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Samoan Circle

The Samoan circle is a leaderless meeting intended to help negotiations in controversial issues. While there is no leader, a professional facilitator can welcome participants and explain the seating arrangements, rules, timelines and the process. As with the Fishbowl process, the Samoan circle has people seated in a circle within a circle, however only those in the inner circle are allowed to speak. The inner circle should represent all the different viewpoints present, and all others must remain silent. The process offers others a chance to speak only if they join the inner circle.

A Samoan circle derived its name very loosely, with only vague reference to the Pacific island group called Samoa. In fact, the formal structure began during a land use study in Chicago. Its purpose is to organize discussion of controversial issues or within large groups. A Samoan circle has no facilitator, chair, or moderator. Participants are expected to maintain their own discipline.

They gather in two concentric circles – an inner circle with a table and four chairs, and an outer circle, with ample walking and aisle space. Everyone begins in the outer circle. The issue is presented, and discussion begins. Those most interested take chairs in the inner circle. Those less interested stay in the outer circle. All are able to move in or out of the center as the discussion flows or topics change. Each speaker makes a comment or asks a question. Speakers are not restricted in what they say or how they say it, but they must sit in the inner circle. Someone wishing to speak stands behind a chair; this signals those already in the circle to relinquish their chairs.

No outside conversations are allowed. Comments are often recorded. Votes of opinions held by non-speakers are taken at the end, if desired. To close a meeting, empty seats are taken away one by one until there are no more chairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers frequently uses the technique for both internal and public meetings to define priorities and stakeholders in project planning. The Village of Northfield, Illinois, used it to organize discussion of controversial proposals for community development plans in a forum of 150 residents and officials. The technique was used in a meeting of FHWA officials and representatives of six Midwestern states in discussing ways to improve working relationships around environmental protection concerns related to projects and planning.

Objectives:

The aim to stimulate active participation by all parties interested in or affected by an issue, and allows insights into different perspectives on an issue.

Outcomes:

All present at a Samoan circle hear the range of opinions and ideas expressed, and are therefore better informed on the issue, and the aspects of the issue that are under debate. Those who do not speak, nonetheless have the chance to hear whether someone else expresses their views, and the chance to speak out if someone in the 'inner circle' steps out and allows them to take their place.

Uses/strengths:

– Works best with controversial issues.
– Can avoid severe polarization.
– Allows a large number of people to be involved in discussing a controversial issue.

Special considerations/weaknesses:

Dialogues can stall or become monopolised.
Observers may become frustrated with their passive role.

Method:

1. Set room up with centre table surrounded by concentric circles of chairs.
2. Arrange roving microphones.
3. Select one or two representatives for each of the views present to constitute the core of the Samoan circle.
4. Seat these people in a semi-circle surrounded by two-four open chairs.
5. Clarify that once the discussion begins, the facilitator may withdraw and watch as a silent observer or facilitate the discussion.
6. Before the discussion begins, arrange for the facilitator to announce the rules and ask for agreement from all:
  – People in the larger group can listen, but there is no talking, booing, hissing or clapping.
  – Anyone from the larger group who wishes to join the conversation may do so by coming forward at any time and taking one of the 'open chairs' on either end of the semi-circle.
7. Indicate that the discussion may begin with a brief statement from each representative and then proceeds as a conversation. Representatives discuss issues with each other as the larger group listens.
8. Record viewpoints expressed and commonalities identified, and agreements or outcomes reached.

Resources required:

  • Suitable venue to take central table with concentric circles
  • Roving microphones
  • Staff
  • Facilitators
  • Recorders

Can be used for:

  • Engage community
  • Develop community capacity
  • Build alliances, consensus

Number of people required to help organize:

  • Medium (2-12 people)

Audience size:

  • Large (> 30)
  • Medium (11-30)

Time required:

  • Medium (6 weeks-6 months)

Skill level/support required:

  • High (Specialist skills)

Cost:

  • Low (< AUD$1,000)

Participation level:

  • Low (Information only)

Innovation level:

  • Low (Traditional)

References:

Adapted from the website of the Department of Sustainability and Environment (Victoria, Australia), the website of the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and work done on the NCDD wiki.

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