Meeting In A Circle, Online

When you meet in a circle, the shape of your meeting carries an important message. Something like, “We’re all equal participants here.”

Of course there will in fact be hierarchies amongst the attendees: setting up hierarchies is just something humans do. But some spaces, such as a theatre with a stage, or a hall with a podium, carry an implication of inequality.

With a circle the space says, “we’re all equal”.

In creative, collaborative meetings, that sense of starting off equal has a powerful impact. It helps people to build trust; to feel safe to share ideas; to experiment and to fail. It’s so important that many professional facilitators won’t go ahead with an event if the space “doesn’t work”.

When you take your meeting online, what happens to your “circle”? It very easily goes out of true.

  • If only some participants can be seen or heard clearly, people will treat them as more important to the meeting than those who can.
  • If the “speaker” or “host” appears significantly larger on screen than other participants, it’s as if they’re “on stage”. Others will defer to them.
  • If some people are in the room, while others are connecting remotely, the in-the-room participants will be treated as more important than remote ones, unless technology is used to make a remote participant bigger, “centre stage”.

This is one of the reasons professional facilitators prefer Zoom to other video conference tools: it has a “gallery view” in which you can see everyone, with everyone’s video the same size. This mode is switched off by default (“speaker view”), but once switched on by the participants it at least suggests equality.

There are other things you can do to give your meetings a “circle” flavour. For example:

  • Use a “check in” or “warm up” activity to start the meeting in which everyone takes a turn to speak.
  • Rather than the “leader” deciding who speaks next, ask one speaker to nominate the next when they’ve finished what they have to say.
  • Share the job of facilitation around the group, with a different person “leading” each agenda item, or each edition of a daily/weekly meeting.

You might also consider using Liberating Structures, which are designed to maximise participation. There are two great posts on using these processes online here and here.   

3 thoughts on “Meeting In A Circle, Online”

  1. All true, especially when this form of meeting is introduced to people who are used to hierarchical set-ups. I especially liked the idea of giving someone else to invite the next participant. The “everyone is equal” can also lead to no one being able to take a position or direct attention even in an emergency situation. For that, greater ego maturity is necessary, that is, the capacity for both/and (circle and hierarchy). Important to be able to discern which format of engagement is the best for what purpose, and being flexibly able to choose to take a stance and lead when necessary.

    There is a big difference between legal equality (human dignity f. i. and the experience of one’s own story) and actual human capacity. Not everyone’s opinion or contribution is equally valid, based on deep reflection and on some rigorous testing of one’s own biases, preferences and ego needs.

    Doing brief check-ins (from where do you call, what brought you here and name) helps get a sense of the size of the circle.

  2. I love the notion of meeting in a circle in a virtual world. A few things I do to try to create this circle : I ask participants for a favorite photo in advance, which I insert into a PPT slide, with everyone’s photos and their names “seated” at a picture of a table in the middle of the slide. I post this slide in our conference area and print a copy for myself, which I use to track participation, go around the table, etc. Another technique: Once people in responses to a question, I give them a moment to read them, and ask for a volunteer to select a comment they find intriguing and explain why, which has a way of encouraging cross-table dialogue. The use of video makes it much easier to imagine that we’re all sitting around a table.

  3. Thanks both. Sophie Stephenson, @TheThinkProj on Twitter, says: “I create a ‘virtual table’ depending on the number of participants…I either create it visually or verbally once everyone is on the call. That way people know who is where, they feel more connected & they don’t need to interrupt as they’ll know they get their turn.” https://twitter.com/TheThinkProj/status/1158658582604394496

    And on LinkedIn, Liz Evenden says, “Love these suggestions Judy. When we have just one person “dialling” in to a meeting, we like to make sure the computer screen they are on sits on a chair like the rest of us, in a physical circle. If they are only on speakerphone (and yes, this still happens at times!) we ask one of the team to draw a picture of then and place it on the chair, with the phone!”

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