Moving Towards Circles of Equals

In my previous piece, “Defining the Circle of Equals”, I laid out what I see as the basic principles that define this more progressive and highly-evolved (at least in my opinion) than the hierarchical model for organizing institutions in our society. A model based on the the respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person (which also happens to be a key foundational principle of Unitarian-Universalism). As a follow-up I feel it is important to call out some of the ways we can work to support and facilitate our historic transition from a more hierarchical society to one based on egalitarianism and partnership between people.

Our society’s institutions change over time to meet evolving needs in a context of changing values, mores and expectations. A key element in that continuing pressure for change are the actions of individuals within those institutions. Certainly pressure from individuals participating in the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements hastened the expansion of voting rights to blacks and women.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you seek”, but what is also applicable here is that bit of wisdom from the 1960s, “If you are not part of the solution, your part of the problem”. How we conduct our lives in the smallest, most intimate and informal groupings eventually reflects on how larger more formal groups behave in the greater society. Nowhere is this more significant in groups that involve adults and youth interacting, whether informally within a family, or perhaps in a more formal educational setting.

Move away from seeing aspects of life as a competition with winners and losers. Hierarchical society is all about ranking people relative to each other to establish “superiors” and “inferiors”, while egalitarian society is about peers (even if each brings different levels of capability and experience). Framing aspects of life in terms of a competition, promotes the glorification of “winners”, which generally involves defining an equal or greater number of people as “losers” in comparison. This not only discourages cooperation and collaboration (unless people are defined as being on the same “team”), but also encourages “us and them” thinking which is an anathema to egalitarianism. It also discourages thoughtful compromises in political and legislative decision-making process when each side is focused on “winning” rather than governing.

Approach leadership from the point of view of being “of assistance” rather than “in charge”. In a circle of equals leadership is generally more facilitative than directive, and is all about achieving group goals rather than the goals of the leader singularly. It is about saying to the group “how can I be of assistance so that all of you can perform at your best and the group can be successful?” And even in informal groupings, avoid power being “seized” in favor of being “granted”. That is not to say that the group may decide that in particular circumstances they do require the leader(s) to give significant direction.

In any group situation, pro-actively encourage everybody to speak, and model good listening and “non-violent” communication. From my experience with meetings and other gatherings, there is a certain critical mass of focus and energy that is not achieved until everyone has spoken. I’m not talking about a free-for-all here, but not allowing a back and forth debate between a smaller subset of group participants without going around soliciting the opinion of all. Certainly this can be impractical in larger groups, though such a group can be broken into smaller sub-groups where all can be heard. Critical to facilitate everyone being heard is to truly listen when everyone speaks and, where appropriate, acknowledge the gist of their comment, such as “So I am hearing you are very concerned about this/my suggestion.”

Use pronouns that define the world in egalitarian rather than hierarchical terms. This includes the standard emphasis on “I” statements for expressing concerns and making suggestions (e.g. “If it were me, I would…”). But it broadens the scope to using “we” statements to frame a context within a circle of equals, rather than an “us and them” framing which tends towards putting the two groups in opposition and ranking one group favorably relative to the other. So “I don’t like what those fundamentalists are doing” is reframed as, “I don’t like what those of us who are fundamentalists are doing. More words and somewhat awkward syntax, but it is a completely different framing that keeps the fundamentalists within the circle of equals with worth and dignity. The use of “we” and “the group” are also important in reframing leadership in a facilitative rather than directive context. Even the directive statement, “I need you to be in charge of…”, implies that the person the statement is directed to is doing this for the leader, while “We need you…” or even “The group needs you…” indicating the source of the authority with the circle, not the leader.

Call out and even question the governance model being used in any group situation. Questioning the legitimacy of authority in a respectful way is not about being competitive and confrontational, but about ascertaining the appropriate decision-making process is being followed. Many people don’t think about the fact that in every situation where people are working together or otherwise playing roles in each others lives, whether within a formal institution or more informal association, a governance model is being employed, either explicitly or implicitly. Bringing attention to or even suggesting a reassessment of that governance generally promotes movement towards a more inclusive, more egalitarian approach.

In general, circles of equals, whether in the most formal high-stakes settings or the very informal or casual, are all about minimizing real or perceived power or status differences between the participants towards encouraging universal participation which hopefully brings out all the skills and gifts individuals have to offer to each other. And when a person in the circle obviously has more power or responsibility they do not do themselves or the group a service by constantly behaving in a way to remind others of that status. Power, status and responsibility always need to be mitigated by humility and a sense of its appropriate limits and scope.

Of course, even in an egalitarian society there are institutions and sets of circumstances where leadership needs to be highly directive rather than facilitative, and a more hierarchical organization (the “chain of command”) is appropriate. What jumps out is the military, police and fire-fighters, which require a strict chain of command to be effective in dangerous situations where quick decisions need to be made to protect life and limb.

But in a society that is striving to be egalitarian, this sort of hierarchical governance structure has a limited scope of special circumstances where it is appropriate. Given that, it is interesting in our country how we continue to mythologize that very directive “I’m in charge here” leadership style in many of the stories in our popular culture. Our continuing cultural fascination with stories about gangsters and mafioso, with their very directive hierarchies and violent “due process”, jumps out as an example. This is what I see as a 5000-year-old patriarchal legacy that manages to continue to perpetuate itself even in our contemporary society.

Every day we all can play a role moving our society away from that legacy and towards interacting with each other within circles of equals. I see this as evolutionary, as human beings continue to leverage each other’s inherent worth, dignity, talents and even genius.

4 replies on “Moving Towards Circles of Equals”

  1. Thanks Louise… In rereading it I felt I had a weak paragraph about language and a fragment of a sentence that got cut off. I fixed the fragment and rewrote the paragraph.

    I really appreciate your comments and support!

  2. This and your article “Moving from Heirarchy to Circle of Equals” are exactly what I was looking for. The concept of circles is one I’ve embraced by decades. Now I find myself being draw in to my neighborhood association, which is being operated in a classical heirarchical fashion.

    I hope to gently nudge the group to embrace a more circular pattern of organizing, thinking and communicating with the neighborhood we are trying to represent.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Jonathan… glad my piece helped you get clarity on this. If you look at my past work I’ve wrestled how to best frame our societal development from hierarchies of control to circles of equals, using the terms “patriarchy”, “dominator model”, “pecking order”, “reign of the angry father figure” and other characterizations.

    Please keep in touch and let me know how it goes with your neighborhood group.

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