe place for emotional conversations. It is important to set the stage for the conversation by creating conversation norms by explaining how the process will work, and acknowledging some of the challenging issues that may be raised.

It is important for all participants to be in the conversation including the organization, stakeholders, technical experts etc. so that there is a fullness to the conversation.

You can use the Socratic Circle in groups of up to 50, with largest circles being 25 people in each ring. When you’ve got more than 50 people, create multiple circles.

Step-by-Step

1. Prior to starting the Socratic Circle the facilitator should identify a number of key questions or inquiries to serve as prompts to kick-start the conversation. The facilitator sets up the circle.

2. Prior to beginning participants collect their thoughts related to the prompt questions and write some reflections.

3. Equal numbers are seated in the inner and outer circles and the facilitator reminds folks that talking takes place in the inner circle, and listening takes place in the outer circle.

4. Anyone in the inner circle can begin the conversation, and the conversation is organic from that point. Silences are normal and the discussion may ebb and flow.

5. The facilitator calls time for each session. The facilitator does not start the conversations, and must remain silent throughout, unless participant safety is at risk.

  An example of tracking the conversation and the web that gets created from a conversation about community recovery to natural disaster

An example of tracking the conversation and the web that gets created from a conversation about community recovery to natural disaster

6. The facilitator or another nominated person tracks the conversation using flip charts. Tracking involves identifying the seating position of each participant, and tracing a line from each speaker to the next. During the outer circle feedback, the facilitator directs participants’ attention to the tracking diagram as a concrete expression of the conversation.

7. After the first conversation the inner and the outer circles change roles and positions.

8. At the conclusion of the second outer circle feedback, the facilitator can lead an open discussion about the process and the content, and pose a question about ‘where to from here’.

Some example prompt questions

Noted here are a number of example prompt questions used in previous conversations.

In a long-term conflict situation between a corporation and an indigenous community:

  • What makes a good neighbour?
  • What do you hope Company X learns about you and your community?
  • What do you hope to learn about the people at Company X?
  • What might allow you to work together to have a better relationship?

In a recovery situation to natural disaster with community workers:

  • How do you make meaning of what has happened and care for yourself when you spend so much time holding other people’s needs and emotions?
  • How do you play a role in contributing to rebuilding community?
  A socratic circle I facilitated about community recovery to natural disaster in Queensland, Australia

A socratic circle I facilitated about community recovery to natural disaster in Queensland, Australia

In a recovery situation to natural disaster with community recovery workers, agencies and community members:

  • How do we find a way forward to rebuild our communities?
  • How do we reconcile all the diverse and urgent needs that are calling for attention?
  • How do we create a recovery process that works for all of us?

In a high conflict situation on a health care issue:

  • What are the challenges, struggles, and considerations we need to talk through before moving forward on this issue?
  • What will we need to learn so that all perspectives can be fully understood and the complexity of this issue be considered?
  • What would an informed decision for moving forward look like to you?

Give the method a try in your next tough conversation and create the space for people to see, hear and understand each other. New connections are made, tensions release and possibility gets created for a new way of working and talking together.