Group Dynamics: Sitting in Circle

If you’ve spent any time in coaching, meditation, education, mediation, or consulting you may have heard the phrase or performed the activity of sitting in circle.

At its simplest, a group comes together to share ideas and experiences on a particular topic. And they do so sitting in a circle.

By sitting in circle we are inferring this is a safe space. Somewhere we can feel open and comfortable. A place where everyone’s voices can be heard.

But we’ve got to get the environment right to make it work.

This starts with the circle itself – more specifically, its size.

Just as the potential connections in a network increase exponentially as more nodes are added, the dynamics of the circle look and feel completely different depending on its size.

Add in the variable and unpredictable nature of humans and their group dynamics and the circle can become unwieldy, ineffective, or even volatile.

Some people will feel hugely overstimulated facing and being viewed by 10, 20 or 30 people.

Others may want to pull the attention towards themselves.

One or two can feel compelled to provoke, push, or pull at the container that’s been created.

A few may nervously hide away, only re-emerging when they feel it safe to do so.

And some might contemptuously opt out of proceedings completely.

Sitting in Circle can be a hugely powerful way to bring a group of people together. But group dynamics are a crucial part of designing an experience or environment. If we fail to pay attention to why, how and what we’re building, our intention to better connect a group of humans can backfire spectacularly. 

And, like it or not, size matters.

What was it like?

When someone describes an experience, we may hear ourselves asking ‘What was it like?’.

We’re being curious, taking an interest. Asking to find out more. Or at least trying to be polite.

What if it wasn’t like anything?

What if you get put on the spot and can’t find the wonderful metaphor?

This question is often unhelpful, especially when you’re in a scenario where you’re nervous or it’s new.

You know we’re being curious, interested, or at least civil.

But sometimes it doesn’t matter. There’s no like. And if there is, the like doesn’t do it justice.

The question becomes a lazy dud. An easy analogy. Maybe it even leads to a completely dead end. Conversation over. Opportunity missed.

Perhaps we can ease the tension and discover more by trying another question.

Something specific. Something outside the realms of what we know.

Something about your personal experience, a hidden detail, the inspiration behind your choice, what else you noticed, or how that moment shows up for you now.

Something thoughtful that considers the moment, the dynamic, the situation, the feeling. 

We could probably all do with asking better questions and searching for something new, ahead of resorting to just wanting to find out what it was like.

The important thing before on-boarding

It’s not just about what happens once they’re on board and the vessel is setting sail. 

It’s not just about the on-boarding rituals that occur once they’ve arrived at the place of departure and they’re beginning to assimilate into the culture of how we do things here.

It’s also about what goes on before all of that: the pre-boarding.

Pre-boarding lets us know who they are, why they’re enrolled, what matters most, where they are now, where they want to get to, and how we can help them get there.

Environments lacking in pre-boarding tend to hamper themselves. They don’t set themselves up for success. They put themselves on the back foot. They’re forced to re-evaluate and make awkward shunts midway through the experience people have invested into to be a part of.

In an era where personalisation is key, pre-boarding grows in importance.

When we design experiences and environments where we are asking for investment and enrolment, we should ask the people we’re seeking to reach some important questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Who are you? *
  • Why are you here?
  • What matters most?
  • How can we serve you best?
  • What’s currently missing for you?
  • What have you not yet voiced that we need to hear?
  • Which assumptions have we made about you?
  • Which assumptions have you made about us?
  • Where and when do you show up best?

The experience or environment may be around discovery, learning, entertainment, amusement, or escapism. Our level of pre-boarding should change in line with the type of environment we’re designing, but without it we’re setting ourselves up to let down the people we want to inspire, delight and change.

And that’s not fair on anyone.

* Much like the question ‘How are you?’ it’s often worth asking this question twice.

Learnings from the other side of an accelerator program

In the Spring of 2018, I was approached about collaborating on a new project being presented by New York City’s Department of Small Business Services and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

The project came about from the City looking to further their support to creative businesses. Media & Entertainment in New York contributes an estimated $9.1 billion to the city’s local economy and employs over 385,000 jobs.

Following a collaborative research process with business owners and industry experts in the media & entertainment community across New York City, the project proposed by the City was to design an accelerator program for a cohort of media & entertainment companies working across live events, marketing & advertising, and media tech.

Stepping into my first meeting with the team working on the program’s pilot edition, I learned it was to be titled the Accelerator for Media Pros – AMP NYC.

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Great (Un)Expectations

Below is a very lightly edited version of a brief introduction I gave at the final presentation day for the second cohort of the AMP NYC media & entertainment accelerator program in New York.

I’d had a busy few days and showed up at the venue with nothing prepared at all. An hour before the session started I got going on my Morning Pages to riff a few ideas. 

The morning pages started with:

AMP NYC intro speech. 

Hmm. Not going well so far. I can improv it but better to have something down. 

Let’s just go with writing it.  No. Resistance kicking in. 

After a few minutes of absolutely nothing, and then a few rapidly aborted first lines, I remembered some conversations I’d had on expectations for groups. A quick search for Great Expectations brought up the juicy fact that the date coincided. The rest then came together in a few minutes. Phew. Thanks, Charles. 

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The Educator’s End Credits

They don’t exist right now.

Of course, there’s the bibliography for a book or research paper, but as the ways we learn become more fluid, episodic and interactive, and the range of sources and contributors become more eclectic, we should start thinking about education content the way Hollywood studios think about movies.


Opening credits.

Presenting producer.

Introducing, Featuring, Special Guest.

Cameo appearance.

Cliffhanger moment.

Fade to black.

End credits.

Out takes.


There’s an opportunity to be the go-to creative studio producing this for the new educators.

And perhaps there’s space for a new kind of IMDb too.

Alchemy before Chemistry

You’ve probably heard people talk about chemistry: in work, in life, in love.

You may hear about it far more in these contexts than in its more traditional setting – as a science.

As a science, chemistry is clear, with specific elements and results.

Then there’s alchemy. It feels the same very similar to chemistry, but it’s not really science. Alchemy is more about culture, philosophy, psychology, magic.

Alchemy can lead to chemistry – more specifically, chemical reactions.

These reactions may be explosive or subtle, gentle or potent. 

The chemical reaction is more likely to be strong when the alchemy isn’t right.

When we’re observing people and their behaviour, we often talk about chemistry.

But we may want to consider the alchemy first.

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No Reply = No Interest?

Next week marks the 31st edition of my monthly email newsletter which I started in late 2015.

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t really kept up my end of the bargain. 

In the early days I sometimes let two, three or even four months pass without a newsletter leaving the premises.

Now, the practice is in place – the last 15 editions have been published on a regular monthly basis.

This doesn’t mean the resistance disappears. Growth is slow, interaction and feedback loops hard to find. My inbox is dominated by out of office responses ahead of human replies. Sometimes it feels futile. Is anybody out there?

But just because we use one medium to communicate it doesn’t mean we should expect others to respond in kind.

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Work labels: word salad and connotations

A couple of weeks ago I had a drink with someone who’s done some great work in their field.

As we chatted about our respective projects and areas of interest, he asked me what I called what I did.

This has long been a bone of contention and frustration for me, and I did my best to conceal my wince as I threw out some labels.





Laughing, he remarked how I’d managed to saddle myself with some of the most maligned and misunderstood terms available.

What else I call this is still to be decided, but I know have a lens through which to look at the world.

The point here is that, like it or not, the labels matter and first impressions count.

We can pick & mix a word salad, mix in a new ingredient or two, choose one from the pre-packed aisle, or go out and do something completely off-piste.

The good news is, if the labels don’t fit, we can change them. 

And if we don’t like salad, we change that too.

We just may need a new set of lenses to do it.

Switching to Annual View

Whether we’re coming fresh out of a salaried role or have spent years out on the road as an independent, it’s easy to default to the monthly view.

Just like a calendar, the month is the most easily understood timeframe. No time differences to manage, or weeks starting on a Sunday vs a Monday.

Monthly makes sense – after all, it’s when our outbound payment obligations usually land.

Mapping monthly keeps us buttoned up and on top; we can pretty accurately make the plans for our spending and the spending of our time.

Monthly lets us see the regular cadence of revenue we need to cover our bases (hopefully with a little extra saving up or splashing out).

But for all its well-meaning design and manageable mathematics, as independent professionals the monthly view can do us a disservice.

In fact it plays a trick on us. It narrows our view, distorts our focus.

Instead, we can take our internal calendar view and switch to annual.

We lose the specificity and the safety blanket that monthly gives us, but we gain the optionality to go after something more, something better – both for ourselves and the people we’re serving with the work we do.

The annual view frees us up to think strategically, to invest time into the things we really want to build.

Our mindset starts to shift, our horizons begin to open, and our periscope tilts positively upward.

Sure, we need to switch back to monthly view every now and then – if we’re not meeting our obligations and keeping enough resources at hand then we cause ourselves stress, anxiety and pain. No one benefits when that happens. Monthly view is always there to check when we need to, and check it we should.

But when we default to annual view, something happens.