Facilitation:Opening Circle

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In the spirit of inclusion, starting events with an opening circle is an excellent opportunity to let everyone's voice be heard and set a tone of participation for the day. Once fundamental welcomes and logistics (bathrooms, food, other essential resources) have been covered, it works quite well to immediately do a go round where each participant gets to say their name and to share a word or two.

Achieving Focus and Removing Distractions at the Start of the Day

Take early opportunity to stress the responsibility of community: everyone must engage and interact for the day to thrive. Remind attendees not to hang in comfortable groups with friends or cliques, but rather to seek out those they have not yet met and compare notes.

Discourage multi-tasking, such as trying to process email messages or Internet Relay Chat (IRC) while listening in a group. In particular, invite participants to:

  • Close laptops
  • Turn off cell phones or set them silent
  • Generally reduce gadget distractions.

Certain bloggers and IRC addicts may complain, but the benefit to the group energy is immeasurable.

Room Setup

On circular chair layout: many events arrange chairs in rows facing a single direction, such that some sit at the front while others are in the middle or the back of the group. It is strongly recommended whenever possible to arrange chairs in a simple circle one chair deep. In this way, all participants face one another, can see everyone else present, and enjoy a sense of symmetric community. Such a layout has no "front" and no "back", and establishes a co-equal energy instead of a conventional speaker/listeners dichotomy.


It helps to explicitly invite everyone to listen actively and remain fully present during the go-round.

Go-rounds worry some participants, who fear they'll be trapped in an interminable loop of life story monologues. It is best to keep the contributions brief; the following are ideas for quick check-ins which don't eat excessive time or drain group energy:

  • Your name & where you're from
  • Your name & a word that describes your mood at the start of this day
  • Your name & a color that describes your mood
  • Your name & something you hope to achieve here today, in 1 sentence or less
  • Your name & your birthday (if you get lucky and it's actually someone's birthday, don't hesitate to sing!)
  • Your name & the most beautiful place in the world (subject to broad interpretation)

Event planners and facilitators are strongly encouraged to think up other go-round subjects, and add them to the list above.

The following are additional suggestions on how to probe and connect participants in a "popcorn" style go-round where anyone in the room can raise their hand and offer an answer:

  • Who's in the room? A second phase of letting voices be heard is to ask participants the role or roles they play in the realm of non-profit technology. The roles are then written on a white board to create a list of the varied perspectives from which participants are approaching the day. An additional dimension involves pausing between each called-out role and asking for a show of hands of those show identify in that role.
  • What do you want to get out of this? While the question doesn't scale as well for larger gatherings, going to the trouble of inviting participants to weigh in on why they're taking to time to attend and what they want to get out of the event is a great way to sharpen the focus of the day. With larger groups, this probe can be done by asking participants to place Post-it notes with their interests and desires on a wall during the first break. This allows facilitators and participants to check in to make sure everyone's needs are being met, and allows for new break-out sessions to be added on the fly if there is a gap between participant desires and the planned program.


Only once the go-round and other discovery exercises are complete should you move on to more traditional opening topics such as the agenda, questions and announcements:

  • Review Participant Guidelines: When following a set of participant guidelines such as the ones supplied on this wiki, it is important to go over them at the outset of the day. This serves multiple purposes; in addition to reinforcing and highlighting key guidelines, it allows participants to weigh in with any confusions or concerns about the guidelines.
  • Agenda overview: Narrating how the day will flow gives participants a mental map and context for subsequent discussions. Talk through the phases of the day, and invite questions, then...
  • Call for general: questions Opening the floor up for questions about the agenda or in general helps to clear the air of any shared confusions.
  • Quick announcements: While any general call for announcements can lead to inappropriate pitches and wasteful digressions, a call for short announcements relevant to the proceedings of the day is an excellent way to encourage a spirit of sharing and collaboration. Examples of such announcements might be "Birds of a Feather" discussions participants would like to propose over lunch, or post-event gatherings or suggestions.