Waste not, want more

No variations on a theme.

What I learned at camp: Samoan Sharing Circle

I’ve been mulling over the following recently. Then Woman Wielding Words posted an invaluable blog discussion of constructive online dialogue. She writes eloquently about the balance between respectful disagreement and argument gone awry. Though not directly related, the post gave me the impetus to finally get my excitement down/out/around.

Even in discussion groups, community meetings, classrooms, boardrooms, meeting rooms, and other places meant to foster the exchange of ideas, ideas are often stifled. Minority opinions and wild what ifs are frequently silenced and consequently unexplored.

After spending five years in what – with youthful abandon – I liked to refer to as a right-wing propaganda institution (it really wasn’t, but who hasn’t had fun saying “fascist pig” once or twice? I kid – I actually don’t find that super useful. Or a little useful.), I enjoy finding myself in the majority on occasion. There’s comfort there. As well as singing and hugs and vegan recipe exchanges – yum. I’m probably too comfortable there. That said, I still want people to bring up those other points of view. I don’t want them to be or feel silenced.

I think silencing leads to bad blood and extremism as well as people constantly seeking out others with the same viewpoints in order to find some community (I could be the president of that club). As a result, it’s easy to forget that there’s still racism to unlearn, that some people find immigration concerning or capital punishment necessary. This is obvious to many, but if I don’t know why someone supports capital punishment, how can I learn from them, argue with them, or refute their claims? The discussion starts from the wrong place, and loses anybody who isn’t already there. If a conversation were a hill climb, starting some people at the bottom and dropping some people halfway up and expecting them to know why the rest of the crew is wheezing and traumatized from a near accident. This is why finding base matters that everyone can agree on, or at least understand, is valuable even though you’re never going to get every person starting from the same position on the hill.

More importantly, conversations, positions, debates and issues are not binary – either yes or no, black or white. You can’t plot all the people in the world into one of two boxes. Issues have varied and complicated points of view to match all us varied and complex people.

So, what’s the point, queen of the obvious?

Well, maybe there doesn’t have to be one, have you thought about that? Maybe there’s a bunch of points and any one of them is worth some thought.

But in this case there sort of is a point (foiled!). During my dreamy (read challenging and crazed) field course this summer, I learned something new and exciting (one would hope). After several rounds of mock negotiations and adversarial conversations about who wants what, we were introduced to a new way of sharing ideas, the Samoan Sharing Circle.

I realize that a sharing circle harkens ideas of hand holding, crying and cannabis that are not firmly within every person’s comfort zone. But let’s try to put that aside for a minute, shall we? Let’s also set aside that the practice as I learned it probably misappropriates Samoan leadership culture. I cannot claim any knowledge of its history and am speaking only of the experience I had with something called the “Samoan Sharing Circle” by the person who facilitated the discussion. All that said, there were some great things that came out of the exercise.

First – what goes on?

There is a small circle of three or four people in the middle. They are given an initial thought or discussion point and asked to talk about that particular issue. There is a larger circle of people around the outside of the smaller circle that must listen but not speak. If someone from the outer circle is motivated to speak or add to the conversation, they physically move behind the person whose point they want to address. At that point, a person removes themselves from the inner circle so that the outer circle person waiting to speak has an opportunity (i.e. the number of speakers remains constant).

This may sound a little exclusive, all this talk of inner and outer circles, but it produced amazing results, even among a group of people relatively willing to speak their minds. In particular, the exercise:

  • freed people from the obsession with being correct and allowed them to raise ideas in a more “I think someone somewhere argued” sort of manner;
  • allowed people to play devil’s advocate more easily without feeling as tied to the views they were expressing;
  • elicited contributions from people who don’t participate as much in more adversarial discussions;
  • made it more difficult to be disrespectful when you disagreed (though I wonder whether that would be the case in a different group)
  • allowed me to learn a great deal from others and apply what I’d been learning in lectures;
  • brought up really good and interesting ideas;
  • curtailed conversation monopoly; and
  • it really drew us out of that X versus Y approach by allowing us to think about the multiplicity of factors/issues/positions to a given statement

Such exercises always hang on their participants. Admittedly, this group was pretty fantastic. Others may not find it as illuminating. All I can say is that I was plenty illuminated.

About this illuminated. (Moon Jelly)

This was one of those perspective changing moments in my life. I’d be dying to hear from anyone who has given the circle a try.


October 5, 2011 - Posted by | Brackets, Self-reflection | , , ,


  1. The Samoan Sharing Circle sounds like a fabulous way to promote discussion. I spent several years teaching at a college that served a large population of native Americans who were able to attend tuition free. Sometimes, however, classes with the Native American students became challenging because culturally they would not speak up if it might disrespect their elders (meaning me). However, I am a teacher who encourages debate and discussion (with respect) and wants student participation. I was constantly trying different techniques to encourage discussion and not allow a few students to dominate the conversation. This sounds like a great technique.

    Thank you so much for your kind words about my post, and for including the link.


    Comment by Lisa (Woman Wielding Words) | October 5, 2011 | Reply

    • You’re welcome! I imagine your classroom challenges must have been hard to overcome, particularly where cultural norms collided. Even within the dominant culture, we don’t seem to be particularly good at respectful debate – I wonder if we’ve spent too many years in lecture-style classrooms?

      Comment by Rose | October 5, 2011 | Reply

  2. Fascinating, Rose. I’ve never participated in anything like this, but learned a lot about, at least, entertaining the ideas of those with whom I disagreed when I taught at my own “right-wing propaganda machine.” I love this technique–had never heard of it.

    Great post!


    Comment by Kathryn McCullough | October 5, 2011 | Reply

    • I’d love to see you teaching in one of those machines! Must have been quite something. Thanks for your interest.

      Comment by Rose | October 5, 2011 | Reply

  3. Fabulous post, Rose– the Sharing Circle sounds pretty amazing. As somebody who loathed any course that required/graded “participation”, I think the Sharing Circle might have made my time a little easier (and more enlightening).

    Comment by Dana | October 30, 2011 | Reply

    • I think it’s awesome that this may have worked better for you and the many others who don’t love what traiditional participation normally means. I wish I could go back and see what that might have looked at in some of my classes.

      Comment by Rose | October 30, 2011 | Reply

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