A “Circle” for dispute resolution has been around for a very long time; probably centuries, but what is it? and how can it assist in the work of a family dispute resolution professional (as we are now described in the Family Law Act)?


I had the honour to attend and participate in a one-day training session with Evelyn Zellerer, Ph.D., of Peace of the Circle, sponsored by the BC Collaborative Roster Society. This process for the resolution of disputes is intriguing and I would like to describe and explain.


A “Circle” is made up of two or more individuals who form in a physical circle (perhaps, in a series of chairs) where there is space and no barriers in the middle of the physical circle.


There is a “Keeper” who facilitates to “Circle”. As in all dispute resolution processes, there is an “issue” or topic for discussion. In most dispute resolution processes, there is a form of introductions or welcoming. In Circle, the welcoming is intended as a comforting and settling process to allow participants to feel at ease and safe.


What is different about Circle is the way in which the discussion between the participants occurs. This discussion is conducted through a “Talking Piece.” The Talking Piece could be any physical item. It could be a heart-shaped stone (like we used), or a Smurf with its tongue out (as we had available to use.) Generally, the Talking Piece is intended to be a physical item unique to the group and “connects” the participants. In a recent Okanagan Collaborative Family Law Group Conference, we used the “Stu Webb* Bobblehead” I received at the IACP Forum in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2013. The Talking Piece could also be a framed photo of a couple’s children or family.


The Talking Piece is a tool to allow for discussion on the topic or issue. It is passed from one participant to another so that everyone in the Circle has an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the topic.. The participant with the Talking Piece is the only one who is to speak while they are in possession of the Talking Piece. Those participants in the Circle who do not have possession of the Talking Piece listen to the participant with the Talking Piece until it is each participant’s turn with the Talking Piece. Therefore, If you do not have the Talking Piece, you are listening and not talking.


The Talking Piece is passed around the Circle (called a “Round”). There may be more than one Round necessary to fully discuss the topic or issue. The number of Rounds depends on the topic and the will of the participants in the Circle.

Lawyers are particularly familiar with rules and procedure. In Circle, these are called “Guidelines”. Guidelines are created by the participants within the group in the Circle. These Guidelines might include the following:


(a)       Respect the Talking Piece;

(b)       Stay in Circle for the time agreed;

(c)       Stay on topic;

(d)       Refrain from interrupting;

(e)       Turn off all cellular telephones;

(f)        Allow the facilitator (the Keeper) to facilitate;

(g)       Stay present and focused;

(h)       Respectful communication.


These Guidelines may be “shared”, to indicate all participants agree with particular Guidelines. Guidelines may also be “individual” to indicate the Guideline is important for a particular participant to feel comfortable and safe participating in Circle.


Where the issues and topics are complex, as in most family law cases where there are the multiple issues including, children, parenting, family property and debts, distribution of income, there may be multiple Circles and the Guidelines may be different for each Circle. The Guidelines may be customized to suit the needs of the participants for the particular topic or issue for each particular Circle.


Once the “process” or format (meaning the topic or issue to be discussed and the Guidelines established) of the dispute has been determined, the Circle is used as the arena for the discussion. Of course, central for any meaningful discussion of the topic or issues is that each participants feels they have the opportunity and has the opportunity to fully express themselves about the topic and what is important to them about the topic. In other words, each participant has the opportunity to express what are their interests, needs, and how they feel about a topic. In very basic terms, each participant has the opportunity to say whatever they feel, need or want to say about the topic. Further, each participant can contribute to the topic for whatever number of Rounds may be selected when the Talking Piece is passed that may be required to achieve the resolution of the content by the group.


The Circle is an “organic process” and may begin in one way and may grow and evolve into something quite different than may have been expected at the beginning of the Circle. The Circle provides for the generation of ideas and thoughts on the topic. It encourages deepening and the “unpacking” of those ideas and thoughts as the ‘Talking Piece is passed from participant to participant in the Circle. In doing so, the opportunity for the creation of options from those ideas and thoughts are created and further developed and deepened.


As participants express what it important to them or their needs or concerns raised in the Circle, further ideas, thoughts, and options develop. The group has the opportunity to have the discussion on the topic one participant at a time to achieve “consensus” and a resolution.


The Circle does not necessarily end at that particular resolution. As family lawyers are well aware, family law matters are complex as the family moves through a transition and evolves and develops and what may not have been a need during the first Circle may arise thereafter suggesting the need for a subsequent Circle or Circles to address new and emerging issues.


Do Circles have a place in family law? Well, prior to the introduction of the Family Law Act in 2013, although Mediation, Collaborative practice and Parenting Coordination were being practiced by many family lawyers for a number of years, these processes were not outlined in the Family Relations Act. The Family Law Act, however, defines “family dispute resolution” to mean “a process used by parties to a family law dispute to attempt to resolve one or more of the disputed issues outside court, and include…(c) Mediation, Arbitration, Collaborative Family Law, and other processes, and (d) prescribed processes. Essentially, I would suggest the drafters of the Family Law Act are suggesting that there are dispute resolutions of which we may not be aware and of which we need discover. I would suggest Circle is one of them.


*Stu Webb is the founder of Collaborative Practice.

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