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Circle Time vs. Triangle Time

One way of metaphorically distinguishing between dialogue time and debate time is to refer to dialogue time as “circle” time, and debate time as “triangle” time.

It works in the following way. At the start of any discussion, there is a conscious choice made to begin with circle time and then move into triangle time. The rules for circle time are as follows:

  • Every person in the group is given as much time as they need to speak to the issue on the table, without interruption from other members.
  • The dialogue proceeds clockwise around the table. When one person finishes the next person begins.
  • There is no discussion except for questions concerning points of clarity.
  • Everyone, having listened to everyone else, and had their say, then gets a second chance to speak. They can modify their position based on what they have heard or they can make additional points.
  • Depending on progress towards a conclusion, a third round of dialogue can be undertaken.
  • At the end of the second or third round the person facilitating the discussion or the leader of the group will check to see if people are ready to move into triangle time. If necessary, after debate, the group can move back into circle time. 

Making this distinction at the beginning of a group conversation allows people to find a space during “circle” time where they can detach from their position or the outcome they want, and stay open up to other possibilities. It allows constructive listening, rather than destructive listening.

Once the switch is made from “circle” time to “triangle” time the rules change. People are encouraged to advocate for the position they think is best using the points that have been made. If necessary, the group can return to “circle” time before making a decision. Before, during and after the discussion frequent reminders should be made as to how the espoused values of the organisation relate to the topic being discussed.

Harrison Owen, the originator and advocate for Open Space Technology, describes circle conversations in the following way:

The elegant simplicity of communication in a circle radically contrasts with the byzantine pathways depicted by the common organisational chart. Even worse is the unofficial mental model of many organisations - silos. Hermetically sealed vertical columns steadfastly protected from invading hordes - with minimal connections to other silos, but only at the top.


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