Employee Engagement

How to lead circle discussions at work [11 tips]

Often used in the classroom to encourage discussion, circle discussions are a great way to engage team members at work. In this article, we break down how to lead an open and beneficial dialogue in your workplace with circle discussions.

Sam Prasanth

Published on 

January 12, 2023

Updated on 

Time to Read

mins read time

Most meetings at work are a bit of a yawn-fest. Sitting in a boardroom and listening to the same co-workers and managers drone on (and on and on)? Yeah, not so exciting.

But what if we could turn that tedious experience into an engaging, even enjoyable one?

Enter the circle discussion.

Circle discussion meetings are a simple, yet powerful alternative to typical meetings. They bring the focus back to meaningful conversations and collaboration.

Whether you want to run a more efficient meeting or organize a mentoring circle event, circle discussions break us out of the regular humdrum. 

Unlike traditional meetings, the goal isn't to check off an agenda but to have an honest dialogue between participants. This creates a stimulating environment where people can explore a topic or issue more deeply, achieve a shared understanding, and generate actionable solutions.

So if you’re looking for a better way to collaborate and make decisions as a team, then read on to learn more about circle discussions and how you can lead one like a pro.

What are circle discussions?

Circle discussions are dialogues where all participants have an equal voice. The goal is to foster the sharing of ideas, opinions, and perspectives in a safe, non-judgmental environment. 

Typically, circle discussions take place under the direction of a leader or moderator who helps guide the conversation and encourages equal participation. Within workplace group mentoring programs, the mentor(s) can be the moderator of the discussions.

The format of a circle discussion usually looks like this:

  • Introduction. The introduction sets the tone for the conversation, clarifying any ground rules or guidelines and providing an overview of the topics to be discussed. 
  • Round-robin style sharing and debate. Participants then take turns sharing their ideas and perspectives on the issues. The discussion should be free-flowing, with each participant getting ample opportunity to voice their views. 
  • Closing. Finally, the conversation should conclude with a summary of the topics discussed and any points that require action.

The basics of leading a circle discussion

Circle discussions can be invaluable for creating collaboration and trust among colleagues. But, compared to other forms of meetings, they are often more challenging to lead because of their structure and dynamics

Here are some basic steps you can take to ensure your circle discussions go smoothly:

Decide on the purpose

Before launching a circle discussion, determine its purpose. Is the focus simply to brainstorm ideas, reach a consensus on a particular issue, provide mentorship to a group of employees, or encourage peer learning

Having a clear intent for the conversation will help steer the discussion in the right direction.

Establish ground rules

Defining expectations from the outset is key to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable participating. Before you begin, set clear ground rules about what is and isn't acceptable, so as to promote inclusive behavior

This can include:

  • not interrupting other speakers,
  • respecting the confidentiality of information shared in the circle, and 
  • avoiding judgemental language. 

These rules will serve as a foundation for a safe and constructive space. 

Prepare a structure

Have an overall plan for the discussion but also be ready to adjust as needed. Introduce the topics or issues that need to be discussed, and set aside enough time for each one. 

If mentoring others, consider using our mentoring worksheets.

Let each participant know when it's their turn to take the stage and be aware of the energy and flow of the conversation.

Offer 'pass,' 'pause,' or 'participate'

Empower participants to decide when and how they want to engage in the conversation. 

Let them know that they can always pass if they are not yet ready to contribute, pause and take a moment to think before speaking, or go ahead and offer their view on the topic. 

Don't let any member hold the conversation hostage, but don't rush them either.

Guide the discussion ethically

When leading a circle discussion, remember that you are in a position of power and must remain neutral throughout the conversation. 

Do not inject your own opinion or try to sway the conversation in any one direction. 

Instead, try to be as objective as possible and lead the dialogue ethically toward a productive outcome.

End with a meaningful closing

Wrap up the discussion and do a quick recap of the debate. 

Ask participants to commit to at least one action item that they can undertake before the next meeting. 

This will help ensure that everyone is taking away something from the conversation and is motivated to move forward.

Getting the most out of circle discussions

Now that you know the basics of leading circle discussions, here are some additional tips to help make your session as successful as possible:

Take advantage of digital tools

Technology can be a great ally when facilitating circle discussions. Some tools that can help make your process more efficient include:

  • Video conferencing apps. As remote working becomes the new norm, you may need to conduct a circle discourse online. In this case, video conferencing apps can be a great asset.
  • Task management apps. At the end of the circle discussion, you can use a task management app like Wrike or Monday to glean feedback, assign tasks, and follow up on action items. You can also prepare and share meeting agendas using one of the many pre-designed templates these tools come equipped with.
  • Mentoring software. If you’re looking to foster a culture of free exchange and debate in your circle discussion, then consider investing in an employee mentor management platform like Together Platform. The platform makes it possible for organizations to launch 1-on-1 or group mentorship programs with full insight into how each mentoring relationship is progressing.
  • Meeting registration software or QR code generators. If you're prone to hosting in-person circle discussions, then meeting registration software can be a great way to streamline check-in procedures. For added convenience and security, you can also use QR codes when signing in and tracking data. Just remember to research your options carefully to find an intuitive and feature-rich QR code generator.

Encourage active listening

Active listening is a powerful skill for facilitating fruitful circle discussions. Encourage participants to view the conversation as a two-way street — listen attentively, ask thoughtful questions, and let everyone have their say without interruption. 

Also, urge participants to focus on understanding the whole message, instead of getting caught up on individual words or phrases. That way, they can communicate more successfully and reach an agreement that benefits the entire group. 

Fight the impulse to dominate

When facilitating a circle discussion, you may be tempted to take control and steer the conversation in the direction you feel is most beneficial. Keep in mind, however, that the goal of a circle discussion is to reach a consensus — not to impose it

Take the time to listen to all opinions, even if they don’t align with yours. Doing so will make your circle discussion more beneficial, respectful, and valuable for all participants.

Mind your body language

Yes, words matter. But so does your body language. When leading a circle discussion, maintain a relaxed and open posture, showing the other participants that you are approachable and willing to listen. 

Be conscious of your facial expressions and gestures too — a simple nod or smile can go a long way in fostering a warm, inviting environment. Simply being mindful of subtle cues like these can help cultivate an environment more conducive to productive dialogue.

Make the most of your resources

Circle discussions don't have to be too fancy or complicated. While digital tools and other resources can be useful, they aren’t essential — what matters most is that everyone feels heard.

So do your best to maximize your current resource capacity. Whether it’s a simple whiteboard or a more elaborate online platform, the goal is to create a comfortable, safe space where everyone can engage in meaningful dialogue. By keeping this intention in sight, you can transform any space into a productive circle discussion hub. 

Organize circle discussions

Meetings that drag on for hours and don’t result in anything meaningful are all too common — but they don’t have to be. Circle discussions offer a refreshing alternative to the traditional meeting format.

So if you're looking for ways to inject some new life into your work meetings and foster greater collaboration, creativity, and productive dialogue, give circle discussions a go! 

Continue learning about leading collaborative group meetings by reading our article on understanding your team members' working styles. To run an effective group meeting, you need insight into how each participant works best.

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