How to Hold a Listening Space
A Circle is a wonderfully versatile held-space which allows us to communicate with others in a way that is non-hierarchical, equal, respectful and connecting. The Circle as a symbol appears in cave paintings dating back 35000 years. Jung discovered that the circle, often in the form of a sun-wheel, appeared in cultures that developed in complete isolation from one another.
When we pull the chairs away from a table and out of linear rows and into a ring where we face one another, we are turning ourselves into a sun-wheel. We assume the shape of the symbol ourselves and the synergy comes with us.
As part of Extinction Rebellion’s Regenerative Culture, a talking circle can offer a space for people involved to mutually support, share and process a multitude of thoughts & feelings that emerge through their relationship to climate emergency and associated actions.
We come in connection with our feelings/ Grief as they are arising in our daily lived experiences:
- Awareness of those sickening and dying among us.
- Separation from those we love and are concerned for; just round the corner or in distant places, we cannot meet and hug and cry together.
- The loss of touch and connection.
- The restrictions on choice and freedom.
- Awareness of a planet so horrifically mistreated, she would evolve a way to put a stop to the trauma.
- Awareness that it has taken a human-scaled immediate crisis to prevent us participating in this relentless abuse.
We are driven to online connections - a shadowy substitute for the comfort of solid physical presence - and for now, it is all many of us have access to.
How we hold the space can deeply inform and influence how people share what is alive within them and how people bear witness to that. We have put the following suggestions together to support those who are stepping forwards to hold spaces at this time for others to speak and be heard.
Preparation - Welcoming
Give yourself 15 minutes or so to create a sense of welcome before the call begins.
If you are pairing with another to help facilitate, connect in with your partner at this point and share how you are preparing for the call.
Turn off all other distractions and devices. The quality of attention you bring to the call has an impact on those who join the room.
Ground yourself into calm with breathing practice and any other techniques which you know support you.
Have fresh water and comfy seating. Check the Zoom link is working and have all you need to hand.
- We advise working with a co-facilitator in order that you are supported in this process and in order that with larger groups are facilitated successfully. This includes working with the uncertainties around the numbers of people and the online technology involved.
- Holding this space can be a vulnerable task and we encourage authenticity from the facilitators around their own emotions through the process to model and encourage this depth as a group.
- Open the zoom room a few minutes early if you can.
- Welcome people as they arrive. Notice how many are arriving by phone and be clear how you will engage them in discussions - by raising their hands in the chat window, or voicing their desire to talk with a word, such as stack or queue.
Timings & Technicalities
- As a facilitator, timing is of optimum importance. It is the facilitator’s duty to state the time of the call at the beginning or if there is a possibility of running over. Closing the door to the zoom room is advised to maintain the safety of the container. Please familiarise yourself with this before holding the circle.
- Spreading the time equally among the participants is of great importance so that each person is heard equally. We recommend an alarm to assist with this process. If you are co-facilitating, the timekeeper role could be the job of one of the facilitators.
- We recommend dividing the groups’ time into 2 rounds (two opportunities for each person to speak) so that a deepening can occur as a result of, say, hearing the vulnerability of another. Usually the rounds are a longer one to start with, followed by a shorter one.
- Break out groups - if the group is large we suggest splitting the group into break out groups in order that there are small and more intimate groups, ideal for sharing more deeply and being more effective with time.
The circle has a beginning, a middle and an end. The host can offer a simple ritual to signify these shifts:
The success of a circle rests on the ability of the participants to understand, contribute to and abide by rules of respectful engagement. Agreements provide trust and an interpersonal safety net for participating. Agreements are the circle’s self-governance and create a way for each member to hold both self and each other accountable for the quality of interaction.
Suggested initial agreements would include:
- Confidentiality- Nothing gets taken outside the circle and people don’t refer to each others’ sharings.
- Listening with curiosity and compassion, without interruption, including without hand signals.
- Speak from the ‘I’ - only speak from our own experience and within the circle we refrain from commenting about or offering advice/opinion about what another has shared.
Our agreements are what ‘carry us through stormy seas’.
Welcoming all of us and every part of all of us:
Numbness is also welcome in these spaces and we encourage facilitators to acknowledge and be with the numbness that may be appearing in participants as equally as valuable as grief or any other emotional state. This may also be recognised as “not knowing” how I feel about something.
Creating the container (energetically):
- A grounding meditation, a quote or poem could be an effective means of connecting participants to create a container for the talking circle. It offers a clear transition from whatever was happening before.
- Asking participants to follow this with a go around of their names, pronouns and very briefly stating something that they are grateful for - for example from nature, or their day so far.
- When they have finished, ask them to pass on to another person by name, and then mute themselves.
Model a little of what it might be like to reflect back some understanding of what was said - track meaning for some or most of what is shared. How might others offer reflections or curiosities - is this invited? Think about how you might feel steady in the space you are holding and offer this - there is no ‘right’ way...it is a gift to bear witness to what is and not many places to sit with things. Share if you feel uncertain or unsure and if you would welcome people to ask for a pause etc.
- The talking circle - dividing time up equally and setting out break out groups, as described above.
- Reminding participants that the more they can tune in to and express how they are feeling rather than what they are thinking, the more full may be their experience of sharing their truth and being witnessed and acknowledged in this.
- Reminding participants that there is also no requirement to use words. Simply breathing and being with what is there within us really welcomed.
Pay attention to the conversation, and also, have some attention to others either waiting to speak or who are very quiet. If you see people being moved to tears you can call a restorative pause. You might want to invite people to return to some breaths together in honour and validation. In this pause, remember to people that tears are normal and needed. They are a sign of life and emotions shifting and flowing and are a very human communion with the element of water.
As facilitators we could wonder out loud, allowing people to start bringing up feelings.
- What truths are proving too hard to talk about with those around you?
- What sort of anxieties are arising in people?
- Who have been the rocks in people’s lives - where are they now and what arises when you think of them?
These kinds of courageous conversations almost sustain themselves. As people start to engage with the dialogue, the facilitator can step back, thanking people when they have finished speaking and calling in the next person.
Around half way through the call, I begin to listen out for a moment to connect with what's next. Perhaps it is an invite for people to share the type of self care they are finding that supports them, or perhaps it is to invite people to connect to what matters to them most in these times - something they might wish to maintain when the immediate restrictions of this crisis are lifted.
If the group has split into break out groups, we suggest bringing the group back together towards the end, so that we may express all together what it is that resources us. E.g. walking in nature, having a hot bath, speaking to a loved one - an invitation to remember these things and resort to them when we are emotionally/energetically challenged.
We do this to give time for participants to integrate some of their experience of sharing and of witnessing, as well as to tune in to what we might need now. We have stepped into openness and vulnerability, and potentially pain, and rather than step out of the circle and close ourselves down for protection, we can step out and into self-care and compassion.
Make sure you have made sufficient time for the ending.
Group check out: A time to briefly share final feelings at the end of the call. It is the facilitator’s role to frame the amount of time remaining. The check-out is passed from one participant to the next - i.e. the person who goes first will choose someone to go next, etc. For the facilitators this is an opportunity to be at least a little sighted of how each participant is doing, so that additional support might be offered after and outside of the session.
If you can be available for 15 mins after the ending, then any one who is struggling or needs some other support can be heard in a boundaried way. This may be necessary for you and your co-faciliator to offer.
What next after attending this training session and reading this document?
You might find some or all of the following helpful in supporting yourself as you step into holding a listening space. Do offer that which feels right for you and do include within this what you offer to yourself in the way of support. There is not a strict wrong or right of this, only some suggestions born of experience. And no hierarchy of expertise that you have just entered onto the bottom rung of. That is a concept born of a disempowering system. But there is wisdom and support for you as you step in (“in”, not “up”).
- Taking some time to ask yourself “why am I really considering offering to hold a listening space for others? In what ways does this serve my needs?” Listening carefully to what comes up in you and sharing this with another person who can hear you non-judgmentally, to support your widening insight into what you are stepping in to and why.
- Attending other listening circles to both support yourself and experience others holding them.
- Speaking with others who are holding listening circles, to gain further insights.
- Asking others who are holding listening circles if you can support them when they hold a circle (i.e. being the second not first person holding the circle / the shallow rather than deep end first)
- Asking another who you have supported to hold a circle to then come to support you when you hold your first circles.
- Attending regular ‘Holding the holders’ group sessions. These are offered as spaces for you to decompress, debrief with each other, learn and feel held. These are held by Sandy from XR Trained Emotional Support Network.
Supporting information around Trauma:
These are initial notes around awareness of how trauma can affect people and suggested resources for self educating.
The conditions for psychological trauma are rife at the moment, so underlying traumatic events may break through much more easily. Many have lost access to their normal support networks, resources etc.
One person expressing anger/rage, triggering another person’s trauma history of being raged at. A person triggered into primal screams of pain/anguish triggering other people’s early experiences of terror by, for example, witnessing domestic abuse as a powerless child.
Here is a chart about the stages of hyper-arousal in the nervous system that happen when one is in trauma and the dangers associated with it.
Please make sure you have lists of national helplines that you can put in the chat, and any other XR Grief/ Sharing circle offerings, including:
It is really useful to be familiar with using Zoom so online tutorials are available including : https://embodiedfacilitator.com/resources-for-embodiment/.
A suggested circle might run like this:
- Group Agreements/housekeeping/timings/welcoming all and every part of us
- Opening Ritual, Poem - for example a grounding meditation
- Names and Gratitudes
- Break out groups
- Deep sharing space - timed in 2 rounds.
- Coming back together
- Resourcing ideas
- Check out - brief sharing on where we individually are now
- Closing and thanks