Shalem’s Restorative Practice program has developed a resource called Listening Circles to help groups and communities facilitate conversations about specific topics.

Developed as part of the  FaithCare program to help churches address challenging topics or situations, Listening Circles have been rolled out in a number of churches and denominations.

Many processes introduced into the Church take on a life of their own, pass through a fad stage, and then peter out. Listening Circles are not a trend. Listening Circles are principle-based. They introduce deeply needed skills and practices into congregational culture when the capacity for listening to understand – concepts, or one another – may be at an all time low.

Listening Circles plum the very depths of what it means to be human. People are hard-wired to be in relationships. We are made in God’s image. We can see this relationality in the Trinity as each of the three persons relates to one another – eternally. We are drawn into this relationship, or relationships, through the coming of Jesus to be with us. This very ‘with-ness’ is a core principle of Restorative Practice, and therefore at the heart of Listening Circles.

So, what is a Listening Circle, and how does it work? Listening Circles are designed so that participants can hear one another out – on an issue, or just to understand one another better. Listening Circles are led by trained facilitators who guide participants through the experience using a series of open-ended questions.When circle participants engage with one another to listen, they do not respond, they do not argue, they just listen. Listening Circles are not conversations: they are about listening to hear one another to understand. Imagine the last time you were listened to well, what happened? You likely felt heard, that is, acknowledged. Maybe you felt understood, that the people listening cared and really tried to hear what you were saying, that is, be with you even if they didn’t agree with you. As participants listen openly and non-judgmentally, relationships deepen and become stronger.

A listening circle may be about hearing one another out just to hear one another out, not to make a decision, not to argue, and not to reach a conclusion. For example, a Listening Circle can help a community reconnect after a major event such as the experience of going through a pandemic.

A Listening Circle can also be used when a community needs to discern next steps, make a decision, get at the heart and mind of what the community is thinking and feeling. Information can be gathered to inform a future conversation, frame the conversation’s key elements, discern God’s direction, name potential risks, or determine what questions need to be plumbed or answered. Sometimes listening circles will be about unity: how the community or group stays together through a time of conflict or unrest.

Like all restorative circles, listening circles are invitational. No one is ever dragged into the experience. Participants are expected to bring a posture of care and grace as they listen to one another. First and foremost, Listening Circles are designed so people listen to one another and through that experience deepen and strengthen relationships.

If you want to know more about Listening Circles and how they might be used in your church’s context, give us a call. Please see  FaithCare’s page on our website for information about Restorative Practice with churches in Canada, and beyond.

Anne Martin is the Director of Restorative Practices with Shalem Mental Health Network and Bill Bickle is a Shalem FaithCare provider and Advisory Member.