Ground Rules for a Circle of Trust

Posted on July 21, 2010



The underlying foundation for a circle of trust is that we trust the inner teacher, the inner light of another person to guide them from within. Guidance cannot come from outside of a person. So the group must hold you “faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.” (A Hidden Wholeness, p. 117)


“Approaching soul truth ‘on the slant’ through the use of third things helps create a circle of trust. But we make or break that circle by the way we speak, listen, and respond to each other about a poem, a topic, a feeling, or a problem. Here we are governed by that simple but countercultural rule,


“In the face of our deepest questions — the kind we are invited to explore in circles of trust — our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side. If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: ‘If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem. If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough. If you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could. So I am covered. No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.’ The shadow behind the ‘fixes’ we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that ‘no one really sees me, hears me or understands me.'” (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, p.117)

“When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods. So the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.

“But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience. As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do. Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life. Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, ‘I tried to help’. I walk away feeling virtuous. You are left feeling unseen and unheard.” (pp. 117-118)


“No matter what the content may be, speaking our truth in a circle of trust always takes the same form: we speak from our own center to the center of the circle–to the receptive heart of the communal space–where what we say will be held attentively and respectfully. This way of speaking differs markedly from everyday conversations in which we speak from our own intellect of ego directly to the intellect of ego of someone on whom we hope to have an impact.” (p. 118)

“While it is hard to know when we are speaking from our own center, it is not so hard to know when we are speaking to the center of the circle: expressive speaking is less stressful than its . . . counterpart. When we speak to the center of the circle–free of the need to achieve a result–we feel energized and at peace. now we speak with no other motive than to tell the truth. and the self-affirming feelings that accompany such speech reinforce the practice.

“How we listen in a circle of trust is as important as how we speak. When someone speaks from his or her center to the center of the circle, the rest of us may not respond the way we normally do–with affirmations or rebuttals or some other way of trying to influence the speaker. So we learn to take in what ever is said with as much simple receptivity as we can muster.


“Receptive listening is an inward and invisible act. But in a circle of trust, it has at least three outward and visible signs:

  • Allowing brief, reflective silences to fall between speakers, rather than rushing to respond–silences that honor those who speak, give everyone time to absorb what has been said, and slow things down enough so that anyone who wishes to speak can do so.
  • Responding to the speaker not with commentary but with honest, open questions that have no other intent than to help the speaker hear more deeply whatever he or she is saying.
  • Honoring whatever truth-telling has been done by speaking one’s own truth openly into the center of the circle— placing it alongside prior expressions as simple personal testimony, with no intent of affirming or negating other speakers.” (pp. 119-120)

More details on Circles of Trust Guidelines.

Click here for Parker Palmer’s description of Circles of Trust