The Second Circle

post by Zvi · 2018-05-20T13:40:00.181Z · score: 72 (17 votes) · LW · GW · 12 comments

Previously: The First Circle

Epistemic Status: One additional level down

The second Circle was at Solarium in New York City. Jacob, of the New York rationalist group, and had been getting into Circling, and decided to lead us in one to show us what it was all about.

He explained the five rules. I remember the gist – to use ‘I’ statements, talk about physical sensations in detail, to listen to other people for real, and so on – but not the exact wording he used. I do remember (mostly) the wording of rule five. Rule five was memorable. It was:

5. Everything is about furthering connection. If it would further connection, do it. If not, don’t do it.

The final rule. We’re here to win, damn it. Winning here means connection. So we give you guidelines, but don’t be a slave to them. Once you’ve faked it until you’ve made it, when the situation calls for it, throw the rules out the window.

There are two kinds of rule sets. Those that contain the final rule, and those that don’t. Games and not games.

It is very bad to include that rule where it does not belong. And also very bad to not include it, where it does belong.

We get about twenty people. Good turnout. Circle begins. Everyone is quiet.

The topic of the meetup is… circling. Circling, it seems, is about circling. We’re explicitly supposed not to talk about anything. Or try to accomplish anything, other than connect.

The art must have an end other than itself or it collapses into infinite recursion [LW · GW].

The infinite part takes a while. First you just go meta.

Go meta? Don’t mind if we do! Rationalists love meta.

Here we all sensed we weren’t supposed to go meta. But that meant our object level thoughts were meta thoughts. No way out.

So what talking there was, kept to the rules, but went meta.

We expressed our worry that we weren’t supposed to go meta. Which meant we had gone meta-meta. Which was even worse!

Quick! Don’t think about that!

If you are pondering what I am pondering, and I am pondering what you’re pondering, then this mutual pondering of pondering is our common experience. It builds connection!

So for a while, it felt super awkward, but also felt like it was kind of… working?

Then disaster struck – Jacob worried that disaster had struck. And felt he had to Do Something. Treat the situation as bad.

Which made it bad. From there, all downhill. Nothing disastrous, but less connection, more awkward, no road to recovery.

I asked myself, what made this night different from the previous night?

Several strong suspects.

Tonight, we were told we’d have a facilitator to teach us Circling, rather than simply Circling in media res and getting corrected as needed.

This meant we worried that we needed a facilitator, and we (and the first time facilitator) worried that he would facilitate wrong. So we were thinking about the possibility of failure, treating the enterprise as something that could go wrong, rather than something with various possible outcomes. And we were looking to someone else to make the night succeed.

Tonight, we’d had a lot more people; about twenty versus three or four. Good intimate conversations tend not to happen in twenties.

Tonight, we’d had a circle about circling. Previously, we’d had a circle about something quite important. An object level to work with, and build upon, to prevent the meta cycle. So tonight felt not real, like a game. Previously was not a game.

If I had a hammer, I wouldn’t hammer in the morning, in the evening or all over this land. Occasionally, I’d hammer something. And learn how. Different in kind from ‘time to find things to hammer’ or ‘lets all see what it’s like to hammer things.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2018-05-20T13:55:16.547Z · score: 29 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"Then disaster struck – Jacob worried that disaster had struck" <- made me laugh a lot.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2018-05-21T07:29:59.021Z · score: 21 (4 votes) · LW · GW

(Epistemic status: intuitions built off of somewhere around 70 hours of circling over the course of the last year and a half, including facilitating somewhere around 15-20 circles.)

The topic of the meetup is… circling. Circling, it seems, is about circling. We’re explicitly supposed not to talk about anything. Or try to accomplish anything, other than connect.
The art must have an end other than itself or it collapses into infinite recursion [LW · GW].

The art does have an end other than itself (at least I think it does), but a beginner focusing on what the beginner thinks that end is is not a good way to begin learning the art. Circling is like meditation in that way.

Then disaster struck – Jacob worried that disaster had struck. And felt he had to Do Something. Treat the situation as bad.
Which made it bad. From there, all downhill. Nothing disastrous, but less connection, more awkward, no road to recovery.

Facilitating circles is really quite difficult and this is a reasonably large component of why; it takes a decent amount of tacit knowledge and skill to learn how to navigate issues like this as a facilitator. Part of the skill involves welcoming whatever is happening in the circle, including your own sense that Something Is Wrong and needs to be Fixed, and in the long run learning how to take all that as object [LW · GW].

Circling Europe has a philosophy towards facilitation called "surrendered leadership" that I'm not particularly qualified to explain, but roughly it involves thinking of facilitation as just being a really good participant, as opposed to a person who is in charge of trying to make the circle "good" as opposed to "bad," whatever those mean.

I also think it's in fact a mistake to focus explicitly on connection as a goal while circling, although others might disagree. At least for beginners I think this is a distraction from finding out what is even happening in everyone's experience at all.

Tonight, we’d had a circle about circling. Previously, we’d had a circle about something quite important. An object level to work with, and build upon, to prevent the meta cycle. So tonight felt not real, like a game. Previously was not a game.

Circles are not about circling; to the extent that they're about anything, they're about what the participants are experiencing in the moment. Your experience is the object level.

You might be experiencing a bunch of meta thoughts about circling, and you can talk about those thoughts if you want, but a different thing you can do, that a facilitator may or may not attempt to encourage you to do, is to talk about the experience of having those thoughts, especially any emotional flavor or accompanying sensations in your body. E.g. rather than "I'm worried we'll be going too meta," something like "I notice I feel frustrated and impatient; I have a desire to tap my fist against the ground, and I feel a flushing in my face and upper chest. I imagine the frustration and impatience is about a worry that we're going too meta and wasting time, and the idea of wasting time has me feeling angry."

You also might be experiencing your thoughts wandering off to an unrelated topic, and you can talk about that - not necessarily the topic, but your experience of your thoughts wandering off to that topic. E.g. "I notice my thoughts wandering to a really interesting essay I read. I'm a little worried that I'm no longer 'circling right,' whatever that means, and feeling some embarrassment and awkwardness around that."

comment by Zvi · 2018-05-21T13:03:50.320Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That seems right at the end, in a unwilling-to-quite-express-preferences-but-expressing-them-anyway kind of very circling-way?

The suggestions on facilitation style point towards the don't-introduce-everyone-at-once concept being important, since it doesn't seem compatible with not following that principle.

It sounds like you think that having an explicit object-other-than-itself that isn't pure raw ground level is a mistake, or at least a different class of thing than what you think is the valuable thing? Say a bit more there?

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2018-05-21T23:02:06.355Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW · GW
unwilling-to-quite-express-preferences-but-expressing-them-anyway kind of very circling-way?

I think expressing preferences is fine, but there's usually some more fine-grained aspect of your experience of having the preference that you can also talk about. E.g. "I want to change topics" is fine, but better would be "I'm feeling impatient with the current discussion and want to talk about something that will feel more productive," or something. And then someone else might ask you more about how it feels to be impatient and want something more productive to happen, etc.

The suggestions on facilitation style point towards the don't-introduce-everyone-at-once concept being important, since it doesn't seem compatible with not following that principle.

Little confused about how to parse this sentence. Not sure what "don't-introduce-everyone-at-once concept" means, or what principle you're referring to with the phrase "that principle."

It sounds like you think that having an explicit object-other-than-itself that isn't pure raw ground level is a mistake, or at least a different class of thing than what you think is the valuable thing? Say a bit more there?

I think it's something like an advanced thing to try, and it's not something I'd start beginners on by default, although this isn't a strong opinion, and I might change my mind if I experimented with it more.

What I expect to happen to most groups of people if you try to start them circling on an explicit object-level topic is that they'll mostly talk about the topic in a way that makes it harder for them to see what's going on in their experience and the experience of other people in the circle, e.g. if everyone is regurgitating cached thoughts and/or signaling intelligence or whatever. If there are enough experienced circlers in the circle then I'd feel more confident that this sort of thing will get called out if it starts happening, but I'd be uncomfortable trying it with a circle consisting entirely of beginners, especially if the facilitator isn't very experienced. There's a thing about building form here.

What often happens in the absence of a topic to start with, especially in groups of people who know each other already, is that a topic sort of emerges naturally out of the circling dynamics, e.g. maybe Person A says something that triggers Person B and then the topic is whatever's happening between A and B, and sometimes a third Person C gets involved and then the topic is whatever's happening with the three of them. But in order to get to this point with beginners, the facilitator needs to be able to guide people to the point where they feel comfortable saying things that might make other people in the circle feel uncomfortable, and that's tricky to do as a beginner.

In general, it's worth mentioning that, in my view, a lot of the advice and guidelines people give beginners about circling are training wheels / band-aids meant to help you avoid various flavors of being distracted away from your experience, and once you get good enough at zeroing in on your experience you can mostly discard them.

comment by Selquist · 2018-05-20T20:30:09.824Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've done about 15hrs of circling.

Two person circles seem extremely useful for conflict resolution or when I get a feeling of "I'd like to talk to X person, but something in our communication styles or behavior seems to be getting in the way." This works at different levels of familiarity, like when I have a friend who I trust deeply, but want to have an even deeper conversation, then a circle between us works as a small wedge to get to a point where it becomes safe (or not) to bring up the deeper thing. I've also had good experiences of a more standard "getting to know a person and why they act the way that they do", circling seems very good for querying the why's behind behavior, and why certain ideas are important --- doing closer to the first circle thing. Except when I have done this there was no topic then eventually things "came up". Sometimes the things that "come up" seem important, sometimes even more important than the things I would have thought of as important, and sometimes not. But doing this has not felt like a game --- in every 2 person circle I've done, I ended up learning a great deal about the other persons models or changing my mind about something, but I wouldn't have been able to predict the topic at the beginning.

I bring this up because I think circling with the aim of connection leads to important things -- it leads to caring about what the other person thinks is important and trying to understand it. It leads to engaging with conflict and differences. It seems like many people have high conflict aversion and will leave a conversation than try to discuss a different opinion, but when there is a commitment to connection, there is a commitment to being engaged with the other person while the different models are explored. I want this to happen more in all conversations. Another reason circling might be good for this is that people end up 'revealing their weapons'--- their social defenses, judgements, and fears are made clear, which takes uncertainty out of the conflict.

comment by Zvi · 2018-05-21T13:06:15.335Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you drew a graph of expected value of circle per person-hour spent as Y, versus number of people in circle as X, what would it look like? Is there a huge peak at 2?

comment by Selquist · 2018-05-21T17:20:24.145Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hesitant: If I made a line of the average quality it would go down gradually and drop off at 6. Most 2 people circles I've been in have been high value, some 4-5 person circles, and few larger circles. It might be even flatter if we consider that I've explicitly sought out 2 person circles when I thought they would be valuable. If the larger groups had good things, they happened when the group broke up into smaller groups organically, or after people left. I had one Important Topic Circle which was 4-5 people. It seems that a lot of interesting things can happen at the 4-5 person level in a similar way to a normal interesting good conversation (more varied input, focus switching, people being able to facilitate interactions between 2 others, etc). I'm interested in hearing about this from other people with more experience.

comment by norswap · 2018-05-20T20:55:29.796Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am genuinely confused about the point being made. Is it (a) don't abuse a good thing (b) different kind of circling for different kind of purposes (serious circling vs game circling for practice) or (c) something else entirely.

It feels like a lot of words to say very little of substance - this is not meant as an attack, just a candid observation. This piece doesn't make me angry or isn't wrong, or anything like that.

It also feels very silly - this is not about the piece but about the situation. And I wonder what that means, that I find it silly. Given my priors and background, this situation is something I don't imagine being able to take seriously.

Circling feels weird to start with, but I can understand its rationale fairly well. My worry would be that it would devolve into something quite unnatural and devoid of some sort of common sense. It would be whatever the opposite of smooth is - awkward maybe, but that's not totally it either. I think in some important sense, smoothness matters a lot, but I'm still missing pieces of the puzzle here.

Anyway, this is not a criticism of circling, just some prior predictions about the experience of circling. What worries me is that this kind of experience report (and actually, your previous post as well) point towards validating those predictions. And I don't really have a point here, I'm just sharing my thoughts in case they would be useful, cause some reflection or some interesting comment.

comment by Zvi · 2018-05-21T13:11:07.571Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's something related to (a) as a minor point, certainly - a sort of 'the coyote needs to never look down' thing, where certain things go interesting places if you let them, even if they're not where you intended, and you should some combination of gently steer and go with it and then debrief after. It's not (b). I'm more trying to share a model of how the thing works as I developed it, and share some little things along the way that seem like good moments/data, and also building a 3-part narrative that felt like a 3-part narrative that should be told, and which I decided would be more effective if I split it into 3 even if combined they're still post-length.

comment by TurnTrout · 2018-05-20T22:02:06.321Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the fact that it feels silly to you is telling. I remember having this reaction before I went to CFAR and actually tried circling. In my (brief) experience circling, the point is that there's an emotional dimension to "what it's like to be you" that is somewhat orthogonal to our everyday experience, and that interacting via that dimension is important (in part for the reasons Selquist mentions).

Perhaps you're pattern-matching circling onto "things weird people do", maybe it feels weird because you're actually uncomfortable making yourself vulnerable, or maybe it's something else. I think the best thing to do here would be to try things - circling isn't an expensive or dangerous exploration move.

comment by Zvi · 2018-05-21T13:04:50.133Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This reaction is why I'm pretty happy that I had my first experience with it before I knew what it was at all. That way I got to have those concerns with built-in context.

comment by norswap · 2018-05-21T20:17:18.734Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, but doubt. I think I did express myself poorly - I'm generally pretty tolerant of weirdness and even awkwardness. I think what it evokes me is more like pointless meeting where I have to try very hard not to roll my eyes at how silly what we are doing is, and how pointless, and how obvious it would be to an external observer.

But like I said, I would try circling with an open mind any chance I got. I've only got a sense of what it looks like from the outside and that's very different from what it is on the inside, for many many things (creative work, yoga, playing video games, ...).