News Tip

What do we do now? Part 1 - Using Circles to Move Past Conflict to Solutions

This post expresses the views and opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily that of The Sun Times News management or staff.

by Carolyn Stilwell

This is part one of a column that aims to answer one of the main difficulties we face when we are struggling in the midst of conflict, that is the question, “What do we do now?”. The heat of the moment may have passed but you still don’t know how to move forward. That’s ok. There are many different ways to get to collaborative solutions. I’ll outline one here and will outline another in a later column. If people feel unheard, misunderstood, or hurt by the conflict, you may need to build some understanding, connection, and trust before moving on to solutions. The circle process outlined below lets you work on building those things with each other in a way that gives everyone a chance to speak and feel heard. This circle process is one version adapted from circle processes practiced for thousands of years by Native Americans.

CIRCLE: Maybe after all your talking, you still don’t feel heard or understood. Maybe the other person involved doesn’t either. Sometimes, before we can move on to solutions, we have to heal the harm that has been caused between us. This is where a restorative justice process called a peacemaking circle can be helpful. Many Americans are familiar with the circle process from elementary school, but unfortunately the practice is often not used beyond then. Circles have been used in indigenous cultures for many different reasons around the globe for millennia, with adults and children alike. The circle process aims to flatten power structures and to allow everyone involved to have a voice. You can run a simple circle on your own.

  1. To begin, find something that you can hold and pass around from person to person. This will be your talking piece. An important part of the circle process is that you can only speak when you are holding the piece.
  2. Arrange yourselves in a circle so that you can all see each other. If there’s only two of you, just sit facing each other.
  3. Start by stating the purpose of your circle. This will help everyone be on the same page. It can be as simple as “We are holding this circle so that we can have a chance to really say and hear how we all feel about _________.”
  4. You may want to have a practice round before addressing your primary topic where you ask a simple question to get the feel of how the circle will run. To do this, ask a question like “What is your favorite food?” or “If you could have any superpower what would it be?”. When you ask the question, you are the first to answer (since you are holding the talking piece). When you finish, pass the piece to the person next to you. When they finish, they will pass it to the person next to them. People may choose to speak or pass the talking piece without speaking.
  5. Possible questions for the circle:
    1. How are you feeling about _______?
    2. What happened?
    3. How were you impacted by what happened?
    4. What do you need to move forward?
    5. What do you hope the future looks like?
    6. What can you personally do to make things better?
    7. What do you need from others to make things better?
  6. Make sure not to interrupt anyone while they have the talking piece, even if they say something “wrong”, insulting, or infuriating. When the talking piece makes it back to you, you can respond, ask a question, or even decide that you are done with the circle. That’s ok. Just keep in mind that if you ask a question, the talking piece must go around the circle through all the other people again before it gets to the person you are asking a question of.
  7. Sometimes one question will need several rounds in order for people to feel like they’ve had a chance to say everything they need to say. That’s ok.
  8. Don’t spend more than two hours on this. If you need more time, set another time with each other. Then start again on another day or after a good long break of at least a couple hours.
  9. This sort of conversation can allow folks to come up with ideas to move forward in a way that really hears where everyone is coming from and allows folks to build connection and understanding.
  10. Often when we are in the middle of conflict it’s impossible to set aside our own feelings long enough to give space to another person to be heard. If this is the case you may choose to have an outside facilitator run a circle for you. The Dispute Resolution Center in Ann Arbor is one resource that provides this service for a small fee to folks living in Washtenaw or Livingston counties, 734-794-2125 or

Remember, not all conflicts require discussion and problem solving, but when you are in one that does, it can be helpful to have some specific processes to follow. The process outlined above is certainly not the only way to move forward. Try different approaches and see what works for you. The important part is recognizing when you and others want to put forth the effort to work on collaboration and identifying a method that lets you do so.

This column is part of a monthly series created by the Restorative Justice Committee of Chelsea's One World One Family organization, The series invites readers to reflect on individual and community challenges such as conflict and crime, and the approaches we take to meeting them.

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified