Restorative circles: Of care, vulnerability and radical kindness

Reflections from RJ World 2020 speaker Arti Mohan

At the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, there were clarion calls to fight the war and conquer it. The language of war compels us to fight by putting aside our vulnerabilities. Perhaps, the pandemic need not be seen as war, a call to battle, or even a fight. Maybe, we can move through this difficult time by exhibiting courage of a different kind- the courage that comes from being vulnerable and with showing care and radical kindness.

We need spaces where we can care, where we can express our pain and our struggles and where we can be heard. Restorative circles are one such space.

These circles are a space to speak and listen to one another in an atmosphere of safety and respect. One or two circle facilitators or circle keepers facilitate the process. They ask questions that guide the discussion, but apart from that, participate in equal ways as others in the circle.

The circle offers everyone an opportunity to speak sequentially. While one person is speaking, others offer them the gift of listening without interrupting. Participating in, and sharing in the circle, is always optional, and every participant has the option to engage with the circle process to the extent they’re comfortable.   In most circles, we co-create values for ourselves such as confidentiality, respect, listening, no advice etc.

Questions asked during circles are open-ended and related to the purpose and the need of the circle.

Circles can be used in a wide variety of contexts and to address a wide range of needs. I’ve held circles in different spaces – custodial homes for children, protective shelter home for children, for staff of shelter homes, for frontline workers counselling children, during capacity building trainings, while teaching restorative justice in a law university, for my team at my workplace, and for friends and community.

A key element of all restorative circles is creating a safe, non-judgmental place for connection and dialogue. Circles are based on the principle that talking about challenging experiences helps reduce their adverse impact, and the emotional connection with others promotes wellbeing.

Feeling and acknowledging our emotions

Restorative circles create space to reflect on and experience our emotions. Often, in our daily lives, we may not find spaces or the time to think through how we’re feeling. A frontline worker said that circles are unique in allowing people to talk about one’s thoughts and feelings. Another circle participant said that in the circle as they share, they find words for abstract concepts.

“We need to find spaces to feel hurt rather than to spread hurt” – Brene Brown

Circles allow us to feel our emotions, and to tell ourselves that these emotions are valid even if others may be struggling much more than us. The pandemic impacted everyone in varying ways. It brought forth the existing social marginalization and intensified it. In light of the brutal impact on those impacted the worst, many adults in community circles said that they felt guilty allowing themselves to feel their emotions.

By asking specific questions that allow us to talk about our own emotions, despite all that may be going on around us, circles remind us that while we acknowledge other people’s pain, we are entitled to our feelings.

Talking about the unspoken

Circles create a space to share experiences and enable us to talk about the things that we may have wanted to bury and leave unspoken. Kazu Haga, in Healing Resistance, talks about how the strongest act of courage is often vulnerability; it is talking about the things that we are most ashamed about, the things that we feel the most vulnerable about. When we deny our stories, hide from them or pretend they don’t exist, they begin to define us. The pain begins to impact us and others around us. And by talking about the unspoken, it reduces its power over us.

Urvashi Tilak, Restorative Justice Director at Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ), reflects on circles with a group of women and says that, “It was a safe space for them to talk about their past, their childhood, things they had never spoken about earlier, shared with people they barely knew before the circle. Such was the power of the circle.”

“With skinned knees and bruised hearts; We choose owning our stories of struggle, Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending. When we deny our stories, they define us. So, we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.” Brene Brown

Children in custodial settings have found space to acknowledge their actions for the first time in circle with each other. In a reintegration circle with his family, a child admitted what he’d done to his family without offering any defence, something he hadn’t ever thought he’d do.

In the friends and community circles, adults have often spoken about their deepest fears and about behaviours/personality traits they perceive as their biggest flaws. Circles create space to talk about things that we’ve otherwise chosen to leave unspoken.

“Courage showed me how to open up and talk about the things I’m most ashamed of, being vulnerable. Speaking about true emotions, being vulnerable and showing all of who we are is what takes the most courage.” Kazu Haga, Healing Resistance

Often during circles, children in custodial settings, step away from the strong impenetrable image they’ve created for themselves and share vulnerably about their feelings, including the remorse they feel about their actions. Children in custodial settings have found space in circles to talk about their deepest fears, including being rejected by society and of being stigmatized for life.

Adults have spoken about the fear of losing their loved ones to the pandemic in the frontline worker and community circles. In a community circle where most people were strangers, people spoke about their difficulties with their intimate relationships.

By speaking about our vulnerabilities and what shames us the most, we break down its power over us and work towards our own journey of healing.

The magic of listening

“The experience has been undoubtedly beautiful for me. I never realized how powerful and effective a listening circle could be.” Shivangini, CSJ

Another element at play in circles, apart from the safe space to share, is the gift of listening. Listening is powerful and can help to reduce the intensity of our emotions. Often after people share deeply in circle, they later talk about how much calmer they feel. A frontline worker said that after the circle they felt as if a heavy balloon inside them had burst in the circle, and they felt much lighter after. Another participant in a community circle spoke about her severe emotional distress during the circle and later said that she felt a sense of calm after.

For the listeners as well, listening is an act of kindness towards others which, in turn, is a healing action for oneself. Shivangini Singh, Social Worker at CSJ talks about her experience of holding circles and how “listening to what others have to share has also been so wonderful because you realise how similar our experiences have been somewhere despite different contexts.”

Over the years, facilitating circles helps me feel a deep sense of belonging and connection as I realize that no matter how unique my troubles are, we are all human and all have our struggles, which our often similar. Shivangini puts it beautifully when she says holding and being in circle brings such a marvellous sense of community and I completely rejoice in the space”.

Building belonging and connection

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen. It involves a choice to be vulnerable. To brave judgment and rejection. To overcome shame in a world that teaches us we must somehow be fixed.” Brene Brown

By creating spaces for vulnerability, circles also foster a space for building and deepening connection. At my organization, CSJ, I’ve held circles for the team around different themes, including those specific to listening and connecting. Often, when someone new joins, we invite everyone to share our stories of what brought us to the work we do. After one of our office circles during the pandemic, Prerna Barua, a colleague who recently joined the team virtually, said that the circle helped her feel a sense of connection with the team she’d never met in person.

Circles give us space to come together despite our varying identities and to be seen as our real selves. Urvashi reflects on facilitating circles with women from different social identities and how she initially wondered whether they would share in circle. Within a month, they began to take collective ownership for the circle process, reminding each other to uphold the collective values and guidelines, and began sharing from a place of vulnerability.

When physical distancing began, circles had to adapt to the virtual realm. Initially, I was sceptical about holding virtual circles owing to the lack of physical proximity. Over time, with training from some beautiful mentors (Dr. Frida Rundell and Molly Rowan) and many circles later, I believe that circles can be as magical over Zoom as in real life.


A frontline worker who regularly comes to circles said that during this period circles may be all the more important, “Circles help remind us that we are mentally connected despite the massive physical distance amongst us.” The virtual format has helped us to invite people from all across the country to circle together.

When the lockdown began, I started inviting my friends to virtual circles as I noticed that a lot of them were going through significant difficulties adapting to the pandemic. In a time of uncertainty, these were beautiful spaces of togetherness. I started putting out flyers and soon I had people I’d never met coming to these circles.

These circles have helped create new connections. Akash, a regular participant in these circles, says that, “Through this listening circle, I was able to meet, understand and listen to people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.” Often, people connect with each other after the circle, creating new bonds and connections.

Creating a container for multiple emotions

Circles can be beautiful containers for a wide variety of emotions. While some circles focus on deep intimate sharing, they also create space for joy, humour, laughter and fun. Often, we’ve played games and coloured while in circle, especially with children. In our circles at CSJ as well, while we’ve had deep sharing, we’ve also intertwined it with humorous prompts and games. Kshipra Marathe, Restorative Justice Counsellor at CSJ says that, “Facilitating and being in circles with children has taught me the beauty of openness and flexibility and the safe space it creates for everyone.  I love how when we go with the flow of the circle, sometimes we play and have fun and other times we have such deep powerful conversations.” Urvashi talks about holding circles with women in the community and how deep circles are often interweaved with moments of lightness and laughter: “I miss those beautiful memories- moments of fun and laughter, sharing joy and tears.” Circles allow us to bring our whole, authentic selves to circle, and all of the aspects that we want to.

Self-care and healing in circle

Circles can be a space for us to focus inwards, to care for ourselves and to be compassionate to ourselves. Frontline workers and caregivers often talk about how they don’t find spaces which allow them to focus on themselves. Many of them have said they feel grateful that for the first time someone asked them how they’re feeling. A frontline worker said that the circle reminds them to think about themselves and to prioritize ourselves.

After a circle at a team retreat (by the beach), Urvashi spoke about how it gave her space to reflect on some very challenging times for her, Sitting there in the circle, overseeing the ocean, it felt good to express- to share with everyone what my family and I went through emotionally. It helped so much to process things better and to accept that our lives had changed.” At the end of this circle, for the closing I invited everyone to write out our worries on seashells and then float them out into sea.

Sharing in circles can also help us to be self-compassionate as we are invited to offer ourselves the same compassion we give others when we share. Vedika, a participant in the community circles, said that, “when I voiced the ideas in my head, I was not self-bashing, I spoke about myself with the compassion and understanding I always afford to everyone around me. That was very special.”

Nikita Kataria, also working on the restorative justice team at CSJ says that being in circle, feeling safe and heard are powerful and have helped become more restorative in her personal life as well. For me as well, being in circle nurtures me to act in consonance with my values within circle, but also outside.

Multiple truths

“Truth and perspective are not a zero sum game. My truth does not negate yours, even if our truths don’t match up.” Kazu Haga

Restorative spaces create spaces for multiple truths and do away with the need to have one argument win over the other. While teaching restorative justice to final year law students, Jonathan Derby (founder of CSJ) and I held circles for discussing the course content. Circles created space for discussion which gave everyone a voice, enabled students to have differing opinions which could all be valid at the same time.

Owing to India’s socio-political situation and treatment of those who are marginalized, many people who came to the community circles during the pandemic where extremely disturbed by the government’s (in)actions. There are often government officials in the same circle who believe that the state is doing the best it could, given the circumstances. ‘Generosity of opinion’ is a value that participants have brought to many circles, a value which has enabled people to talk about their differing viewpoints and perspectives, while respecting each other and their lived reality. Circles may be unique in how they root out the need to have one truth win over the other.

Finding hope

Restorative spaces are also beautiful as they enable us to find hope and meaning. A frontline worker who participated in circles regularly said that, “When we share feelings, we see things in perspective. When we hear others’ problems and how they cope, it’s a reminder that so can we. This gives me hope and helps me to let go of things.”

Tragic optimism can be a helpful coping tool: acknowledging that we can experience intensely negative reactions to the strange times, that we can experience stress and trauma, and at the same time we can seek out glimmers of light in the darkest of nights.

Often, in sharing circles we use questions that help people think through their coping tools and feel a sense of wellness, such as, “What are three things you are grateful for in this moment?”, “What is the one thing you look forward to that helps you feel calm/joyful?”

The circles during the pandemic were a way of responding to uncertainty and finding hope. Akash, a frequent participant said that, “Through some very uncertain times, with no end in sight, these circles managed to pull people from different walks of life together, to share their stories on a platform with no judgment towards the people who shared their stories. It helped me to regain hope and look at the positives of life with renewed vigor.” People have spoken about feeling “a new energy”, a sense of hope, calm, warmth, and feeling light after being in circle.

We are more than the worst things we’ve done

Restorative spaces also allow us to remind ourselves that we are all more than the worst things we do or the worst things that happen to us. Dr. Alissa Ackerman, a restorative justice and gender-based harm expert, used the analogy of driftwood to talk about our duality as human beings. We can harm someone and still be a good human being, we still deserve our humanity. Circles remind us of this.

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Bryan Stevenson

During a reintegration circle for a child in conflict with law and his family, the child, Ishan, acknowledged what he had done in front of his family. His family expressed shock, anger, disappointment and shame and strongly condemned his actions, while his father also said that one mistake ought not to define Ishan for the rest of his life. As we closed the circle by doing a final go-around on what we appreciated about Ishan. Circles create space to acknowledge some of our worst mistakes, while reiterating that we are much more than that, we are all beautiful human beings who have enormous potential to be whoever we want to be.

Spade work for social justice work

“We can’t change other people by our convictions, stories, advice, and proposals, but we can offer a space in ourselves where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, lay aside their occupations & preoccupations, & listen with attention and care to the voices speaking” Henri Nouwen

Circle spaces and the intertwined mindfulness go beyond the self since they teach us to listen to others, work on undoing our social conditioning and have difficult, uncomfortable conversations. In this regard, Nimisha Srivastava, Program Director, CSJ says that, “For me that has been the most powerful component of circles. Circles have pushed me very gently to recognise my privilege and how others have been impacted by not having what I have had”. And this is the spade work for doing social justice work of dismantling oppressive structures. Circles create space for us to examine and unpack power, privilege and oppression.

During circles with children in custodial settings in Rajasthan, we explored the experiences of social identity and discrimination within the circles. It allowed for creating space to talk about how social oppression impacts those already at the margins of society, and what others can do to start dismantling these oppressive structures. While the aim of circles is not to teach, preach or reprimand, by enabling honest discussion, including examining the impact on those effected, circle processes help build empathy, including in the context of systemic oppression and guide people towards undoing harmful actions. I hope and believe that we can use circles to slowly address systemic and oppressive structural harms.

Reflecting and hoping

Holding circles has been a beautiful journey for me. As I was training to be a circle keeper in law school, it was in circle that I felt I found my voice for the first time, and where I felt I really belonged. Circles give me a sense of connection and belonging. Holding circles and being a circle keeper is my way of bringing that to others around me.

Each circle is a rich experience, in all different contexts. I find it beautiful that a process as simple as a circle can be so powerful in so many different contexts: with people of different ages, social identities, and lived experiences.

As I’ve held more circles, the learning from circles have seeped into my life. Circles have guided me to focus on and value all my relationships. Through being in circle and holding circles, I’ve learned to develop the compassion that I seek to offer others for myself (on most days). Circles give me permission to be my authentic self, far from perfect, yet trying step by step to show courage through vulnerability and radical kindness.

In a world that’s hurting, we may not need armour and battles as much as we may need softness, care and vulnerability: as a way of coping with our difficult emotions; for dealing with pain, rejection, hurt, fear and uncertainty; to move beyond the worst things we’ve ever done; and to begin to address oppressive social structures, one act of vulnerability and care at a time.

Gratitude to all the beautiful people who taught me how to keep circles, to adapt them virtually, and who by being in circle with me as co-facilitators and participants enriched my practice. A special shout out to Prof. Martin Price, my first mentor on holding circles, who made me believe in the magic of circles.

Arti is the Restorative Justice Program Officer at Counsel to Secure Justice in New Delhi India. She has worked on designing and implementing a pilot restorative justice project for children in the legal system. Arti is also a lawyer and has earlier litigated for children who’ve been abused and worked with women in prison.