What is circling? The Transformative Authentic Relating Practice

For many years I yearned for deeper, more meaningful, and fulfilling relationships with people. As much as I wanted this, my interactions with others were often superficial, forced, and lacked the vulnerability that I knew was possible. Of course, some personalities were easier to connect with but even within those relationships, there were barriers that I didn’t know how to get around. I simply lacked the tools for initiating and sustaining more vulnerable and authentic conversations. Luckily, I have since come across a radically new way of relating and connecting with people.

What is circling?

Circling is an authentic relating practice that fosters deeper, more meaningful connections with ourselves and others. Put simply, circling is a different way of having a conversation. Unlike our typical way of communicating which draws on memory and pulls us back into the past or forward into the future, Circling brings us to the knife’s edge of the present moment. It is concerned with what it is like to be together right here and right now. Circling is sometimes seen as an interpersonal meditation that calls us to be simultaneously present with our experience and the experience of others.

Initially discovered by Guy Sengstock – an artist, philosopher, and visionary from the Bay Area – the circling modality has since been picked up and tweaked by various organizations. Some of the top organizations teaching circling today include Sengstock’s Circling Institute, Circling Europe, and The Relateful Company (formerly Circle Anywhere). 

Both assertive and yielding types will find that circling pulls them out of their comfort zones. Those who are naturally more direct are challenged to let go of control. While those who are naturally more passive are called to jump into the driver’s seat and grab a hold of the wheel. In this way, Circling opens us up to a more wholesome way of being in which we are both giving and receiving, leading and being led, challenging and being challenged. In some Circling communities, this way of being is called Surrendered Leadership.

What is surrendered leadership?

Surrendered leadership is a paradox that invites us to integrate our individual experience within the experience of the collective whole. It is about opening fully to yourself and others. It calls us to not only transcend our personal agendas but to also include them. To surrender we must let go into the mystery that lies within us and between us, allowing things to emerge as they do instead of how we think they should. We are both leading by voicing our unique experience and surrendering to the way that it is received and integrated by the whole.

Surrendered leadership is not about expressing everything that arises within us. It’s about using discernment to share that which you feel is most true. This discernment requires recognizing that most of what arises is just mental noise. To get to deeper levels of truth and meaning we must slow down and stay embodied in our experience.

Surrendered leadership requires a suspicion that you don’t know or understand reality exactly as it is. Your understanding is an approximation that can become more accurate and refined by paying careful attention to the present moment as it arises within the context of the whole.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves” – Lao Tzu 

Check out my interview with John Thompson one of the founders of Circling Europe and a leader in the circling space. 

Types of circling

There are various forms of circling that have emerged from the different organizations and groups working with this modality.

The ones I have come across thus far include:

  • Flow circling – circling with any number of people with one or more designated facilitators
  • Purpose circling – circling with specific intention such as processing emotions or resolving an underlying issue
  • Dyads – two people circling with each other
  • Birthday Circling – a circle where attention is placed on a particular person in order to understand what it is like to be in their world

Circling as a PsychoSpiritual practice

Circling isn’t just a different way to relate to people it can also serve as a synthesis of various psychospiritual practices such as:

• Shadow work – circling provides raw interactions that can trigger and illuminate our shadow sides
• Mindfulness – circling teaches us to be with our experience as it is arising
• Emotional processing – a supportive circle can help us feel and process a wide range of emotions
• Awakening – circling shakes up our ideas of “who we think we are” and helps us to expand our sense of identity
• Collective Sensemaking – circling allows us to integrate our individual experiences within the context of the whole; tapping into a collective intelligence that can reveal deeper levels of truth, meaning, and wholeness.

My experience circling

My first time circling was during an emotions and circling retreat at Monastic Academy – a modern day monastery. In my first circle, I received criticism from one of the participants that was uncomfortable to hear but was exactly what I have been looking for. Regardless if the criticism held any truth, at least here was a person telling me how they felt interacting with me. This was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the superficial and sugar-coated replies most people give.

As I kept circling I started noticing recurring patterns. Several people mentioned that I was playing some kind of character and that I was being inauthentic. At first, this was off-putting, considering that authenticity is one of my highest values. Here I was trying to express my deepest truth in every interaction and still, there were some people who thought I was being fake. These interactions shook up my sense of identity and made me realize that there is no one “authentic me”.

We are all an amalgam of different parts which become active during certain interactions or within certain environments. We all possess each value and its opposite within our psyches. These values are relative and dependent on perspective. That’s why one person can see you as authentic and another can see you as inauthentic, both perspectives containing a partial truth.

Our top values contain shadow sides, which if not acknowledged end up manifesting in ways we cannot see. It is very likely that my attachment to the value of authenticity was causing it to polarize into inauthenticity. These realizations helped me let go of my rigid self-image and created the space for others to see me in whichever way they do. This was liberating as I no longer felt the need to fight or prove to others that I am a specific way.

Another pattern that several people brought to my attention was my reactions to feedback. When certain comments were made towards me and I was asked how I felt about them I often would say that it didn’t bother me. Yet others noticed subtle negative reactions in me. This made me realize how disconnected I was from my emotions. My experience of emotions has always been overwhelming because I never had the ability to sense them in their subtle state. By the time I would notice my emotions they had already snowballed into a massive avalanche that was sweeping over me.

Finally, circling made me realize how quick I am to respond and how that’s not always a good thing. What initially arises in our conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a richness of valuable information below the surface, which if given the time can arise and better inform our response. Being a thinking rather than feeling type means I’m naturally highly cerebral. This way of being is further reinforced by our culture which in many ways prizes rationality above all else. However this propensity to live in our heads makes us ignorant of what goes in our bodies. It makes us forget that our feelings often drive our thoughts and it is only by getting in touch with them that we can truly understand our deepest motivations.


Circling is an authentic relating practice that allows us to discover deeper levels of truth, meaning, and wholeness. Through this practice we learn to embody surrendered leadership – a paradoxical way of being that allows us to ride the natural flow of the ever present moment.  Originally emerging out of the bay area, circling is now used globally to facilitate more meaningful interactions within groups and organizations. Circling is not just a way to connect to others, it can also serve as a synthesis of psychospiritual practices such as shadow work, mindfulness, emotional processing, awakening, and collective sensemaking. My experience circling has helped me better understand myself and taught me the skills for creating more authentic, vulnerable, and meaningful connections with others.